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

Article excerpt

Marvel, William. The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor's Civil War. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1996. 610pp. $34.95

In recent years a number of excellent histories have examined virtually every aspect of the American Civil War. Surprisingly, virtually none has addressed the lives of the Union and Confederate sailors, who contributed so much to their respective war efforts. In The Alabama and the Kearsarge, noted historian William Marvel corrects this obvious imbalance. In the process, he succeeds admirably in presenting the most comprehensive coverage of the hardships of the common sailor during this country's deadliest conflict.

Marvel is no stranger to readers and students of the Civil War. His Andersonville: The Last Depot and his biography of Ambrose Burnside received high acclaim throughout literary circles. In his latest effort, Marvel focuses on contemporary manuscripts, including ships' logs, and diaries and journals, to portray the sailors' Civil War. His approach is to present a parallel biography of the two ships destined to meet off the port of Cherbourg on 19 June 1864. In the ensuing engagement, the Kearsarge sent the most successful Confederate commerce raider to the bottom of the English Channel in less than an hour.

In the interim between its construction in Liverpool's Laird shipyard in the spring of 1862 and its sinking, the Alabama, commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes, captured sixty prizes and virtually ran the American merchant fleet from the high seas. In spite of Semmes's triumphs, however, life aboard the Alabama typified the hardships experienced by sailors throughout the war. Long voyages, meager rations, and recurring bouts of respiratory ailments, to say nothing of ever-present homesickness, led the Alabama's crew to near mutiny on several occasions. By the time the ship limped into Cherbourg harbor in June 1864, the damage caused by the Alabama had already reached its greatest extent. By the middle of 1864, notes Marvel, so many American vessels had been sold to foreign owners or registered under other flags that the intemational sea lanes offered few victims for Confederate raiders. …