In what way Edward Pellew, later Admiral and Viscount Exmouth, "can be fairly described as the greatest frigate captain in the age of sail," as Taylor says, and why he is so little known (outside the pages of "Mr. Midshipman Hornblower") are two parts of the same story, well told in this fine biography. Born in Dover in 1757, our hero was the son of a Cornish packet ship captain who left his wife a widow eight years later. Abandoning school, young Pellew went to sea at the age of thirteen as a lowly hand. His keenness, intelligence, and athleticism – and, not least, a penchant for showing off – impressed his superiors and marked him, menial though he was, for possible advancement.
The definitive step upward came with the outbreak of American Revolution and Pellew's signing on to a ship carrying troops and General Burgoyne to Canada. Unique among naval commanders bound for distinction and celebrity, the young man's first command, as well as the first official notice of his valor and competence, came to him during action on inland waters. Stationed aboard the schooner Carlton at the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, he took charge of the vessel after both the first and second in command were cut down. Demonstrating initiative and leadership, he also showed "the sort of hot courage that swings battles" in climbing out on the bowsprit to heave the jib around, so that the ship might move off from the deadly broadsides and rifle fire raking her decks.