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A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah

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“The cruise of a ship is a biography,” wrote the Confederacy’s foremost sailor, Raphael Semmes. A ship can be, therefore, a central character in a life story through which we view the momentous past more clearly. From October 1864 to November 1865, the CSS Shenandoah carried the Civil War around the globe to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm. Her “The cruise of a ship is a biography,” wrote the Confederacy’s foremost sailor, Raphael Semmes. A ship can be, therefore, a central character in a life story through which we view the momentous past more clearly. From October 1864 to November 1865, the CSS Shenandoah carried the Civil War around the globe to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm. Her officers represented a cross section of the Confederacy from Old Dominion first families through the Deep South aristocracy to a middle-class Missourian: a nephew of Robert E. Lee; a grandnephew of founder George Mason; a son-in-law to Raphael Semmes; grandsons of men who fought at George Washington’s side; an uncle of Theodore Roosevelt. They considered themselves Americans, Southerners, rebels, and warriors embarking on the voyage of their lives, defending their country as they understood it, and pursuing a difficult, dangerous mission in which they succeeded spectacularly after it no longer mattered. Shenandoah was a magnificent ship. Her commerce-raiding mission was a central component of U.S. Navy heritage and a watery form of asymmetric warfare in the spirit of John Mosby, Bedford Forrest, and W. T. Sherman. She contributed to the diplomatic maelstrom of the Civil War, as evidenced by a contentious visit to Melbourne, Australia. Later, at the Pacific island of Pohnpei, Southern gentlemen enjoyed a tropical holiday while their country lay dying, mingling with an exotic warrior society that was more like them than they knew. Their observations looking back from the most remote and alien surroundings imaginable, along with the viewpoints of those they encountered, provide unique perspectives of the conflict. Finally, Shenandoah invaded the north, the deep cold of the Bering Sea. She fired the last gun of the conflict and set crystal waters aglow with flaming Yankee whalers. Seven months after Appomattox, Shenandoah limped into Liverpool. Captain Waddell lowered the last Confederate banner without defeat or surrender. This is, as Admiral Semmes describes, a biography of a cruise and a microcosm of the Confederate-American experience.


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“The cruise of a ship is a biography,” wrote the Confederacy’s foremost sailor, Raphael Semmes. A ship can be, therefore, a central character in a life story through which we view the momentous past more clearly. From October 1864 to November 1865, the CSS Shenandoah carried the Civil War around the globe to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm. Her “The cruise of a ship is a biography,” wrote the Confederacy’s foremost sailor, Raphael Semmes. A ship can be, therefore, a central character in a life story through which we view the momentous past more clearly. From October 1864 to November 1865, the CSS Shenandoah carried the Civil War around the globe to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm. Her officers represented a cross section of the Confederacy from Old Dominion first families through the Deep South aristocracy to a middle-class Missourian: a nephew of Robert E. Lee; a grandnephew of founder George Mason; a son-in-law to Raphael Semmes; grandsons of men who fought at George Washington’s side; an uncle of Theodore Roosevelt. They considered themselves Americans, Southerners, rebels, and warriors embarking on the voyage of their lives, defending their country as they understood it, and pursuing a difficult, dangerous mission in which they succeeded spectacularly after it no longer mattered. Shenandoah was a magnificent ship. Her commerce-raiding mission was a central component of U.S. Navy heritage and a watery form of asymmetric warfare in the spirit of John Mosby, Bedford Forrest, and W. T. Sherman. She contributed to the diplomatic maelstrom of the Civil War, as evidenced by a contentious visit to Melbourne, Australia. Later, at the Pacific island of Pohnpei, Southern gentlemen enjoyed a tropical holiday while their country lay dying, mingling with an exotic warrior society that was more like them than they knew. Their observations looking back from the most remote and alien surroundings imaginable, along with the viewpoints of those they encountered, provide unique perspectives of the conflict. Finally, Shenandoah invaded the north, the deep cold of the Bering Sea. She fired the last gun of the conflict and set crystal waters aglow with flaming Yankee whalers. Seven months after Appomattox, Shenandoah limped into Liverpool. Captain Waddell lowered the last Confederate banner without defeat or surrender. This is, as Admiral Semmes describes, a biography of a cruise and a microcosm of the Confederate-American experience.

36 review for A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah

  1. 4 out of 5

    Cindy Vallar

    On 19 October 1864, the Sea King left England. Designed by William Rennie and built by A. Stephen & Sons, she was a square-rigged clipper with a steam engine. She could cruise comfortably at nine knots. But she wasn’t destined to trade in tea; James Dunwoody Bulloch had other plans for her. He was the chief purchasing agent for the Confederate States of America’s navy, and he felt Sea King would make an ideal commerce raider. Union spies and government representatives, however, made it unwise fo On 19 October 1864, the Sea King left England. Designed by William Rennie and built by A. Stephen & Sons, she was a square-rigged clipper with a steam engine. She could cruise comfortably at nine knots. But she wasn’t destined to trade in tea; James Dunwoody Bulloch had other plans for her. He was the chief purchasing agent for the Confederate States of America’s navy, and he felt Sea King would make an ideal commerce raider. Union spies and government representatives, however, made it unwise for Bulloch to openly purchase her. She left England disguised as a merchant ship. When she rendezvoused with another British ship near the Portuguese islands of Madeira a month later, James Waddell came aboard as her captain and she began what would become a successful, ten-month-long voyage around the world. She was renamed CSS Shenandoah, and her officer corps came from eight different southern states. Some were related to Robert E. Lee, George Mason, Teddy Roosevelt, and Raphael Semmes. Only two men, her captain and her surgeon, were older than twenty-five. Although her initial crew numbered barely enough to work her, she would enlist additional men from captured prizes and foreign ports. They came from Yankee and Rebel states, as well as numerous European countries, the East Indies, and Africa. Some had sailed on her predecessor, CSS Alabama. Personal journals, memoirs, archival documents, naval records from the American Civil War, and contemporary newspapers provide primary evidence of what transpired on this cruise. The majority of this biography is seen through the eyes of those who sailed aboard her as she took the fight to the enemy, pursuing them almost to the Arctic Circle. In a single week she captured twenty-four whalers. This account provides glimpses into life at sea, especially in a world where the country of these men wasn’t yet recognized by other nations. Those who sailed from the South shared their hopes, their fears, and their experiences, including what they thought and felt as news from home reached them. Before they fired the last Confederate guns of Civil War, they had to transform their ship into a fighting machine while at sea. They endured storms; almost became trapped in ice; held prize courts to determine whether their captures were legal or not; dealt with captives; and played host to visitors from Melbourne, Australia, while heeding legal dictates of the government and circumventing the American counsel’s attempts to have their vessel seized as a pirate ship. Events during the last months of the Civil War and the Union government’s attempts to hunt down Shenandoah are interspersed throughout the narrative. To enhance the reading experience, Hughes includes a map of where she cruised, her sail plan and builder’s plans, and a center section of black-and-white photographs of the ship and those who sailed on her. The book also includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Two items that are missing, but would have been helpful, are a complete list of officers and crew and a list of the prizes they captured. As with any biography, Hughes does provide information of what happened to Shenandoah after Waddell surrendered her to the British and to the men who served aboard her. Anyone with an interest in commerce raiding, the Confederate navy, and the American Civil War will find A Confederate Biography a revealing account of the ship and her crew.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Carmen Gordon

    I won this book in a giveaway, and gave it to my husband to read, as he loves Confederate history. He found the book to be a bit dry, but very well researched about an obscure part of naval history. He recommends this book for anyone who has an intense interest in such. I will be happy to donate my copy to my local library, as it will be an excellent research resource.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dorothy Mariotti

    Thank you to the author, Dwight Sturtevant Hughes, and Goodreads for the opportunity to read "A Confederate Biography". It was a interesting read about the CSS Shenandoah with great research from first hand accounts. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Civil War History. Thank you to the author, Dwight Sturtevant Hughes, and Goodreads for the opportunity to read "A Confederate Biography". It was a interesting read about the CSS Shenandoah with great research from first hand accounts. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Civil War History.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Terry

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    Kevin Boatman

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