Military action during the American Revolution conjures up images of colonial militia on Lexington Green or British regulars marching to surrender at Yorktown. If the war at sea is mentioned at all, one mostly remembers John Paul Jones’ fighting words aboard the Bonhomme Richard. But as Tim McGrath ably demonstrates in Give Me a Fast Ship, the exploits of a great many men and ships of the fledgling Continental Navy rivaled those of Jones. Together they inflicted grave damage to British forces and helped the 13 colonies hold out until France came to their aid.
When the Continental Congress hurriedly ordered the construction of 13 frigates to oppose the Royal Navy, the naive assumption, McGrath writes, was that together “they would all see action in 1776. None of them did.” By the spring of 1777, only one of the 13, Nicholas Biddle’s Randolph, was at sea. A few months later, Biddle and the Randolph engaged HMS Yarmouth off Barbados. Something triggered a massive explosion, and Biddle, the Randolph and 305 men were gone in the blink of an eye.
But frigates proved to be only a small part of the story. A host of courageous captains — and a few not so — scrounged guns and crews and put them aboard anything that would float, from converted merchantmen to nimble sloops, and set sail like a swarm of hornets to sting the British Empire. The numbers of merchantmen these ships sank or seized, particularly around the British Isles, forced the Royal Navy to deploy warships to its home waters and assign others to convoy duty rather than action off North America.
So great was the fear that many English merchants increasingly shipped their goods in the “neutral bottoms” of French, Dutch and Spanish vessels, a double blow to British commerce. After Gustavus Conyngham, who appeared to have more than the proverbial nine lives, circled the British Isles in a two-month voyage of destruction with the cutter Revenge, he became, according to McGrath, “the most feared man among Englishmen — and the most hated, because he wounded their pride.”
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To the names Biddle and Conyngham, McGrath adds John Rathbun and Abraham Whipple. One of the most audacious tales is surely that of Rathbun and Whipple, who worked their ships into a convoy of British merchantmen escorted by a 64-gun ship of the line and boldly went about capturing prizes by guile rather than cannon fire.
McGrath has a seafarer’s grasp of tactics and is a good storyteller, particularly as he weaves together the character of ships and the personalities of their captains. But in descriptions of the running battles at sea he really shines, something he proves beyond doubt when recounting the well-known story of John Paul Jones. We all know the outcome, yet McGrath keeps us transfixed on the action even as we await the fiery words we all know: “I have not yet begun to fight.”
Walter R. Borneman reviewed this book for The Washington Post.