Knights of the Sea
A key victory in the War of 1812 is less interesting than the stories of the men who fought over it.
- By: Ken Textor
When wars two hundred years in the past sound eerily like today’s contemporary events, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And even when that history is about a relatively obscure naval engagement off the coast of Maine, the lessons it offers about individual sacrifice can be far-reaching, compelling — and also a bit unsettling.
In his newly-published book, Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and Enterprise and the War of 1812 (NAL Caliber/Penguin, New York, New York; hardcover; 270 pages; $25.95) David Hanna has taken a potentially dry subject and given it new life with a modern perspective and sympathy for the men directly involved in the forgotten Maine conflict. This feat can be particularly tough to accomplish, especially when original source material is scattered and thin. But Hanna pulls it off in spite of a few odd digressions.
From the outset, Hanna makes it clear this is a story about two men, Lieutenant William Burrows and Captain Samuel Blyth, who represent the fledgling United States of America and the world’s reigning superpower Great Britain. Barely remembered today, the War of 1812 was a controversial and confusing affair at the time, with support and opposition depending mainly on local geographic allegiances and the political persuasions of various ethnic communities, rather than on broader national identities. Still, Burrows and Blyth must do as they are ordered, as all sailors have done throughout the ages. Theirs is not to reason why.
But the circumstances that led to their bloody, tragic gunfight off Pemaquid Point are indeed part of what makes this story so fascinating. As might be expected, both young captains are brave, ambitious, and ready to prove themselves. But it’s hardly the case of the American underdog versus the aristocratic British commander.
Burrows, for instance, is the son of the founder and first commandant of the U.S. Marine Corp, a wealthy planter-entrepreneur who came by his government job largely through his connections in the nascent national government. Once in the service, however, there is no evidence that the younger Burrows leaned on nepotism for his advancement. Still, his story sounds like the wealth-and-privilege path one unusually associates with the Old World, not the Horatio Alger approach of the New World. Blyth, on the other hand, must work his way up the ranks without help from insiders, a path that sounds decidedly more “American.”
Not that the backgrounds of these two courageous men matter when their warships meet near Monhegan Island on a warm September day in 1813. Both captains acquit themselves with dignity and élan, with the United States Navy brig USS Enterprise the ultimate victor forty minutes later, capturing the HMS Boxer. But it is a Pyrrhic victory for both of their commanders. Blyth is killed during the initial fusillade, and Burrows suffers a mortal wound moments later. Historians focused on the big picture pronounce this naval engagement — the only major ship-to-ship fight in Maine waters of the war — as pivotal for America’s military presence in the world. For readers who have come to like both Burrows and Blyth, the big picture looks like the wrong window to understand these sailors’ stories.
Hanna spent much of his childhood on the Pemaquid peninsula, no doubt hearing stories of the battle from locals, so he might be excused for romanticizing the battle a bit. For the most part he steers clear of idealizing either man, or the uncertain causes for which they fought. Instead, he sticks solidly to the facts he has unearthed. This sometimes leads to a stiff, formal tone in the narrative. At other times, though, the language seems more chatty and relaxed.
It scarcely spoils the power of this excellent book to reveal the moving end to the story — Burrows and Blythe, the two “enemy” combatants are buried side by side in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery at the foot of Munjoy Hill.
- By: Ken Textor