“Knights of the Sea” by David Hanna; New American Library, 2012; 288 pages, bibliography and index, $25.95 hardcover list price.
A rollicking sea yarn that lives eternally in Pemaquid Point lore reaches the printed page in “Knights of the Sea,” written by David Hanna and released on Jan. 3, 2012 by New American Library.
Readers, do not be fooled by the book’s lengthy title. “Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812” sounds like a nap-inducing treatise on a forgotten war. But in Hanna’s skilled storytelling, heroic seamen and stout ships come alive in this rousing tale and converge on the Maine coast for a short, bloody sea battle.
Rather than plunge Great Britain and the United States directly into war in 1812, Hanna backs up historically to introduce his antagonists: British captain Samuel Blyth and his brig, HMS Boxer, and American skipper William Barrows and his brig, USS Enterprise. “Knights of the Sea” opens with detailed introductions of the opposing captains and their hometowns: Portsmouth, England for Blyth and Philadelphia for Barrows.
The early chapters set Blyth and Barrows in historical context as young mariners seeking fame — and fortune, too, although Barrows hailed from money. Blending contemporary history with quotes from period documents and letters, Hanna details the careers of both captains. He ultimately takes them aboard their respective brigs and to a fateful meeting in Maine waters on Sept. 5, 1813.
Hanna sets the epic sea fight against a War of 1812 backdrop. Adroitly explaining the political maneuvers that led to a war most Americans and Britons did not expect or want, Hanna weaves an informative tale of the war’s military high points, especially at sea. Readers gain sufficient knowledge about the conflict; perhaps the most interesting aspect lies in Hanna’s comparisons between American opposition to a war fought 200 years ago and wars fought today.
“Knights of the Sea” takes its title from Hanna’s concept — not unique to him — that the all-powerful captains of American and British warships respected and honored their opposing counterparts, much like medieval knights did on the battlefield. Hanna casts Blyth and Barrows as sea knights astride their wooden-hulled steeds, inevitably destined to meet in climatic battle in the waters off Pemaquid Point.
The book’s focal point is the chapter devoted to the actual sea fight, which lasted about 40 minutes. Hanna’s fast-paced tale details the battle and its aftermath; the author uses the latter to bolster his “knights of the sea” theme.
In his last chapter, “The Brotherhood,” Hanna advances additional evidence that 1812-era naval officers represented a dying breed more rooted in knighthood than in contemporary society. Of course, the book ends sadly for the two young heroes, yet they were honored by their foes even in death.
The well-illustrated “Knights of the Sea” is a great read for folks interested in Maine or maritime history. Hanna does his heroes and their forgotten war justice.