Wednesday, January 16, 2008

CWL---Wolf of the Deep: Reluctant Pirate or Rebel Patriot?

Wolf of the Deep: Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama, Steven Fox, Knopf Publishing, 336 pp., index, illustrations, $25.95

Partly because of his seafaring skills and partly because of his luck, Raphael Semmes is in the second tier of Confederate Lost Cause heros. Fact-filled and with a crisp narrative, Steven Fox's biography of Semmes's focuses on an personally heroic 22-month voyage as captain of the most famous Confederate privateer, the CSS Alabama.

Sinking nearly 70 Union merchant schooners, whalers and other commercial ships to counteract the Yankee blockade of Southern ports, Semmes' Alabama terrorized the U.S. economy. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase were mightly discomforted by the 'Wolf of the Deep'. Until June 1864 when the Alabama was sunk by the U.S.S. Kearsage in a brief battle near Cherbourg France, the U.S. struggled against the flight of marine vessel registrations and wartime inflation fueled in part of the lost of imports and exports.

A child of a slave-owning, tobacco-farming family, Semmes early in life became a slavery apologist and late in life an unreconstructed rebel. An orphan and growing up in Washington, D.C., Semmes at age 17 joined the U.S. Navy. After serving without distinction for over 30 years and acquiring the reputation as a contrarian, Semmes came into his element when he accepted a commission in the Confederate navy.

Steven Fox's nautical biography will have appeal for those who are not sailors. Moving from adventure to adventure, family squabble to family squabble, martial affair to marital affair (one for Mrs. one for Mr.)Semmes becomes a complex, daring and sometimes arrogant character. More detailed and more fully descriptive than Raphael Semmes and the Alabama(Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series) by Spencer C. Tucker, Fox presents a very complex, very Roman Catholic, very family-oriented pirate of the high seas. Exhausted after more than twenty months at sea that culminated in the sinking of the Alabama, Semmes luxuriated in his fame and toured Europe with a 20-something British heiress.

For this landlubber, Steven Fox's Wolf of the Deep: Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama, was a healthy excursion. On the CWL bookshelf,Wolf of the Deep: Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama, earns an spot beside Ship of Gold In the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder and Lost Gold of the Republic: The Remarkable Quest for the Greatest Shipwreck Treasure of the Civil War Era by Priit J. Vesilind.

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