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Originally published Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'Warship Under Sail': a sloop of war on a hard-edged Northwestern frontier

Local historian Lorraine McConaghy's book "Warship Under Sail: The USS Decatur in the Pacific West" tells the vivid story of a naval ship's travels from Victoria to Seattle to Valparaiso, and how its mission reshaped the history of the West. McConaghy reads at several area locations in January and February.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Lorraine McConaghy

The author of "Warship Under Sail" will discuss her book at these area locations:

• At 7 p.m. Thursday, Barnes & Noble, University Village, 2675 N.E. University Village Street, Seattle (206-517-4107).

• At 7 p.m. Jan. 27, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or

• At 2 p.m. Jan. 31, Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle (206-386-4636 or

• At 6:30 p.m. Feb. 2, University Book Store, 990 102nd Ave. N.E., Bellevue, free (425-462-4500 or

• At 7 p.m. Feb. 4, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or

• At 2 p.m. Feb. 20, Barnes & Noble, 626 106th Ave N.E., Bellevue, free (425-451-8463).

On Oct. 4, 1855, a U.S. Navy sloop of war, the Decatur, sailed into Elliott Bay to defend Washington Territory against attacks by "Northern Indians." By late January, a conflict, dubbed "The Battle of Seattle," took place that went down in local annals as strictly a settlers-vs.-Indians affair.

But in "Warship Under Sail: The USS Decatur in the Pacific West" (University of Washington Press, 381 pp., $34.95), Lorraine Mc-

Conaghy, the public historian at Seattle's Museum of History & Industry, argues that the clean line between hostile factions breaks down the instant you read the day-by-day records preserved by the Navy.

"The hard-edged frontier between Indian and colonist and between Indian and navy man utterly disappears," she writes, "to be replaced by a shifting, permeable border crossed by commerce, religion, war and sexuality. The Decatur not only brought federal protection to this Pacific West colony but also brought cash, vice and violence as both officers and enlisted men reshaped the settlement to meet their needs."

Sex and liquor were the two chief draws of the "outlaw space" that Seattle and its wooded surroundings offered the Decatur. "To many sailors," McConaghy notes, "the forest proved more hospitable than the ship."

Seattle is just one focus of Mc-

Conaghy's meticulous study. Drawing on surprisingly copious military archives, she has at her fingertips every drunken brawl, mutinous muttering and attempted desertion (along with court martials, punishments and dishonorable discharges) that troubled the Decatur as it stopped at "sailor towns from Victoria to Valparaiso" between 1854 and 1859.

She chronicles the wear and tear on the ship that reached crisis point when it ran aground off Bainbridge Island. Naval politics are part of her volatile picture, too, including changes of command dictated from distant Washington, D.C.

The ship's involvement in local conflicts from Seattle and San Francisco to Panama and Nicaragua completes the picture. Key here is the "filibuster" movement: private expeditions staged by American citizens (mercenaries, ex- military men, adventurers) to conquer territory outside the U.S., all in the name of "manifest destiny."

The most prominent filibuster was Tennessee-born William Walker, who repeatedly attempted to take hold of Nicaragua. He succeeded long enough on one occasion to re-establish slavery there. The conquering of neighboring territory was intended, in part, to unite a U.S.A. drifting toward civil war. But Walker, by making Nicaragua a slave state, only inflamed the North/South divide.

The Decatur was under murky orders when it came to filibusters. Official U.S. policy was against private invasions of sovereign nations — but unofficially some policy-

makers, along with some navy officers and enlisted men, were sympathetic to filibuster activity. Further confusion resulted when filibuster invasions failed. In 1857 the Decatur was ordered to rescue wounded, ailing filibusters stranded in Nicaragua and get them back home. They were American citizens, after all. The retirement of the Decatur from military service was soon followed by the Civil War. In her final chapter, McConaghy reveals which officers and sailors wound up with the Union or the Confederacy. One can pity these men, no matter what side they chose. Their nation had splintered and the small, sailing-sloop navy they'd known all their working lives had vanished forever, replaced by a larger, steam-powered fleet.

McConaghy emphatically sees all the Decatur's theaters of action through the prism of its daily routines and disruptions of routine. Her details and the sheer number of names can be a lot to absorb. But by concentrating on the foreground with such gusto, she gives you an extraordinarily vivid idea of how men under pressures of danger, drink and disease (syphilis was rampant) strived to create order out of chaos.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer:

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