In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

80CIVIL WAR HISTORY action versus reaction, and strategy versus grand strategy. For the overworked historian, however, these books would be more welcome and effective as focused interpretive essays or articles. John M. Coski The Museum of the Confederacy RaphaelSemmes. The PhilosophicalMariner. ByWarren F. Spencer. (Tuscaloosa: University ofAlabama Press, 1997. Pp. 352. $37.95.) Raphael Semmes's commerce raiding brought the Civil War to foreign shores and, according to traditional views, destroyed the American merchant marine. Older biographies focused on the "dramatic" aspects of Semmes's Civil War career. More recently, John M. Taylor's Confederate Raider (1994) offered a detailed, graceful, and sober assessment of Semmes' career and personality. Other works have focused on the cruise ofAlabama. What, then, can Warren F. Spencer—drawing from unpublished journals and letters, the many older biographies , and, of course, published memoirs—add? Spencer does an exceptional job setting Semmes's career within the broader temporal, geographic, political, economic, and technological contexts. After recapitulating his service in and views about Mexico, he presents Semmes's view of the secession crisis in a straight-forward, nonjudgmental manner. In Memoirs ofServiceAfloat, Semmes describes the coming of the war as a movement to defend the constitutional right of secession. Yet he also saw the North and the South as two countries populated by two peoples, and slavery as one of the political and economic divisions—not as a moral issue. As a result, he tended to downplay, or even ignore, the role of slavery in the coming of the war. When Alabama seceded in January 1861, Semmes went with his adoptive state and immediately began to assess the South's navy yards, coastal defenses, and coastal trade. He recommended the use ofprivateers—even though he knew they had been banned by the Declaration of Paris. Semmes was also charged with arranging contracts for munitions and arms. In all, these activities proved critical to Confederate successes. Semmes's first sea command for the Confederacy was the steamer Sumter, whose duty was to capture Northern commercial shipping. Certainly, it is easy to accept Spencer's claim that Semmes's revolt against the flag "was a soulwrenching " experience, but the assertion that his purpose in commandingSumter would be "peaceful" is altogether too defensive. Torching merchant vessels (as Semmes did for the first time in July 1 86 1 , and which he described in his memoirs with almost loving detail) is ethically reprehensible. Semmes's frequently articulated racism, ofcourse, puts his actions into perspective. Spencer is forced to admit that "basically Semmes was fighting a war to preserve the white race," yet he prefers to emphasize Semmes the "Southern Gentleman." Nevertheless, Spencer provides a valuable insight by suggesting that Semmes's very first cap- BOOK REVIEWS8l ture aboardSumter established his pattern throughout the next three years: good treatment of prisoners, acquisition of the ship's chronometer, and adherence to international law. Then came the Alabama cruise—Semmes's most famous. Spencer argues convincingly that the source of Semmes's success was his knowledge of the winds, currents, and seas. This chapter is richly detailed—but it is also the most traditional, based largely on Semmes's Service Afloat and describing events that have been covered many times. To his credit, Spencer notes that Gideon Welles correctly focused on the blockade rather than the capture of Alabama. Alabama's battle with Kearsarge has been recounted many times, so there is little that Spencer can add. In his view, Semmes had no alternative but to fight— despiteAlabama's decrepit condition—whileKearsarge, protecting herselfwith chains, won the battle "by deceit and trickery." Here, Spencer cannot separate himselffrom his subject's point ofview. Semmes was, essentially, an old-school naval man fighting a forward-looking foe. Despite his undeniable accomplishments , he was a man of the past, defeated by the future—much like the wouldbe nation for which he was fighting. This, then, is the book's principal weakness. It is (understandably) written so much from Semmes's perspective that it becomes defensive about his every belief and action. There are ethicaljudgements to be made, but Spencer retreats from making them. In all, Spencer is fuzzy on Semmes's legacy and skirts its negative aspects...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 80-81
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.