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Book Review, NRJ 60.2

May 15, 2015 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812

Edited by Tim Voelcker

June 1, 2013 marked the bicentennial of the stunning victory of HMS Shannon over USS Chesapeake. The battle’s anniversary prompted a symposium in Suffolk to shed new light on the battle as well as the battle’s victor, Captain Philip Broke, RN. The product of the symposium was Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812, an anthology of works by sixteen eminent scholars of naval history, edited by Dr. Tim Voelcker. This body of work can be divided into two main sections: the War of 1812 from the American, British, and Canadian perspectives, and then the life of Philip Broke and the battle fought between Shannon and Chesapeake. There are also several works that examine related issues such as naval education, prize law, the Halifax naval yard, naval medical opinions, the Hampshire Mill, caricatures, and naval ballads.

In the introduction, Voelcker states that his motivations for assembling this body of work is twofold: to raise Broke and HMS Shannon from obscurity while bridging the gap between academia and the general public. Consequently, readers will find that Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812 is both an enlightening and accessible body of work. Some scholars and students might be disappointed by the lack of footnotes (only direct quotations are cited), however, Voelcker explains that this was an editorial decision. A bibliography and a list of suggested works for further reading, however, is included for those who wish to pursue the subject in greater detail.

Important to this work are the three essays that provide an overview of the War of 1812 from multiple perspectives. John B. Hattendorf provides valuable insights concerning American perceptions of the War of 1812. In this well-crafted essay, Hattendorf places the War of 1812 within the context of American politics while connecting it to the maritime dimensions of the war. He also argues that the engagement between Shannon and Chesapeake, as well as the successful blockade of Stephen Decatur’s squadron, marked a turning point in the war. Previously, the Royal Navy had experienced a disappointing succession of defeats in single ship actions. The British victory helped restore national pride and confidence in a navy whose series of uninterrupted defeats were viewed with contempt back at home. Andrew Lambert provides an analysis of British strategy and the economic impacts of the war, which includes a discussion of the coastal blockades and commerce raiding. Chris Madsen discusses the defense of Canada, however, his essay does not match the quality of the essays penned by Hattendorf and Lambert. In their analysis, these three authors indicate that the war played a role in establishing distinct national identities in both the United States and Canada.

Two essays that venture into the realm of cultural studies provide the social and political context for the War of 1812. In one essay, James Davey examines visual communication in the form of caricatures. Caricatures reflected public attitudes and perceptions of the navy and, in some cases, helped shape those attitudes. High qualityprints in either color or black and white are included to illustrate Davey’s arguments. In another essay, Richard Wilson explores naval ballads, which helped elevate Philip Broke and his victory over Chesapeake in the national consciousness.

The essays concerning the life of Philip Broke paints a portrait of a man torn between competing desires. On one hand, Broke possesses a deep and abiding devotion to his wife and family yet finds himself dedicated to the idea of bringing honor and glory to the Royal Navy. Broke’s goal of bringing honor to the navy is finally realized when he defeats Chesapeake and is received as a national hero back home.

Martin Bibbing presents a lengthy essay on Broke’s contributions to naval gunnery. In the essay, Broke is portrayed as a man frustrated with the shortcomings of naval gunnery yet committed to finding practical solutions. Broke was an advocate of constant gunnery practice and used much of his own private funds to train his crew in live fire drills. He also installed gun sights and established a system of “director control” which allowed Broke to “train all his guns on a target simultaneously.” Consequently, Broke established a reputation “as one of the leading gunnery experts of the age.” Bibbing provides detailed descriptions and technical drawings to illustrate the challenges that Broke overcame in improving naval gunnery. In another essay, Bibbing provides a detailed narrative of the fateful naval duel fought between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake.

Related essays on a variety of specialized topics are found throughout the anthology. Gabriela Frei successfully distills the technical subject of prize law into digestible material for the lay reader. Peter Schurr reflects on Broke’s injuries received in combat and dispels misconceptions regarding his injuries and recovery. Julian Gwyn provides an interesting description of the Halifax naval yard. Martin Salmon discusses the fate of HMS Shannon. John Wain discusses the founding of the Chesapeake Mill where the remains of Chesapeake can be found. Colin Reid discusses the final outcome of the war and the subsequent peace.

As a whole, Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812 presents a strong selection of works that prove both interesting and accessible. The variety of essays is diverse which lends a sense of thoroughness to the study. Students of naval history and the War of 1812 will find this book a valuable asset and a fine addition to their collections.

  •  Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2013
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xxvi + 226 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $38.95
  • ISBN: 9781848321793
  • Distributed in the United States by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland

Reviewed by David Bennett, Exeter University

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