This page is for those interested in Naval actions in the Napoleonic period.

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Last update:  15 June 2003

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Recruiting Poster

This is a reproduction...misspelled "doubons" and all...of a British "Broadside" recruiting poster.

Heart of Oak

Come, cheer up my lads! 'tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
'tis to honour we call you, as free men not slaves,
for who are so free as the sons of the waves?
Heart of oak are our ships
Jolly tars are our men
We always are ready;
Steady, boys, steady;
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again!
We'll ne'er see our foes but we wish 'em to stay,
They never see us but they wish us away;
If they run, we will follow, we will drive 'em ashore,
For if they won't fight us, we cannot do more.
Heart of oak are our ships
Jolly tars are our men
We always are ready;
Steady, boys, steady;
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again!

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A Summary of The Key to Honor

"...Four belaying pins!"

-- John Berg, The Sea Room online bookstore.

The Key to Honor is written for the young adult market; kids ten through fifteen. While it has plenty of action, none of it is of the "blood pouring from the scuppers" variety that makes some books inappropriate for younger readers (one of my co-workers read it as a bed-time story, a chapter a night, for her eight-year old). The book include a number of black-and-white drawings

In addition to John Berg's kind review (and his listing in the Sea Room catalog), there have been a couple of kind reviews and summaries on the Net. This one is from the Nautical Fiction List maintained by John Kohnen, and regularly posted to rec.arts.books.hist-fiction and

The Key to Honor, 1996. 15 year old Midshipman Nate Lawton reports to USS Chesapeake, blockaded in Boston by HMS Shannon. Fatherless and seeking revenge because seven years earlier the English had impressed his father (and impoverished his family). Hiding a shameful secret and groping for truths he might have learned from his father, Nate immediately runs athwartship 2nd Liuetenant Westcott who abhors Nate's blind acceptance of natural gifts for which "others work so hard." But it's Westcott that starts Nate on his search for honor. Of course, the Chesapeake goes out and fights the Shannon. Whether intentionally or not, the book is Patrick O'Brianish in every good sense; it demonstrates civility and honor, teaches leadership, teaches the nautical stuff along the way, is a bit better than reality, has a happy ending, and feels authentic. For young readers.

The Genesis of The Key to Honor

Some of you reading this are friends from the aviation newsgroups. My first two books were non-fiction aviation books; you're likely a bit surprised that I've had a nautical novel published.

Well, so am I. The Key to Honor is actually my first book. I wrote it before Kitplane fact, I was already writing it when I made my first article sale to KITPLANES magazine. How did a pilot-type end up writing a sea story?

Blame Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. SF has been my preferred reading material for years. Back in the late '70's I read his Starship Troopers, a novel about the training and development of soldiers for an all-out war of survival against an alien race. In the course of the main character's officer training, he and two fellow candidates are asked, "What was the largest number of command layers ever disrupted in combat?"

The answer: The battle between the Chesapeake and the Shannon, five hundred years before the events in Heinlein's novel take place. On the American frigate, the Captain, first lieutenant, second lieutenant, and fourth lieutenant were either killed or wounded. Command devolved onto the third lieutenant...who, unfortunately, was carrying his mortally-wounded captain to the surgeon when the second lieutenant was injured. The blame for the loss of the ship falls on the third lieutenant. William Cox, acting Lieutenant, is court-martialed and dismissed from the Navy.

I have never, thank God, been in combat. However, I was an Air Force officer at the time I read Starship Troopers. I had a military adolescence as well, having been in an extremely gung-ho Civil Air Patrol squadron during my teens (I earned the rank of Cadet Colonel, the highest possible in CAP). I knew how command structures were supposed to work. So when I read Heinlein's account of the Shannon/Chesapeake engagement, one thought came to mind: It shouldn't have made that much difference that Cox was the chain of command, someone should have taken command!

Who would it have been? Well, all the lieutenants were out of action. That meant a midshipman...quite possibly a 12-year-old boy...was officially in command of a 38-gun ship of war.

My imagination was fired. What would that be like? A boy whose voice hasn't even broke, trying to lead the broken, demoralized American sailors against the battle-hardened veterans of the Royal Navy?

The answer, came, again, from Starship Troopers: "We don't expect kittens to fight like wildcats and win... but we do expect them to go down in command, shouting orders."

Nate Lawton would be my kitten trying to fight like a wildcat. Now, the next question: How did he come to be there?

Explaining the causes of the War of 1812 is a bit awkward. You can't just have a character break into a monologue about trade interference and the impressment of American seamen by the British. The best way to illustrate the problem was to make it part of Nate himself: Nate's father was taken from an American ship and pressed (forceably drafted) into the Royal Navy, many years prior to the start of the war.

But I didn't want Nate to be out solely for revenge. My midshipman had to surrender the ship at the end of the battle, and a vengeance-obsessed fifteen-year-old didn't seem to be a good candidate.

His own family predicament provided the answer. I wanted Nate to come from a "salt of the earth"-type family; the kind that would be lacking political connections. Without a father, how could such a boy gain an appointment as a Midshipman?

The answer was obvious. By valor in an earlier combat. And what would be more natural than a 14-year-old (at the time of the Constitution/Guerriere scrap) being incredibly brave one moment, and running in terror at the next? He saves Captain Hull's life quite publicly, but no one pays attention when a powder-monkey runs below deck afterwards and doesn't come back up.

He needed a good, plausible reason to run, of course. And you'll have to read the book to find it out. :-)

The Key to Honor didn't start out as a series. It was going to be just one book about a boy faced with the crisis of his life. Then a literary agent suggested I consider a series. I pooh-poohed the notion at first...then took a look at the chronological sequence of naval actions during the War of 1812. I saw that Nate could make it to the Battle of Lake Erie and get plopped right in the middle of the Perry/Elliot controversy. That he then had plenty of time to join the USS Wasp cutting a swath of terror through British merchantman in the English Channel. He'd have to get off the Wasp before it disappeared in September 1814, of course, but Nate could easily make it back to Washington in time to get chased out by some British firebugs, and take cover under the flagpole at Fort McHenry. He'd have to find his father eventually...and why not have it happen at the last Naval battle of the War of 1812?

The Price of Command

The Price of Command is the first sequel to The Key to Honor

The Price of Command takes up almost immediately after the events in the first book. Midshipman Nate Lawton is sent to Lake Erie to help man the rough frontier fleet built by Daniel Dobbins and Oliver Hazard Perry.

To his delight, Nate finds that a shortage of officers places him in a much higher position than his limited experience would normally bring. The fortunes of war even bring him to the dizzying heights... the acting first lieutenant of a Brig of War.

But command has its price... a price Nate's commander is unwilling to pay. Midshipman Nate Lawton is caught between the rocks of Naval Discipline and the shoals of a superior officer's unbending ambition.

The Genesis of The Price of Command

What would Nate Lawton do after the Shannon battle?

That was an idle question I asked myself after completing The Key to Honor. The answer came quickly enough: The Battle of Lake Erie took place a little more than three months after the Shannon/Chesapeake scrap. That's be enough time to send Nate to Erie and get him involved with the battle, somehow.

The "How" was the question, though. I didn't know much about the Battle of Lake Erie when I started. Richard Dillon's biography of O. H. Perry, We Have Met the Enemy was chock-full of interesting data about Perry and the personalities involved around Lake Erie in 1813.

The situation with Commodore Elliot and the brig Niagara intrigued me. Elliot had been usurped in command by Perry. His seniority (and Perry's generous nature) ensured he was given command of the sister ship to Perry's brig Lawrence...the two brigs where the biggest US vessels on the lake.

Yet during the battle, Elliot did a curious thing: He held back. He hove to, out of range of the carronades that made up the majority of his battery, and watched Perry and the Lawrence get the living Hell shot out of them.

Why did he do it? Was he following Perry's orders, as he claimed afterwards? Or was he hanging back, hoping for Perry to die, so that he could leap in with his undamaged ship and gain the victor's laurels?

It's a controversy that rages to this day. It was obviously the central crisis of the battle... exactly the place to put my fictional midshipman, Nate Lawton.

But it wasn't really the right place. The actions of Perry and Elliot are pretty well known, even if their motivations aren't. I could put Nate aboard the Lawrence, and have him take command when Perry boards the longboat to bring up Niagara himself. But that would, again, put Nate in the positioning of surrendering a ship to the British.

Doggone it, I didn't want to repeat myself. Putting him with Elliot had all the potential for sparks flying. But with Elliot, all Nate could do was talk...there was little possibility for action. Niagara couldn't come to grips with the British until Perry came aboard. That was historical fact.

Only one thing TO do: Put Nate on a third brig, with a Captain sharing Elliot's hatred of Perry. There, he would have the freedom to take action, to perform a major (but historically overlookable) act that would allow him to take part in the battle without affecting the overall outcome.

Lieutenant England, the commander of the brig Hancock is cursed with both overwhelming ambition and an inferiority complex a mile wide. He blames others for his mistakes; he claims credit for the accomplishments of others. He wants a crack ship but is unwilling to take the unpopular actions that are necessary to achieve it.

His solution: Set his acting first lieutenant, Midshipman Nate Lawton, as the bad guy.

Experienced nautical readers will no doubt see the echoes of Captain Bligh, Forester's Captain Sawyer, and Wouk's Captain Queeg in the Hancock's Lieutenant England. There's one major difference, though: In the other books, the captain is opposed by older officers. In The Price of Command, though, only an inexperienced 15-year-old midshipman can oppose him...a midshipman wracked with doubts, insecurities, and his own fear that, once again, his cowardice will arise during battle.

Coming up next: A Dash of Daring, the next novel in the series. Dispatched to the USS Essex as a replacement via a privateer, Nate's journey is interrupted when the privateer captures a mysterious passenger from an island fishing boat. Is the man an infamous French pirate, as the privateer's captain believes...or an American naval officer in disguise, as he tells Nate?

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