- Admiral Lord Howe: A Biography, and: Commodore John Rodgers: Paragon of the Early American Navy
This review compares biographies of two naval officers of different eras, social origins, and navies in variant stages of national and institutional development. Both David Syrett and John Schroeder are senior scholars who are experts in their fields. Schroeder has already used American naval records extensively in his research on the United States Navy and America mercantile expansion in the early nineteenth century. He has written three books dealing with American naval and military history between 1815 and 1861: Mr. Polk’s War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846–1848 (Madison, WI, 1973); Shaping a Maritime Empire: The Commercial and Diplomatic Role of the American Navy, 1829–1861 (Westport, CT,1985); and Matthew Calbraith Perry: Antebellum Sailor and Diploma (Annapolis, MD, 2001).
Syrett was at the peak of his career as a military and naval historian when he died at the age of 65 in 2004. He had researched and written extensively on the Royal Navy during the era of the American Revolutionary [End Page 506] War and on the World War II Battle of the Atlantic. His principle works are Shipping and the American War, 1775–1788 (London, 1970), The Royal Navy in European Waters during the American Revolutionary War (Columbia, SC, 1998), and The Defeat of the German U-Boats: The Battle of the Atlantic (Columbia, SC, 1994). In all three he dealt with the roles of opposing navies and the problems of naval escort of convoy operations. His interest in the subject commenced with his dissertation at the University of London, in which he delved into the question of why Great Britain had failed to suppress the American rebels in a war that had international repercussions. He approached the issue from the perspective of the inadequate and continually interrupted supply effort contributed by the Royal Navy, as well as that navy’s shortage of blockading ships for the North American Station.
Admiral Richard Lord Howe (1726–1799), a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, was the officer in charge of carrying out this difficult task from 1776 to 1778. His younger brother, General Sir William Howe, directed the principal land campaign against the American Continental Army from 1775 to 1778. Howe’s career in the Royal Navy was at times tempestuous, but it was also spectacular by any measure. He became a favorite of King George III, who considered him indispensable at a time when it seemed his kingdom’s very existence was at stake during the prolonged struggle with royal and republican France.
John Schroeder’s biography of Commodore John Rodgers (1772–1838), United States Navy, traces the man he calls a naval “paragon” from his humble early childhood in northeastern Maryland during the Revolutionary War, through his early days in merchant sail. Schroeder further develops Rodgers’s career in the context of his times as he rose from a junior officer through all three of the early naval wars to become the senior officer in the U.S. Navy. Rodgers was the navy’s guiding light from 1815, when he was appointed as president of the newly created Board of Navy Commissioners, until he died twenty-three years later at the Philadelphia Naval Asylum.
Howe and Rodgers could not have been more different in their social backgrounds. Richard Howe’s grandfather had been a long-serving Whig member of Parliament from Nottingham and voted to place William III on the English throne. In gratitude, the new king made him a groom of the bed chamber and ennobled him as Viscount Howe of Ireland. Howe’s mother may have been the illegitimate daughter of King George I. With ample funds and relatively high social standing, Howe’s family [End Page 507] afforded him a good education, sending him to Westminster School and later, probably, to Eton College. Howe entered the Royal Navy as...