The Real Hornblower: The Life and Times of Admiral Sir James Gordon GCB, Bryan Perrett

The Real Hornblower: The Life and Times of Admiral Sir James Gordon GCB, Bryan Perrett

Admiral Sir James Gordon was one of the longest serving British naval officers of the Napoleonic period, with a career that stretched from 1793 to his death in 1869 after a career of over 75 years. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 he fought in some of the most important actions of the period, including the battles of Cape St. Vincent and the Nile (where he was a junior officer), operations in the Adriatic including the first battle of Lissa, a dramatic voyage up the Potomac towards Washington and the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry Baltimore during the War of 1812 (the attack that inspired the lyrics of the American National Anthem).

Perrett's attention was first drawn to Gordon while studying the naval aspects of the War of 1812, and was then struck by the similarities between his career and that of the most famous fictional sailor of his era, Horatio Hornblower. His suggestion is that C. S. Forester used Gordon's career to provide a realistic framework for many of Hornblower's exploits (although not all - Hornblower didn't take part in the attacks on Washington and Baltimore, probably because of the impact that might have had on American sales). Perrett argues his case well, avoiding the danger of over-stretching the connections, while providing enough evidence to suggest that there is some merit in the idea.

Gordon is an interesting figure in his own right. He joined the Navy aged only 11, and was a wild boy with little concentration and low literacy levels. He soon settled down in the navy and made quick progress, becoming a post-captain at the age of 23. He remained at that rank for the rest of the Napoleonic Wars, and was finally promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1837, nearly two decades after the end of the fighting. He spent most of the rest of his life as Governor of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich.

Perrett has produced a good biography of a largely forgotten naval figure who had a fascinating career during the long periods of war that dominated the first half of his life. The connection with Hornblower seems convincing (although you'd need to be rather more familiar with the novels than I am to make a clear judgement). I found this a very readable book that provided a different angle on the Royal Navy's exploits during the last great wars of the Age of Sail.

Introduction - A Hero Deep in Shadow
1 - The Wild Boy
2 - Fleet Actions and Promotion
3 - Lieutenant Gordon
4 - First Command
5 - Off Rota, 4 April 1808
6 - Frigate Captain: Lissa
7 - Frigate Captain: Pelagosa
8 - Lydia and Seahorse
9 - The Commodore
10 - The Stars and Stripes
11 - Honours and Awards, Coronations and Kings
12 - The Governor
Appendix: Ships' Histories

Author: Bryan Perrett
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2013 edition of 1997 original

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