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Captains Contentious
The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine

Louis Arthur Norton

Original insights into a quirky quintet of naval heroes of the American Revolution

In Captains Contentious accomplished maritime historian Louis Arthur Norton observes that many of the captains of the Continental Navy were quite obstinate as compared to their British counterparts. In doing so Norton surveys the lives and military accomplishments of five captains in the nascent Continental Navy, investigating how their personality flaws both hindered their careers and enhanced their heroics in Revolutionary War combat. This psychohistorical approach brings to life the idiosyncratic personalities of John Manley, Silas Talbot, Dudley Saltonstall, Joshua Barney, and that most quarrelsome of characters, John Paul Jones. Norton's fast-paced account of intertwining naval actions also serves as a maritime history of the war as experienced by these men.

Norton draws from a wealth of primary and secondary sources to present biographical sketches that illustrate the five captains' reckless bravado and frequent antagonism toward their fellow officers. Representing different colonies and originating from diverse social and economic backgrounds, this dysfunctional band of fractious mariners shared a common lust for glory and penchant for infighting as they pursued favor and rank at the expense of civility and cooperation. They were often at odds with the Continental Congress and Marine Committee that commanded them and openly feuded among themselves. Yet they still managed to achieve notable victories against superior British naval forces.

To understand better how these naval heroes turned dysfunction into derring-do, Norton reads their distinctive personalities against the contrasting demeanor of their adversaries in the British ranks. He concludes with psychological inferences about the leadership qualities displayed by these captains, which proved to be strikingly valuable in sea combat. Norton's study offers new insights into the maritime history of the American Revolution as well as an original hypothesis about the psychological traits useful to good naval command.

A native of the old seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Louis Arthur Norton is a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut. Norton writes frequently on maritime history topics, and he was awarded the 2002 and 2006 Gerald E. Morris Prizes for maritime historiography for articles published in the Log of Mystic Seaport. His previous books are Joshua Barney: Hero of the Revolution and 1812, Sailors' Folk Art under Glass: A Story of Ships-in-Bottles, and the children's book New England's Stormalong.

"This is a splendidly succinct, refreshingly readable, and carefully crafted account by a seasoned and well-regarded maritime and naval historian. Louis Arthur Norton profile—warts and all—five largely unheralded seafaring commanders of the American Revolution and explores how they endlessly contended with each other, with both Continental and United States Congressional politicians, with historically better-known military leaders, and even with their own sailors in the uneven course of achieving America's arduous separation from British rule. This is a fine piece of scholarship and a shrewd analysis of how flawed leadership intertwined with fractious and lamentably self-interested personalities, both at sea and ashore, during the muddled realities of war."—Edward W. Sloan, Charles H. Northam Professor of History Emeritus, Trinity College, and coauthor of America and the Sea: A Maritime History

"Norton has brought to light the darker side of some of our Revolutionary War naval heroes. His book looks at the character traits, not always of the first order, and heretofore understudied, which fueled his subjects in their individual avarice of rank and drove them to accomplish (in most cases) the feats for which we revere them. Almost every 'great' man is flawed and these gentlemen are no exception. Norton's research is scrupulous and his analysis of the underlying motivations of these men, revelatory. And his style is engaging, making this volume a pleasure to read and absorb."—William H. White, maritime historian and author of When Fortune Frowns  



book jacket for Captains Contentious


6 x 9
192 pages
13 illustrations
ISBN 978-1-57003-807-5
cloth, $29.95t

Studies in Maritime History

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