Lately, my nightly reading has been a 6-book series, A Naval History of Great Britain: During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.Written and published in the 1820s, the six volumes are a chronological record of every significant (and perhaps not so significant) action and expedition in which the Royal Navy participated. Gleaned by the author, William M. James, from Admiralty records and the after-action reports of the participants, these volumes are as close to "source material" as one could get without visiting the Admiralty's archives oneself.
For anyone interested in the period and the facts that underlay such historical fiction as C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series*, or the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian (the source material for the film Master and Commander - the Far Side of the World, which I reviewed here), this series of books is invaluable.
The author was British, and was initially motivated to write the histories by what he thought were overblown American press accounts of US naval victories in the War of 1812. Seeking to put the best face on British losses — it was stunning, virtually unthinkable at the time, that ships of the Royal Navy could lose battles to the upstart Americans (but lose them they did) — there is undeniably pro-British spin, but on the whole the books do a good job of telling what happened in a straightforward way.
Sometimes, however, the author's take on matters is hard to ignore... nor would one want to, in passages such as this from Volume 2:
On the 22nd of February , in the evening the French 40-gun frigates Résistance and Vengeance, 22-gun ship-corvette Constance, and lugger Vautour, anchored in Fisgard Bay on the coast of Wales. During the night, they landed 1200 galley-slaves, dressed and accoutered as soldiers, but without any cannon or camp equipage.
The alarm soon spread, and it was not long before a strong body of militia, under the command of Lord Cawdor, assembled near the spot. The Frenchmen, whose intentions were rather predatory than warlike, immediately surrendered, and were marched as prisoners to Haversfordwest. Meanwhile the vessels that had brought them weighed, and soon disappeared from the coast.
What was the object of this silly expedition, no one, not even among the French, seems rightly to have understood.
How often does one get the opportunity to laugh out loud while reading history?
This series of books, six volumes in all, is not always available new, but nevertheless belongs in the collection of anyone interested in naval history.
* Those who enjoyed the Hornblower films might be interested to note that there really was an Indefatigable, and it really was captained by Sir Edward Pellew.