Shark of the Confederacy: The Story of the CSS Alabama. By Charles M. Robinson, III. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995. Pp. 1, 212.)

            The Shark of the Confederacy (1995) is an episodic account of the life of the CSS Alabama from 1862 to 1864.  Historian Charles M. Robinsonís story recounts the beginning and the end of the famous ship as it sailed across the world destroying the Unionís merchant fleet.  Robinson did not create a thesis-driven narrative; instead, he created an entertaining maritime story that easily captivates his readers.  Robinsonís book focuses on the Alabamaís actions at sea and briefly addresses complex issues such as the Confederate governmentís efforts to build a navy and the diplomatic arguments between foreign neutral powers, the Union, and the Confederacy.  The book is not a comprehensive or exhaustive study on the Confederate Navy but it does provide an intriguing glimpse into the brief life of the Alabama

            The book is divided into fourteen short chapters with a prologue, epilogue, and useful appendices.  Illustrations of important people and famous battles accompany the text but maps are absent.  A reader is not given the opportunity to geographically review the movements of ships or pinpoint battle sites while reading.  Robinson relied on personal diaries and memoirs of Captain Raphael Semmes, First Lieutenant John M. Kell, sailors of the Alabama, and U.S. Naval records.  Interestingly, Robinson used a large portion of secondary sources published before 1970 and a handful published in the 1980s.  The majority of his sources deal with the Union and Confederate navies and he did not list sources that address larger themes in the Civil War.  The focus on the maritime aspects of the Civil War are understandable considering the authorís goal of telling the life story of the Alabama but if the author utilized the historiography, his narrative could adequately address larger issues that impacted the Alabama

            The chapters chronologically follow the Alabama from inception to destruction, starting with the steps the Confederate government took to build the ship.  The Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory understood that the Union Navy would initiate a blockade.  President Jefferson Davis denied Malloryís request to buy ships ready for combat so Mallory changed his focus from breaking the Union blockade to harassing the Union merchant fleet with a raider.  Mallory used the Alabama to challenge the Union Navy by weakening the blockade and weakening the economy of the NorthMallory called upon Raphael Semmes to captain the raider and execute the Confederate Navyís plan. 

            The Confederate government contracted John Laird and Sons to build the Alabama in Birkenhead Iron Works shipyard in England.  A great amount of planning occurred to have the ship built in secret, to protect the sailorsí identity, and get the ship out to sea without the Union Navy knowing the whereabouts of the Alabama.  Semmes recruited foreign sailors into the Confederate Navy and had to drill and train them to be naval sailors and deter the men from acting like pirates.  Semmes succeeded in disciplining his men while at sea but while in port, the men often got drunk and were arrested.  Robinson narrates the Alabamaís successful efforts at stopping, capturing, and burning Unionís merchant ships.  The Union Navy sent about twenty-five ships to find and destroy the Alabama but none succeeded.  In 1864, after two successful years of raiding, the Alabama limped into port at Cherbourg, France only to be caught by the USS Kearsarge.  Semmes made the fateful decision to engage the Kearsarge but the Confederate ship lost the fight. 

Obvious strengths of the book are the authorís ability to recreate the shipís activities, to color the story with the Confederate sailorís bad behavior, and to analyze Semmesí decisions at sea due to the authorís personal experiences as a sailor.  Nonetheless, the book has a few weaknesses.  The author consistently alludes to political issues that arose after the war for Semmes but the author does not follow-up and examine the problems.  Robinson gives broad, generalized reasons for the demise of the Alabama and the Confederacy that lack in-depth historical arguments.  Lastly, Robinson largely ignores the useful methodologies of social history to analyze the sailors of the Alabama.  Despite the flaws in the book, the story is entertaining, enjoyable, and appropriate for a diverse readership. 

Texas Christian University                                                                              Brooke Wibracht


Shark of the Confederacy: The Story of the CSS Alabama. By Charles M. Robinson, III. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

            The CSS Alabama became a ship of legend; called both a pirate ship and a warship, both hailed as a hero and vilified the ship earned a special place in the memory of the Confederacy. Charles M. Robinson, III brings the ship out of legend to explore the history as it actually occurred. He does not argue that the Alabama did not engage in occasional raiding, but he sees its primary function is that of a legitimate warship. Robinson praises the Alabama and its caption Raphael Semmes for running one of the most successful military operations of the war. He finds it unfortunate that the Confederacy could not use this advantage to its full extent. He believes that if the Confederacy had another dozen such cruisers the war might have ended differently.

            Semmes emerges as the hero of the work; he is appointed to captain of the Alabama by the Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory. Robinson praises the appointment of Mallory, he says that Jefferson Davis could not have chosen better. Mallory alone understood the value of warfare on the high seas. Though ten of the Confederate states were coastal, the South had no real maritime tradition . Robinson believes that the Confederacy was hindered by a ďland bound mentality.Ē Their military leaders attended West Point, the Virginia Military Institute, and the Citadel, which all stressed land battles over naval battles. Even David lacked the vision to promote the Confederate Navy and Mallory found him as much of a enemy as an alley. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln and the leadership of the Union clearly valued their Navy. Lincoln backed his Navy and its admirals in every possible way. That Semmes and the Alabama become so successful is solely the product of Semmes, not the Confederacy.

            The Alabama began as a commission from Mallory. The ship was built in Great Britain. Though the Confederacy denied any intention to build a warship, once it was completed they could hardly deny its purpose. Just as Lincoln announced any Confederate ship found to be harassing U.S. ships would be considered a pirate, Semmes began outfitting his ship with a crew. Semmesís crew hardly represented only those devoted to the Confederate cause; his ship housed the English, Yankees, Confederates, and at least one Italian. Though the Union regarded them as pirates, Semmes insisted on upright military behavior. The Alabama won several battles and took large amounts of loot from Union ships in its time on the water. It finally met its match with the USS Kearsarge. The Alabama had pulled into a French port badly in need of repair. The Kearsarge found it and Semmes rose to the fight. The Union ship was outfitted with armor, which Semmes had to know about. He entered a fight that he knew heíd probably not win. The Alabama sank to the bottom of the sea.

            The legend of the Alabama began with its sinking. The Confederacy saw its sinking as one of the last nails in the coffin. The role of the ship was greatly exaggerated in the minds of the Confederacy; in all reality, the Alabama and the few other warships of the Confederacy failed to change the war in any significant ways. They failed to break the Union blockade, which might have been their one real accomplishment.  Interestingly, the legend of the Alabama is stronger outside of American borders than within. The memory of the Alabama is strongest in England, where it was built, France, where it sank, and South Africa, where it spent the most time.

            Robinsonís work is an interesting read. Historians and Civil War enthusiasts will both enjoy the story of Alabama. Though Robinson engages somewhat in the Lost Cause, he recognizes that there was little the Navy could do to change the direction of the war. He is overly enamored with Semmes, and perhaps a little too harsh on Davis. Other than his glowing admiration of Semmes, he handles the Confederacy and the Union with equal criticisms. The Shark of the Confederacy is well worth reading for those interested in the Confederateís most successful ships.

Misty Mehrtens

Texas Christian University



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


Shark 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.    

Melanie Kirkland