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Book Review: Six Frigates – The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

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Fans of Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey series will love Ian W. Toll's Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. It is beautifully written non-fiction that reads like an adventure novel, and covers a very crucial period in our nation's early history.

The founders of the new nation were strongly opposed to creating a navy, realistically fearing becoming embroiled in Europe's perpetual wars. But the export trade was a large and vital source of revenue, and had to be protected from the Barbary pirates, who were highjacking American merchant vessels and either enslaving passengers and crew or holding them for ransom. At first, the nation paid "tribute" — actually protection money — to keep the peace. But the Barbary rulers, like blackmailers everywhere, kept raising the ante. Their continually escalating demands made it more expensive to buy them off than to fight them.

After much wrangling in Congress, the president was authorized to order the building of six frigates, and the American navy was born. The Tripolitan War was the first battle fought and won by the United States Marines.

But the most feared adversary was the British Navy. Brittania ruled the waves at the time. It was not long before the United States was forced to take on the Royal Navy, a prospect which they approached with trepidation. The motives which caused the war were complex, but the immediate pretext was the impressment of American citizens from American shipping. The truth was, we were interfering with them and they with us, and a showdown was inevitable.

The accounts of the battles in Six Frigates are hair-raisingly vivid. I, a landlubber from way back, learned a lot about how difficult it was to navigate in the age of sail and how much skill was needed to manuever and to fight naval battles. The battle scenes are bloody and might upset the squeamish, as no detail is spared. Many on each side were wounded, often horrifyingly, and many killed.

The war was costly on both sides. It ended inconclusively. Great Britain was fully occupied in fighting Napoleon, and the fight against the Yankees was a costly distraction. The Royal Navy no doubt could have taken out the Americans in a full out, no holds barred war, but they were otherwise engaged. This said, the American Navy gave a good account of itself, chalking up some amazing victories. In a sense, this war established a true national identity among the former colonies. It has sometimes been called "the Second War of Independence."

I cannot praise the Toll's style more highly. The narrative moves swiftly, yet everything we need to know is conveyed. A superior book.

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