Introduction to The Two Admirals (1842)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered: Genesis and failure of Mercedes of Castile; desire to write about fleets; no American admirals until 1862; origins of rank of admiral; use in England and France; flags of British admirals; flags of American admirals; Cooper’s life-long friendships with Admiral Shubrick and other American naval officers; explanation of British “law of the half-blood” about which the plot of The Two Admiralsrevolves; how Cooper explained it to four incredulous English aristocrats in 1824; Cooper’s nautical habit of pacing back and forth has he composed his stories.

ousehold Edition, pp. ix-xvii

[ix] TWELVE years passed away after the publication of the “Water-Witch” Meanwhile, there had been a very decided change of scene. The American writer had again crossed the Atlantic; he had left Europe, and returned to his paternal home in the Otsego Highlands. During all those years his pen had not been idle. He had indeed written in that interval some seventeen volumes of varied character, including travels, the history of the navy, several political treatises and reviews, and also nine romances, including two of the Leatherstocking Series, and also one tale of the sea. This last, “Mercedes of Castille [sic], or the Voyage to Cathay,” was written under peculiar circumstances. Very early in his career as an author he had wished to write a work in which Columbus and his first great voyage should be brought before the reader; the grandeur of the subject was full of attraction to him, but the idea was reluctantly abandoned, owing to the many peculiar difficulties of detail connected with its execution, as the necessity of adhering with absolute exactness to every little incident of that most renowned of all voyages would prevent the usual flow of imagination expected in a work of fiction. But now one of his English publishers pressed the subject upon him so earnestly that the task was undertaken. The result proved that his own impression had been correct; the book, as a whole, proved the least successful of his romances of the sea, although passage of great interest are not wanting. As the publishers have not included [x] “Mercedes of Castille” in the present series, we pass on to the “Two Admirals.”

The book which immediately preceded the “Admirals” was “The Deerslayer,” which appeared in 1841; in the author’s own youth he had introduced Natty as an old man; but now he reversed the picture, and when he had reached his fifty-second year, and his own dark hair was touched with gray, he again evoked the hunter on the shores of Lake Otsego, and by the magic of genius brought him before the reader in the form of early youth. Within a few weeks after writing the closing passages of “The Deerslayer,” a new romance of the sea was planned. It differed entirely in character from all those which had preceded it. The idea of setting imaginary fleets in motion had been haunting his mind for some time. One difficulty lay in the way. He did not wish to desert the flag. But where was he to find a great American fleet; such fleets as England and France had so often sent out of their ports? None such, bearing American colors, had ever existed. And it would be going beyond even the wide range of an author’s prerogative absolutely to invent fleets, and give them admirals as commanders in waters where their existence was at that date merely a dream. Ere long, however, the happy idea occurred to him of going back a century in point of time, and taking an English fleet for his manoeuvres, at a period when the two countries were but one.

The American navy had had a legal existence since 1775; a law of Congress, passed October 13ᵗʰ of that year, ordered that one vessel of ten guns, and another of fourteen guns, should be equipped as national cruisers; and in December of the same year a more important law was passed, authorizing a regular marine force of seventeen ships, carrying from ten to thirty-two guns. From that day until 1862-3, the rank of admiral was unknown in the American navy. During that long period the fleets, or rather squadrons of the country, were commanded by commodores, who were in fact full captains to whom the title of commodore was given, not [xi] legally, but by courtesy. There were, as the reader familiar with naval history will remember, several of these titular commodores in the earliest days of the War of the Revolution. Commodore Hopkins, indeed, the first of these officers, was occasionally mentioned as AdmiralHopkins, in the papers of the day; but only for a brief period, and without authority. That Commodore Nicholson, Commodore Barry, and Commodore Paul Jones, with others of the same rank, rendered very important service to the republic in its earliest days, needs no repetition here. The military rank of commodore was considered to be equal with that of brigadier-general in the army; the word is said to be derived from the Spanish commendador. The title of admiral is believed to come from an Arabic word, signifying, Chief, or Emir of the Seas;it was at the period of the Crusades that the title was introduced into Europe. The first to whom the rank was formally given in France was a knight renowned in his day, Enguerrand de Coucy: —

“Je ne suis rois, ne duc, ne comte aussi  Je suis le Sire de Coucy.”

And to this proud device he might have added — je suis Amiral de la Flotte du Roi — Philippe Auguste having conferred that dignity on him. It was not until the reign of Edward I. that the title and office were introduced into England. During successive centuries it became the custom, both in France and England, to give the duties and dignity of admiral to officers more or less distinguished for military prowess on shore; in many instances they had had no previous naval experience; nevertheless, not a few of this class fought bravely and won victories at sea. No especial naval training would seem to have been thought necessary in a commanding officer at that period; all needed qualifications were expected to follow the appointment of a general to a fleet, as a matter of course; like the reading and writing of Dogberry, the art of manoeuvring at sea was supposed to come to any military commander by ‘nature.’ It is rather singular that among the [xii] lord high admirals of England, a prince whom we are accustomed to consider a great blunderer of his age, James, Duke of York, afterwards James II., should have rendered notable service to the navy of his country; not only did he command in two of the great naval victories over powerful Dutch fleets, defeating Opdam and De Ruyter; but experience judges, who have studied the subject, declare that by his foresight and fostering legislation he may claim to have been the father of the English navy. Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne, became, during her reign, lord high admiral, but was a mere cipher in that capacity. In ancient times an admiral-in-chief wore a golden whistle set with rich jewels, as an emblem of his rank. The admiral of the fleet is now the highest naval officer in Great Britain, and is allowed to hoist the Union jack on his ship when afloat. There have been two singular appointments to the highest naval dignity in France during the present century. By an odd conceit, Napoleon I. appointed that distinguished cavalry officer, his brother-in-law Murat, le beau sabreur, to be the lord high admiral of France. And during the reign of Louis XVIII. the same high naval dignity was conferred on that shadowy prince, the last of the long line of the Dauphins of France, the Duc d’Angoulême.

In the English navy, during the last century, the date of the “Two Admirals,” and, indeed, until recently, the grades among officers bearing the rank of admiral were nine. These nine grades all received their names from the distinctive colors of the flags which they were entitled to hoist on their vessels. The flags were large, square, and in color either blue, red, or white, the last marking the highest rank. There were three grades of each color; rear-admiral, vice-admiral, and full admiral; the flag of a rear-admiral of either color was hoisted on the mizzen; that of a vice-admiral on the fore; that of a full admiral on the main. All three grades of the white bore the red Cross of St. George, in the centre. When that gallant fleet from the Bay of Biscay, sixteen sail in all, came to anchor in such beautiful [xiii] order, in the June fog, of Wychecombe Head, as we read in the chronicle of the “Two Admirals,” the square white flag of Rear-admiral Bluewater was seen floating above the mist, from the mizzen on the Cæsar, and another, square and red, at the fore of the Plantagenet, commanded by Vice-admiral Oakes. These nine grades of the colors existing in 1745, continued in use in the English navy, not only at the time the “Two Admirals” was written, but for more than twenty years later. It was not until 1864 that a change took place in the naval flags of England. There are now but three grades of admirals in the British navy; rear, vice, and full admiral; all carry a flag with a white field, bearing the red Cross of St. George in the centre, the position of the flag on the mizzen, fore, or main marking the rank of the individual officer in command. The senior admiral of that navy, however, holds an especial rank as “Admiral of the Fleet,” and carries the Union jack as his flag, — blue field bearing four red bands, cross-wise; these being in fact the Cross of St. George and that of St. Andrew, differing in form, and united together. The red flag was made over in 1864 to the merchant marine. The blue flag was given to the newly-organized corps, the Naval Reserve.

The first admiral’s flag of the American navy was the plain blue, previously used by commodores, and was hoisted in 1862 on board Admiral Farragut’s ship, the Hartford. Several changes took place, — the blue, red, and white were adopted for a time, — when the rank of vice-admiral and full admiral were created, there were other novelties, stars in the field of red, blue, and white. The flag of Admiral Farragut — senior officer in the navy — was a blue field with four white stars, forming a diamond in the centre. In 1869 there was a final change; square flags with thirteen alternate stripes, red and white, were adopted for all grades, either rear, vice, or full admiral, the positions on the masts marking the different ranks. Such is now the regulation. A commodore’s flag is similar, excepting that it is swallow-tailed. An admiral ranks with a lieutenant-general, a commodore with a brigadier-general.

[xiv] At the period chosen for the date of the “Two Admirals,” there were naturally not a few Americans in the land and naval service of the mother country, and such continued to be the case until the Revolution. A number of those officers, Americans by birth, became admirals, and on one occasion Mr. Cooper counted eight of them; the names of only three are remembered by the writer of this Introduction — Sir Isaac Coffin, a New England man, Admiral White, and Admiral Walton, of New York. The last returned to his native country in old age, and died among his kindred, much respected.

There was something in the life-long attachment of the “Two Admirals” for each other, which reflected as it were the brotherly feeling, uniting the author and his friend Admiral Shubrick from boyhood to old age. Though coveting the rank for that friend, Mr. Cooper did not live to see him promoted to an admiral’s flag. The author of “The Pilot” had many warm friends in the navy, among the older officers, and greatly enjoyed their society. There was not greater pleasure for him than “drifting about town,” as he expressed it, with an old naval friend; on one occasion there was a meeting in New York of a number of the older commodores on public business; he was in town at the time, and he wrote home that they had adopted him into their “mess,” and they were all cruising about together, for a week or two, talking over naval matters with vast satisfaction. His was a very social spirit, naturally buoyant, and full of conversation. And he was singularly happy in his friendships. His most intimate friends were all men of the highest character, and in many instances they had been his friends in early youth.

The reader will find that certain details of the plot of the “Two Admirals” are connected with a very singular English law. By this law of the half-blood, even brothers who were descended from the same father could not inherit from each other, excepting by especial devise, or especial entail, unless they had had the same mother. Let us suppose an [xv] Englishman to have been the owner of a considerable read estate, and to have also accumulated by honorable means, due chiefly to his individual exertions, a large amount of personal property by which he has improved that estate; he has two sons, one by a first wife, another by a second wife. The gentleman himself dies without a will. The eldest son dies unmarried, somewhat later, and also without a will. The second son had married, and has a dozen children, with very slender means of support for them. The estate escheats to the crown, for lack of heirs forsooth! The half-blood must not inherit! And there are the grandchildren of the first owner of the property, of him who largely increased the real estate, in great poverty, for no other reason than because of their descent from different mothers. One half-brother cannot inherit from another. There have been many similar cases in England. And early in this century there were American families of good English descent, suffering from the effects of the same law. Mr. Cooper had known several cases of the kind, and in one instance had known the disinherited individual intimately. As a rule the English themselves knew very little about this law. As the author of the “Two Admirals” observes, it is one of the peculiarities of England, that in the division of labor few know anything material about the law, excepting professional men; and even their knowledge is divided and subdivided. “The conveyancer is not a barrister; the barrister is not an attorney; and the chancery practitioner would be an unsafe adviser for one of the purely law courts.” It would seem that even the law-makers were also ignorant of this legal peculiarity of England. Nearly twenty years before he wrote the “Two Admirals,” Mr. Cooper was frequently in company with four young Englishmen of note, traveling in this country at the time; they were Mr. Stanley, Mr. Wortley, Mr. Labouchère, and Mr. Dennison, all members of Parliament, and, at a later date, all held prominent positions in the English government. Mr. Stanley was afterwards the celebrated Lord Derby, the translator of [xvi] Homer and prime minister. With these young gentlemen Mr. Cooper was on friendly terms, meeting them frequently, and traveling with them on one or two excursions. On one occasion the conversation turned upon this peculiar law of the half-blood, the American writer having accidentally named a friend recently returned from England where he had been on a fruitless errand in quest of the estate of a deceased half-brother. By this law of the half-blood he had lost the inheritance of his own father, as it had been last in the hands of the half-brother. The young members of Parliament were amazed; they felt convinced there must have been some other obstacle in the way; they had never heard of such a law, they could not believe in its existence; they thought there must have been an error somewhere in the statement of the case. Mr. Cooper, however, who had what some of his friends declared to be “a legal mind,” thoroughly understood the question in all its details; he was often much interested in practical legal questions, and looked them over occasionally, in all their niceties, for his own amusement. In this instance he soon proved that he had not spoken unadvisedly; his authorities were produced, and to the great surprise of the young members of Parliament they were proved to have known less about the law of England than their American companion. Some ten years later this law of the half-blood was repealed. It is said, however, that the dignity of Great Chamberlain of England, considered of high importance in the Royal Court, is at present held by a peer whose claim is only founded on this point of the half-blood. But we are wandering beyond the cruising ground of the “Two Admirals.”

The “Two Admirals” was written in the library at Otsego Hall, in 1842. Many were the pages composed as he walked up and down the large hall of the house, or paced to and fro over a retired level bit of gravel-walk in the grounds, near the garden, to which the name of “the quarter-deck” had been given. This pacing to and fro was a sailor’s habit, which was kept up until his last illness; naturally very active, and fond of exercise, he often left his writing table for a ten minutes’ walk in the hall, or on “the quarter-deck.” At such times his mind would often be quite filled with the passages on which he was engaged; lost in thought, his clear gray eye would assume the absent far-seeing look well known to those who made up his household circle, the arm and hand would often move with appropriate gesture, and the lips open with half-spoken utterance of some passing thought. He frequently spoke aloud, quite unconsciously, when his mind was busy with thoughts known only to himself.

Two brief extracts are given, as both are characteristic of the author’s generous, frank, and also cheerful social nature: —

“While there is no greater mystery to a selfish manager than a man of a disinterested temperament, they who feel and submit to generous influences understand each other with an instinctive facility.”

“A melancholy meal is like ingratitude to Him who bestows it.”