- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

By J.D. Davies
Naval Institute Press, $74.95, 301 pages

Naval Institute Press, $18.95 (paper), 251 pages

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 released 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. In so doing — and in one spectacular triumph — he became our fledgling Republic’s first legitimate naval hero and an important first advocate of America’s destiny as a world power projected by a dominant global naval force.

But when he was not engaged in close broadsides and boarding parties, John Paul Jones was something of a thug. One gets the impression from Mr. Callo’s portrait that like George Patton and William Tecumseh Sherman, he found the complexities of civilian life too burdensome and frustrating. Jones was born John Paul in Scotland two years after the 1745 last uprising to restore the Stuart monarchy so he carried in his genes that historic distaste for Hanoverian England.

But while he could be pleasant enough when he wanted to, he quickly developed a reputation in the merchant navy for being a stern captain who would turn violent if his authority were questioned. So it was in 1773, with the Revolution just two years off, Capt. Paul was accused in the flogging death of one crewman and later in killing another with his sword. Prudently, he decamped for America and added Jones to his surname, and after finding an influential patron in the Continental Congress, John Paul Jones found himself listed a first lieutenant on the first list of commissions for the newly minted Continental Navy.

After acquitting himself well in early actions along the Atlantic Coast, Jones got a break in 1777 when he was sent to France and became part of Benjamin Franklin’s covert action force of privateers and naval raiders whose job it was to interdict ships bearing British military supplies to America and trade shipping generally, and to harass the coastal villages on both the Irish and North seas.

Mr. Callo is right to complain that standard histories of our Revolution tend to emphasize the military hardships endured by Washington and the Continental Army and the all the more dramatic triumph at Saratoga that year. But perhaps even more important, the catch-all fleets of privateers off New England and Franklin’s North Sea raiders effectively blocked every single British supply ship from reaching America for a critical nine-month period during this time. Jones and his coastal raids so terrified the British press and populace that Lord North’s government was forced to keep vital regiments at home as protection. This in turn led to the extremely ill-advised decision to rent Hessian and other mercenaries to be sent to quell the rebels.

The book is at its best with a most lucid description of Jones’ legendary triumph when, commanding the clumsy French gift, the Bonhomme Richard, he literally ran into HMS Serapis, a bigger and more heavily armed Royal Navy frigate, off Flamborough Head on Yorkshire’s North Sea coast on Sept. 23, 1779. It is at times like these, one wants a thug fighting on one’s side. Instead of lying off and trading shots with the enemy, Jones lashed his ship alongside and while the British were busy sinking the Bonhomme Richard out from beneath him, he cleared its decks with marine sniper fire and seized the Serapis in a triumph that equaled Saratoga in its public relations boost for the American cause among the wary French court.

Jones would live another 15 years before dying in near-poverty in Paris and it was a grim, dull ending. He had plenty of enemies by that time and those in the U.S. Congress denied the just recompense due him and his men for too long. A stint in Catherine the Great’s naval war with the Turks ended just as badly. He seemed unable to resist squabbles with patrons and amorous entanglements, especially with wives of friends; yet he was alone when he died. It took a 121 years for his body to find its way to the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis where he at last got some of the honor he sought. This book adds to that recognition.

James Srodes‘ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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