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Book Review, NRJ 61.2

May 15, 2016 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenadoah

Dwight Sturtevant Hughes

Over the past decade no fewer than ten books have been written about the Confederate cruiser CSS Shenandoah. These volumes include the published memoirs of 1st Lieutenant William C. Whittle, a biography of the ship’s commander, James Iredell Waddell that focuses almost exclusively on his time aboard Shenandoah, two studies that focus on the ship’s layover in Australia while repairing and refueling, and a handful of more general works relating the story of this most fascinating of Confederate vessels. Perhaps only CSS Alabama has gained more attention from writers and scholars, and quite possibly only because the raider was first, sailing earlier than Shenandoah. Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, was also quite the self-promoter, writing of the ship’s exploits immediately following its destruction by USS Kearsarge in June 1864. Being the only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, Shenandoah is worthy of such attention. However, this reviewer was skeptical when presented with yet another study of this admittedly famous ship. At what point is saturation reached?

Coming in at slightly more than 200 pages, A Confederate Biography offers a well-written, thoroughly documented, and mostly lively account of Shenandoah’s service. Based almost exclusively upon the vast amount of primary sources available, mainly the officers’ diaries and memoirs, as well as the ship’s log, the author picks and chooses his quotes to fit every purpose and make the book come alive. He is also very well-versed in the secondary literature not only on Shenandoah, but on the Union and Confederate navies in general. While this book does not exactly break any new interpretive ground, it tells the story as well as, if not better than, most of the previous works. The pacing of the book is excellent, with most chapters being only ten pages long, allowing readers to digest the book in small chunks if they wish.

The author is at his best when relaying human interest stories. He does a wonderful job of bringing each officer’s or petty officer’s personality to the forefront, displaying their strengths, weaknesses, likenesses, and differences. The reader feels as if they know each one by the end of the book. Accounts of the time spent in Australia and on remote Pacific islands are also very well written. Stories of the capture and destruction of each prize are action-packed, keeping the reader engaged throughout. The book includes two very helpful diagrams of the ship and a map of its cruise, as well as a section of photographs, all of which add to the reader’s understanding.

While there is little to criticize about this book, a couple of things should be mentioned. The pace of the book slows considerably when the author is covering periods of relative inactivity. Portions of Shenandoah’s cruise were very lackluster, particularly days and weeks that stretched on with no action, and nothing to report save for occasional bad weather. The reader can very much perceive the lag in these portions of the book. Second, the author consistently remarks on the disposition of the ship’s sails throughout the entire book. A reader with solid knowledge of period sailing vessels may find this kind of detail interesting, but the general reader will find this information superfluous.

These minor shortcomings aside, A Confederate Biography stacks up well against the aforementioned number of volumes about CSS Shenandoah and its crew. Paired with Angus Curry’s The Officers of the CSS Shenandoah (University Press of Florida, 2006) any reader would learn just about all they care to know about the ship and its famous cruise. This reviewer doubts that there is anything left to write about the subject; saturation has been reached.

  •  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xvii + 239 pages
  • Illustrations, map, diagrams, notes, bibliography, index. $41.95
  • ISBN: 9781612518411

Reviewed by Andrew Duppstadt, North Carolina State Historic Sites

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