Book Reviews




Six Frigates

by Ian W. Toll

Review by Richard Sheppard


The United States Navy today is a magnificent globe-spanning presence, and could likely beat the pants off of the rest of the world's navies combined. One aircraft carrier battle group (a 100,000-ton carrier with scores of fighter/bomber aircraft, 8-10 other specialized warships and a lurking sub or two) would probably destroy several navies, simultaneously. The US Navy maintains twelve of these expensive but dominant security assets. America's navy also boasts attack submarines that can destroy enemy surface or undersea vessels, or take out terrorist camps and/or hopefully terrorists by sending cruise missiles hundreds of miles inland. The Navy maintains a decreasing but still significant number of "boomers" - Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines - each carrying 24 missiles that can accurately deliver several hundred megaton-yield hydrogen bombs on targets thousands of miles distant. During the Cold War, these invulnerable sub-based missiles deterred the Soviet Union from even imagining any realistic war-starting scenario. 

And let's not forget the Navy has a ground combat component all its own: the United States Marines Corps. From the time of its birth in the early 1790's, through the War of 1812, through the "Great White Fleet" in the early 20th century, and WW2's Pacific theater, the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was the Navy's only significant setback. During the Cold War, US Navy submarines and other vessels undertook some fabulously productive intelligence-gathering missions, and these missions continue today. Britain's Royal Navy might set the historical standard for tradition and excellence, but America's naval capabilities challenges, meets, and often exceeds those majestic standards.

Back When the US Navy Had 6 (SIX) Boats

Six Frigates, by first-time author Ian Toll, describes the nascent US Navy's founding; the "six frigates" of the title comprised the entire ocean-going fighting fleet. Toll includes the initial and competing strategies of the new nation's political and military leaders, through the end of the War of 1812. Everyone remembers (or should remember!) John Paul Jones aboard his doughty Bonhomme Richard during the War for Independence: When facing destruction by the British warship Serapis, Jones declared, "I have not yet begun to fight!" and turned the tables on his Royal Navy opponent. But that wasn't a US Navy fight, no Patriot naval engagement was a "US Navy" action until there was a United States of America. That didn't happen until full ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Only with the formal "birth" of the United States of America did the military necessities of defending sovereignty arise and caused immediate debate among the debate-prone Founding Fathers. 

America today enjoys unique geographic advantages: a nearly continent-sized landmass and access to two of the world's four oceans. Post-Independence America consisted of the Atlantic seaboard primarily east of the Adirondacks, with shipping access to one ocean, the Atlantic. But even a smaller, early America had considerable security issues. On land, the British were still hovering north in Canada, the Spanish south in Florida, and the French in the south and west, in the vast, soon-to-be-purchased Louisiana Territory. At sea, America's industrious shipping merchants competed with these powers and numerous other seafaring interests, competition which would inevitably lead to conflict. 

Agrarian (Land) Republicans versus Merchant (Seafaring) Federalists

America's early leaders pondered these security responsibilities and, as they had split into two distinct political factions/parties - the Republican and Federalists - they also split into "pro-navy" and "anti-navy" factions. Republican Thomas Jefferson became the de facto leader of the anti-navy bloc. Navy proponents skewed Federalist, led by John Adams. These competing interests reflected the agrarian (land) tilt of the Republicans vs. the merchant (seafaring) interests of the Federalists. As the new nation asserted itself in world affairs, chiefly commercially, choosing a best strategy for protecting American interests spurred rigorous debate.

America's first military challenge did arrive on the high seas. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, France, America's staunch and critical ally in the War for Independence, had taken a more assertive commercial and military outlook, turning Europe into a constantly shifting collection of warring and allied nations. These conflicts had their counterparts on the world's oceans, as nations and navies enforced embargoes or blockades, sent privateers prowling for prizes, and seized - the seafaring term is "pressed" - able-bodied seamen into their own service on the slightest dubious pretexts. Under these conditions, a "quasi-War," fought entirely at sea, broke out between France and America.

The issues were primarily commercial, and some Americans favored acquiescing or softening America's policies to maintain peace. John Adams, the Federalist president, thought otherwise and managed to secure commitments to build the "six frigates" of this book's title. The ships' names were selected from the opening words of the U.S. Constitution, with two exceptions: Constitution, United States, President, Philadelphia, Constellation, and Chesapeake. Two of these illustrious vessels still exist today: the Constitution moored in Boston, and the Constellation, an attraction at Baltimore's "Inner Harbor." 

Frigates and Ships-of-the-Line

In the era of sailing ships, "frigates" were a warship class generally carrying up to 36 cannon. "Ships-of-the-line," were the heavy-hitting battleships of the day, carrying up to 74 cannon and sometimes more. The six initial US Navy frigates were exceptionally powerful compared with most in that class, built from hardened "live oak" and carrying 44 cannon. These rugged attributes are among the reasons the U.S.S. Constitution is referred to as "Old Ironsides." 

Despite the hostilities of the quasi-War, neither France nor America formally declared war as both nations recognized more pressing issues. Napoleon's were European, America's to build a new nation. The few naval skirmishes generally ended favorably for the Americans, strengthening those Americans who considered America's security challenges sea- rather than land-oriented. The quasi-War was in effect a warm-up for America's new naval service, which would be challenged often over the next decade.

And it was a useful warm-up, because problems were brewing on the North Africa's Barbary Coast, a thieving hotbed of freebooting bullies and tyrants who exerted powerful influence on Mediterranean shipping. North African harbors were difficult to attack and nearby waters dangerous to navigate. The Barbary pirates, operating for centuries in these conditions, enjoyed immense "home field" advantages. It was accepted policy for European seafaring powers, including the pre-eminent Royal Navy, to pay the Barbary gangsters "tribute" rather than undertake the difficult task of rooting out the rats once and for all. Enjoying such fealty, the Barbary pirates considered themselves invulnerable.

Taking on the Bad Guys

That is, until they seized one of the US Navy's newest frigates, Philadelphia and held her crew hostage under swinish conditions. Unaccustomed and unhindered by the European tradition of "paying off" the Barbary usurpers, the Philadelphia seizure set off a fierce American debate: should America continue the European "tribute" tradition, or should America take on the bad guys?

America, ironically led by former naval critic president Thomas Jefferson, chose to fight. Six Frigates offers stirring accounts of American naval captains such as Stephen Decatur, a Lieutenant, who did what no European navy dared do: sailed into the Barbary home waters and effectively dismantled the threat. Among the first actions was an attempt to retake the Philadelphia, which despite a heroic attempt, was instead burnt to the waterline to deny the pirates their prize. The United States Marines' stirring hynm recounts these Mediterranean exploits on the "shores of Tripoli." 

But the final test for the "Six Frigates" came during the War of 1812 vs. the British. The grievances between the nations were very similar to America's with France during the Quasi-war: commercial shipping rivalries, blatant impressments, and a general sense of "who would rule the world holds Neptune's trident as scepter." Though badly outnumbered and often confined by blockades to port, America's Navy, the "six frigates" in the Atlantic, and more critically smaller, makeshift vessels on the Great Lakes, more than held its own against the British. America the continental "land power" didn't fare nearly as well as America's navy did vs. the British. Yet by the end of the War of 1812, about as "indecisive" a war that's ever been fought, the American Navy was well on its way to establishing a fighting and winning tradition that continues through present days.