A swift, colorful account of the lethal campaign waged by a single elusive Confederate privateer that nearly destroyed Northern shipping.
With virtually no navy of its own and its ports under a debilitating blockade, the South relied on private armed ships to counter the Union’s overwhelming naval superiority. Confederate agents in Britain illegally purchased a wooden-hulled, 220-foot gunboat and turned it over to Captain Raphael Semmes, bookish, aloof veteran of an undistinguished career in the U.S. Navy. Within 22 months, Semmes and the Alabama had captured 67 vessels, burning most of them and destroying five-million dollars worth of enemy shipping. Semmes was celebrated in newspaper articles, poems and songs throughout the South and acquired a worldwide reputation for expert seamanship and audacity. His depredations baffled and embarrassed Union authorities charged with putting an end to them. Popular historian Fox (Transatlantic, 2003, etc.) shows Semmes combining luck, daring, improvisation and skill to thoroughly disrupt the North’s seaborne commerce, divert limited resources from the naval blockade and severely diminish the Union appetite for war. Along the way, the author tells marvelously interesting stories about the Alabama’s unsavory crew (recruited with the promise of prize money from each ship), the foes she bested and all things Semmes, from the captain’s troubled marriage to the collection of captured chronometers that hung in his cabin like scalps. Though he clearly admires Semmes, Fox also understands and effectively conveys his occasional self-deceptions and the moral paradox of a mission motivated by the prospect of booty as much as Southern patriotism. One of history’s most famous naval duels occurred off the coast of Cherbourg on June 19, 1864, when the Confederate raider met the Union gunboat Kearsarge. Badly in need of repair, its crew near mutiny and its captain near exhaustion, the Alabama went to the bottom in a scene immortalized on canvas by Manet.
Bold and memorable, like its subject.