Book Review:
Warship Under Sail: The USS Decatur in the Pacific Northwest

  • Posted 6/16/2011
  • Essay 9854

By Lorraine McConaghy
University of Washington Press, Seattle
Hardcover, 344 pages
53 illustrations, five maps, notes, bibliography, index
ISBN: 978-0-295-98955-6

Prior to the Civil War, the USS Decatur was one of five ships in the United States Navy’s new pacific squadron. The navy project to extend federal authority west would  make the Decatur legendary for her role in defending white settlers from Indian attack during the 1855 Battle of Seattle. The Museum of History & Industry’s Lorraine McConaghy has written a thorough and exciting history of the Decatur. McConaghy traces the major episodes of the ship’s career and uses it as a fixed point from which to examine the complex world of antebellum American expansion as well as the story of early Seattle. Her book explores the turbulent world that existed for sailors of that era as well as the constant danger and uncertain fates of adventurous Americans looking to win their fortunes on the frontier.

In early 1854 the Decatur left Boston on a journey south, past the hazardous waters of the Strait of Magellan, and back north, California bound. Her mission was to advance American interests in the new Western territories. Settlements and commerce both desired defense from a newly growing and technologically advancing American United States Navy. After spending four months protecting American commerce in Honolulu, the Decatur was ordered by the commander of the Pacific Squadron, Commandant David Farragut, to defend American settlers on the Oregon Coast. Persistent rumors of attack from Indians brought the Decatur into the Puget Sound and into the creation myth of Seattle.  

McConaghy has written an elaborate examination of the opposing and overlapping themes of antebellum maritime and frontier history using the Decatur as a lens. The Decatur sailed during the transition away from the traditions of the old sailing ship navy and at the beginning of the new steam-powered maritime revolution. Her crew came from diverse backgrounds and crewmembers often clashed with each other over their conflicting identities such whether it be northerner versus southerner, expansionist versus isolationist, or career Navy versus ragamuffin opportunist.

Central to the understanding the Battle of Seattle is the twilight space on the border of the white settlement and the Indian controlled woods. Here the crew of the Decatur and the transient white and Indian population drank and caroused in a cultural and geographic zone that has not been thoroughly described by earlier historical treatments. McConaghy is interested in the largely unknown activities of the large number of itinerant and disreputable people who inhabited the fringes of settled life in early Seattle. Their stories are largely absent in the historical accounts of the prominent settlers, yet these uncelebrated frontier miscreants are the ones who are the actors in the story of bloodshed and sacrifice in the established narratives. This book examines frontier society in new way by centering on the largely unrecorded and nuanced world where white settler, Indian, and eastern sailor mixed and blurred their established roles.

After the Decatur’s considerable adventures in Oregon Territory, she sailed south, first to San Francisco, and then to Nicaragua to rescue the tattered and defeated remnants of William Walker’s filibusters. (William Walker was an American adventurer who raised a private army as part of a failed plan to take over Nicaragua.) The Decatur’s mission in Central American was to rein in the ambitious efforts of American nationals to overthrow the established governments there. The Decatur’s own marines rode with Walker and his surviving senior commanders on the train across the Isthmus of Panama during his forced departure back to the United States. For her final two years as a commissioned Navy ship the Decatur became a floating hospital for wounded and ill American expansionists. This ignoble end for both the ship and the project of Latin American territorial expansion is the final act of the story. 

Warship under sail is an exciting and danger-filled true history of maritime adventure. The voyages of the Decatur are filled with peril and intrigue. McConaghy has a keen sense of scale, while explaining the larger context of imperial American expansion and national naval strategy, we still are treated to every thrilling drunken brawl, every wild shore leave, and every brush with disaster among the crew. The narrative is a product of exhaustive original research. Included are maps, historical diagrams and etchings as well as sketches of the various exotic sights drawn by the ship’s surgeon. These provide an exciting first-person look at the rugged frontier localities visited by the Decatur.

This large and impressive book is a contribution to both naval and Seattle history that is truly significant.

By Alexander Marris, June 15, 2011

Submitted: 6/16/2011

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