Stephen Fox,
Wolf of the Deep
(Vintage, 2007)

Most of the associations that spring immediately to mind regarding the American Civil War are places -- such as Bull Run, Appomattox, Antietam and Gettysburg -- and people who dominated the bloody ground war that tore apart the United States. If thoughts turn at all to naval engagements, they are often limited to Hampden Roads and the famous clash between the Monitor and the Merrimack.

Stephen Fox brings the war at sea into clear focus with Wolf of the Deep. Subtitled "Raphael Semmes & the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama," the book explores thoroughly the career of the short-lived but highly successful Confederate privateer, a British-built ship that waged war on Union concerns in oceans all over the world.

This well-researched text focuses on Semmes, an experienced if uninspiring captain who assumed command of the Alabama in August 1862 and, by the end of the ship's career in June 1864, had taken 69 commercial prizes and had sunk the Union warship, USS Hatteras. Although infamous for his exploits all over the globe, this book digs deeply into Semmes' ambitions and recollections, drawn largely from his own memoirs and logbooks, as well as the unruly crew that made Alabama feared wherever Union ships might sail.

The story is riveting for anyone remotely interested in Civil War or American naval history. Fox presents the facts clearly, equally showing Semmes' successes and failures, his strength of character and his personal weaknesses. Readers will learn about Semmes' family and their place in the war, as well as the backgrounds and performances of his officers on the ship; little, however, is known about the crew that sailed her. And everything is set neatly into the overarching context of Union and Confederate politics and military strategies, as well as the perspective on the war in other nations.

If there is a failing here, it is Fox's tendency to repeat himself often. Many points are made in one chapter, only to be repeated later in slightly different wording. Much of the text is dry, too, if only because Semmes' naval conquests rarely involved more than a warning shot across his target's bow; don't read this expecting great battles on the high seas. Even the climactic meeting between the Alabama and the Union warship Kearsarge a few miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France, ends with remarkable speed.

For entertainment value, it might be more enjoyable to read a historical novel on Semmes and the Alabama, if one exists. But Fox has done an exceptional job condensing this often-overlooked piece of American history into a highly interesting text.

review by
Tom Knapp

18 April 2009

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