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Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War

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Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War

By Jamie Malanowski

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014
6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, 304 pages
Illustrations, notes on sources, bibliography, index. $26.95
ISBN: 9780393240894

 

 

The memory of William Barker Cushing exerts a powerful influence over the United States Navy, as evidenced by the naming of five warships in his honor (its first torpedo boat and four destroyers). His brief, colorful, and action-packed naval career from 1861 to 1874 led many to view him as the epitome of a dashing and heroic officer: “a man who comes next to Farragut on the hero roll of American naval history,” in the words of Theodore Roosevelt.

 

This reputation for daredevilry has attracted biographers over the years. Perhaps it is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War that has led to the publication of four books about Cushing’s career in a ten-year period, of which this is the most recent—the publisher’s assertions that Cushing is little-know is surprising in light of the recent studies by Schneller (2004), Stempel (2011), and McQuiston (2013).

 

What, then, does Jamie Malanowski bring to the table that the other recent authors do not? Most obviously, this biography is the most comprehensive; all of the others recount his life story, but Stempel and Schneller concentrate their attention on his Civil War exploits, while McQuiston’s focus is Cushing’s post-war career. Malanowski’s book is very good in describing and analyzing Cushing’s rambunctious life before the Civil War (which led to his dismissal from the Naval Academy). It also does fine work in detailing his later naval career and untimely death. Highlights of the author’s coverage of these periods are his skillful incorporation of the reactions of Cushing’s contemporaries and the inclusion of many quotations from his own letters and remarks.

 

Nevertheless, like all his biographers, Malanowski is drawn magnetically to Cushing’s Civil War exploits. About two-thirds of the book recounts this part of his career from his re-appointment by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to his skullduggery in the attack on Fort Anderson below Wilmington. Malanowski is thorough and incorporates many interesting snippets into his exciting presentation of this part of Cushing’s career.

 

This new biography of Cushing does not break new ground. Nevertheless, it shines because of the breadth of its coverage and the author’s superb writing. Specialists and general readers alike will find it both informative and enjoyable.

 

Kevin O’Mara
San Francisco, California

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