Provincial sailors challenge an empire in this rousing account of the Continental Navy.
In late 1775, the Continental Congress set out to assemble a modest navy to confront the British warships that had been shelling Colonial towns. After independence was declared, the navy’s duties expanded to include escorting merchantmen and harassing British shipping. The project appeared nearly impossible—the British fleet was the world’s most powerful—and the notion that it could be effectively opposed by a few hastily built or purchased ships appeared preposterous—all of which just makes this story the more stirring. McGrath (John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail, 2010) delivers a lively history of the Continental Navy, from its birth at the urging of John Adams to the end of the war, replete with political and diplomatic intrigue, personal tragedies, shipwrecks, prison escapes and plenty of sea battles. John Paul Jones is here, of course, but the author also brings to the fore such lesser-known but equally audacious warriors as Gustavus Conyngham and John Barry. Throughout, the commanders battle not just the enemy, but the incompetence to be expected in a fledgling military service, as well as shortages of men, arms and money, often exacerbated by a dilatory and bankrupt Congress whose members were financing privateers competing with the navy for resources. With discouraging frequency, the new navy’s ships were wrecked, sunk or captured to be used against the rebellious colonists, but the tiny fleet nevertheless provided critical assistance by supplying Washington’s army with desperately needed munitions and supplies; the fleet also diverted British naval resources by carrying the war into European and Caribbean waters. McGrath puts readers at ease by unobtrusively explaining the technical aspects of naval warfare in the age of sail. His gripping descriptions of pursuit and combat at sea are the equal of any fiction, with the added virtue of being entirely true.
Solidly researched history presented with verve and gusto.