Talking about Naval History: A Collection of Essays

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Talking about Naval History: A Collection of Essays John B. Hattendorf. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2011. 370 pp. Notes. Index. $56 (from GPO, htpp://bookstore. gpo.gov).

Reviewed by Jeremy Black

Any collection of essays by John Hattendorf, Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College in Newport, would be welcome; this one is particularly so. Although 15 of the 20 pieces have been previously published, many are the products of obscure sources - that is, unless you customarily read such works as the Bulletin de la Société archéologique, scientifique et littéraire du Vendômois, the location of the papers on a colloquium held to mark the bicentenary of the death of Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, who helped the American colonies in their war for independence.

Moreover, Hattendorf ranges widely in this collection. It is divided into four parts comprising a total of 20 chapters: "The Field of Maritime History" (4 chapters); "General Naval History, 1652-1815" (7); "American Naval History, 1775-2010" (7); and "Naval Theory and History: (2). Most of the pieces in the second part pertain to the Royal Navy, thereby providing the reader with an interesting and effective account of key aspects of the world's two leading navies from the 1690s to the present day.

Throughout the work the overriding themes are twofold: the role of individuals and the weight of history. The first emerges with some telling contributions about Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, but also with less prominent figures. For example, an impressive piece on the American Navy's forward stations in the 19th century indicates the importance of Rear Admiral John Rodgers, who launched, against Korea, the largest U.S. military operation against an Asian nation in that century.

Historical significance is explored in a number of contributions. In Chaper 9, "Strategy, Tactics, and Leadership: The Legacy of Trafalgar in Professional Naval Thought around the World," Hattendorf displays his mastery of the scholarship by considering the potent consequences of this 21 October 1805 battle. Unsurprisingly, it led to a focus on operational means rather than strategic understanding.

Other pieces consider the AngloFrench naval wars of 1689-1815 from the perspective of 20th-century naval thought, the bicentenary body of knowledge about the Nelson era, and the bequest for fiction, the last a key piece for those interested in C. S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian, and others. Hattendorf finds much fact in 18th-century fiction about life at sea. He argues that because novelists use their historical imagination to bring the period to life in more ways than are available to the historian, these stories can sometimes teach readers more, and with a far more vivid effect. …

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