In No Quarter, the first of Broos Campbell's Matty Graves series, young Graves is a midshipman in the fledgling U.S. Navy at the height of the Quasi-War with France. His first-person narrative takes the USS Rattle-Snake, her officers and crew from Baltimore to Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), with tense encounters with both British and French warships along the way. Once off Haiti, the Rattlesnakes come under attack immediately and have to sort friend from foe - not simple, since the U.S. is at war, although not officially, with France, but the French government is changing as the Directorate gives way to Napoleon's Consulate. Haiti itself is in the midst of a war for independence from France and for the emancipation of slaves, with various groups all claiming legitimacy.
International affairs seem straightforward compared to the tangled relationships among the American naval officers. In the early U.S. Navy, commissions and commands were often awarded for political reasons and many officers worked to curry favor with civilian politicos. Rivalries and ambition sometimes trumped the good of the service or the military mission. The men of the officer corps were exceedingly prickly about their honor and duels were commonplace. Matty is an upright young man whose fellow officers are all flawed in one way or another. In trying to figure out who his friends are, he learns not to take his comrades at face value. As the story unfolds, Matty is faced with the necessity of choosing among competing allegiances - political affiliation, kinship, friendship, military competence. A narrator isn't quick to reveal his own flaws, but we come to realize that Matty has issues as well. His back story is incomplete and only revealed in small pieces, but there are lurking family problems, compounded by a tragic involvement in the "Whiskey Rebellion" of 1794, that color Matty's thoughts and actions.
Part of the pleasure of No Quarter is Campbell's mastery of a (relatively) obscure corner of history. He manages, without the least bit of pedantry, to make the reader feel engaged and knowledgeable about the U.S. and Haiti in 1800. Campbell does not shy away from describing race relations at a time that we now cannot consider without shame. Many of Matty's fellow officers are slave owners who enlist their slaves as crew. The sailors' wages, of course, are pocketed by their owners. Not every character is insensible to the irony of asking these sailors to take part in actions supporting Haitian slaves who are rebelling against the French.
Description of: No Quarter
Author: Broos Campbell