The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812

Overview


A few months after the outbreak of the War of 1812, Captain David Porter set out in the USS Essex on an epic, seventeen-month cruise to the South Seas. Porter was pursuing fame and riches, and by most accounts his odyssey was a stunning success: it brought glory to the fledgling American navy, cemented Porter’s reputation as a daring and talented commander, and has long been celebrated as one of the greatest maritime adventures in U.S. history. Less well known, however, is the terrible price that the crew of the...
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The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812

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Overview


A few months after the outbreak of the War of 1812, Captain David Porter set out in the USS Essex on an epic, seventeen-month cruise to the South Seas. Porter was pursuing fame and riches, and by most accounts his odyssey was a stunning success: it brought glory to the fledgling American navy, cemented Porter’s reputation as a daring and talented commander, and has long been celebrated as one of the greatest maritime adventures in U.S. history. Less well known, however, is the terrible price that the crew of the Essex paid for their captain’s outsized ambitions.

In The Shining Sea, award-winning historian George C. Daughan tells the full story of Porter’s thrilling, action-packed voyage, revealing the heights of Porter’s hubris and the true depths of his failure on this fateful cruise. Intent on achieving personal glory, Porter made the treacherous journey around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean, where he planned to capture a British man-of-war. From Valparaiso to the Galapagos to the Marquesas, the Essex roamed the South Seas, seizing British whaling and merchant ships, wreaking havoc on British commerce, and earning Porter and his men wealth and acclaim. Flush with his victories, Porter welcomed the news that a British frigate—the HMS Phoebe—was on his tail, and he resolved to capture her. But Porter could not overcome the Phoebe’s superior firepower. Over the course of a desperate, bloody battle, he lost the Essex and over two-thirds of her crew—a shocking end to a daring journey.

A swashbuckling tale of risk and ruin on the high seas, The Shining Sea brings to life the monomaniacal quest of one of the most misunderstood commanders of the War of 1812. Porter’s singular voyage, Daughan shows, stands as a cautionary tale for any leader who would put personal glory and ambition ahead of cause and countrymen.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/02/2013
The War of 1812 has mostly retreated from the national consciousness, even though it resulted in the burning of Washington, D.C. Maritime historian Daughan provides a reminder that 1812 was actually a global war and chronicles—capably, if drily, with many passages packed with long-forgotten sailing terminology—“the most famous voyage of the war, and one of the most spectacular in the entire age of fighting sail.” Momentous as the Essex’s journey was, its strategic relevance to the conflict is ambiguous. Stalled in the Atlantic, Capt. David Porter had to kill his valuable pigs and goats to conserve water—monkeys, however, were spared, since they were considered essential entertainment. Other animals were less welcome: rats tormented the sailors by “chewing through water casks... and eating their way through just about every part of the ship.” Porter, ready to break from capturing British vessels off South America, sailed for Polynesia to annex “Nuku Hiva in the name of the United States, even though he had no authorization from his government to do so.” Military subterfuge was likely not his primary concern, as “nothing engrossed sailors as much as thoughts of Polynesian women.” Daughan’s history provides the facts about this high-seas adventure, but readers may wish that his account was more entertaining. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

Providence Journal
The Shining Sea is more than simply the story of one captain and one ship. Daughan describes island life in the South Pacific, shipboard diseases, battles for independence in South America, and includes digressions on mutiny and ship repair. In the end, this book is as much history and travelogue as the story of one thrilling voyage.”

Roanoke Times
“[A]n entertaining and informative biography of David Porter.... Daughan’s account of an ambitious sailor’s rise to power and the price of his hubris is at once a cautionary tale and a fascinating look into the life of a young nation – especially the relationship with England and France.”

What Would the Founders Think?
“[A] fascinating story.... Daughan tells Porter’s story in a way that takes the reader from admiration to, if not disdain, disappointment in the foibles of a man obsessed with reputation.”

Library Journal
“Daughan richly describes the Essex’s voyage, including the dangers and privations from the weather, enemy action, crew indiscipline, and the vagaries of handling a wooden ship under sail.... Readers, especially those well versed in naval history and terminology, will revel in this lively and thoroughly researched work covering a cruise on its bicentennial.”

City Book Review
“[David Porter’s] exploits are legendary, almost unbelievable, and The Shining Sea recounts them with vivid detail and high drama.... This book is the way to learn history. Focusing on David Porter, it also explains the political and cultural environment influencing his actions, and events that led up to and followed the War. The story is meticulously researched, but written with the pace and vivacity of an action thriller, heart-pounding and immersive. Excellent writing, excellent reading; an excellent book.”

Edward L. Widmer, author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World
“George Daughan has spun a riveting yarn about David Porter and the extraordinary voyage of the USS Essex. With verve and historical nuance, the book captures some of the global ambitions of Americans early in our history and tells a Pacific story that would soon echo in the works of Herman Melville.”

John Ferling, author of Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation
“George Daughan has written a riveting seafaring story. With grace and style, he tells the epic and ultimately tragic tale of the South Seas voyage of the Essex, a US Navy frigate, during the War of 1812. The history of the Essex’s seventeen months at sea is captivating in itself, but Daughan succeeds in unraveling the mysteries of sailing ships, naval battles, the lonely life of a ship’s captain, and the fast-changing and often perilous fortunes of mariners. This is wonderful history so well told that it will leave readers with the feeling of running fast on a smooth blue sea.”

Robert Middlekauff, author of The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution
“George C. Daughan has in The Shining Sea written another splendid book about the efforts of early American seamen to defend their nation on the world’s oceans. This volume takes up the successes and failures of one of them, David Porter, in the War of 1812. The principal part of the book tells the story of Captain Porter’s voyage around Cape Horn and across the Pacific in an attempt to destroy British naval forces. The great naval captains—Farragut, Decatur, Preble, among others—appear at appropriate points in the story. But it is David Porter and the Essex who assume the central place in the tale: the climax comes in Valparaiso with the destruction of the Essex and all of Porter’s hopes. Daughan tells the history of the Essex’s disaster as he does all of the sensational happenings on the voyage: with honesty, great skill, and verve.”

Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of Defense
“For those concerned about military leaders who put their personal glory and ambition ahead of the interest of the nation and their subordinates, George Daughan’s analysis of Navy Captain David Porter’s seventeen-month deployment of the USS Essex is a must read. Daughan shows how Captain Porter’s outsized ambitions and hubris led to the loss of the Essex and two-thirds of his crew.”

Library Journal
10/01/2013
With substantial background information on the U.S. Navy, its circumstances of battle in the War of 1812, and the naval careers of principal commanders, Samuel Eliot Morison Award winner Daughan (If by Sea) centers on Capt. David Porter's time commanding the American frigate Essex and extending the War of 1812 into the Pacific. Porter's cruise began in early 1813 when he was ordered to harass the British with commerce raiding. He made the momentous decision to take the war to the English whaling grounds off the west coast of South America, where he captured numerous enemy vessels and was so disruptive that the English diverted several warships to catch him. Daughan richly describes the Essex's voyage, including the dangers and privations from the weather, enemy action, crew indiscipline, and the vagaries of handling a wooden ship under sail. He questions Porter's judgment in interfering in the affairs of the natives of Nuku Hiva (which he claimed as a U.S. possession) and his seeking a glorious frigate-to-frigate battle instead of preserving his ship as a continued threat through raids. VERDICT Readers, especially those well versed in naval history and terminology, will revel in this lively and thoroughly researched work covering a cruise on its bicentennial.—Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A technical term–packed mini-history of the War of 1812 and biography of Capt. David Porter (1780 –1843). Daughan (If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy--From the Revolution to the War of 1812, 2008, etc.) stuffs the book so full of nautical terms that many readers will require a dictionary to search for words not included in the glossary. Porter began his career as a merchantman when he was 16, and he eventually joined the new U.S. Navy under President John Adams. He fought in the Quasi-War with France in 1798 and spent nearly 20 months in a prison in Tripoli after fighting the Barbary pirates. The War of 1812 gave Porter his chance to advance his career. President James Madison didn't plan on much help from the Navy until Porter's Essex took eight prizes and then a ship of the Royal Navy. Madison sent him out again to harass British shipping in the South Atlantic, and eventually, he "doubled the horn" (sailed around) into the Pacific, where he successfully harassed British whalers. While in the Marquesas to resupply the ship, however, Porter overdid it by claiming the islands for the United States, a decision that had lasting effects for only a month after he pulled out. Mostly, he was looking for a fight with the British, who were searching the seas for him. After so many successful encounters, his arrogance would prove his undoing. The escapades of Porter illustrate how the men who made the U.S. Navy great succeeded against great odds and across vast oceans. Daughan is obviously well-versed in and passionate about his subject, but landlubbers will find the technical terms off-putting.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465019625
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/8/2013
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 514,822
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author


George C. Daughan holds a Ph.D. in American History and Government from Harvard University. Author of If By Sea and 1812: The Navy’s War, Daughan lives in Portland, Maine.
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