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George Washington's Secret Navy: How the American Revolution Went to Sea [Paperback]

James Nelson

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Book Description

April 6 2009

In 1775 General George Washington secretly armed a handful of small ships and sent them to sea against the world’s mightiest navy

From the author of the critically acclaimed Benedict Arnold’s Navy, here is the story of how America’s first commander-in-chief--whose previous military experience had been entirely on land--nursed the fledgling American Revolution through a season of stalemate by sending troops to sea. Mining previously overlooked sources, James L. Nelson’s swiftly moving narrative shows that George Washington deliberately withheld knowledge of his tiny navy from the Continental Congress for more than two critical months, and that he did so precisely because he knew Congress would not approve.


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From the Back Cover

George Washington's Secret Navy has been the happy recipient of two awards this year which speak both to the book's scholarship and the fact that it is a fun story to read. The first is the Rodney Houghton Award, given by the National Maritime Historical Society for the best article of the year in its popular Sea History Magazine. This particular article was an excerpt from George Washington's Secret Navy telling the story of naval battle that took place in Machias, Maine, in 1775, the "Lexington and Concord of the Sea."

The second award given to the book is the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, presented by the Naval Order of the United States to the author "who by his published writings has made a substantial contribution to the preservation of the history and traditions of the United States Navy." The Morison Award is one of the country's top honors given to maritime authors. Past recipients have included David McCullough and Patrick O'Brian.

About the Author

James L. Nelson's fifteen books include the critically acclaimed nonfiction Benedict Arnold's Navy and several novels set in the age of sail. Glory in the Name won the American Library Association's W. Y. Boyd Award for Best Military Fiction. For more, see www.jameslnelson.com.


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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bad title, great book July 3 2008
By Whippis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I had just finished Patriot Pirates and was completely disappointed in it so it was with a bit of trepidation that I began this book. The title smacked of bad marketing but to my pleasant surprise the content was fantastic.

The story of the Siege of Boston has been told many times but never from the naval perspective. The author makes an interesting read and a compelling case out of Gen. Washington's slow embrace of sea power as a lever against the British. The existence of both Washington's small fleet of essentially privateers and Congress's eventual authorization of an actual navy was a surprise to me. Though I have read a few naval histories I had never come across this fact. He consistently refers back to his thesis of the fleet's impact on the siege by giving a fair assesment of the actual vs. psychological impact of the naval action. He pays mind to the benefits to the Continental Army and the detriment to the British of the seized material. The author blends the large scale operation of ousting the British from Boston with the small scale dramas of fitting out ships and several of there engagements. Good attention is paid to the characters other than the name brands guys (Washington, Knox, Greene, etc) whom you can read about else(every)where.

I think both enjoyable to the novice reader as well as someone with a good level of knowledge of the era or naval history. I would recommend that if you are not familiar with ships of the age you have a handy guide to naval terminology as it is used quite freely without a glossary. Probably will not distract from your enjoyment but you may not get as much from the reading.

I am looking forward to his prior book Benedict Arnold's Navy. Now if someone could just write a history of the occupation of Boston, and not just the highlights and the siege, I'd be really happy.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Early American Sea Power July 29 2008
By J. Crivelli - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In George Washington's Secret Navy, James L. Nelson tells the story of the beginnings of American sea power in the Revolution. The book covers the Siege of Boston (June 1775 to March 1776) when Washington took over the nascent Continental Army and quickly realized that he didn't have the assets to do more that continue the siege. He proceeded to arm several small schooners to interdict the British maritime supply lines. These five ships were the beginning of American maritime operations which eventually included the Continental Navy and privateers in an Atlantic campaign. Like Nelson's Benedict Arnold's Navy, this work is well written, very detailed, and shows the authors expertise.

I'm in the midst of two other works, Patriot Pirates (Robert H. Patton) and If By Sea (George Daughan). Patton's book follows the privateers through the revolution. Daughan's recounts the US Navy from 1775 t0 1815. Together with Nelson's book, this is a full history of Early American sea power.

I'd add the following works for a library on this subject:

Frederick C. Leiner The End of Barbary Terror
Richard Zacks The Pirate Coast
Ian W. Toll Six Frigates
A. B. C. Whipple To the Shores of Tripoli
John R. Elting Amateurs, To Arms!

In the past year I've read several excellent books about pirates and privateers.
My interest was originally sparked in 1995 with David Cordingly's "Under the Black Flag" because this book pictured the privateers/pirates as sea-going guerrillas.

The 3 books mentioned above have one flaw. They don't provide any context for American attitudes toward privateers, smugglers, etc. The American coastal communities were very familiar with privateers and their business. Until the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) few Royal Navy ships came to North America. American's were used to doing for themselves, and making a profit therein.

When the Revolution came, Americans were ready to bring the "fight" to the enemy. If this activity mostly involved taking merchant ships as prizes, so much the better.

The following are worth reading:
Peter Earle Pirate Wars
The Sack of Panama
Stephan Talty Empire of Blue Water
Benerson Little The Sea Rover's Practice
The Buccaneer's Realm
Colin Woodard The Republic of Pirates
Together these works cover piracy from the late 16th to the early 19th Century.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating History, A Great Read Sept. 26 2008
By MLB - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have to admit, while I'm a huge fan of James L. Nelson's fiction novels (and I can't wait for another one), it's a real pleasure to read serious non-fiction written by someone with his talent who can, pardon the cliche, make history come alive. From Washington's ride to review his troops to the British finally leaving Boston, the book equally delights and educates. For serious history buffs (which I'm not), the book gives insight to an indispensable but little known sliver of the American Revolution. For those who just want a great read, with drama, action, and a fair amount of comedy (the U.S. Navy's origins were filled with blunders and mishaps), George Washington's Secret Navy is the perfect nighttime read.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Secret" is the operative word... March 13 2010
By Patrick L. Cook - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you're a fan of the Revolutionary War, and/of George Washington, this book confirms so many things we've come to accept but from a very different angle. Correspondence is the chief medium of telling this story, flavored by all the non-standard spellings of with writers, but the great asset is Nelson's analysis which reads between the lines, points out the contradictions, and the motivations of the authors of the letters. Nelson supplies insights concerning weather conditions, knowledge of ships of the day, the tactical situation on land as well as off shore, to explain the course of events. The ingenuity of Washington in this endeavor is remarkable, the frustrations are palpable, and the limitations of the day are clearly expressed.

One problem of this book is that it is not easy to organize in a chronological manner, with the actions of so many ships occurring at once. Nelson chooses to backtrack several times over the same months or days following a different line of action which is sometimes leads to frustration, but, I know of no other way to cover a story like this.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Birth of the American Navy June 4 2009
By Grover Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
George Washington credited as Father of this Country . This book shows that not Only was he the Father of the U.S.Army but of the U.S. Navy , just a couple of more reasons for that title. He saw a need then quickly saw the value of a Navel force as a way to strike at the enemy while his Army locked in a siege His navy could and did help raise morale of New England . It was a secret because he started equipping vessels of War without specific authority of Congress . By the time his cruisers were ready for sea Congress ordered him to acquire a couple for a mission His cutting of red tape often paid dividends for our freedom. It is amazing what motivated Americans can and did accomplish with little but a desire to be free of oppressive government .

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