Dec 18

Our Other Navy

Friday, December 18, 2015 12:01 AM


The Confederacy has been much in the news—or at least its symbols have, with many Americans wishing to erase those symbols from sight and mind. Thus it may not be the best time to publish a book titled A Confederate Biography. Nevertheless, I was drawn to the subject as a great sea story, and through the course of my research, I discovered that it was much more than that: it is a real American tale, a significant slice of Civil War history, and a wonderful navy narrative—the Confederate navy, our other navy.

The idea of biography was suggested by Admiral Raphael Semmes, former captain of the CSS Alabama, in his Memoirs of Service Afloat, a superb sea story and historical account: “The cruise of a ship is a biography. The ship becomes a personification. She not only, ‘walks the waters like a thing of life,’ but she speaks in moving accents to those capable of interpreting her.” The thought struck home with personal experiences, but why should we concern ourselves with the Confederacy or the Confederate navy?

The officers of the Confederate States ship Shenandoah were a cross section of the South from Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri. From 19 October 1864 to 6 November 1865, they carried the Confederacy and the conflict around the globe through every extreme of sea and storm. Their observations looking back from the most remote and alien surroundings, along with the viewpoints of the people they encountered, provide a unique perspective of the war, with elements both common to and differing from land-bound compatriots.

These officers included scions of the Deep South plantation aristocracy and of Old Dominion first families: a nephew of Robert E. Lee; a grandnephew of founding father George Mason; descendants of men who served at George Washington’s side; and a relative of Matthew Fontaine Maury. One was an uncle of a young Theodore Roosevelt and another the son-in-law of Raphael Semmes. The Missourian, by contrast, was a middle-class Midwesterner and former drugstore clerk. All were under the age of twenty-five, with the exception of the captain and the ship’s surgeon.

They considered themselves Americans, Southerners, rebels, warriors, and seamen embarking on what would be the voyage of their lives. They already had suffered three and a half years of bloody, discouraging conflict on board puny gunboats and lumbering ironclads up and down the interior waters of their fledgling country, frequently on the same vessels or in the same battles; a few were veterans of Alabama’s two-year cruise. They did not all fight for the same reasons, but they stood together in defense of their country as they understood it, pursuing a difficult mission in which they succeeded spectacularly after it no longer mattered.

Having sacrificed careers in the navy that nurtured them, these men struggled to reproduce its essence in their new navy, one with few ships. Two of the five lieutenants had been deep-water sailors in the United States Navy and one in the merchant service. Four had attended the new Naval Academy at Annapolis, and two midshipmen had been appointed to the Academy before secession changed their loyalties. Two followed distinguished naval fathers who had served in Pacific exploring expeditions, in anti-slavery patrols on the coast of Africa, with Commodore Perry at the opening of Japan, and during the Mexican War. One of those fathers had been Naval Academy commandant of midshipmen. Both became senior officers in the Confederate service.

Three heritages drove the men of Shenandoah: As grandsons of revolutionaries, they believed profoundly in liberty and democracy. They shared the atavistic social mores of the Southern gentleman class, along with its timeless dedication to family, country, duty, and personal integrity. These characteristics were reinforced in their central identities as officers of the Confederate States Navy, to which they applied the Southern martial tradition just as energetically as did their Army brothers in arms.

The CSS Shenandoah combined the epitome of an ancient maritime heritage with the most advanced technology of the time. She represented a new concept in an old strategy of naval warfare, and she was a good example of what a weaker naval power could accomplish in what we today call asymmetric warfare. The cruise also illustrates the difficulties of emerging states or revolutionary movements in claiming what they perceive as their rights and achieving desired accommodation in the international arena.

The men of Shenandoah heeded the call of their leaders, putting their lives, fortunes, and honor on the line. They sought to serve in the best traditions of the U.S. Navy, from which several came and which they took as their model. Judging by their accomplishments, they succeeded.

The particular tragedy of our Civil War is that the opponents had much in common and believed they were fighting for the same ideals: the principles upon which this country was founded. There were no general motives of aggrandizement, conquest, or competing ideologies. The Confederacy was a profound disaster, but its leaders were truly wrong in only one particular, albeit a fundamental one. They and the Americans of the South who took up arms with courage, dedication, and sacrifice were wrong but not evil, and—their naval arm was a paradigm of innovation, creative strategy, and professionalism under nearly unmanageable circumstances. We should remember our Confederate sailors; along with their Union counterparts, they have much to teach us. And it’s still a great sea story.


hughes.final3.inddDwight Hughes will speak about A Confederate Biography at the following events, all of which are open to the public.

9 Jan. 11:00 am- 1:00pm



Meet the Author

& Book Signing

Winchester Book Gallery

85 N. Loudoun St.,

Winchester, VA 22601


14 Jan., Noon Guest Lecturer

& Book Signing

“Eight Bells Lecture Series”

Naval War College Museum

686 Cushing Rd.

Newport, RI |

26 Jan., Noon Guest Speaker

& Book Signing

“Authors on Deck,”

U.S. Navy Memorial

701 Pennsylvania Ave NW, #123

Washington, DC

4 Feb., 7:00 pm Book Talk

& Signing

One More Page

2200 N. Westmoreland St., #101

Arlington, VA 22213

9 Feb. Noon Guest Lecturer

& Book Signing

“Lunchtime Lecture Series,”

National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Washington Navy Yard,

Washington, D.C.

4 March, 10:00 am Guest Speaker Falls Church Military History Forum

Falls Church Community Center

223 Little Falls Street

Falls Church, VA 22046

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