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Posted on Oct 28, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Benedict Arnold’s Navy – Book Review

By Will Rodina

cover.jpgBook Review: Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle for Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution, James L. Nelson, McGraw-Hill, 2007, Paperback

If you were educated in the United States, or if you are familiar with American culture, it is very likely that the word "traitor" just popped into your mind. And perhaps it should; after all, a high-ranking military officer selling out his command during wartime is not necessarily someone that we want our children to be when they grow up.

I have to confess that prior to reading this book, my own knowledge of Benedict Arnold was not much more comprehensive than the word "traitor". I was, however, curious to see what kind of man gets to that point in his life — the point at which he gets his name written with the likes of Ephialtes of Trachis, Marcus Brutus, and Judas Iscariot.

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James Nelson is a naval historian of great repute; both his fiction and non-fiction works alike are highly regarded. Though this is a historical account, his engaging narrative style becomes apparent at the very beginning; the Prologue is written in present tense, immediately pulling the reader into the boots of the man who would later betray the very country he now stood willing to die for. "The wind is brisk, kicking up a short chop on the open waters of Lake Champlain and setting the tail of Arnold’s cloak slapping against his legs." — this level of detail helps keep the narrative refreshing throughout, as Nelson guides the reader through a historical lesson as a true storyteller would.

The Prologue complete, Nelson switches to the past tense and begins an account of Benedict Arnold’s early years. The first chapter discusses his family history, his upbringing, his career as a merchant and sailor, and ends with his election to the position of captain within the Connecticut militia in late 1774. Not long after the first few chapters, however, I noticed that while Benedict Arnold was indeed a part of the narrative, he did not seem to be taking the lead in the story. Rather, the book began to more broadly cover the early stages of the American War for Independence as seen on the northern front. Arnold was active in this theater, but Nelson’s narrative has him absent almost as much as present. After a dozen or so chapters, I began to feel somewhat cheated by the title of the book, as Arnold was simply one of the characters in the bigger story.

The narrative covers several significant events in the early part of the American War for Independence, and Nelson is careful to provide perspective from both sides of the battle lines whenever possible. Events such as the American capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the attack on Quebec are described not only in the past tense, but also with numerous quotes from the personal journals of the soldiers and officers present at the time. These quotations appear consistently throughout the narrative, and go a long way towards providing a context for the reader.

Nelson exhibits a few quirks in his writing style that took me a bit to get used to, particularly in dealing with the names of the soldiers he writes about. Several times, he introduces a person by name and title, and then does not mention them again until several pages or even an entire chapter later. This had me flipping back through to remind myself who this person was and what he was doing. Other times, Nelson simply provides a name once, with no other explanation as to who the person might be or why they are significant. Admittedly, my expertise on the American War for Independence goes little beyond what I learned in grade school… so it may be that a real, honest-to-goodness historian reading this book would not need any extra help with names.

Finally, in Chapter 29, Benedict Arnold is given command of the first American fleet on Lake Champlain. Throughout the last few chapters of the book, Nelson gives a grueling, blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Valcour Island and the following days. Nelson does a fairly good job of explaining nautical terminology and practice for non-sailors, though there were still a few terms I had to look up. He concludes with the same narrative style through the battle of Saratoga, ending with Arnold’s heroic charge and career-changing injury.

The Epilogue of the book discusses the part of Arnold’s life with which the reader may be most familiar (by tradition, if not by detail). A summary is given of Arnold’s return to duty, his dealings with the British, and finally, the endorsement of the American colonies by the French government (resulting from the Battle of Saratoga).

Overall, I am very pleased to have been able to read and review this book. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that the title is somewhat misleading as to the actual contents of the book. Nevertheless, it is a very well-written story of the early days of the American War for Independence, and should not be missed by anyone with an interest in that subject.

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