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A Ship’s Life

June 2024
1min read

Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian: 1809-1922

by James Tertius de Kay, Norton, 336 pages

“In her time,” writes the author in this engrossing biography of a warship, “the Macedonian was recognized the world over as the most important prize of war ever taken by the American Navy—a distinction she holds to this day.” It is all but impossible to imagine the euphoria that overtook the United States when, early in the War of 1812, her tiny, fledgling navy began capturing British frigates; it is equally difficult to appreciate the despair this negligible loss to its fleet precipitated in England. At the war’s outbreak, the London Times described the American navy as “a few fir built frigates with strips of bunting, manned by sons of bitches and outlaws.” A few months later the same paper was wailing, “Oh, what a charm is hereby dissolved! What hopes will be excited in the breasts of our enemies!”

But the fierce action in which the United States under Commodore Stephen Decatur captured the three-year-old Macedonian is only the beginning of de Kay’s epic. With energy, high good humor, and an engaging familiarity with the various characters who animate his tale—the brilliant showoff Decatur; the Macedonian’s captain, John Surman Garden, whose arrogant contempt for Americans causes him first a costly humiliation and then a devastating one; a calculating Commodore Matthew Perry; the persevering Uriah Phillips Levy, first Jewish-American commodore—de Kay takes the reader from the Barbary Coast to Ireland during the terrible days of the famine and to the waters off Japan. And finally to City Island in the Bronx, where the gallant Macedonian ended her days as a saloon.

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