Burning one Union ship after another, he eluded capture time and again, ravaging Union commerce. But when the tide turned in favor of the Union, foreign ports were less willing to take in the Alabama, forcing Semmes to wander the oceans on a deteriorating ship, his ability to outwit the Union captains diminishing rapidly. Finally, in 1864, a Union ship sank the Alabama - though not her captain - in a world-renowned battle.
©2007 Stephen Fox; (P)2007 Blackstone Audio Inc.
"[A] fact-filled, cleanly written...well-conceived, and executed military biography." (Publishers Weekly)
I enjoyed this book. Yes is does go deep into the background of Semmes, but I think it is important in understanding who he was. It is not the greatest book about Naval strategy, but it is a great book about the story of the Alabama and the life of Captain Semmes.
This book starts out well - very interesting descriptions of the ship construction in England - how preparations for war were completed - how workers were taken to sea then recruited to become privateers with the promise of riches. Unfortunately (from my point of view) the narrative lapses into tedious descriptions of the captain's personal life - for example; how his wife committed adultery and how the family covered it up (I think it was OK to mention this in passing, but the author spends eternities dissection letters, etc... MUCH MUCH MORE TIME that is ever given to a battle description!) For someone interested in the intimate details of southern life during the civil war - THIS IS YOUR BOOK! But for someone who is interested in detailed descriptions of battles and strategy - you will have to wade through a lot of extraneous and tedious personal information. I should mention that I stopped listening after I could not stand the personal details any longer (about a third through the book) - so it might get better. I will also mention that I have listened to every book on the history of sea war/travel that audible has - and this is the first book I stopped listening to.
I do not know how anyone could not love this book, or the figure of Commander Raphael Semmes, the South's greatest naval hero. The biography neatly balances the details of Semmes's curious and poignant personal life, against the vast sweep of the two-year odyssey of the commerce raider CSS Alabama.
The book admirably avoids partisanship when it comes to the War Between the States...at least till the last few chapters, when Fox briefly goes off on a quasi-Marxist rant against the Confederacy, damning Semmes for having "racist" [sic] beliefs. This sudden disgression seems forced and artificial. I'm just guessing here, but it appears this change of voice was imposed by the publishing house. Fox's editor must have been getting a little uneasy about putting out a popular history wherein the hero is a Confederate Navy commander who sinks 100 Yankee ships, while the villains are all Yankee politicians, diplomats, or (in the notable case of Clarence Yonge) money-grubbing turncoats in their employ. So Mr. Fox paid his lip-service to Political Correctness, and in due course the book was published by HarperCollins of New York and London, rather than the Dixieland Vanity Press of Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Fox seems to be the first biographer to uncover the details of Semmes's unfaithful wife and her illegitimate child Anna, conceived while Semmes was off fighting the Mexican War, and delivered shortly after he returned. Semmes behaved as a true Christian gentleman in this crisis; a veritable St Joseph. Although the child was sent away to Eden Hall for some years, she was never disavowed, and is always listed as the fifth of their six children. (Fox offers a bizarre interpretation of Semmes's forbearance and charity, explaining it away as a product of Catholic leniency toward sinfulness.)
For this Audible edition, I have only one complaint about the performance. The reader does not know how to pronounce "Raphael." Here in America, and the English-speaking world in general, the archangelic name is usually "RAY-feeyul." But the narrator consistently says "ROFF-ay-el," making it weirdly exotic, as though Semmes were some sort of Mexican or Levantine. Can it be he's never heard the name before?
This book is read in a way that only a Navy man could understand. His hardships, separation from family, adultery on the part of his wife, are today common themes. Similar themes can be found in his
Memories of Service Afloat regarding the CSS Alabama. I highly recommend this title.
Gary Price, former Petty Officer 2nd Class
USS Ranger CV 61 & USS Carl Vinson CVN 70
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