Originally published on the The Old Salt Blog
Louis Arthur Norton's book Captains Contentious - The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine is an entertaining reminder that history is finally about individuals, dedicated to the causes in which they believe, as well as serving their own needs and obsessions.
Norton looks at five ship's captains who fought for the infant American Navy in the Revolutionary War. When not fighting the British, these captains also fought with each other, with their crews, their peers and with politicians ashore. Their personal quirks and flaws, in turn, hindered their careers and helped shape their victories. Norton examines the exploits of John Manley, Silas Talbot, Dudley Saltonstall, Joshua Barney and John Paul Jones. Each is a fascinating study in the character of these courageous if often flawed naval commanders.
John Manley was a Marblehead fisherman who was said to be a deserter from the Royal Navy ( a story told by John Paul Jones, among others.) As a captain in the Continental Army would become commodore of Washington's small fleet of privateer schooners. He was a skilled commander who used trickery against his enemy almost as often as gun fire. While he was ferocious in battle, he did have a petulant streak which resulted in his resigning his commission on one occasion when he felt ignored.
Silas Talbot was a Rhode Islander who was served as a Continental Army officer, a privateer, a slaver and a captain in both the Continental Navy and the Navy of of the United States of America. He was a fearless commander whose audacity and boldness often allowed him to overcome larger foes. He was seriously wounded several times in battle, and suffered imprisonment on British prison hulks. At the end of his career Talbot served as captain of the US Constitution. When he wasn't in battle or recovering from his wounds, he was squabbling with other captains and politicians over seniority on the Navy's captains list.
Dudley Saltonstall is the odd-man out in the group. He came from an aristocratic family in Connecticut and while he was dedicated to the revolution, his sense of class and position alienated both his crews, peers and commanding officers.
Joshua Barney was an American original. At only 15 years old, as an apprentice second mate, Barney took command of the merchant ship, Sidney, in mid-Atlantic after the captain and mate had died. He successfully navigated the ship to the Mediterranean, sold his cargo in Nice and arranged for a Spanish cargo for the return trip. He brought the ship back to Baltimore just as the battles of Lexington and Concord had been fought. He would prove to be a gifted naval commander and privateer both in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. And like his compatriots, Barney would spend his career fighting over seniority, status and position.
John Paul Jones, the best known of the five commanders, was perhaps the most troubled. While he was a gifted commander he was perpetually grasping for glory in what appears to be a textbook case of narcissism.
My one complaint with Captains Contentious is that I wanted more. At 146 pages before the notes and index, it whet my appetite, but left me hungry. The book is in some respects very similar in focus and approach to Gordon Wood's recent book, Revolutionary Characters, where Woods looks at the psychological make up of nine of the "Founding Fathers." Because Norton only considers five naval commanders, I found myself asking, "but what of Whipple? Or Lambert Wickes or John Rathbun or Nicholas Biddle?" There was such a fascinating group of ship's captains during the Revolution, ranging from inept and cowardly to gifted and fearless, that it seems a shame to stop at five.
A lesser concern I had about the book, which may be related to why Norton stuck to the five commanders that he chose, is the question of just how "contentious" these captains really were. It may be that Abraham Whipple, Lambert Wickes or John Rathbun were not included because they were not quite contentious enough to fit the model.
Perhaps a corollary to that question might be - were they any more contentious than any other military leaders of the day, on land or sea? Captain John Manly, the least contentious of Nelson's captains, resigned his commission when he did not receive the ship he wanted. This was little different that the action taken by John Stark, whose blocking of Howe's attempt to flank the American defenses on Breed's Hill saved the battle from being a rout, then turned around and went home to his New Hampshire farm when others who he deeded less worthy were promoted over him. Ironically, because Stark had resigned his Colonial commission, he was in the perfect position to lead the militia which defeated the Hessians at Bennington, which prevented Burgoyne's resupply and blocked his one escape route, which was critical to his subsequent defeat at Saratoga.
These quibbles aside, Louis Arthur Norton's book Captains Contentious - The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine is fascinating, well written and shines a light on a remarkable group of captains too often overlooked by history.
Description of: Captains Contentious: The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine
Author: Louis Arthur Norton