Six Frigates

by Ian W. Toll
467 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jeanne

An engaging and smooth history of the founding of the U.S. Navy, with high violence.


Starting in 1805 with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and showing the might of the British Royal Navy at this time soon after the American War of Independence, author Ian Toll then moves his focus to the young colonies. The harassment of American merchant ships on the high seas calls for the founding of a military navy, and from their building to the War of 1812, Toll follows the famed six frigates - the USS Constitution, President, United States, Constellation, Congress, and Chesapeake.


As this is a history, morality is never addressed point-blank. Many of the characters are selfish, egotistical, and fond of picking fights with each other, but Toll recounts the facts as they are and, though he never actively condemns them, does not support these traits. He also takes a very fair and unbiased look at the War of 1812 from the British perspective, which was nice.

Some captains use underhanded methods to try to win naval battles; "war by pillaging" is employed; political intrigue factors in; and matters like the impressment (or seizing men and forcing them into the Navy) of Americans onto British ships and the desertion of British sailors to American ships plays a part in the rise of the War of 1812.

Spiritual Content

Seamen of the time were notoriously superstitious and had a dozen or more ideas of how to bring a wind, keep away bad luck, and so on. The USS 'Chesapeake' was considered an unlucky ship because of her reputation. Several of the characters at the beginning are Quakers, including the man who designed the frigates, but their beliefs do not really show up.


Naval warfare has probably always been bloodier than battles on shore, and Toll illustrates that. There is a good deal of description when it comes to battles; wounds and deaths are frequently mentioned. Toll shows very clearly that war, especially on the sea, is no lovely and gallant thing.

Drug and Alcohol Content

A few characters are referred to as drunkards, and it is not intended as a compliment. Alcoholic drinks were popular, especially wine on shore and grog and beer aboard ships.

Sexual Content

Toll talks about Admiral Nelson a little bit at the beginning and his adulterous love for Emma Hamilton, taking a few extracts from greetings from Nelson to Emma, but never goes into detail. During the war with Tripoli while American ships are harbored at Sicily, many of the seaman would take leave of the frigates and go into town, often to spend the night; it is said that many of the native women, married and unmarried, "preferred the Americans." Nakedness is mentioned, but not in a sexual context.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

"Sh*t" is used once - granted, it is in its proper context. Commanders and political figures were not always polite in their words and letters to one another, but usually this was under a thin mask of extremely polite, formal speech.


"Six Frigates," packed as it is with larger-than-life historical figures and fascinating (if somewhat gory) battles on the high seas, paints a good picture of the young United States and her rise to the status of a world power after her independence from Britain. Many sections, especially those dealing with the First Barbary War and the War of 1812, read like parts from novels. Toll liberally scatters quotes from letters and diaries of commodores, presidents, cabinet members, lieutenants, and midshipmen throughout the book, making it feel as well as be accurate.

The high amount of violence in the account is its greatest drawback, but as it was written for a male, adult audience, even that does not detract seriously from the book's effect. Those who enjoy novels like C.S. Forester's and Patrick O'Brian's should be able to stomach this without a problem.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 3.5
Written for Age: adult

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