“Give Me a Fast Ship” is less a history of the birth of the U.S. Navy at the outbreak of the Revolution than it is a rousing collection of tales describing battles against the British, the Continental Congress and among rival captains.
Philadelphia author Tim McGrath is a storyteller writ large, putting together in (occasionally) nautical language the origins of the Navy and how it struggled against costs the Continental Congress could not meet, as well as losses to the British that could not be replaced.
Philadelphia was the capital of the infant nation, its biggest city and its financial center. Philadelphian Robert Morris, who headed Congress’ Marine Committee, provided one of his ships, the Black Prince, as the Navy’s first ship. It was later renamed the Alfred.
McGrath relates the cruises of most of the original captains, along with their jockeying for a good ship and choice assignments that is always attendant upon such endeavors.
John Paul Jones (“I have not yet begun to fight”) gets his due, though it turns out he is not as accomplished as several other captains, aside from being something of a scoundrel. It was Jones’ luck to parlay his aggressiveness into a victory in 1779 over the British frigate Serapis in full view of terrified Yorkshire residents on shore.
Jones acquired his ship, Bonhomme Richard, through Benjamin Franklin, who represented the U.S. in Paris. Jones named the ship, a converted East Indiaman, in honor of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Jones’ battle was part of his second cruise around Great Britain, terrorizing the inhabitants and seizing ships and cargoes as prizes. After the battle, the Continental Congress had no funds to pay him or his crew. Discouraged, Jones went to Russia, where he became an admiral in Catherine the Great’s navy.
He died in France in 1792. During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, his body was exhumed and brought to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where it eventually was entombed in the academy’s chapel in 1913.
McGrath also devotes considerable space to John Barry. As the first commissioned officer of the U.S. Navy, he commanded the brig Lexington in the lead-off battle between American and British ships, defeating the British tender Edward.
He also fought on shore with George Washington at Trenton and Princeton in 1776 and 1777. As the Revolutionary War ended, he was commodore aboard the USS Alliance. He fought and won the war’s last battle between American and British ships in March 1783 off Cape Canaveral.
Naval warfare in the days of sails was a matter of chase as well as cat-and-mouse in an effort to “cross the T” and smash the enemy ship with a broadside, while it could fire only its bow or stern guns. Major causes of wounds were splinters sent flying by cannon balls smashing wood decks, masts, spars and bulkheads. Sharpshooters high up on platforms surrounding the masts fired down onto enemy decks.
Muzzle-loaded cannons and muskets meant there was down time between volleys and shots. Training concentrated on shortening that time. At the start of the Revolution, the Americans were not very speedy and suffered accordingly.
McGrath explains the details of 18th century navies with a deft pen and a decidedly nautical viewpoint. This is a delight to read.
Jules Wagman, last book editor of the old Cleveland (Ohio) Press, reviews books in Jacksonville, Fla.
Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea, by Tim McGrath (532 pages; NAL Caliber; $26.95)