Six Frigates Reviews

“[SIX FRIGATES is] rousing, exhaustively researched history…Toll provides perspective by seamlessly incorporating the era’s political and diplomatic history into his superlative single-volume narrative–a must-read for fans of naval history and the early American Republic.”

-Publishers Weekly, starred review

“In this account of the early history of the American navy, Ian Toll seeks to explain not just how [the War of 1812] happened, but also why. He succeeds splendidly. His factual story is as exciting as any of Patrick O’Brian’s fictional seafaring tales.”

-The Economist

“A superb history of the founding of America’s Navy…This first book by Toll, a former financial analyst and political speechwriter, is a fluent, intelligent history of American military policy from the early 1790s, when Congress commissioned six frigates to fight the Barbary pirates, through the War of 1812. But the book’s real value, and the pleasures it provides, lies in Toll’s grasp of the human dimension of his subject, often obscured in the dry tomes of naval historians. The battle depictions are worthy of Patrick O’Brian (whose fictional hero, Jack Aubrey, he cleverly uses to illustrate a scene in the December 1812 shootout between the American frigate Constitution and the British frigate Java)…Toll has plumbed diaries, letters and ships’ logs to give the reader a feel for the human quirks and harsh demands of life at sea in the Age of Sail…Most of all, he captures the zest for action that seized, and sometimes warped, young warriors on all sides.”

-New York Times Review of Books (Editor’s Choice)

“Gripping…a masterful narrative…Toll captures the ambivalence of the government, and its reluctance to pay for even a tiny navy, very well.”

-Bloomberg News

“The narrator’s tone of voice, the pacing of the action, and the full cargo of delicious detail captivated me from the first page. Setting sail with the country’s upstart navy, I was shocked to encounter the squalls of several founding fathers’ opposition to its very existence. Ian W. Toll tells a story of crosscurrents in American history, in which the familiar names of the first presidents mingle with those of foreign princes, first officers, fighting ships, and a fair assortment of characters salty enough to have been plucked from sea shanties.”

-Dava Sobel
Author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter

“Riveting… richly detailed… Toll’s most engaging sections recount the legendary engagements of the six frigates… He draws on the rich resources of official documents, records, logbooks, journals and letters compiled and published over the last 80 years by the Navy… Admirers of the late novelist Patrick O’Brian will relish Toll’s telling of Hull’s broadside battle with the British frigate Guerriere in 1812, an electrifying victory that earned the Constitution the nickname ‘Old Ironsides.'”

-Los Angeles Times

“Toll is as insightful about the essential domestic and diplomatic background as he is with his dramatizations of the naval engagements of the new navy, which produced a crop of national heroes such as Stephen Decatur. The maritime strategy and the highly developed sense of officers’ honor, which influenced where particular battles occurred, emerge clearly in this fluent account. Vibrant and comprehensive, Toll makes an impressive debut.”

– Booklist

“This wonderfully atmospheric account, brilliantly researched, full of stirring action and rich with the scent of the sea, surely establishes Ian W. Toll among the great naval historians writing today.”

-Simon Winchester
Author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa

“An enlightening, well-researched book that charms with a distinctive narrative flair that is especially attractive to those familiar with life at sea… His writing is well-paced and smart. His use of accurate and interesting nautical lexicon is particularly effective, and adds a nice hint of salty air to the dialogue… Toll has a light touch, much like noted historian David McCullough; well-researched facts are carefully balanced by smooth narrative flow… The result is a thoroughly readable book that adds depth and significance to an important era of American history.”

-San Diego Union Tribune

“Sweeping in scope, full of vivid descriptions of naval battles and solidly grounded in the diplomatic landscape from the American Revolution through the War of 1812, Ian W. Toll’s SIX FRIGATES is a masterly work… Toll, a former Wall Street analyst, Federal Reserve financial analyst and political aide, has researched his subject exhaustively… The author also has examined numerous wartime accounts of ordinary British and American seamen… Toll describes naval battles with the dramatic flair of a Patrick O’Brian… In addition to rendering the Founding Fathers palpable, Toll presents a kaleidoscope of colorful, lesser-known figures… SIX FRIGATES is comprehensive, beautifully written and exciting to read. Every naval aficionado will want it.”

-Houston Chronicle

“This history will be a delight to fans of naval literature, fact or fiction. Toll, a former Wall Street analyst, vividly recounts the first two decades of the U.S. Navy, beginning with Congress’s decision to build six heavy frigates in 1794… Their service through battles with Barbary pirates, the Quasi War with France, and the War of 1812 are vividly narrated here with firm historical detail and a strong cast of character ably handled by Toll, ranging from the country’s presidents to the colorful officers and sailors on these frigates. Strongly recommended for all collections.”

-Library Journal

“Ian W. Toll writes with an arresting energy. He evokes the world of Patrick O’Brian, the salt-stained ruthlessness of naval commanders, the carnage of the broadside and the surgeon’s saw, but also conjures a lost American landscape.”

-The Guardian (UK)

“SIX FRIGATES reminded this reader that it really is impossible to have too much War of 1812, and too much naval history. Toll steers his readers handily through matters of policy and politics… But the great pleasure here is in the splendid writing about ships at sea for which Toll, who has sailed Solings and J-24s and cruised the New England coast, has an instinctive feel. He quotes from piloting guides, considers the frigates’ sailing abilities, and remarks on spring fogs in Massachusetts Bay — an “obsidian murk,” Toll calls them in a phrase that will resonate with local sailors… Toll writes that he was inspired to undertake SIX FRIGATES by reading Patrick O’Brian’s acclaimed novels, particularly “The Fortune of War” with its fictionalized account of the Constitution-Java action. But his own nonfiction accounts of that and other actions will withstand the comparison.”

-Boston Globe

“Authoritative yet immensely readable… This is a must-have book for fans for both naval fiction and non-fiction.”

-Roy Adkins, author of Trafalgar: Anatomy of a Battle

“What makes SIX FRIGATES so effective is the delicious detail and scholarly research. The author, who has an obvious feel for the sea, reveals a fascinating glimpse of the forces that shaped the politics and future economic prosperity of the United States. Above all, Ian Toll writes with clarity and force. This was a book I did not want to finish. It is a magnificent, riveting achievement.”

-Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

“A welcome contribution to the small library of early American naval history, deserving a place alongside one of the last such books — by a pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt.”

-Kirkus

“In this, his first book, [Toll] pens not only a scholarly effort, but also an exceptionally readable one… a masterful, well-written and easily read addition to the history of the important early years of U.S. naval history.”

-Philadelphia Inquirer

“SIX FRIGATES is a thrilling account of the founding of the American Navy, from its early beginning during the Revolution through its extraordinary success against the British Navy in the War of 1812… Featuring all of the dramatic elements that would be found in a good novel or screenplay — a brilliant, eccentric architect who captures the imagination of George Washington; personal rivalries transformed by battle into camaraderie; desperate victories claimed from hopelessly superior foes — the story of the six frigates is a celebration of popular history. The intertwining stories of the era’s three most beloved heroes — Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, and William Bainbridge — are a throwback to a time when war was regarded as a chance for individual glory, and when courage, skill, and honor carried the day.”

-Military.com

“Military history tends to be viewed by American academics not only with a generalized distaste but as a subject that is narrowly technical or professional, one that can therefore be neatly abstracted from the main flow of political, social, economic, and cultural events that make up history in the sense they would like to understand it. The good news, on the other hand, is that military history survives, indeed flourishes, in America today. This is so because it attracts many first-rate writers who are not primarily academic historians, but who appeal to a wide audience among ordinary Americans — an audience that understands instinctively that war is among the most interesting and important human phenomena. SIX FRIGATES is an outstanding case in point. Ian Toll, an independent financial analyst without apparent academic affiliation, has produced an immensely learned, intelligent, and readable account of the early years of the American Navy, from its origins through the end of the War of 1812. Mr. Toll is not ashamed to advertise this history as an epic, which alone would have him expelled from the faculty lounge. And yet this is not simply a work of celebration or hero-worship. Mr. Toll’s guiding spirit is not so much C. S. Forrester as the eccentric, ultrarealist novelist Patrick O’Brian, chronicler of the British Navy during the Napoleonic era…Mr. Toll’s account is unsparing in its treatment of political folly, administrative incompetence, and crippling personal rivalries that are so often central to this story. And far from romanticizing the battles themselves, he provides graphic descriptions — very much in the style of O’Brian — of the frequently grotesque carnage produced by the naval fighting of this era.”

-Carnes Lord, Professor of Military and Naval Strategy, U.S. Naval War College (review in New York Sun)

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