Books for the Age of Sail Gamer

Model ships and rules are essential for the AOS gamer, and for the first year of the blog that's what I focused on.  To me, though, knowledge of the period is just as important as the toys to simulate it.  So, I've decided to start this page, where we can take a look at the books I think are a useful addition to any AOS gamer's library.  While these represent my opinion, I will be more than happy to take a look at books the readers might suggest.  With that in mind, let's take a look at some useful titles.

One thing to keep in mind before we start is that books don't always have to be expensive, limited edition tomes to be useful.  Sometimes, an Osprey book that summarizes things in 48 or 64 pages is all that a gamer might want or need, especially when first starting out.  So, we will take a look at some of those too (well, eventually anyway).

Benjamin Armstrong:  Small Boats and Daring Men:  Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy.

Most naval gamers really like sailing ship miniatures. Now, they may not like to build them, but they will tell you they’re beautiful to look at and play with.  Whether it’s ships of the line bearing down on each other in columns or frigates and smaller vessels dancing around, a tabletop Age of Sail game will always draw a crowd.

There is, however, another type of naval warfare in this period that we don’t think about very much.  That is irregular warfare: cutting out raids, land raids and other things that the big ships just can’t do.  In this book, the author argues quite convincingly that these things were as important to the early US Navy as the famous blue-water actions we are all familiar with.

Armstrong argues that the traditional naval warfare strategies of guerre de course (attacks on merchant shipping) and guerre d’escadre (fleet and warship battles) deserves to have a third way added.  That third way he labels guerre de razzia, or the war of raiding.  He then uses eight examples ranging from the American Revolution to the 1830’s to show that the war of raiding was developed in parallel to American doctrines in the other two areas.  Since this is also an attempt to link irregular operations to the current issues facing the US Navy, Armstrong feels it necessary to defend his thesis against those who would simply label his examples as “littoral operations.”  By pointing out that both Hampton Roads and the Nile can be considered as littoral battles, he demonstrates that while his examples do fall under the definition of littoral operations, the definition itself is insufficient.

Some modern theorists define irregular warfare as including humanitarian assistance or naval diplomacy.  Armstrong does not agree with this and restricts his examples to operations that “focus on combat, or the threat of combat, to achieve those ends” (p. 7).  He also excludes amphibious operations and bombardment, as these are a part of conventional naval strategies.  The book is not and cannot be an encyclopedia of every raiding action during the period; Armstrong admits that this would not allow him to examine the subject with any detail.  By using an episodic approach, he is able to examine archival documents to compare and contrast the different operations he uses for examples.

John Paul Jones is Armstrong’s ideal of a  guerre de razzia practitioner, so it is only fitting that Jones’ cruise in Ranger is the first example.  During this cruise in 1778, Jones attacked merchantmen, engaged and captured a Royal Navy vessel, and attempted to hold the Earl of Selkirk for ransom.  As the Earl was not at home, Jones took his silver homewares hostage instead. 

Armstrong uses each of his examples to illustrate both successes and failings in the guerre da razzia.  Jones is successful because of his knowledge of the area (he grew up there) and his experiences with these sorts of operations earlier in his career.  He was let down by his junior officers, as they were not as aggressive as he was.  This lack of aggression prevented Jones from burning the town of Whitehaven with an estimated 200+ sail in the harbor.  If not for his capture of HMS Drake, the cruise of Ranger might be considered a failure.

The chapter covering the Quasi-War shows another set of skills that are necessary to successfully prosecute guerre da razzia.  In this case the senior command was familiar with raiding, having practical experience from the War of Independence.  Junior officers were aggressive and daring, as the captures as the captures of privateers like Sandwich and the engagement against pirates in the Bay of Léogâne demonstrate.  This time, the problems are ones of equipment and diplomacy.  While the frigates are excellent for blue-water operations, and their victories cleared the way for raiding to be successful, they are almost useless for entering into restricted waters to capture the smaller vessels used by privateers.  To combat that problem, American commanders “regularly took the small craft they captured into American service to fill the gaps in their capabilities” (p. 53).  The state of war existing in the Caribbean made careful diplomacy a necessity.  Commodore Silas Talbot filled this role well.  He was flexible enough to both cooperate with the British for access to local knowledge and acknowledge that the seizure of Sandwich from a Spanish port was probably not legitimate.

Armstrong makes a point in this chapter that I think should be given more emphasis.  That point is, “. . . experience in naval irregular warfare became a central way to teach responsibility and leadership to junior officers in the Age of Sail” (p. 52).   The image of a lieutenant leading a boat raid or a midshipman commanding a prize crew is practically a trope in Age of Sail literature.  Too often, I think that modern readers assume this is being done merely because they are officers instead of being seen as a learning experience.

The pool of talent nurtured in the Quasi-War would go into the Barbary War almost completely intact.  Although legend says that the Barbary War was filled with all sorts of actions, in truth the first two years were relatively tame.  It was not until Edward Preble took command in 1803 that most of the action we are familiar with takes place.  Armstrong concentrates on the capture of Mastico (renamed Intrepid) and its role in the burning of USS Philadelphia as the prime example of irregular warfare in this conflict.  Like many of his subordinates, Preble had a background in raiding.  Although many accounts credit Stephen Decatur with the idea to burn Philadelphia, in truth several officers (including Preble) had the same idea.  William Bainbridge, the captured commander of Philadelphia actually sent the idea to Preble in a secret message.  It was the capture of Mastico that let the plan come together, as it was a local ship that could slip into Tripoli harbor with no problems.

There were diplomatic issues to be dealt with in this war also, but the burning of Philadelphia actually helped Preble with this.  Before this, the American war against Tripoli was not taken seriously by the other Mediterranean powers.  The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was considering aiding the US, and the news of Decatur’s success arrived during those proceedings.  As Armstrong says, the news was probably a factor in the decision to help the Americans (p.63).  Sicily loaned gunboats, mortar boats and crews to the Americans; these, along with the initiative from the Philadelphia raid allowed the US to attack Tripoli harbor on multiple occasions before Preble was relieved by Samuel Barron.

Preble is another excellent example of a guerre de razzia commander.  He realized that the blue-water focus of previous commanders had not solved the problem.  He understood the virtues of raiding and had aggressive junior officers who understood them as well.  He incorporated captured smaller vessels into his fleet and used diplomacy to further increase his small craft numbers.  His use of local personnel such as the pasha’s former doctor and Salvatore Calatano, the local pilot,  were invaluable in carrying out his plans (p. 70).  Although he didn’t lead any missions personally, I think a case could be made that he is a better example than John Paul Jones for a guerre de razzia commander.

The remaining chapters of the book are a number of compare and contrast studies, showing why a guerre de razzia can succeed or fail.  The irregular campaigns of the War of 1812 on the Great Lakes and the east coast of the US show how command and technology can influence this.  The various groups using Robert Fulton’s “torpedoes” (actually floating mines) were working at the edge of 1812 technology, and this showed in their repeated failures to sink a British warship.  Furthermore, Commodore John Rodgers, in command on the east coast, was no fan of Fulton’s inventions, and even helped to quash testing of them in 1810.  Between unproven technology and command indifference, the attempts seem doomed to failure.  Guerre de razzia was much more successful on lakes Ontario and Erie.  Here there was no advanced technology to get in the way.  Instead, the basics of this discipline were in effect.  Aggressive senior leadership, understanding junior officers, cooperation between different forces and local knowledge all combined to make the American war effort on the Great Lakes successful.  Indeed, the irregular warfare on Lake Ontario in 1814 was so successful that at one point, the British were short of sailors to man their ships! 

The remaining chapters of the book are a number of compare and contrast studies, showing why a guerre de razzia can succeed or fail.  The irregular campaigns of the War of 1812 on the Great Lakes and the east coast of the US show how command and technology can influence this.  The various groups using Robert Fulton’s “torpedoes” (actually floating mines) were working at the edge of 1812 technology, and this showed in their repeated failures to sink a British warship.  Furthermore, Commodore John Rodgers, in command on the east coast, was no fan of Fulton’s inventions, and even helped to quash testing of them in 1810.  Between unproven technology and command indifference, the attempts seem doomed to failure.  Guerre de razzia was much more successful on lakes Ontario and Erie.  Here there was no advanced technology to get in the way.  Instead, the basics of this discipline were in effect.  Aggressive senior leadership, understanding junior officers, cooperation between different forces and local knowledge all combined to make the American war effort on the Great Lakes successful.  Indeed, the irregular warfare on Lake Ontario in 1814 was so successful that at one point, the British were short of sailors to man their ships!

The last three chapters deal with pirates, in both the West and East Indies, and range from 1819 to 1839.  In the West Indies, the US Navy fought against pirates from 1819 to about 1825.  Most of these were privateers from the recently independent republics in Latin America, who drifted from privateering to piracy in the time-honored fashion.  The earliest expedition was led by Oliver Hazard Perry, of Lake Erie fame.  Unfortunately, he contracted yellow fever while in Venezuela and quickly died.  By 1822, the US Navy had established the West Indies squadron under the command of James Biddle, with two frigates, a corvette, two sloops, two brigs, and four schooners.  As before, even these weren’t enough small ships and the two frigates were worthless for shallow water work.  In December 1822, another squadron consisting of eight schooners, five large barges, and a steam powered vessel all under the command of David Porter (captain of the USS Essex during the War of 1812).  Porter quickly established a good working relationship with the Royal Navy, and the two services worked together hunting down pirates.  While Porter appeared to have the perfect raiding force, his thorny relationship with the Secretary of the Navy got him removed from his position of command in early 1825. 

The two expeditions to the East Indies show how important it is for an officer to understand all the aspects of his orders.  In the first expedition (1831-32), captain Downes of USS Potomac focused on only the military side of his.  While he easily defeated the pirate nest he found, he failed to make any lasting local allies before he left.  His mission was considered a failure and he was forced to defend himself against a court-martial when he returned to the US.  Armstrong points out that Downes had sat on Porter’s court martial in the 1820’s, and clearly did not want to share his fate (p.166).  The second expedition to Sumatra consisted of the large frigate Cumberland, and the small frigate John Adams.  Commanded by John Reed, this expedition did not make the same mistakes Downes did.  Instead, the peace that Reed established would last through the American Civil War.

So, how does all this relate to tabletop naval warfare?  The book did an excellent job of making me realize the “blue-water bias” in my gaming.  There is detailed information on some small actions that would make excellent scenarios, so that is a good, albeit somewhat limited, benefit as well.  I think that the anti-pirate campaign in the West Indies would make for an excellent wargames campaign.  Forces would be small, and it would give players a chance to focus on cutting-out type actions that we don’t normally get to play. (Yes, I know I said pirates “aren’t my thing” in the pirate book review.  Hush.)  Armstrong does talk about modern policy implications, and how his historical study is related to them.  I did not really mention that in this review for two reasons:  One:  Modern policy doesn’t really apply to Age of Sail gaming.  Two:  This review is already long enough.
Overall, I’m giving the book 4 1/2 Nelsons.  You could make an argument for 5, and I wouldn’t argue against it too much.  However, the fact that it is a very restricted subject matter restricts its general usefulness for gaming.  This, along with a couple of quibbles I have with some of the author’s interpretations of fact led me to shave off half a point. 

Eric Jay Dolan:  Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates.

Pirates have always been the fun side of naval gaming.  After all, a well-displayed game of Blood and Plunder can make almost anyone start singing, “Yo Ho Ho, it’s a Pirate’s life for me!”  Nevertheless, I was torn about reviewing this book on the blog.  Even though this is a naval blog, I don’t really ‘do’ pirates.  I don’t mind playing if someone else brings them out, but it’s not something I’m willing to paint figures for.  Also, while piracy is a problem throughout the Age of Sail, the golden age ends in the early 1700’s, which is far before the period I’m most interested in.  Even with all that, I thought this book deserved a review, and I’ll explain why below.

 Unlike most pirate books, this one is somewhat limited in scope.  Dolan specifically limits the work to looking at pirates who either operated out of, or plundered ships on the coast of British North America between 1632 and 1720.  This doesn’t mean that only the North American coast is considered; indeed, some of the pirates from north America operated as far afield as Madagascar and the Indian coast.  What Dolan wants to look at is the economic impact these pirates had on early colonial life, some of which we aren’t familiar with today.

The modern view of pirates is that they are an unmitigated evil where local economies are concerned.  This is not completely incorrect, as local pirates had no problem with robbing local ships if pickings had been lean.  What Dolan emphasizes is that, throughout the 1600’s, pirates often made positive contributions to the local economies of British North America.  During this time, the colonies were struggling to build up their own economies, while having to use gold and silver to buy goods from England.  Since England suffered a number of coin and specie shortages in the late 1600’s, this made the money situation in the colonies especially dire.  Consequently, the Spanish silver that pirates brought back was very welcome.  The Massachusetts mint even encouraged pirates to bring silver there, so that it could be minted into the pine tree shillings issued by the colony.  The fact that minting coins in the colonies was totally illegal didn’t seem to bother pirates or the colonial mint at all. (pg. 32)  Several colonies (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and South Carolina) even went so far as to offer a higher value for foreign coins, so as to encourage pirates to visit those colonies.

The economic relationship was very much a two way street.  The colonial ports provided pirates a place to purchase supplies, recruit new men, sell their goods, and even find medical help.  In return, the pirates provided goods that were not shipped through England in English ships.  By circumventing the Navigation Acts, the colonies could get what they wanted without paying the higher prices and customs duties necessary on legal goods.

Many pirates also had cozy relationships with colonial governors, and Dolan goes into detail about this.  Governor’s salaries were relatively low, so cooperating with pirates was a fairly easy way for those governors to line their pockets.  Even if the governors had wanted to stamp out piracy, their relationships with local merchants often made that impossible.  Some governors were so corrupt that they lost their jobs, and Benjamin Fletcher, governor of New York was the example Dolan chose.

England never agreed with the blasé policies adopted by the colonies; for the mother country piracy was always a capital offence.  The economic issues mentioned earlier, however, guaranteed that not much could be done about it.  By the 1690’s, colonial and metropole economies had improved to the point that piracy finally became more of a hinderance than a help.  This, along with the appointment of governors who were not beholden to the local merchants, began the suppression of piracy based in the colonies.  By approximately the late 1720’s  piracy on the North American coast was mostly gone.

For me, the positive economic aspects were the most interesting part of Dolan’s book.  It’s really quite counter-intuitive: after all, who would ever think that piracy could benefit an established economy and society?  I realize that Somali piracy has provided a benefit to them in the twentieth century, but that is a society that was already in tatters from revolution and foreign over fishing off their shores.  Neither of these problems affected the British colonies in North America.  It would be interesting for historians to take up this line of research and see if piracy provided any positive economic benefits in other parts of the world during  this time.

Much of the book is devoted to debunking the Hollywood myths of piracy.  Almost all pirates were men: the only documented female pirates were Anne Bonny and Mary Read.  Of them, Dolan says, “There is so little documentation about these two that it is almost impossible to say much about them” (p. 155).  Pirate crews could be racially mixed, with perhaps 25-30 percent being black.  There is some question as to how those crew members were treated, because records tend to be silent about this.  In many cases though, when captured black pirates were not tried but sold off as slaves instead (p. 158).  Interestingly, there are almost no contemporary illustrations of pirate flags.  Many of the drawings we have were not in existence before the early twentieth century and are basically an artist’s best guess, hundreds of years removed.  Obviously then, “. . . there is no doubt that in some cases, modern depictions of pirate flags have little in common with the historical banners they are attempting to depict” (p. 171).  There are no accounts of Golden Age pirates making people walk the plank, although it did happen in the nineteenth century (p. 173).  No one buried their treasure, as they were more interested in spending it (p. 309).  Also, pirate captains and crews were capable of horrific tortures and violence against their prisoners, with more than a few of them doing just that.

All the above debunking aside, Dolan admits that popular culture and fiction, especially Treasure Island and Peter Pan, are more responsible for the modern view of pirates and piracy than historical facts are.  More modern influences such as movies, television and even video games are considered as well.  As Dolan points out, the reality of piracy was actually nothing like what we think it was.

At this point, you must be wondering why I put this book on the blog.  Well, the truth is that I actually quite enjoyed it.  Dolan’s style is quite easy to read, and he is capable at putting out a lot of good information without making the reader feel overloaded.  The focus on the positive economic aspects of piracy was an interesting take on the topic, and one that I feel deserves more attention.  There is information on the more famous pirates and their engagements, but probably not enough to design a scenario from.  Finally:  It’s pirates, man!  No matter how much you know about the real thing, the pop culture depiction is just fun.  Even Dolan says it in his conclusion:

Nevertheless, as a historian I am not particularly interested in dissecting or criticizing fictional accounts of piracy.  They are often quite fun and entertaining, as they are meant to be.  Rather than analyze them, I prefer to enjoy them (p. 308).
It’s hard to argue with that, and I’m not terribly willing to try.  Personally, I suspect that all naval gamers have agreed with Mark Twain’s quote from Life on the Mississippi whether they are familiar  with it or not.  In speaking of his childhood, Twain says that, “now and then we had a hope that, if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”

I’m giving the book 3 1/2 Nelsons out of 5, primarily because it doesn’t relate to my strand of naval wargaming.  If I played pirate games regularly, it would probably get another star.  It’s a good read, but not relevant to what I do.

Sam Willis:  Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare.

Published in 2008 by The Boydell Press, I think this book is essential to anyone who wants to better understand naval warfare.  Willis' premise is actually quite simple: While the amount of research out there might make us think we know how battles under sail were fought, we really don't.  Despite all the research on Fighting Instructions, or command and control, we don't have a working knowledge of all the other factors that go into a naval battle.  Willis' solution is to take us through a fictional engagement, starting with sighting the opposing ship/ships, pursuit, fleet tactics, fighting tactics and finally dealing with damage.  There are also chapters on communication, command and the importance (or lack thereof) of holding the weather gauge.

There's a lot of interesting information here, but the most useful for a gamer is (I think), the alleged importance of the weather gauge.  Willis says that, "more has been written about this aspect of sailing warfare than any other...."  He then goes on to that that, "It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that almost everything we know about it is wrong."  Why is everything we know wrong?  There are multiple parts to that answer, and they take into account sailing ship performance, gunnery, how ships roll in a swell, smoke accumulation and possible damage to the approaching fleet.  Ultimately though, the weather gauge was important to an aggressive commander who was determined to attack the enemy.  Once battle was joined though, the lee side was more important to an attacker.  Why?  Well, for a fuller explanation you'll need to read the book!

What Willis points out in his conclusion is that there is more to naval warfare in the Age of Sail than mindless following of the Fighting Instructions, or rote application of hoary rules about the wind gauge.  Instead, ". . . in need of emphasis is the mercurial nature of sailing warfare."  Given the lack of terrain, different sailing conditions for every ship in your fleet, differing wind and weather conditions along a line of battle AND a commander's ability to juggle all these factors (and others) at once, "a continuous and relentless push to create and then make use of transient advantage was the nature of battle at sea in the age of sail."

I've been playing with sailing ships since at least 1982, and I'm not ashamed to say this book made me rethink a lot of my conceptions as to how a battle at sea was fought, and how it can be simulated on the table.  In short, if you could only have one book in your age of sail library, I think this one should be it.

My rating:  5 Nelsons

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