Frances Diane Robotti & James Vescovi,
The USS Essex & the Birth of the American Navy
(Adams Media, 1999)

The United States, still newly made its own country, needed a navy to protect its coasts and its shipping interests, but the fledgling government couldn't afford many ships. To bolster that tiny fleet, the government promoted a plan by which cities could fund and build their own ships for naval service, a scheme that succeeded largely because of the civic pride each ship brought to the people who built it.

One such ship was the USS Essex, a small, 32-gun frigate commissioned in 1799 by the people of Salem, Massachusetts. (Not to be confused with the Nantucket Essex that achieved its fame by being rammed and sunk by a whale.) The USS Essex would go on to serve in numerous important actions over the next 15 years, during which time she was captained by several luminaries in the naval world.

The USS Essex & the Birth of the American Navy is a fascinating account of the ship's history. It's interesting stuff: The Essex was the first U.S. Navy ship to round the Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, and she was an integral part of naval actions in the Mediterranean and in the War of 1812. Her final battle, against two British warships in the Pacific, is a riveting story of bad choices and bad luck.

The authors, Frances Diane Robotti and James Vescovi, write like good historians, not only packing the pages with important detail but also maintaining a voice of excitement about their topic. They use naval jargon liberally, but they also don't hesitate to explain terms that might not be familiar to most readers. Combined, that makes this book a pleasure to read, both informative and fun.

book review by
Tom Knapp

30 January 2016

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