By Phil Keith with Tom Clavin, Hanover Square Press [HarperCollins], (2022)
Reviewed by John Grady
“To the Uttermost Ends of the Earth” is one of the best works aimed at a general audience on the naval aspects of the Civil War. Phil Keith and Tom Clavin have brought back to life one of the most rakish figures of the war, Raphael Semmes, the Maryland-born Confederate raider and given much needed attention to John Winslow, the North Carolinian and relentless hunter of his former shipmate who was then commanding CSS Alabama.
The CSS Alabama’s record of taking more than 60 vessels registered in the United States during its cruising of the world’s oceans remains a telling factor even today of the diminished place America holds as a maritime trading power. Insurance rates for oceanic trade under the U.S. flag skyrocketed with each sinking on the high seas caused by Confederate commerce raiders, including the lesser known but still successful strikes of CSS Florida and CSS Georgia.
Semmes and the able John Kell, his executive officer, set the standard for raiders in commanding the renamed Hull Number 290 built at the Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead, across the Mersey River from Liverpool.
Keith, who died before “To the Ends of the Earth” was published this spring, and Clavin provide the general reader a useful guide as to how the Confederacy, though recognized as a “belligerent” power by Great Britain, France, and other nations, should never have been allowed to build a disguised warship in supposedly neutral country and worse yet take on board foreign nationals from that country as crew.
For the nitty-gritty of how that worked – through phony buyers – see James D. Bulloch’s masterful two-volume The Confederate Secret Service in Europe, first published in 1884 but still available today. Bulloch, Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle, was the master of the art of duplicity in building and buying ships that appeared to be merchantmen but were “commissioned” in international waters as Confederate warships.
Let’s simply say official eyes in governments in London and Paris were averted.
Keith and Clavin, co-authors of the best-selling “All Blood Runs Red,” also perform a remarkable service in tracing how each captain, both men in their 50s, took to their mission. Even using the best Navy charts, ironically done under the direction of Matthew Fontaine Maury who was then serving the Confederacy, on the best sailing routes between key points, Winslow, commanding USS Kearsarge, faced the daunting challenge of finding a tiny moving object operating from the Azores to Cape Town to Singapore.
Semmes’ use of the same charts had been essential in falling on unsuspecting merchantmen. But he faced major problems as weeks slipped into months and months to more than a year. First, CSS Alabama had no easy access to admiralty courts willing to auction of its captures as “prizes,” and then splitting the take among captain, officers, and crew. What the raiders were reduced to was emptying safes of specie and currency, confiscating nautical instruments, taking necessary supplies – meat, vegetables, flour, etc. from the captive vessel, finding a place to release the crew, and then torching it.
American merchantmen were soon falsifying papers of ownership or staying in port.
More troubling yet for Semmes’ crew’s physical and mental health and the continued operation of CSS Alabama, there were really no ports even at “the uttermost ends of the earth” where the men could have extended shore leave and the ship attended to after battering months at sea. Semmes counted himself lucky when he could buy additional coal in a closely-watched foreign port.
These fuel stops also alerted U.S. consuls and agents to Alabama’s presence, and they sent word to Washington and gave key information to other U.S. Navy vessels operating nearby.
For Winslow those tips and his knowledge of the charts led Kearsarge to being in the right place at the right time when it came to finally bagging Semmes. Credit also must go to the training demands laid on by his executive officer James Thornton to the gunners when the showdown came off the French coast.
Where the authors shine is recounting the battle off Cherbourg – both in understanding weather, seas, the moves of the two captains and the vessels’ conditions as warships which were vitally important to the outcome. The fouled condition of Alabama’s powder, suspected for weeks and known before the battle assured Winslow’s victory. As proof, time and again, Kearsarge suffered little damage despite being at close range of Semmes’ guns. The hundreds watching from the shore through the smoke had an imperfect gauge as to what was happening six miles away which resulted in the sinking of the Alabama on June 19, 1864.
Rather than surrendering to Winslow, the wounded Semmes, however, was taken aboard a British-owned vessel and escaped capture. This action set off a firestorm of anger in the Union Navy and official Washington. It was one reason he was arrested after the war to face a military commission, rather than be granted a parole although the charges were ultimately dropped.
John Grady is the author of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography and writes for the U.S. Naval Institute.
Tom Clavin is a New York Times bestselling author of books of history and nonfiction. He has worked as a newspaper and website editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for the New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association.
Phil Keith is the author of several books, including Blackhorse Riders, which won the 2012 award from USA Book News for Best Military Nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2013 Colby Award, and earned a 2013 silver medal from the Military Writers Society of America. He holds a degree in history from Harvard and is a former US Navy aviator. During three tours in Vietnam, he served with distinction and was awarded, among other decorations, the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Navy Commendation Medal.
To the Uttermost Ends of the Earth, The Epic Hunt for the South’s Most Feared Ship – and the Greatest Sea Battle of the Civil War. By Tom Calvin and Phil Keith (Hanover Square Press [HarperCollins]: 2022)