Further Reading - The Age of Sail

By Bill Gray 16 Oct 2019 3

For the past few weeks we’ve been 'talking like a pirate' by reviewing various wargames covering the age of fighting sail. Today we’ll end our voyage by sharing our choices for a nautical reading list on the same subject. A couple of names you won’t see an overabundance of are 'Nelson' and 'Trafalgar', two words that define the era, any Google search will bring a bazillion choices plus more. Trust me, you will find all you want.

And in many respects, that’s a sad situation, because the age of sail encompassed so much more. Running from the battle of Lepanto in 1571 thru the ironclad engagement at Hampton Roads in 1862, battles and leaders vastly important but rarely mentioned get their due today. You can find all the items below on Amazon, with an eye towards reasonably cost-effective reading. Robert Marx’s Battle of Lepanto 1571 is an excellent tome, but $860 in hardback good? Not so much (But think of the commission! -ED)

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Victory of the West, the Great Muslim-Christian Clash at the Battle of Lepanto (2007)

Victory of the WestAuthor: Niccolo Capponi
Pages: 448
Buy: Amazon

The author is an Italian Renaissance scholar specializing in the military history of the period. Thus, this book covers a momentous event that occurred practically in his own, waterlogged backyard.

His book is filled with loads of technical details about the ships and men who fought each other, equally from both a Muslim and Christian perspective. One of the best works every written on the subject.

The Admiral (2015)

The AdmiralDirector: Roel Reiné
Starring: Frank Lammers, Charles Dance and Rutger Hauer,
Runtime: 152 minutes
Buy: Amazon

Dutch with English subtitles. This 2015 film may have the historical timeline a bit off, but the detail and accuracy of the naval battles portrayed are beyond stunning.

If you want to know what a real battle from the age of sail looked like up close and personal, this film will do it. It's also a faithful look at the life of one of the greatest naval commanders you’ve never heard of, Holland’s Admiral Lieutenant Michiel de Ruyter. There is an English dubbed version that is 28 minutes shorter, and the movie is also rentable on Amazon starting at $4.99.

The Four Days Battle of 1666, the Greatest Sea Fight of the Age of Sail (2018)

four days 1666Author: Frank L Fox
Pages: 400
Buy: Amazon

Forget about some small, maritime skirmishes between the Royal Navy and the Franco-Spanish fleet in 1805. From 1- 4 June 1666, the British and Dutch maneuvered 163 ships and pounded each other senseless in one of the longest naval battles ever fought.

This book is a reprint of the 1996 edition and not only has a well-researched narrative, but also lots of appendices with loads of technical data, fleet compositions and more.

The Dutch in the Medway (2017)

MedwayAuthor: P G Rogers
Pages: 216
Buy: Amazon

While it might seem, we’re spending a lot of time with Holland in this article, Rodgers’ book is special because it shows that naval battles during the age of fighting sail were not always at sea.

In June 1667, de Ruyter’s fleet dodged shoals and sandbanks in a stroll up the Thames/Medway Estuary to catch the British fleet anchored at dock. When it was all over, the British lost 13 ships and the flagship Royal Charles was towed back to the Netherlands as a prize. As Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on 29 July 1667, "Thus in all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us, and do end the war with victory on their side."

Editor's Note: Fun fact, I live on the River Medway. The Fort/Castle where I got married is called Upnor Castle and sits on the North bank, and it was involved in the raid (they have an exhibition dedicated to the battle). If you are ever in Kent, UK, visit the castle. It's a lovely little gem. 

George Washington’s Great Gamble, and the Sea Battle that Won the American Revolution

Great GambleAuthor: James L Nelson
Pages: 400
Buy: Amazon

This book covers the sea battles of Cape Henry and the Virginia Capes during the 1781 Yorktown campaign. The book describes in detail what happened when the Royal Navy’s “Fighting Instructions” dueled with French naval commanders who knew their business to a far degree higher than history assigns.

La Royale was actually a solid competitor until some upstart named Nelson began to make his presence known, and if you think something trivial like “wind gauge” doesn’t count in combat, read this book.

Revenge in the Name of Honor: The Royal Navy’s Quest for Vengeance in the Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812 (2020)

RevengeAuthor: Nicholas Keizer
Pages: 224
Pre-Order: Amazon (available March 4th, 2020) 

This unique book from Helion and Company looks at battles involving the Royal Navy against America’s “super frigates” such as the USS Constitution, but from a British perspective. In particular, the book examines the irreparable damage to the psyche of the world’s most celebrated navy, a mere seven years after Trafalgar.

Further investigation discusses the British response in light of a naval officer corps struggling to accept that they were completely outclassed. Note this book will not be available until March next year. Definitely put this on your wish list.

The Royal Navy 1793 – 1800, Birth of a Superpower (2018)

Author: Mark Jessup
Pages: 200
Buy: Amazon

Beginning with Revolutionary France’s declaration of war in 1793, the book covers how the British navy recovered from the embarrassment of the American War of Independence to establish itself as the greatest navy of all time by the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

In the Hour of Victory – the Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson (1st Edition)

hour of victoryAuthor: Sam Willis
Pages: 416
Buy: Amazon

The name says it all, but what makes this work unique is that it uses the original dispatches of Britain’s naval commanders during the era to present in-depth portraits of the battles fought and the men who fought them.

Collected by the Lords of the Admiralty as a gift to the nation, the author expertly uses the messages to focus the reader on what commanders and seaman say happened, not historical reality per se, and how they are often different.

The Command of the Ocean – A Naval History of Britain, 1649 – 1815 (2006)

command of the ocean

Author: N A Rodger
Page: 976 (no kidding)
Buy: Amazon

Once again, the strength of this book is it’s covering the evolution of the Royal Navy beginning with the Dutch Wars, rather than concentrating on the Napoleonic period only. This book is very, very heavy on data – duh, 976-pages - and the author assumes the reader has a working knowledge of the period of history under discussion.

The book concentrates on three specific aspects of Britain’s naval history during the era, those being operations, administration, and social impact. The latter is rarely discussed, so that also makes the book worthwhile.

Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail, the Evolution of Fighting Tactics 1650 – 1815 (2001)

naval warfare age of sailAuthor: Bryan Tunstall
Pages: 278
Buy: Amazon

Very detailed analysis of how tactics changed from the beginning of the Anglo-Dutch Wars thru the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In reality, one of the greatest things about this book is that it covers far more than the Napoleonic War.

In some cases, the prose is a bit dry, such as when the author goes in depth as to the advantages and disadvantages of signalling systems, but this is the kind of down and dirty granularity the book provides. One of two must have books that cover the entire period.

Seamanship in the Age of Sail: An Account of Shiphandling of the Sailing Man-O-War 1600 – 1860 (2012)

seamanshipAuthor: John Harland
Illustrator: Mark Myers
Buy: Amazon

This is the other book. Like Tunstall’s work, one of its strengths is it’s covering the entire era, not just the Napoleonic period. But while Tunstall looks at tactics, Harland talks specifically about one drives and turns one of these vessels.

There are no mentions of admirals or battles, but instead the how’s and why’s of rigging or controlling sails when the wind changes. If you’re a Hornblower fan but had no idea what the author was writing about, this book explains it.

Osprey Publishing

No list would be complete without acknowledging the publishing company whose works directly support the wargaming community. The firm has some 250 books covering naval warfare, and a lot of those cover the age of fighting sale. Prices start at $13.49 and there is often a less expensive Kindle version available. Here are just a few selections for your consideration:

Do you have any recommendations for books about the Age of Sail? Let us know in the comments!

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