Naval History and an American Hero

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 26, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Naval History and an American Hero


Back in the 1990s, addicts of Patrick O'Brian's wonderful 21 seagoing adventure novels that featured Lucky Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe in the film version) had a secret recognition word when they huddled in cocktail party corners. It was futtock shroud.

Part of Mr. O'Brian's genius was that he made absolutely no concession to readers ignorant of the technical terms of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet after a while, when the weather changed and Aubrey sent his men aloft to reef in the futtock shrouds one found oneself nodding approvingly at his seamanship. That's some slick writing when you can pull that off.

Now you can not only discover what a futtock shroud is, but why it is a vital source of stability and support for a Royal Navy fighting vessel's critical buttresses of futtocks. Pepys's Navy also is a dandy introduction to that essential window onto Restoration England contained in Samuel Pepys' multivolume collection of diaries. Pepys was the Navy secretary credited with inventing the basic organization of the Royal Navy that, in turn, was a template for other navies, including our own, in succeeding centuries.

This book first saw the light of day in Britain as part of the authoritative Seaforth series on naval and warship history. The author, J. David Davies, is that country's recognized authority on the topic and his lucid writing style is complemented by some splendid diagrams and great classical paintings of famous ships of the line that are given full display in the coffee-table format. The Naval Institute has done well to bring this book over here. Mr. Davies tells a story that has contemporary relevance since it demonstrates the price a nation pays when it allows its main defense force to deteriorate in peacetime and when the force itself becomes sclerotic through corruption and indifference. During the 40 years covered, the Royal Navy became a permanent establishment, Mr. Davies notes, equipped with larger warships, fighting with new and more effective tactics, commanded by an increasingly professional officer corps, and administered by a comparatively committed set of men and a relatively effective set of institutions. Pepys was one of the men, and he was crucial to setting up those institutions. And it was those institutions that a century later produced real men of naval adventure and derring-do who in turn were compressed by Mr. O'Brian into Lucky Jack Aubrey. You will want to give this book to your favorite armchair seadog.

And speaking of seadogs, here's a riddle: If Lucky Jack and the hearty tars of H.M.S. Surprise had run into Captain John Paul Jones and the Continental Navy's Bonhomme Richard off Flamborough Head in the summer of 1778, who would have won? Don't bet your futtock shrouds on Jack.

The newly relased in paperback John Paul Jones: America's First Sea Warrior may be the best researched and most accessibly written portrait of our Revolutionary War hero out of the dozens written since the legendary Samuel Elliot Morrison's landmark Jones biography of 1959. The author, Joseph Callo, achieved the rank of rear admiral during his career in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He has coupled that grounding in the institution and its traditions with a growing reputation for expertise in 18th-century naval warfare in previous writing to the point he has already won the prestigious literary award named after Morrison.

In addition to a clean writing style and skillful placing of the Jones saga in the context of those tumultuous times, Mr. Callo has avoided a trap that snares many a biographer; he has not fallen in love with his subject. Rather, this is a clear-eyed portrait of a man whose main skill lay in his ability to take worn-out ships and disaffected crews into combat against bigger, better armed enemies and defeat them in those truly horrifying collisions of lead and steel known as sea battles.

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