The Sea Eagles

I started to read The Sea Eagles–described on the cover as “a novel of the American Revolution based on the exploits of Joshua Barney and the heroic part played by the American Navy–as a nod to Independence Day.  (Clearly I didn’t finish it right away.) The Revolutionary War is one of my favorite time periods, matched only by the 1940s,  so I grabbed this at the AAUW sale last summer. I was shamefully surprised at my ignorance about the Navy at this time. The only thing I knew was John Paul Jones’ famous quote; I even missed the Liberty’s Kids episode covering this battle.

The story begins in the early 1770s when Joshua Barney is in Dublin trying to book passage home for himself and his brother. He is assisted by a young Irishman named Kenny Boyle, who unfortunately during the process is tricked by the crafty captain into signing himself for indenture. (Early on we can already see there are sailors who are good, brave individuals and sailors who are only out to turn a quick profit.) When they arrive in Philadelphia Joshua buys Kenny’s indenture with the understanding (on Kenny’s part) that it will be eventually paid back.

At the Barney home in Baltimore, Kenny falls in love with Joshua’s pretty sister Barbary but feels unworthy of her because of his position. Both he and Joshua find work as sailors, Kenny especially with the goal of buying his freedom. When war breaks out, however, the friends agree to accept the posts of second lieutenant and sailing master on the Hornet, a ship newly outfitted for Maryland’s fledgling naval fleet.

I don’t really want to get into a detailed summary of the rest, because in 250 pages Jennings covers the span of the war.. Basically there are a lot of ships and a lot of naval battles. Joshua and Kenny are split up when Kenny takes command of a prize ship that is overrun by the British. Both of them are captured a lot, though Joshua is lucky enough to get a parole sentence until he can be exchanged for a British officer. While stuck on shore in Philadelphia he spends a lot of time with Robert Morris, the industrious commissioner of the new American Navy. (We like to pretend he’s an ancestor, even though the Morrises on my mom’s side didn’t come over until much later.) Morris also introduces him to Ann Bedford, whom he later marries. Meanwhile Kenny, fresh from his latest prison stint, signs with John Paul Jones aboard the Bonhomme Richard and plays a heroic role in the deadly battle against the Serapis, when Jones utters his line. Unfortunately he is gravely wounded. More battles, eventually all the characters are reunited, and finally Joshua and Kenny sail for France to pick up the peace treaty.

According to the back of the book, John Jennings served as a lieutenant in the Navy during WWII and later headed the Naval Aviation History Unit, where he “more than any other, contributed to studying any preserving for future reference the experience of the recent war.” The Sea Eagles, written in1950, is clearly well-researched. I learned quite a bit about the naval warfare tactics and the different number of guns that ships could have. Jennings also did an excellent job weaving fact and fiction; I looked up Joshua Barney on the Internet afterwards and the framework of his career matches very well. I’m glad that his story is further preserved.

I’m not big on politics but I’m very patriotic in my own way, and one of the great appeals of the Revolution to me is that it was a time of great hopes and dreams, more important to men than their very lives. Without condoning the violence involved, the ideals behind the war were very moving. In this passage, Kenny has just been exchanged after two years in Mill Prison in England. He has the chance to sail home on a private ship but is asked if he will instead take a berth on a naval ship desperately short on men, delaying his reunion with the girl he loves.

Three years ago–three long, weary years of war–the Declaration of Independence had been proclaimed. For three years they had fought and bled and many had died. Surely he had earned the right to return. He had tasted the bitter slime of defeat and known almost two years of prison. He had paid his way, and surely none could criticize him if he went home now.

And yet the independence for which they had fought had not been won. Barbary lay there to the west, where the wind came from, and he yearned to see her. But America lay to the west, too, and she put her faith in the strength and courage and fighting heart of the men who struggled for her. She looked to them to win the independence she had so proudly proclaimed. What kind of man, he wondered, would he be in his own eyes to abandon that faith for his own small dreams?

Kenny’s character is much more fleshed out that Joshua’s, and I’m glad John Jennings decided to create him. It can’t be easy to get into the thoughts and feelings of an illustrious historical figure, which may be why Joshua always came across as a little flat. Kenny’s story also allowed him to increase the suspense and include additional events at which Joshua was not present, like the Bonhomme Richard battle. This was by far the longest chapter in the book, and a very vivid play-by-play that was sometimes hard to stomach. I admit early on I thought that being in the Navy was a good deal, because the men get to spend time doing what they love anyway, but the all-or-nothing aspect that comes from being part of a ship’s crew can be just as dangerous as any other military branch.

I know that history is often retrospectively romanticized, and that men fought for many reasons other than democratic ideals. The Sea Eagles has its fair share of gruesome battles, and suffering, and despair. Nevertheless, I cannot help but admire all the courage held by Joshua Barney and all the other men and women who fought so hard to forge our nation and win the freedoms we too often take for granted.

For those interested, here is a brief biography of Joshua Barney that illustrates why his career translates so well to fiction. He certainly was unconventional and often in the thick of things.

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Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 5:24 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love the cover.

    • Me too! It makes it look more like a romance than it actually is, but that’s okay.


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