Classics of Naval Literature

by Christopher McKee
394 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jeanne

A very detailed and thorough biography, but often dull.


Edward Preble was one of the commodores of the U.S. squadron based in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War, commanding the ships there from 1803-1804. This book chronicles his life, from his childhood to his death in 1807.


McKee never directly addresses the moral quality of the actions taken by historical characters; he simply states their reasons, good or bad, for their actions. History is therefore portrayed accurately. Preble himself was a proud man and prone to what others termed "temper tantrums," but he could also be very congenial.

Spiritual Content

The men on Preble's ships all considered themselves Christians, but from some few anecdotes about their behaviour, it is clear that they meant this only as a means of separating themselves from the Muslims of the north African countries. Ships of war also had chaplains.


Floggings on shipboard were very common during the "age of fighting sail" and were used for a number of offenses, including drunkenness. Naval battles are described, but the most graphic is when a boat meant to be a fire ship explodes; the fatalities are rather gruesomely described. There is some talk of the Pasha (the ruler of Tripoli) murdering all American prisoners.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Rum was consumed on board, but drunkenness was theoretically prohibited; men still managed to become inebriated, however. These were usually punished for lack of attendance to their duties. As a merchant before the United States' Quasi-War with France and the First Barbary War, Preble transported different kinds of wines.

Sexual Content

The men stationed at Syracuse, Sicily, during Preble's tenure as Commodore, were notoriously unfaithful to wives and sweethearts back home. McKee mentions this, and that married Sicilian women were just as interested in the American seamen as the unmarried women were. One man is said to have been laid up with a venereal disease.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

"D*mned" is used at least once. See Sexual Content.


While not the most fascinating biography ever written, this book does provide excellent information on the First Barbary War. The first few chapters, which deal with Preble's childhood and then his (not very successful) career as a merchantman, are quite dull; but once it moves into the war years, I found the detailed information on the war in the Mediterranean, and the included diagrams, quite helpful in the way of research. McKee is a very thorough writer, almost to the point of tedium. While I would not recommend this book as a way to interest anyone on either the man Edward Preble or his times, it is a good resource for those whose curiosity has already been piqued.

Fun Score: 3
Values Score: 3.5
Written for Age: adult

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