War At Sea


Practical Seamanship
War At Sea
Nautical Hardships
Nautical Fiction

Bibliography & Credits

Johannes Scheffer. De militia navali veterum libri quatuor. Uppsala: Johannes Jansonius, 1654.

Johannes Scheffer was an important early philologer in Uppsala. In De militia navali Scheffer turns his attention to the history of military vessels used by the ancient Romans and Greeks. The work is illustrated throughout with images of various types of warships, from small row-boats to impressive triremes.

Jonathan Greenwood. The Sailing and Fighting Instructions or Signals as They are Observed in the Royal Navy of Great Britain. [London: 1715?]

Wartime fleet actions required complex maneuvers undertaken simultaneously by numerous ships. The timing of these actions would be signaled by a variety of combinations of flags and canon fire as illustrated here. Greenwood appears to have been ahead of his time in providing a manual like this one made up entirely of images. Prior to the late eighteenth century, British Navy captains used the government's Fighting Instructions, which outlined tactics and signals in a narrative, verbal format. Greenwood's illustrations were the "first attempt to provide a convenient Signal Book separate from the Instructions," a practice which eventually displaced the written Instructions beginning around 1783.

The entirety of this small publication, including the title page and dedication, was printed from engraved plates rather than type, and the images were colored by hand.

Log Book of the H.M.S. Alert, 22 March to 29 July, 1812. Signed by T[homas] L[amb] P[olden] Laugharne.

Log books were an essential component of maritime practice, especially during times of war. They typically recorded navigational information about the ship's location and heading, as well as any other relevant details that occurred during the day. The log book exhibited here is typical in that each page consists of the observations of a single day: The first column lists each hour, followed by the ship's speed in knots (K) and fathoms (F); the fourth column provides the ships heading; the fifth and sixth columns record the direction of the wind and any important signals; while the final column is reserved for general remarks about the weather and notable events. The lower right hand corner of the right page of the log on display here, for instance, records the following information: "At 2 hoisted our Colours--Observ'd the Stranger with English Colours over American, At 2,30 Boarded the Brig. Prize to MH Hazard Recaptured from ye Americans... At 6... Exercised Great Guns and Small Arms".

The Alert was a British sloop (a class of small warships) active against the American navy during the War of 1812. On 13 August 1812, just months after the events recorded in this log, a member of the Alert's crew sighted what appeared to be an American merchant ship making every attempt to escape the more powerful Alert. The Alert pursued the apparently weaker vessel, which was in fact the American warship Essex, intentionally disguised by its captain to draw the Alert into battle. Within ten minutes of opening fire, the Essex had nearly destroyed the Alert, whose shocked crew abandoned their posts to implore their captain to surrender. After imprisoning the Alert's crew, the Essex headed for the nearest port, but during the night members of the Alert's crew formed a plot to take over the ship. The plot was foiled when one of the Essex's midshipmen, David Glasgow Farragut (who would later figure prominently in the American Civil War), observed the Alert's coxswain moving in the dark. When the coxswain moved closer to determine if Farragut was awake, he pretended to be asleep, and when the coxswain passed on Farragut alerted the captain, who roused the crew and put down the insurrection. When the British prisoners were eventually exchanged, a number of the Alert's crew were executed for abandoning their posts in the initial conflict.

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