Cooper as a Naval Historian

Walter Muir Whitehill * (Director, Boston Athenaeum)

Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 468-479 (Special Issue — James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal).

Papers from the 1951 James Fenimore Cooper Conference, Cooperstown, New York.

Copyright © 1954, New York State Historical Association.

Placed online with the kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

BY SOME singular stroke of fortune, both my wife and I passed through many years of school and college without having been obliged to read Paradise Lost. Consequently when we did read it, together, the verse was in no way marred by recollections of teachers’ voices and foolish comments. L’Allegro and Il Penseroso were massacred for me by analysis of their contents and pedagogical mouthings about extroverts and introverts, but Paradise Lost, read for the first time with a fresh eye, was pure delight.

I have never yet read a single one of Fenimore Cooper’s novels, and whether they would offer pure delight or utter boredom is a question that I have never sought to answer. Having reached the age of forty-five in abysmal ignorance of all Mohicans, I am at least able to approach Cooper as a naval historian with singular freedom from the prejudices of taste in fiction. Whatever my learned colleagues say about the novels cannot disturb a childhood enthusiasm or controvert an adult aversion, neither of which I have ever had. I can only claim to be an impartial admirer and satisfied user of Fenimore Cooper’s History of the Navy of the United States of America.

There can be no question about the importance of Cooper’s place as a naval historian. He was, after all, the first to make any systematic attempt to cover the whole field from the earliest colonial sea fights onward. Thomas Clark, writing in 1815, 1 had treated the revolutionary period briefly, but chiefly as a prelude to the war then in progress. Such grandiloquent eulogies of the Navy as The Naval Monument 2 and The Naval Temple 3, published in 1816, were focused upon the exploits of the War of 1812. Charles W. Goldsborough had planned a complete coverage, but the first volume of The United States Naval Chronicle, published in 1824, did not get beyond the Barbary wars, and his work remained unfinished. Cooper undertook to carry the history of the Navy from A to Z and succeeded.

It is not solely upon the accident of historic priority that Cooper’s claim for consideration as a naval historian rests, for he did not rush into print, as a journalist, in order to be the first. He was fitted for his task by personal experience and by friendship with many of the officers who had participated in the events that he describes. With this fortunate background, he carefully explored all available sources of information, balancing conflicting evidence with judicial impartiality, so that he might present the truth as he saw it, rather than a series of showy tableaux that would catch the public fancy. The American victories of the War of 1812 had been freely commemorated in eulogies, broadsides, engravings and medals. There had been an abundance of “tall tales in tall language,” but when in 1839 Cooper finally completed his History of the Navy of the United States of America these were significant by their absence. Instead, the popular storyteller offered an unadorned and abstractly-told critical narrative, free from even admissible touches of color.

Cooper had entered Yale in 1803 at the age of thirteen. When he was heaved out, for the kind of misconduct that many ingenious and exuberant undergraduates before and since have found irresistible, his father sent him to sea before the mast. Thus in October 1806 Cooper found himself a seaman in the Sterling of Wiscasset on a voyage to England. This was a simple means of taming animal spirits, and also a normal approach to a naval career, for there was no Naval Academy until 1845. After nearly a year in the Sterling between New York, England and Mediterranean ports, Cooper was, on 1 January 1808, commissioned a midshipman in the United States Navy. He served first in the bomb ketch Vesuvius, but later in the year was one of a small group of officers sent, under the orders of Lieutenant Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, to assist in the construction of naval vessels to guard the Canadian frontier.

Two gunboats were to be built on Lake Champlain, and a 16-gun brig Oneida 4 at Oswego on Lake Ontario. Lieutenant Woolsey, with Cooper and another officer, settled at Oswego to supervise the construction of the larger vessel, for which the highly competent shipbuilders Christian Bergh and Henry Eckford were the contractors. Although no hint of his own presence at Oswego during Oneida’s construction was given in the History of the Navy, Cooper did, somewhat diffidently, admit to being there in the biographical sketch of Woolsey written for Graham’s Magazine and reprinted in 1846 in his Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers.

This was genial duty for a lively young man. Oswego was a tiny hamlet in the wilderness, but Woolsey and his party hired a house and set up housekeeping, and were soon joined by a small infantry detachment. As Cooper recalled it:

The joint mess had a most merry winter of it. Woolsey was its head by rank, and he was its soul in spirits and resources. Balls, dinners, and suppers were given to the better portion of the inhabitants, and ... Woolsey became highly popular and beloved. ... The living was excellent, salmon, bass, venison in season, rabbits, squirrels, wild-geese, ducks, &c., abounding. The mess, however, pronounced cranberries the staple commodity of the region. They were uniformly served three times a day, and with venison, ducks, &c., made a most delicious accompaniment. Woolsey was a notable caterer, keeping his mess in abundance. The house had been a tavern, and the bar was now converted into a larder, the cold of that region serving to keep everything sweet. It did the eye good to examine the collection that was made in this corner by Christmas! At the fireside, Woolsey was the life of the mess in conversation, anecdote and amusement. 5

As Henry Eckford was present, in person, construction went ahead briskly, and Oneida was launched early in the spring of 1809. This event was celebrated by a ball, for which ladies were with difficulty assembled. Those with both shoes and stockings headed the Virginia reel; those with shoes alone occupied the second rank, while ladies wearing neither were placed at the foot. 6 Thus were the amenities preserved in the wilderness! Late in June 1809 Woolsey and Cooper set out, with four men, in the brig’s launch on what sounds much like a pleasant junket to “get a view of Niagara.” Bad weather and head winds prolonged the excursion until food ran out. After the last cracker had been eaten the launch was pulled up on a beach; then Cooper accidentally came across a hedge-hog and killed it with his sword cane. “On this animal all hands supped, and very good eating it proved to be.”

In November 1809 Midshipman Cooper was ordered to the sloop Wasp, then commanded by his friend, Lieutenant James Lawrence, only eight years his senior, who had been born in Burlington, New Jersey, in the house next door to Cooper’s own birthplace. In this ship began his life-long friendship with a fellow midshipman, William B. Shubrick, who (more fortunate than his brother John Templer Shubrick, lost at sea in the Epervier in 1815) lived to become the senior officer of the United States Navy.

The unexpected death of Cooper’s father in December 1809 provided the twenty year old midshipman with a tolerable inheritance. The traditional peace-time parsimony of the Congress seemed to offer only “blasted prospects” 7 in the service, and when Cooper became engaged to Miss Susan Augusta de Lancey — “a fair damsel of eighteen ... the daughter of a man of very respectable connections and a handsome fortune” — his doubts about a naval career increased. They were married on 1 January 1811, and the following May, on the expiration of his leave, Cooper resigned his commission. Long afterward he recalled that his wife confessed that “she would never had done for Lady Collingwood.” 8

Cooper’s three years in the peace-time navy were uneventful, but they gave him first hand knowledge of the sea and ships, and brought him the friendship of naval officers who had served their country well in the past and were to do so in the future. He understood how these men thought and worked, and his respect and enthusiasm for them in no way diminished with the passing of the years. Lawrence was lost in 1813 in the gallant but useless action between the Chesapeake and Shannon that is remembered chiefly for his dying words, but other friendships continued. It seemed to Cooper, as time went on, that through lack of a consistent national policy, “the United States of America have never resorted to the means necessary to develop, or even in a limited sense, to employ their own naval resources.” 9 This conviction led him to wish to explain what he knew to his fellow-countrymen. As Mr. Grossman 10 has pointed out:

As long ago as 1826, at the dinner given in his honor just before he sailed for Europe, Cooper had responded to the praise of his novels by the promise to write something more serious and lasting than his fiction. No American writer, he said in the correct style of so grand and happy an occasion, had invaded the sacred precincts of the Muse of History with greater license and frequency than he. As an expiatory offering before the altar of the offended Goddess, he would record the deeds and sufferings of a class of men to whom the nation owed a debt of lasting gratitude and among whom he had passed many of the happiest days of his youth. Truth would be a pleasant duty, for the more nearly it was attained, “the more certain I shall feel of contributing to the renown of many of my nearest and dearest friends.”

Thirteen years passed, seven of which were spent in Europe, before this project was carried out. No one could claim that Cooper devoted himself exclusively to the confection of his “expiatory offering” to the Muse of History, for during this period he wrote ten novels, seven works of non-fiction and three pamphlets. Nevertheless the two volumes of The History of the Navy of the United States of America, published in Philadelphia on 10 May 1839 by Lea and Blanchard, in London on 30 May by Richard Bentley, and within the same year in Paris, 11 represent a major effort in research and organization of materials. It would appear that Cooper used at least some of the Navy Department Letter Books and the volumes of incoming Captain’s Letters. 12 He certainly drew upon contemporary newspapers and pamphlets, but much of his information came from his own dramatis personae, many of whom were still living either when he was in the service or when he was working on his history. The precise proportion of information drawn from these various sources must remain a matter of conjecture, for Cooper explains in his preface that “authorities being of so much moment to the historian, it was intended to quote them, but it was soon found that it would require nearly as much room to cite these names, and all the minute circumstances by means of which information had been gleaned, as to relate the events themselves. 13

The tone of the history is of a detached and abstract impartiality, in which the narrative is seldom relieved by anecdote. For consecutive reading it can become monotonous, for there is little (other than the locale) to distinguish between the operations of the several wars described. At no point did Cooper introduce any of the vivid colloquialisms and the telling minor details that do so much to sustain the interest of the reader of Samuel Eliot Morison’s account of the last naval war. These were deliberately omitted by Cooper on the theory that “some of the greatest writers of the age have impaired the dignity of their works, by permitting the peculiarities of style that have embellished their lighter labours, to lessen the severity of manner that more properly distinguishes narratives of truth.” 14 As an example of the dignified disregard of that which attracted popular attention, we may note Cooper’s treatment of the two great phases of the War of 1812. In a footnote in the 1839 edition describing Captain James Lawrence, Cooper concludes: “Even his enemies eulogised the manner in which he carried his vessel into action, and his dying words were ‘never strike the flag of my ship.’” In later editions the note omits the quotation and concludes, “his dying words, a little changed by a poetical license, have passed into a nautical rallying cry.” 15 This is relegated to a footnote, and Cooper nowhere mentions that the words “Don’t give up the ship” were inscribed on a flag flown by Oliver Hazard Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie.

Similarly, although he praises Perry’s conduct in that battle — “he did not quit his own vessel when she became useless, to retire from the battle, but to gain it; an end that was fully obtained, and which resulted in a triumph” 16 — there is no mention of Perry’s laconic despatch to General Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” John Paul Jones’ “I have not yet begun to fight” is quoted, but, without comment, in a purely matter of fact way, as an answer to Captain Pearson’s reasonable inquiry, “Have you struck your colours?” 17 The point need not be further labored. Those touches that all novelists would love, Cooper, as an historian, scrupulously eschewed, for he did not wish to distort his perspective by emphasizing the dramatic.

Similarly he went to pains to explain wherein real merit lay. Thomas Birch’s painting of “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie,” popularly known through A. Lawson’s engraving, 18 depicted Perry in the boat by which he passed from his disabled flagship Lawrence to the Niagara. A similar scene subsequently became the subject of a vast oil painting in the national Capitol by W. H. Powell, 19 that is a worthy companion in acreage and inaccuracy to Leutze’s vision of “Washington crossing the Delaware.” This kind of thing obviously led the uninformed to believe that great naval victories were won by careering about in open boats, and so Cooper added a singularly sound footnote 20 to set the reader right.

Popular opinion, which is too apt to confound distinctions in such matters, usually attaches the idea of more gallantry to the mere act of passing in a boat from one vessel to another, during an action, than in fighting on a vessel’s deck. This was the least of Perry’s merits. Captain Elliott was much longer in the same boat, and passed nearly through the whole line twice; and Mr. M’Grath had left the Niagara for one of the other vessels, in quest of shot, before Captain Perry quitted the Lawrence. A boat also passed twice, if not three times, from the Caledonia to the Trippe in the height of the engagement, and others, quite likely were sent from vessel to vessel. Captain Perry’s merit was an indomitable resolution not to be conguered, and the manner in which he sought new modes of victory, when the old one failed him. The position taken by the Niagara, at the close of the affair, the fact, that he sought the best means of repairing his loss, and the motive with which he passed from vessel to vessel, constitute his claims to admiration. There was, no doubt, a personal risk, in all the boats, but there was personal risk everywhere on such an occasion.

Cooper’s history is essentially a series of succinct accounts of actions at sea, with an occasional penetrating comment similar to the one just quoted, and a dozen and a half brief biographical footnotes concerning the principal officers mentioned. He scrupulously explained the method of rating ships, and invariably tried to give a just appraisal of the abilities of opposing forces in ships, guns and men. He valued the human element, remarking that the consistent good fortune in battle of the frigate Constitution “may perhaps be explained in the simple fact, that she had always been well commanded” and that “in her last two cruises she had probably possessed as fine a crew as ever manned a frigate.” 21 Nevertheless he conscientiously explored material matters, and notes that he personally weighed a quantity of shot, both English and American, in order to determine the part that defective casting of shot might have played in American gunnery. 22 His work, however, begins with the firing, for even by reading between the lines one gathers next to nothing of the political and strategical background, of naval organization and administration, or of the economic effects of sea power. It is characteristic that not a word is said of the effective British blockade of the New England coast in the spring of 1814, which, in the opinion of Theodore Roosevelt, “inflicted a direct material loss to the American people a hundredfold greater than the entire American navy was able to inflict on Great Britain from the beginning to the end of its gallant career in this war. 23 Since no American ships got out to oppose the blockading squadron, there were no engagements at sea, and hence Cooper has nothing to say on the subject.

Cooper’s history did not lack readers both here and abroad. A German translation was published at Frankfurt-am-Main in 1840 and a French one at Paris in 1845. An abridgement in English first appeared in Philadelphia in 1841, and was reprinted in 1846, 1847 and 1856, while a second edition of the complete text was published in 1840, and a third in 1847. Not all the readers were friendly, however, for Cooper’s entirely impartial treatment of the Battle of Lake Erie led to bitter attacks by the friends and relatives of the late Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry, in his report of the battle, had praised the performance of his second-in-command, Jesse D. Elliott, but in a post-war afterthought, he claimed that Elliott had failed to support him adequately. The dispute became bitter, but the charges formulated against Elliott by Perry in 1818 were pigeon-holed by President Madison; 24 Perry died, and the question was never resolved. A victory had been won and a revival of the controversy — which the best modern historian of the navy, Commodore Dudley W. Knox, 25 suggests was “mainly due to the backward state of tactical training and indoctrination at the time” — would have served no useful purpose. Cooper, consequently, chose sensibly enough to follow Perry’s original report of the battle and ignore the later dispute, thereby bringing Perry’s admirers around his head like a swarm of hornets.

In the second edition of the History no major changes of opinion were made, although minor errors were corrected and additional corroborative information that had become available was inserted. 26 He left out the twenty-four page Introduction, which dealt very reasonably with problems of the naval establishment at the time of first writing, including the need for flag rank in the navy. It is perhaps just as well, for it contained one of Cooper’s few bad prophecies — that it is illusory to suppose that steam vessels can ever be made to cruise! 27

The Mexican War forcibly suggested to Cooper the need of bringing his history down to date. In the preface to the third edition he remarked: “The Navy of the United States presents a very different aspect, in 1846, from that which it offered in 1815. Its existence has been trebled as to time, within the past thirty years, and its force increased fifty fold.” By 1851, having accumulated the necessary materials, he began the continuation of his history, but completed only the section on the Mexican War before his last illness. In 1855, two years after his death, a new edition of the History — three volumes in one — was published by G. P. Putnam. The first two volumes were reprinted from the third edition of 1847. The third, running from 1815 to date was said to be “prepared from unfinished manuscripts, documents, etc., left by Mr. Cooper, and from other most reliable and authentic sources, published, documentary and personal.” Eleven pages on the Mexican War were scrupulously indicated as having been dictated by Cooper in the summer of 1851; the rest is apparently the work of his anonymous editor.

In concluding his preface to the third edition, Cooper wrote:

Divine Providence controuls all for its own great ends; but should its laws work as they have done for the last half century, the historian of the American Navy, who shall sit down to his labours in the year 1900, will have a task before him very different from that which has fallen to our share.

In 1900 the historian of the Civil War and the Spanish American War did indeed have a different task, although less different from Cooper’s than that of the historian of 1950. Rear Admiral Morison has, after all, in the history of United States naval operations between 1941 and 1945 a subject that makes all that preceded 1941 seem but a prelude. It is not hard to believe that Cooper, could he have known of the operations of the fast carriers and battleships of the Pacific Fleet between 1943 and 1945, would quite happily have eaten his prophecy that steam vessels could never be made to cruise.

As with most historians of his time, Cooper’s concern was with the actors on the stage, not with behind-the-scenes preparations, or box office receipts. But he knew the actors as friends and contemporaries, and because of this his History Of the Navy of the United States of America retains, after. more than a century, an enduring claim to consideration. As my friend, Lieutenant Commander M. V. Brewington, who is singularly familiar with the history of the sailing navy, wrote me a few weeks ago: “Cooper’s History is not without errors of fact, but in the main it is as dependable as most firsts, and I never fail to see what he has to say.” The last clause is as good a tribute as a historian could wish to receive 112 years after publication.


1 Thomas Clark [U. S. Topographical Engineer], Sketches of the naval history of the United States; from the commencement of the revolutionary war, to the present time (Philadelphia, M. Carey, 1815). Carey published on 3 Jan. 1814 a second edition of Clark’s work, brought down to date, in two volumes, with the title Naval history of the United States from the commencement of the revolutionary war to the present time. ...

2 [Abel Bowen], The Naval Monument, containing official and other accounts of all the battles fought between the navies of the United States and Great Britain during the late war; and an account of the war with Algiers ... (Boston, 1816). Sabin cites Boston editions of 1830 and 1840 and New York editions of 1837 and 1838.

3 [Barber Badger]. The Naval Temple: containing a complete history the battles fought by the navy of the United States, from its establishment in 1794 to the present time ... (Boston, 1816). The same text appeared in American naval battles: being a complete history of the battles fought by the navy of the United States from its establishment in 1794 to the present time. ... (Boston, 1831). Sabin also cites a Boston 1837 edition.

4 For plans of Oneida, see Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy (New York: W. W Norton and Co., 1949), pp. 231-232.

5 J. Fenimore Cooper, Lives of distinguished American naval officers (Philadelphia, 1846), II, 127-129.

6 Mary E. Phillips, James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1913), pp. 57-58.

7 Phillips, op. cit., p. 65.

8 Phillips, op. cit., p. 70.

9 J. Fenimore Cooper, The history of the navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia, 1839), I, xvii.

10 James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949), p. 136.

11 For a full account of the various editions, see Robert E. Spiller and Philip C. Blackburn, A descriptive bibliography of the writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1934), pp. 103-106. Professor William Charvat has very kindly informed me that the publisher’s records (now owned by Lea and Febiger,Philadelphia) show that 3000 copies were printed in April 1839 and that $2,700 was paid to the author. A second edition of 2500 copies, printed in January 1840, brought Cooper a return of $1,750. The English edition was a failure for correspondence with Bentley shows that only 290 out of the 1500 copies were sold, and 1100 remaindered. Bentley, who said that English criticism of the book was bitter, claimed that he lost £3OO on it, after paying Cooper £400.

12 So Lieutenant Commander M. V. Brewington, USNR (ret.), who knows these manuscript letter books intimately, informs me.

13 Op. cit., I, vii.

14 Ibid., I, ix-x.

15 Ibid., II. 254n. 1856 edition, II, 106n.

16 Ibid., II, 402-403.

17 Ibid., I, 193.

18 The United States Navy 1776 to 1815 depicted in an exhibition of prints ... held at the Grolier Club ... (New York: Grolier Club, 1942), pp. 73-74.

19 George C. Hazelton, Jr., The national capital, its architecture, art and history (New York, 1914), pp. 168-169.

20 Op. cit., 11, 402-403n.

21 Ibid., II, 463.

22 Ibid., I, 379- 380.

23 In Sir William Laird Clowes The Royal Navy (London, 1901), VI, 61-69. The extent to which the British blockading squadron had things its own way may be seen in my edition of New England Blockaded in 1814: the journal of Henry Edward Napier, Lieutenant in H.M.S. Nymphe (Salem: Peabody Museum, 1939).

24 A. T. Mahan. Sea power in its relations to the war of 1812 (London, 1905), II. 78.

25 A history of the United States Navy (2ⁿᵈ ed., New York, 1948), p. 119.

26 The chief additions noted in the 1856 edition [reprinted from the third edition of 1846] concern Manly and McNiel in 1777 [I, 79-80], the location of Barry’s loss of the frigate Raleigh [I, 94], the Chevalier de Luxembourg and the frigate South Carolina, ex- Indien [I, 155], Shaw and the Enterprise [I, 177-178], David Porter’s attempt to board Cherub [II, 91], Boxer-Enterprise engagement [II, 108-109], M’Donough on Lake Champlain in 1813 [II, 166-167], the Battle of Lake Erie [II, 194, 197-198], and Lake Champlain operations of 1814 1II, 222].

27 The prophecy was bad because it was one of the few occasions when Cooper ventured into detailed consideration of weapons. While basic principles of strategy and command often remain valid through the centuries, it is always risky to venture predictions regarding such constantly changing material matters as ships and weapons. As Kipling remarked in The Fringes of the Fleet: “The Navy is very old and very wise. Much of her wisdom is on record and available for references hut more of its works in the unconscious blood of those who serve her. She has a thousand years of experience, and can find precedent or parallel for any situation that the force of the weather or the malice of the King’s enemies may bring about. The main principles of sea-warfare hold good throughout all ages.” Thus, although in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 — the first major naval engagement in history in which surface ships did not exchange a single shot — all the attacks were made by carrier planes, Admiral King’s reiterated insistence at this time for more rapid aggressive action against the Japanese would have been readily understood by the eleventh century Persian who copied the military aphorism: “You must breakfast on the enemy before he dines on you.”

* Walter Muir Whitehill, Director and Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum and a Trustee of the Peabody Museum of Salem, served in the Office of Naval Records and Library, Navy Department, during World War II. He collaborated with Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King in the preparation of Fleet Admiral King, a Naval Record (New York: W. W Norton and Co., 1952), and is now writing a biography of Admiral Henry T. Mayo.