Archives For Book Reviews

USS Samuel B. RobertsIn his latest book, For Crew and Country, historian John Wukovits recounts the incredible story of the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts and her rendezvous with destiny in the Philippines at the Battle of Samar. Building off James Hornfischer’s excellent The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors which recounted the larger tale of the Battle of Samar, Wukovits focuses exclusively on the Roberts, her crew, construction, shake-down and foray into the Pacific theater. Divided into four parts, the book deals first with the molding of both the vessel and her crew, then moves on to early cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific, segues into the Battle of Samar and concludes with the aftermath of the battle.

While the back story is intriguing and important to subsequent events, For Crew and Country shines brightest in Wukovits narration of the Battle of Samar. Wukovits expended hours conducting interviews and poring over first-hand accounts and correspondence between crew and family members to piece together a gripping minute by minute account of the battle. Wukovits’ narrative technique is so effective that as readers burn through the book’s pages, they can smell the sulfur of battle, hear the ringing echo of the Roberts’ five inch guns pounding away at Japanese warships and taste the sea spray that douses the crew with each near-miss from Japanese salvos.

Although some readers may find Wukovits usage of vernacular history a bit tedious and slow, especially in the telling of the backstory prior to the battle, the technique is fascinating when applied to the battle itself. Unlike some texts which focus on big events and big actors, For Crew and Country eschews this approach to present readers with a moving narration of what a World War II naval battle was like for the common sailor. In sum, For Crew and Country is an excellent read and Wukovits has done much to honor the memory of the brave and intrepid crew of the Roberts.

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battle of the atlantic

Blackett’s War documents the application of science to the Battle of the Atlantic and the outsized impact a small collection of British scientists had on its outcome. Author Stephen Budiansky charts the life of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett, a British naval officer turned scientist, from his service in World War I to his 1930s academic life and conversion from civilian scientist to architect of a scientific method of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. In the first section of the book, Budiansky follows Blackett’s World War I and inter-war experiences as well as those of the United Kingdom as a whole. In particular, Budiansky focuses on the deployment of the submarine as an unconventional offensive weapon and how it nearly brought Britain to her knees in World War I.

As the tale progresses, other scientists and historical events are woven into the story to add context and depth to the fascinating melding of ruthless warfare with statistical analysis, cryptography and electronic detection and countermeasures. While this often helps advance the storyline, at times it becomes difficult to keep track of the countless characters and events. If there is any flaw in the book, it is that the inclusion of these characters renders the title slightly misleading. The book is less about Patrick Blackett than it is about the scientific teams on both sides of the Atlantic that fought both their own civilian and military bureaucracy and the Kriegsmarine to win the naval war. Overall Blackett’s War is an intriguing read that provides a unique blend of scientific and military history.

war of 1812

In Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Dr. Ronald D. Utt has produced a magnificent 500 page tome that provides readers with a well-researched and highly readable account of the War of 1812 at sea. As Utt masterfully argues, the United States Navy truly came into its own during the War of 1812, a conflict that is undergoing a renaissance in the pop history circle as the bicentennial of the war began in 2012.

Although the US Navy fought several notable battles during the American Revolution, including John Paul Jones’ famous duel with HMS Serapis, these were primarily performed with foreign crews and former merchant vessels adapted for naval service. The War of 1812 was the first time that the fledgling US Navy faced a first world power in a declared war and its spectacular results allowed the Navy to create epic lore and traditions in only three years.

Utt skillfully guides the reader from the opening salvos of the war through the US Navy’s early single-ship victories over the vaunted Royal Navy to the two squadron level clashes on the Great Lakes, privateer derring-do against the British merchant marine, and the later and lesser known naval actions of the war. Readers will be unable to put down the book at certain points, especially when reading the chapters concerning privateering and some of the lesser known single-ship voyages against British merchant and warships. The heroic and honorable actions of officers and sailors from both sides will keep readers captivated with tales of a breed of gentlemen warriors whose time has long since passed.

Among the many strengths of Utt’s work is his organization of the book into chapters that take the reader from events at sea to land and then back to sea. In most cases, Utt keeps his narration of the land war to only a few pages in order to give readers an idea of how the sea war affected the land war and vice versa. At times the land war descriptions can grow a bit tedious as Utt jumps between the numerous Indian tribes, Americans, Brits, and Canadians who intermingled in the land conflict. For readers concerned more with the war at sea, the land warfare chapters are sometimes roadbumps in the greater storyline. This minor weakness, though, does not overshadow the overall excellence of Utt’s book.

Another strength is Utt’s strong documentation and endnotes – he has clearly worked to craft a book that is both historically accurate and accessible to the everyday reader. Overall, in Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Utt has created a fantastic piece that opens the naval battles of the War of 1812 to a wider audience.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.

Roald AmundsenIn his latest book, The Last Viking, author Stephen Bown documents the epic life of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is best known for winning a dramatic race to the South Pole and becoming the first human to reach the bottom of the world. Bown presents readers with a modern retelling of Amundsen’s life and stunning achievements. Amundsen was not only the first to journey to the South Pole, he also was the first to reach the North Pole and to sail the Northwest Passage.

Divided into five parts, The Last Viking chronicles each of Amundsen’s polar explorations including his last ill-fated voyage to rescue the stranded crew of an Italian airship in the Arctic. Bown, though, resists the urge to focus solely on Amundsen’s explorations and presents readers with a portrait of a confident leader whose drive and attention to detail helped him become one of the most successful explorers of the 20th century.

Utilizing contemporary newspaper accounts and previously untapped archival materials, Bown describes in detail Amundsen’s voyages, personal financial problems and character flaws. The reader also learns of the behind the scenes struggles Amundsen endured with duplicitous agents, rival explorers driven by nationalism, and the cataclysm of World War I which hampered one of his voyages.

Each section of the book opens with a map of the region corresponding to the exploits Bown documents in that section. This is especially helpful to understand the vast distances Amundsen covered either by ship, sled, skis, airship or plane.

In a world where little is left to explore, Bown transports his readers to a time when great men battled nature to explore the earth’s last remaining terra incognita. As the winter months approach, readers would be well served to buy The Last Viking and curl up in front of a roaring fire to enjoy Bown’s gripping account of Amundsen’s epic polar adventures.

clipper shipWhen America First Met China provides readers with a fast paced and highly readable account of America’s first commercial encounters with China. Author Eric Jay Dolin traces the origins of America’s trade with China in the years following the end of the American Revolution through the tumultuous period of the Opium Wars and concludes with the role of Chinese laborers in tying the nation together with the Transcontinental Railroad.

Throughout the book, Dolin introduces the various American, British and Chinese personalities who made the early China trade one of the most colorful periods in maritime history. Men such as Robert Morris, Samuel Shaw, Dr. Peter Parker (no relation to Spiderman), Amasa Delano (a distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Charles Elliot, Lin Zexu, and Howqua all come to life through Dolin’s writing. Many of the men, while not household names today, made lasting contributions to American trade, prestige and foreign relations. For instance, a gift from one of the personalities involved in the early China trade, Stephen Girard, helped establish Girard College in Philadelphia – a school for white male orphans which has since become a full scholarship grade 1 – 12 school for children of low-income single parent families.

Additionally, the products involved in the China trade – tea, fur, silk, opium, sandalwood and beche-de-mer are all described in detail. The reader is given a thorough understanding of the economics and production techniques of each commodity without being driven to boredom. Having previously written about both whaling and the fur trade, Dolin is experienced in describing the details of 19th century industries.

Overall, Dolin does an excellent job of detailing the origins of America’s commercial trade with China and its ebb and flow through the post-Civil War Reconstruction years. The numerous illustrations of period engravings, sketches and paintings help the reader better grasp the locations, ships and products involved in the China trade. When America First Met China is accessible to readers with any level of knowledge about maritime or Chinese history and is worth the read.

civil war navy

Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson’s latest book, War on the Waters, is a concise naval history of the American Civil War. Most authors and historians focus on the great generals (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.) or the great battles (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh etc.) and often ignore the vital role the navies played in the conflict both on the rivers of the western Confederacy and the high seas. Entire books have been written on various aspects of the naval war – riverine warfare in the west, blockade running, Confederate merchant raiders, foreign intrigue in Europe and the innovations that made their debut in the conflict. McPherson neatly summarizes each of these topics and arranges them in easily digestible chapters that proceed in chronological order.

McPherson’s organization and writing style allow both the uninitiated reader and the Civil War buff to understand the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various personalities, events and inventions that influenced the war. Perhaps most importantly, McPherson accompanies his chapters with strategic or tactical level maps that enable the reader to understand the events which occur in the chapter. McPherson understands the unwritten rule that the inclusion of a relevant map is worth multiple pages of text in helping a reader establish an awareness of the events being described. Along with the maps, various etchings and photos accompany each chapter and neither maps nor illustrations are confined to a few pages in the center or the beginning of the book. This allows the reader to visually grasp the crux of each chapter and makes both the maps and the illustrations more relevant to the narrative being told.

Overall, War on the Waters is a fantastic single volume history of the Civil War’s naval history. McPherson hits all of the highlights of the Civil War – CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor, blockade running, William B. Cushing’s daring raid on the CSS Albemarle, and the first successful attack by a submarine – in only 225 pages. War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the naval literature of the Civil War and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history, naval history or the Civil War.