The Perfect Wreck:“Old Ironsides” and H.M.S. Java — A Story of 1812
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******** Just published, PRINT and E-BOOK, in June 2011 ********
Though slightly fictionalized, this is the ABSOLUTELY TRUE STORY of the events leading up to the spectacular ship-to-ship combat between the USS Constitution, and HMS Java, in December 1812.
"Naval historian Steven Maffeo has used the fiction format to give us what will probably be the finest, truest account ever of the 1812 sea battle between Constitution and Java—in which the young American Navy demonstrated the confidence, pride, and professionalism that have served it well for over two centuries.
A highly recommended must-read for every naval enthusiast—indeed, for every American!"
"This is naval history brought vividly to life. The product of thorough research combines easily with Maffeo's enthusiasm for his subject and his sense of the epic. He writes convincingly, his characters live, and his frigates swim through a world in which the weather dominates and the sea is, in true Melvillian form, quite indifferent. What's more, the story he tells transcends the jingoistic and will appeal on both sides of the Atlantic."
"A riveting adventure totally based on real-life accounts. Each word evokes the professionalism, dedication, and heroic valor common to the great era of "wooden ships and iron men."
"This work is a whole new experience for the fiction reader, and serves equally well as a scholarly work for the devotee of nonfiction ...
The Perfect Wreck employs a neutral stance and fully explores the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.
If you want to learn something of the navies of the period, learn about this particular battle, or just want to enjoy a naval fiction book—this is one for you."
"The considerable inter-character dialogue connects a myriad of factual data that provides the reader with a definitive understanding of one of the most important battles that took place in 1812 ... This work gives the naval enthusiast the ability to fully immerse into the story and better understand the reasons for naval warfare's trenscendence as the predominant force of the era. I highly recommend this book."
"Much has been written about the triumph of USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere, and rightly so. But almost ignored today, though certainly not at the time, was another momentous victory that happened only 4 months later when the newly named "Old Ironsides" defeated another formidable foe, HMS Java, off the coast of Brazil.
Steven Maffeo has taken that battle and added another dimension, combining well-researched fact with a fair measure of conjecture in order to relate the story in an in-depth way. A well-researched historical narrative is embellished with dialogue and characterizations that make for interesting reading."
At the present time one can find, preserved in Boston Harbor, the USS Constitution—nicknamed “Old Ironsides.” She was launched in 1797 as part of the first six frigates of the newly created U.S. Navy, when the new U.S. government grew tired of American merchant commerce being at the mercy of, and the prey of, any and all on the high seas.
While she had a very useful service life of over fifty years, and actively operated in the Quasi War with France, the Wars with the Barbary States, and the War of 1812, it is the latter in which she became famous. In addition to various other creditable activities, she defeated four British warships in blue-water combat, earning the sobriquet of “Old Ironsides” in the first battle due to her seemingly unusual resistance to enemy cannon fire. It is because of this fame that the government never—though there have been some very close calls—sent her to the breaker’s yard, and as a result she is currently and proudly maintained as the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.
Two of the Constitution’s famous battles against relatively equal British warships occurred in the first seven months of the War of 1812 and, along with a similar spectacular victory of one of her sisters (the United States), were the only bright spots in what was otherwise a dismal list of American military failures and excessive American demoralization. Moreover, these victories, against the magnificent Royal Navy, had a disproportionate morale impact against the armed forces of Great Britain and upon the general British populace as well.
The Perfect Wreck is the story of the second of these famous battles. There has never been any publication—non-fiction nor fiction—that deals with this story other than a two-to-four page summary. Only Patrick O’Brian, in one of his Aubrey-Maturin novels, discusses it at any length (perhaps ten pages), but his narrative has many flaws in it.
Shortly after the first famous battle, when the Constitution decisively defeated HMS Guerrière in August 1812, she returned to Boston, refit, changed captains, and went out to sea again. Her mission, under the leadership of the famous, deeply-flawed, yet occasionally heroic Commodore William Bainbridge, was to patrol the Atlantic out to the Cape Verde Islands, come back across to the shores of Brazil, and in company with the USS Hornet and the USS Essex, cruise around hunting British merchant ships. Then, after awhile, this squadron planned to round Cape Horn and proceed into the South Pacific, where they hoped to prey upon the many British whaling ships to be found there.
At the same time, in Portsmouth, the British navy commissioned a warship that they had captured from the French in 1811. Renaming it the Java, they manned it with experienced officers but a very inexperienced crew, and sent it to sea with the mission of carrying despatches to several locations, of carrying tons of shipbuilding supplies and extra men to a shipyard in India, and of carrying a British army general and his staff out to India where he was to become the Governor-General at Bombay. While at sea, the Java stopped at the Cape Verde Islands, captured an American merchant ship, and proceeded to the west to take advantage of the prevailing winds. She intended to put in to San Salvador (Bahia), Brazil, to top-off her fresh-water supply, then stretch across the South Atlantic towards the Cape of Good Hope and ultimately into the Indian Ocean.
However, on the 29th of December, she accidently encountered the Constitution off San Salvador, and in the ensuing three-hour, extremely intense battle was beaten into a “a perfect wreck”—as both the American and British officers later described her. Her captain, a heroic and even tragic figure named Henry Lambert, was mortally wounded, which required her young first lieutenant, Henry Chads, to take command and to finish out the battle—to the point where he is obliged to surrender to save his remaining men.
The book opens not in 1812 but in 1845, as a much older Commodore Henry Chads visits the much older Old Ironsides in Singapore Harbor during her last major operational voyage. Thus, the rest of the book is in effect a flashback from 1845 to 1812, as Chads recollects the last time he saw the Constitution.
The Perfect Wreck is a fictionalized telling of this story, from the preparations of both ships in their respective home ports, through their respective voyages and adventures across the Atlantic, to the details of the final battle. Because the author has a considerable collection of orders, log books, journals, and other documents, the story is extraordinarily true to history. At the same time, the book is “fictionalized” and “colorized” to the extent that the people, ships, and the time period come alive with more texture than would be possible in limiting the story to narrative non-fiction. As a result, when the reader lays it down, he or she will have been entertained by a tale of the sea as interesting as any invented by a novelist, while at the same time will have gained a solid knowledge (obtainable nowhere else) of the real events of this overlooked piece of American and British history. To steal a phrase, “it’s a whale of a tale, and it’s all true.” Moreover, this story may have particular interest as we fast approach the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
Perhaps unusually for a work of fiction, the book is well-illustrated with many line drawings (many from the time period), appendices of actual documents, an epilogue, small biographies of the characters who were indeed real historical figures, a glossary of nautical and naval terms, and a tribute to the sailors (from both sides) killed and wounded in the final battle.