Book review

The Alabama & the Kearsarge: the Sailor's Civil War

By William Marvel (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)

 

Review by: Michael J. Herr, American Military University (from 'Crossfire' No. 65)

 

William Marvel - an editorial adviser to publishers of Civil War history books and magazines who served in Vietnam - further demonstrates his versatility as a proficient Civil War historian.

 

Marvel's many previous books include the award-winning Andersonville: The Last Depot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), a history of the notorious Confederate prison camp, and Burnside (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), a biography of Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. Now, the native of Norfolk, Virginia and son of a naval officer tells the stories of the two ships which on June 19, 1864, outside the French port of Cherbourg, faced off in the Civil War's most famous battle between wooden warships.


Marvel, while combining in one narrative the histories of the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge from their construction (in Liverpool, England and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, respectively) to their climactic encounter off the coast of France, also brings to life the day-to-day experiences of the men on board the ships, from the Liverpool urchins who served as cabin boys on the Alabama to the senior officers on both vessels.

 

Marvel begins with the escape of the CSS Sumter, Raphael Semmes's first command under the Stars and Bars, from the lower Mississippi River past powerful Union warships into the Gulf of Mexico. Semmes ultimately captained the Alabama, the largest cruiser ever built for the Confederacy, and sailed the oceans of the world for almost two years, terrorizing Northern shipping and capturing 55 vessels, ransoming 10 others, and sinking the USS Hatteras before arriving in Cherbourg harbor for desperately needed repairs

 

Prior to her duel with the Alabama, the Kearsarge, first commanded by Charles W. Pickering and later by John A. Winslow, failed to engage a single Southern warship in battle. The sloop spent much of her time in port, either watching an inactive adversary such as the CSS Sumter at Gibraltar, Spain or the CSS Rappahannock at Calais, France, undergoing repairs, or replenishing her supply of coal or provisions.

 

When she was at sea, the Kearsarge missed opportunities to intercept the CSS Florida and the CSS Georgia. The navy secretary, Gideon Welles, eventually lost confidence in Pickering and replaced him with Winslow. Pickering's luck did not improve after he left the Kearsarge, as 10 months later, off Charleston, South Carolina, he was in command of the USS Housatonic when it became the first warship ever to be sunk by a submarine (the CSS H. L. Hunley). In the preface, Marvel states that soldier life in the Civil War has been examined in great detail, and that "curiosity about the experience of the common sailor was one of the principal motives behind this book."

 

He also explains that "another incentive lay in the absence of a judicious and thorough investigation into the history of either the CSS Alabama or the USS Kearsarge. " Marvel says that "the surest way to uncover the real story of a time past is to go straight to the contemporary manuscripts," and he has done so in an attempt to present "a more detailed and believable picture of saltwater Yankees and Confederates" rather than "an uncritical repetition of the standard collection of postwar reminiscences and secondary works, replete with repetitions of old mistakes with a few new ones thrown in to muddle the tale."

 

This book is a wonderful addition to Civil War scholarship for several reasons. Marvel's greatest contribution is his vivid description of the everyday lives of the blue-water sailors, one of the most ignored groups of the war. The seamen on both sides led an uncomfortable and monotonous existence, interspersed with occasional drunken frolics ashore and, even less frequently, a few minutes of intense excitement and danger. They endured shortages of food and fresh water, severe cold and intense heat, brutal storms at sea and cruel punishment aboard ship for misbehaviour, and lived and worked in damp, crowded quarters. Their wartime mortality rate was lower than that of their army counterparts, but service-related ailments disproportionately shortened their postwar lives. Most of the crewmen served during the war and died later in nameless obscurity.

 

Just as the sailor's story has remained largely unwritten until now, so has that of the Kearsarge. While much literary attention has been given to the Alabama's exploits, Marvel's work is the first book-length treatment of the Yankee warship, which sank the Confederacy's most feared commerce raider. However, the lack of interest shown by historians toward the Kearsarge has probably been due at least in part to that vessel's uneventful operations prior to its rendezvous with the Alabama. In fact during the parts of Marvel's book devoted to the cruise of the Kearsarge, the reader may sometimes share the monotony of its crew and look forward to returning to sea with Captain Semmes.

 

Marvel also challenges the reliability of the memoirs on which most previous accounts of the Alabama have been based, stating in the preface that they "offered biased interpretations (and in one instance dubious credibility)" and were "left behind by ageing former officers intent on the security of their reputations." By doing so, he corrects several long-standing misconceptions, including the myth that John Laird & Sons, the Liverpool shipbuilder which constructed the Alabama, did not know what Confederate officials intended to do with the "wooden despatch vessel." Marvel often expresses his own opinion or interpretation, such as when he comments on Semmes's journal entries.

 

Employing his stated methodology and skill as a writer, Marvel has produced the definitive work on the Alabama and the Kearsarge, as well as the best account of the life of the common sailor in the Civil War. He utilizes the original muster rolls, logs, and service records; census and pension records; the letters, diaries, and journals of officers and crewmen; and many other manuscripts, including some in England and France.

 

He also makes extensive use of period newspapers from around the world and numerous published sources. In addition to being thoroughly documented and well written, this superb book contains three excellent maps, 20 pages of period photographs and other illustrations, rosters for both ships, a glossary of naval terminology, and a comprehensive bibliography The total package is scholarly, informative, and entertaining.

 

Michael J. Herr 2001