Book Review: The Captain Who Burned His Ships: Captain Thomas Tingey, USN, 1750-1829


by Gordon S. Brown

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011. Pp. viii, 200. Illus., plans, notes, biblio, index. $28.95. ISBN: 1612510442

The first biography of one of the most important naval officers of the early Republic, a man today largely forgotten.

Where most lives of naval officers focus on stirring deeds afloat, in this book Brown, a former Foreign Service officer and part-time historian with eclectic interests, examines the career of Thomas Tingey, who performed most of his duties ashore.  In his youth British-born Tingey had served in the Royal Navy and as a merchant
mariner.  Migrating to America, in 1798 Tingey was commissioned a captain in the newly revived U.S. Navy, and given  command of the USS Ganges, a 24 gun merchant ship converted to a warship, in which he performed well during the Quasi-War with France, taking a number of prizes.  In 1800, with the conflict over, he was lucky enough to survive the major reduction in Navy manpower, and was assigned the task of establishing the nation’s first naval base, the Washington Navy Yard.  This is the meat of Brown’s book, as Tingey worked to establish one of the nation’s first industrial complexes, overcoming many difficulties. Then, in 1814, as the British descended on Washington, Tingey put his work to the torch, destroying all he had built.  Returning to his post afterwards, Tingey spent the rest of his life rebuilding the yard, which he still commanded at his death.  So while there’s little fight in this work, there is a great deal on the development of the infrastructure that supported the service, an often neglected subject in naval history, but an essential one. 

Particularly because of its attention to the development of naval infrastructure, The Captain Who Burned His Ships is a good read for anyone interested in war at sea in the age of sail.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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