Malanowski (The Coup, 2007, etc.) revives the legend of an "immortal" Civil War hero, now nearly forgotten.
“Habits of study: irregular. General conduct: bad. Aptitude for Naval Service: not good. Not recommended for continuance at the Academy.” So wrote the superintendent of Annapolis about William Barker Cushing (1842-1874) upon expelling him from the academy a month before the outbreak of the Civil War. Eventually, Cushing talked his way back into the Navy with a rank of acting master's mate, and four years later, he was a 22-year-old lieutenant commander nationally famous for astonishing exploits in which he showed a fighting spirit, creativity and determination rare in any military service. The most noteworthy of these was taking on the massive Confederate ironclad Albemarle in an open-picket boat and sinking her by personally guiding a mine under her hull and detonating it while under constant small-arms fire, an achievement for which he was voted the Thanks of Congress. His daring leadership of amphibious commando raids has caused him to be viewed as a precursor to the Navy SEALs. The author recognizes, however, that Cushing's reckless impatience for bold action, often bordering on insubordination, made him both an outstanding warrior and a difficult officer to manage. Indeed, Malanowski engages in brief speculation that Cushing's heroism may have been genius but may also have been rooted in a personality disorder. This is popular history for general readers, served up in bite-sized chapters of just a few pages each. The author presents Cushing's life story in a casual style, enthusiastically describing his adventures unrestrained by a historian's professional reserve.
With no pretensions to original scholarship, this is an enjoyable "retelling of an exciting story about a remarkable individual whose name had begun to fade."