Book Review – Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy by Ian W. Toll

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll


I had some time to kill a few months ago and was stumbling around a local bookstore when this book caught my eye. I went ahead and bought it and am very glad that I did.

Six Frigates is a fairly long book that takes a deep dive into the origins of the US Navy. The book is very well written, easy to read, and tells some great stories for those interested in the subject matter.

The book gives in detail how the original six frigates were paid for, why they were conceived, and the associated debates that went along with those appropriations. Toll blends perfectly in the book a balance of the politics of the day along with the realities of sailing vessels in this era. It is rare in my experience to find a book that balances these things so well. It is clear that Toll spent a LOT of time researching the presidential and congressional archives to pick the correspondences and events out that were appropriate for the subject matter of the book. Toll lets the statesmen of the past speak for themselves during the debates about the original appropriations and also enlightens the reader as to the politics of the day. Also mentioned are the debates about the continuing maintenance of the frigates.

There is a detailed section about the construction and engineering of the frigates. Toll explains very well how the boats were made and how the raw materials had to be obtained – again, just enough information for a relative layman such as myself to understand the how’s and why’s.

Now that the frigates were built, Toll explains how they were used, and again blends in the politics of the day so the reader can understand why the ships were where they were. Along with this, he recreates many of the battles that the frigates were involved in. This part was to me the most enlightening.

I have read many times of the famous battles of some of these frigates, the most famous being the Constitution. However, I never understood how insanely bloody and violent these ship to ship battles were. Toll goes into full on gore mode, sparing no adjective to make the reader get a feel for how the sailors felt and what actually went on. This book is extremely bloody so if you can’t handle that sort of thing, I would perhaps not recommend it. But it was a very good dose of reality for me, as I had never fully understood the power of the cannon they used, and how they used it. Also enlightening were Toll’s descriptions of the marine actions during battle. It was very interesting to hear how each side would use sharpshooters to try to pick off officers on the decks of the ships during battle.

Great detail is given to the first Tripolitan war. This is a subject that has always interested me, and it was amazing how Toll was able to even blend in the politics of the Tripolitans into his narrative.

Finally, we move to the War of 1812. Most readers here probably know the basics, but again, Toll is masterful blending in the politics of not only the US, but of Great Britain into the narrative.

The book uses a LOT of sailing terms which I, not being a sailor of any sort, didn’t understand. This was on purpose. In the beginning of the book, Toll puts out for the reader his reasons for this. Basically he says that he could explain each term and have the book be twice as long, or let the reader pick and choose what they wanted to research as far as terms went. I think he took the correct approach. I have no clue what this sentence from page 348 means:

Constitution stood on to leeward before the freshening northeast breeze, wearing double-reefed topsails and courses, with her royal yards struck down on deck.

However, it is easy to imagine a ball park idea of what Toll is saying in the context of the overall topic – that the Constitution was getting ready, somehow, to engage the HMS Guerrierre in battle. It was really no big deal after you got used to the flow of the text. I did look up a few terms along the way, but not many.

It is very clear that Toll spent a long time researching and writing this marvelous book. It is easily one of the top ten books I have ever read on any subject and I highly recommend it if you have any sort of interest in sailing, or early 19th century politics or even just to get a flavor of those times. Toll also speaks about the early cities and how they worked to a certain degree although the focus is on the Frigates, their battles, and the politics surrounding them.

Cross posted at LITGM.

18 thoughts on “Book Review – Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy by Ian W. Toll”

  1. Sounds fascinating. Years ago I read my way through CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower adventure series. Loved them and heartily recommend them to anyone, young or old. From what I understand, Forester, who also wrote The African Queen, loosely based Horatio Hornblower’s career on the life of Admiral Nelson.

    One of the details I remember from the books was that some forts would heat cannonballs till red hot before firing them. If the ball didn’t blast completely through the hulls, they would lodge themselves into the ship’s timbers or roll around starting fires. Cannons firing from a bluff well above a harbor had a huge range advantage. And it was much easier for them to resight their guns than for you to reposition your ship. You could well see how effective a single fortress could be. In the eastern Med, where rock is plentiful, labor cheap, and metals scarce, cannonballs were made of stone.

    The one guess I can make about the sailing talk is this. The lee shore of an island is the side away from the prevailing wind. So sailing leeward would be with the wind, as opposed to windward, into the wind. I think that’s right.

  2. In the book Toll makes a point that the Tripolitan shore defenses while they could have been formidable, never practiced or maintained the defenses, so that fire was basically ineffective on our ships. In addition, our ships would fire at the sheer rock and the ball hitting the rock would create a very large dust cloud to impair the vision of the enemy.

  3. “Constitution stood on to leeward before the freshening northeast breeze, wearing double-reefed topsails and courses, with her royal yards struck down on deck.”

    I read the book a few years ago. It was given to me by a friend who is a retired Marine officer. Sailing ships of that era were very concerned with keeping “the weather gauge,” which means keeping upwind from the enemy. When square riggers could only sail about 90 degrees to the wind (modern sailboats can sail to about 25 degrees off the wind), it was very hard to get toward a windward “weather” ship. In the case of the Bounty for example, after trying to sail west around Cape Horn against an westerly wind for weeks, they gave up and sailed east around the world to get to Tahiti.

    If Constitution “stood to leeward” she was offering battle to the leeward ship. In battle, the “top hamper” of cruising sails like the royals (top masts) were sent down and sail was reduced to that required for maneuvering. There was no need for speed and handling big sails in battle took men from the guns. A ship desiring to escape would stay to windward.

    The source for lots of sea lore is “The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor”, which is still in print. It is often used by model builders to get the rigging of square riggers correct.

  4. Some solid information and a general introduction to ship to ship combat in the age of sail can be found in Avalon Hill corp’s game, ‘wooden ships & iron men’.
    Originally a hard copy board game, one can probably find a servicable PC version. Loads of fun.

  5. “I had some time to kill a few months ago”

    The bigger question is between running a successful business, a farm, biking and your martial arts training, how do you manage to have “time to kill”?

    The book sounds good I’ll have to add it to my list. Thanks and Happy New Year!

  6. I understand the reading in those odd moments. I keep a couple of books in my car for that reason, and if I think ahead of time I might have some slack, I sometimes bring my kindle.

    Read this not long after it came out, and I concur that it is one of the best books on the early American navy.

    The power of the cannon used, at the ranges involved, is beyond the comprehension of the typical man in the street today who never sees mass violence. I used to do living history reenacting as an artilleryman. Mostly crewed the pre-Civil War 12 lb. Mountain Howitzer, and sometimes the Civil War 3″ ordnance rifle. The relatively tiny Mountain Howitzer, when loaded with canister was like a giant shotgun. If you were standing within 30 degrees of either side of the axis of the barrel at 100 yards, you were dead. I had the fortune of visiting the Chalmette Battlefield [Battle of New Orleans] before Katrina destroyed it. At the artillery gun line, I could see the long, wide open field that the British marched across into a storm of canister and ball [explosive case shot was relatively new then and not there to the best of my knowledge]; and was impressed both by the tactical stupidity of Packenham, and the stolid bravery of the Brit troops as they were slaughtered.

    Now imagine the effect of a 32 lb. carronade [short barreled, large bore cannon] double-shot loaded with canister fired at 50 feet into a tightly packed wooden vessel. And remembering that the wood of the vessel splintered and made even more deadly fragments than the musket balls that made up the round. Now realize that if you were facing the CONSTITUTION, there were 11 of them and 15 24 lb. long guns firing at you with every broadside.

    Our forebears lived a life that routinely was beyond what modern people could not endure. And remember, that on the American vessels, they were all volunteers; as were most of the Brits.

    Subotai Bahadur

  7. ..the Tripolitan shore defenses, while they could have been formidable, never practiced or maintained the defenses

    This is my shocked face.


    and if I think ahead of time I might have some slack, I sometimes bring my kindle.

    This is why I’ve got the Kindle reader installed on my phone–always-present reading material!

  8. Another extremely good read is the Aubrey-Maturin series by O’Brian, starting with “Master and Commander”. Hornblower is great for kids – Aubrey-Maturin is for adults. Very well researched, too.

    For instance, a recurring theme is that RN captains were disciplined for practicing too much gunnery – powder and shot being expensive back then. In the first six months of a commission, they were expected to fire one shot per three guns per month, no more! Therefore, well-to-do captains would buy powder and shot on their own expense. Or hope to pick up a prize to get powder and shot from.

    Thanks for this review – I just put the book in my Amazon shopping cart.

  9. These sharpshooters-did they use rifled muskets in the 1812 war? How about the preceding century? It is interesting how much the reader is often presumed to know.

  10. Renminbi – that is a good question. Toll did not go into detail about the types of small arms used and I do not have a good answer for you.

    SB – The British practice of the impressment of seamen is discussed at length. Their naval force was largely voluntary but they always needed more men. The impressment of Americans was one of the major reasons for the hostilities in 1812.

  11. Hornblower is great for kids…

    I read them as an adult and loved them. As I said, I would recommend them to anyone, young or old. Lots of books are in that category and arguably some of the best things ever written are in it as well.

    When I was growing up, my father would buy books, read them, and if he liked them give them to me to read. Was he reading children’s books or was I reading adult books? Or were they, maybe, just good books? I will leave that, as they used to say, as an exercise for the reader.

  12. renminbi Says:
    January 1st, 2014 at 10:57 am

    The sharpshooters on both sides were Marine detachments aboard the ships. During the War of 1812, US Marines primarily used the India Pattern “Brown Bess” smoothbore musket. If they could not be procured, they used a Springfield smoothbore musket patterned on the French “Charleville” musket. The latter, however, was not popular because it rusted more easily at sea than the “Brown Bess”.

    The US Marines’ counterpart Royal Marines were armed with the “Brown Bess” of various models.

    They are referred to as sharpshooters [an anachronism, because the term comes from the American Civil War] but actually were not what we would call that. Yes, they aimed at specific persons as targets at times. However, a “Brown Bess” on land, aimed fire taking your time, has less than a 50% chance of hitting a standing man at 40 feet. Which explains the land tactics of the day, because they were going for controlled volume of fire at the enemy units, and not aimed fire at anyone specific. Put enough musket balls out there, and you will hit someone.

    Now consider doing it from a moving ship, at another moving ship, perhaps from a fighting position aloft which has its own movements as the masts and spars react to the wind. The Frenchman who killed Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar was lucky, not skilled.

    Hope this helps.

    Subotai Bahadur

  13. When I was an intern I had one week of vacation. It rained every day that week so I spent it reading all the Hornblower books. I was already a beginning sailor but, as I have gotten much more experience sailing, the Hornblower books got better and better. I have never been able to get into the Patrick O’Brien series for some reason.

    The Hornblower books are not children’s books. Forester also wrote some other good books, like The African Queen, The Barbary Pirates, The General, The Good Shepherd, The Gun, The Last Nine Days of the “Bismarck,” and Rifleman Dodd. I’ve read most of those, as well. The African Queen and The Gun are especially good.

  14. I might add, there is very little good sailing fiction. A few good examples are The Shipkiller which is dated but excellent. Another is Overboard by Hank Searles. He has some other novels that sound good but I haven’t read them.

    A terrible movie was made from “Overboard” which was not the Goldie Hawn movie. The latter is good but not about sailing. The only decent movie about modern sailing is “Wind.” There are a few non-fiction movies about sailing and a few video clips that are hair raising. Like this one.

    Clippers sometimes sailed under in those conditions since they were too heavy to surf. I’ve sailed a smaller boat in 50 knot squalls but they lasted only a couple of minutes. We sometimes had the boat out of the water back to the keel in those conditions. I knew that because our knotmeter, whose rotor was just in front of the keel, would go blank. The highest it read was 22 knots then zero for a minute or two.

  15. I thought this was one of the best books that I’ve read in quite a while, and by such a young author. I would like to know the opinions of those who have sailed or served in the navy as to the designation of which ships are “Lucky” and which ships are not. The “Philadelphia” comes to mind as does the “Prince of Wales”, although, the “Indianapolis” was considered lucky until her fate in 1945.

  16. One of my favorite movie scenes was in Jaws. The captain (Robert Shaw’s character) telling the story of the Indianapolis to the cop (Roy Shieder) and the professor (Richard Dreyfus). The three didn’t relate well to one another all day. After a long day at sea, dinner, and a rum or two, the telling of the story made a great moody scene.

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