When most people think of the Civil War, they donít think of the naval battles, unless they think of battles on the rivers or along the coast of the Confederacy, which was being blockaded by the Union Navy. Most people donít think of the Confederate Navy equaling the Federal Navy. Indeed, the Confederate Navy was very small. The South was not really involved in owning ships or owning ocean-going companies. They left that to the Yankees of New England and New York. They also relied upon foreigners like the English and the French to get their cotton and other products to the world markets and for them to bring goods to them to buy. The North was better known for being involved in sailing the seas as merchants or whalers or being in the Navy. There were exceptions in the South to this, though, and Wolf of the Deep is Stephen Foxís extremely interesting story about one of those men and his ship.
The small Confederate Navy was no match to take on the Federal Navy as a group or as a fleet. The Confederates had several ships used to run the Unionís blockade of Southern harbors. They had cruisers that also did this, but hunted the seas as well for Union merchant ships and naval ships. The CSS Alabama, the ship in this story, is one of these.
Raphael Semmes was born in Maryland in 1809, the same year Abraham Lincoln was born. He served as a midshipman to learn about and become an officer in the United States Navy; this was before the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland was created in 1845. He was accepted into the Navy, but the Navy had too many sailors and officers to man the few ships they had at the time. Semmes decided to read law and become a lawyer while awaiting an assignment from the Navy. He eventually was given command of a ship and became a lieutenant in 1837. He served during the Mexican War on ships and on land, writing a book about that war which sold well.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the South set about seceding from the Union, and Semmes decided to offer his services to the Confederate Navy. His first command was a small ship, the Sumter. Later he was given command of the better-known CSS Alabama. The Alabama, which had been built in Liverpool, England, was taken to the Azores. Semmes and other Confederate officers met it there and put a crew together. The Alabama was to destroy as many Yankee ships as it could, especially merchant ships, in order to pressure the Union into ending the war and allowing the South to go its own way. The ship was also to fight any Union naval ships it came across. The crew was made up of Confederate officers and a mostly English crew who were promised money and prizes.
The Alabama under Captain Semmes sailed in the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, visiting several countries and colonies like Brazil, South Africa, and Singapore. The British and French colonies allowed Semmes and his ship to purchase coal and hide in their ports. They thought he was a hero since the Confederate Navy was so small compared to the Federal Navy. In the early days of the Civil War it was thought that the British and the French might support the Confederacy by recognizing them as a country or that they might intervene militarily on the Southís side. Semmes captured over 60 merchant Union ships over more than two years at sea. His raiding caused the northern sea merchant companies to lose a lot of money, and they protested to the Lincoln government about not being protected from Semmes.
Semmes only fought two Union naval ships. He defeated one near Galveston, Texas and was sunk by the second in the English Channel. After the sinking, Semmes and most of his officers and men escaped to France and England. Semmes eventually made it back to the Confederacy and was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. He was put in command of a naval squadron on the James River near the Confederate capital of Richmond and then was made a brigadier general in the Confederate Army at the end. He was eventually arrested, spent a few months in a prison, and was later released. He became a judge in Mobile, Alabama, and a hero of the South. He died on August 30, 1877. The Alabama was found in the 1970s and Ď80s, but not much was left of it.
Stephen Fox uses Raphael Semmesí journal and other diaries, journals, and newspapers from that period in his research and writing of this book. Fox does an excellent job in telling the story of Semmes and the Alabama. The reader is there with the crew, sweating in the tropics or seeing the food they ate (which was not very appetizing). He presents life on the ship and the horror that Union sea merchants were going through. The drawn illustrations and photographs add visually to the story. There are few maps, a short bibliography, lots of endnotes and an index. This book is highly recommended to those interested in the Civil War naval history, the Civil War in general, and ships.
Stephen Fox is a freelance historian based in Boston. He studied American history at Williams College and at Brown University where he received his doctorate in 1971. He is the author of: Transatlantic (2003), Big Leagues (1994), Blood and Power (1990), Mirror Makers (1984), John Muir and his Legacy (1981), and Guardian of Boston (1970).