Friday, September 28, 2007


I just finished reading an interesting volume about the naval actions in the Mississippi Sound between a small American gunboat flotilla commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Ap Catesby Jones and the British armed barges under Commander Nicolas Lockyer sent by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane to destroy them.

Sink or Be Sunk! The Naval Battle in the Mississippi Sound that Preceded the Battle of New Orleans by Paul Estronza La Violette (Waveland, Miss., Annabelle Publishing, 2002) is a slim but well written study of how the hydrography of the Mississippi Sound impacted the options of both the American gunboat flotilla and the British forces sent against them. La Violette is a Navy oceanographer and uses his training and experience, especially that of the Sound, to describe the shallows, currents, and winds that worked both for and against both sides.

The American naval presence along the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico was miniscule when compared to the might of the Royal Navy that was gathered against them. But American Master Commandant Daniel Patterson used his small squadron (a sloop and a schooner that he kept in New Orleans and five gunboats and two support vessels assigned to Jones) with the experience that he had gained in this area since he was first assigned to New Orleans as a Lieutenant in 1807. His primary subordinate, Lieutenant Jones, was intimately familiar with these waters, having been stationed in New Orleans since May of 1806 as a midshipman. His orders from Commandant Patterson were quite simple – observe, report, delay, and fight.

The story of the British officer, Commander Nicolas Lockyer of HMS Sophie, is just as interesting as that of Lieutenant Jones. He was involved in the disastrous action against Fort Bowyer at Mobile Bay when his ship was damaged and another British ship was lost to the American guns. Lockyer was determined to succeed in his mission of destroying the American gunboats in order to restore his good name. His energy and competence, coupled with his good instinct for the proper tactics, were deciding factors in the British victory.

When the two men finally engage in battle, La Violette’s descriptions of the fighting rival those of C.S. Forester.

The Battle of St. Joe Pass, December 14, 1814, was a tactical defeat for the Americans. But like Benedict Arnold’s naval battle on Lake Champlain during the American Revolution, the delay Jones inflicted on the British timetable allowed General Jackson just enough time to assemble his scattered forces, build his defensive line at the Chalmette Plantation, and eventually defeat the vaunted British Army.

I commend this volume to those interested in both a fight against stiff odds and in the early traditions of the American Navy.

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