Shark of the Confederacy: The Story of the CSS Alabama, By Charles M. Robinson, III. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
As Charles Robinson aptly demonstrates, the story of the CSS Alabama is equally engaging and insignificant. While many aspects of its voyages are the stuff of legend, its role as a commerce raider and occasional fighting ship bore no impact on the military fortunes of the Confederacy for which it sailed. Yet, Robinson argues that the Alabamaís successes demonstrated that the Confederacy might have pressed its advantage in the only theater of the war where the Union had no real advantage Ė the high seas.
The successes of the Alabama came largely because of the innate skill of its captain, Raphael Semmes, and the foresight of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory. The former was a life-long naval officer, who early in the Civil War approached Mallory about the strategic applicability of commerce raiding. At his request, Mallory seconded an undersized, under-armed, and under-fueled ship to Semmesís command, and in the spring of 1861 the CSS Sumter launched for the task. Despite its great coastline, the South had no grand maritime tradition; it also lacked many trained workers and proper stations for the project, but Semmes personally oversaw its refitting. In early July 1861, his attention paid off as the Sumter took its first prize, the USS Golden Rocket. It took 17 others before breaking down. Still, its efforts pleased Mallory because it had forced the Union to reassign ships from the blockade to its pursuit.
He thus dispatched James Bulloch overseas to personally design and direct the building of as many commerce raiders as the Confederacy could afford. In Liverpool, Bulloch oversaw the design of a hull dubbed the Enrica, with large store rooms and a condenser attached to its boilers to produce fresh water; its design was perfect for long voyages on the seas. Once outfitted for the ocean and away from coastal waters, its captain Ė Semmes Ė on 24 August 1862 unveiled its true name and mission: the CSS Alabama would raid Union commerce virtually undaunted for the next two years.
It cost the Confederacy approximately $250,000 but its total bounty of destroyed property exceeded $4.5 MM. Within the first two weeks of its mission, the Alabama took ten prizes and weathered two gales. This experience turned a rather motley crew into a well-drilled, efficient raiding naval force under Semmesís stern, professional command, and gave the ship a legendary aura of invincibility. Along these lines the author evokes a Lost Cause tone, consistently praising Semmesís honor in battle. Additionally, one overly-romanticized tale even evokes the narrative stylings of William Gilmore Simms. David White, a Delaware-based slave, was seized as property from a prize ship, yet enrolled as an Alabama crewmember with full pay. Robinson praises Whiteís almost-filial loyalty toward Semmes, noting that he declined several opportunities to desert and eventually went down with the ship.
Otherwise, Robinsonís text is generally even-handed. Certainly the Alabama elicited romantic notions of swashbuckling pirates as it took prizes from the Caribbean to the South China Sea. It disrupted Union trade to the point that such ships either avoided the traditional sea lanes altogether or sailed under forged documents. Militarily, the Alabama had engaged and sunk the Unionís Hatteras off the Texas coast in early 1863. For these reasons it remained a political thorn in the sides of both Lincoln and Gideon Welles, who dispatched several Union vessels expressly for the purposes of hunting Semmes and the Alabama. While the Vanderbilt stalked it near Cape Town in late 1863, Semmes escaped its grasp and headed into Asian waters. But by the end of the year the shipís log documented willingly neglected opportunities for overhauling, indicating the worn-down state of both ship and crew. It re-crossed the Cape of Good Hope by March 1864, and on 27 April took its final prize Ė the Tycoon. Semmes put into port at Cherbourg, France, with his hull breaking down and his powder faulty.
The USS Kearsarge found it there, and Semmes faced little alternative but to fight. On 19 June 1864, poor gunnery and defective munitions doomed the Alabama to the bottom of the sea. Yet, characteristic of his ďSouthernĒ honor and the Lost Cause sentimentality, Semmes and his senior officers consistently maintained they had not known of the Kearsargeís armor. A number of sources, including several of their fellow crewmembers, challenge their ignorance, and Robinson rightly blames the technical aspects of Alabamaís demise over this notion of dishonorable combat. Although Semmes hoped his vessel earned status as a fighting ship rather than a mere commerce raider, Robinson notes that its inability to alter Wellesís dogged enforcement of the blockade meant the Alabama made little military impact.
Matthew A. McNiece
of the Confederacy: The Story of the CSS Alabama. By Charles M.
Robinson III. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
In Shark of the
Confederacy: The Story of the CSS Alabama, author Charles M. Robinson III
delivers a narrative detailing events leading to the acquisition of the CSS
Alabama, its notorious career, and its dramatic demise with unabashed
enthusiasm. According to the author, the Alabama struck terror into
the hearts of Union military planners and incited an ocean-wide hunt.
In so doing, she accomplished her mission, drawing several Union ships
away from Southern coasts and weakening the Union blockade of Southern ports.
Northerners thought of the Alabama
and her crew, led by Captain Raphael Semmes, as a pirate ship. Southerners and their supporters in England and France looked
upon the Alabama and her crew as
romantic, swashbuckling heroes.
The narrative begins with an assessment of the
appointment of Stephen R. Mallory to the office of secretary of the Confederate
navy. Robinson argues that Mallory
represented the most competent and stable man in Davisí cabinet.
Malloryís previous distaste for secession won him few friends in the
Confederate government. According to the author, Mallory equaled Gideon Welles,
secretary of the Union navy, in skill and knowledge of the organization and
logistics of naval warfare. However,
Mallory lacked the support and resources enjoyed by Welles.
The author attributes the lack of Confederate support for a navy to
previous southern attitudes to the navy. Prior
to the outbreak of war, the North produced naval power and a merchant fleet for
the transport of southern goods to foreign markets. The South had virtually no maritime traditions and Davis
failed to grasp the urgent need for a navy.
Davis declined an offer from the British East India Company to sell the
Confederacy its ships for $10 million. As
a result, the South lost its best chance to acquire a ready-made navy.
Malloryís strategy for combating the Union on the
high seas focused on attacking her merchant fleet. Since the South possessed no merchant fleet, the Union lacked
the ability to reciprocate in kind. Mallory
conscripted every available vessel to attack the Union merchant fleet.
He hoped that these activities would damage the Unionís economy and
hamper the Unionís ability to prolong the war.
If successful, Welles would order Union ships blockading southern ports
to break off and hunt the offending Confederate vessels, thus weakening the
blockade and allowing blockade runners to evade Union ships.
The CSS Alabama would serve this purpose.
Robinsonís review of the career of Captain Raphael Semmes reveals a trained naval officer focused on the execution of his duty. Semmes began his Confederate career as a captain aboard the CSS Sumter, the first Confederate warship. While in command of the Sumter, Semmes and his crew ďoverhauledĒ several Union ships, confiscating their cargo and capturing many prisoners of war. Nevertheless, the Sumter, a converted coastal steamer, suffered significant damage at sea. Forced to seek repairs in Spain, the Sumter limped into port for repairs following a storm at sea. Union ships found her there and waited off shore to sink the Sumter when Semmes set sail. In response, Semmes discharged the crew and took most of his officers to England, where they obtained passage back to America. Semmes auctioned off the Sumter in Spain. The Confederate experience with the Sumter convinced Confederate planners that converted coastal steamers garnered limited success against the Union fleet. Future ships would come from foreign sources, since the south lacked the means to produce naval vessels at home.
The author devotes many passages to descriptions of
the Alabama and her layout.
Contemporary accounts, including those of her captain, liked the Alabama
to a swan. In practice, the crew of
the Alabama transformed the ship into
ďa shark, swimming among the minnows.Ē The product of Navy Commander James
Bullockís endeavors, the Alabama
began as ďHull No. 290Ē in England at the Birkenhead Iron Works.
Unlike most contemporary ship designers, Bullock chose wood, rather than
iron, for the hull of the ship. Once
built and christened the CSS Alabama,
Semmes received his commission to command the Alabama.
The Alabama spent her
illustrious career terrorizing the Unionís merchant fleet for two years.
Then, on 19 June 1864, the USS
Kearsarge confronted the Alabama as
she sailed from port in Cherbourg, France.
After a desperate battle, the Alabama
sank to the depths of the English Channel.
The Kearsarge sent two rescue
boats out to save the Alabamaís
crew, igniting a controversy of accusations charging the captain of the Kearsarge with delaying the rescue too long.
An English yacht, the Deerhound, aided in the rescue of the Alabama crew.
Robinson ends his work with a brief epilogue
detailing recent efforts to locate and salvage the Alabama.
Apparently, disputes over ownership rights between France and the United
States hampers efforts to salvage the site, which salvagers discovered in 1976.
The authorís work provides the reader with an entertaining, if brief, account of the CSS Alabama. The authorís writing style and obvious enthusiasm for his subject lend to an informative narrative detailing the Confederate Navy, Semmes, and the Alabama. He follows his text with a contemporary description of the Alabama, a list of the ships overhauled by the Alabama, and an appendix containing the text of the CSS Alabama Preservation Act of 1989. Following these appendixís, the author provides the reader with endnotes revealing research in primary and secondary sources. He concludes with a bibliography and index.