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Symonds, Craig L. Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History.

Symonds, Craig L. Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005. 378pp. $30

What history buff could possibly resist the subtitle "Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History"? Those so enticed will not be disappointed in Craig Symond's exceptionally well written and fascinating accounts of these American naval battles: Oliver Hazard Perry's far-reaching victory over the British in the 10 September 1813 battle for Lake Erie; the 8-9 March 1862 battle of Hampton Roads (which ended in a draw) between America's first ironclad ships, USS Monitor and CSS Virginia; the 1 May 1898 battle of Manila Bay; the 4 June 1942 battle of Midway; and the 18 April 1988 Operation PRAYING MANTIS in the Persian Gulf.

Because the American navy was absent, Symonds does not list the most crucial naval battle in American history, the early September 1781 battle of the Capes, in which a French fleet prevented the British from resupplying Lord Charles Cornwallis's besieged troops at Yorktown. Nonetheless, he provides a detailed account of this battle, describing it as "the battle that secured American independence." Symonds places special emphasis on crucial command decisions. In this case, he notes, for example, that at a critical moment the British commander, Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, hoisted a flag signal whose ambiguity resulted in failure to concentrate the fleet's tire on the French, who in large measure prevailed because of this blunder.

This book's considerable historical value resides as much in Symonds's highly interesting and detailed description of the British background as in the actual battles. For example, most of us learned in school that impressment by the British of American sailors into the Royal Navy was the prime cause of war in 1812--but I was surprised to read here that some ten thousand were so impressed. While we all knew about Perry's victory at Lake Erie and his famous report, "We have met the enemy and he is ours," few have a true idea of its significance. In Symonds's words, "Perry's victory secured the northwestern frontier for the United States"--the threat that greatly concerned us. Symonds's descriptions of the conditions in which men fought at sea are also masterful. This is especially so in his comparison of the conditions on sailing ships with those of the ironclads, Monitor and Virginia.

Symonds notes that in terms of casualties Virginia inflicted before Monitor's arrival "the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy until Pearl Harbor." The episode clearly spelled the end of an era in naval warfare. The lopsided 1898 victory over the Spanish at Manila Bay, for its part, left the United States "an acknowledged world power" and an "empire." The close-run victory at Midway confirmed the primacy of aircraft carriers and ensured U.S. control of the western Pacific. PRAYING MANTIS was thrown in mainly to demonstrate that new U.S. weapons do work--albeit, in this case, against a rather feeble Iranian foe. Curiously, Symonds fails to note that a few months earlier, the battleship USS Iowa had dramatically demonstrated a far greater peacekeeping capability than the extensive, missile-equipped fleet he described.


Secretary of the Navy's Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History
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Author:Stearman, William Lloyd
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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