Sea Wolf of the Confederacy : The Daring Civil War Raids of Naval Lt. Charles W. Read
In June 1863, just days before the epic clash at Gettysburg ended the last rebel land invasion of the North, a small party of the Confederate Navy mounted a devastating series of raids on the New England coast, culminating in a battle off Portland, Maine. Veteran author David W. Shaw brilliantly re-creates this almost forgotten chapter of the Civil War in rich narrative detail drawn from accounts of the participants.
At the center of the conflict were two men: the hotheaded young adventurer Charles W. Read, who resigned his commission as a Union midshipman to become a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy; and Secretary of the United States Navy Gideon Welles, a well-connected politician who ably oversaw the explosive growth of the fleet -- including the revolutionary ironclads -- during the war despite his lack of maritime experience. Serving aboard CSS Florida off the coast of Brazil, Read hatched a daring plan to sail a captured brig directly into the Union's home waters and wreak havoc on their shipping lanes. Burning or capturing more than twenty merchant vessels in less than three weeks, and switching ships several times to elude capture, Read's rampage caused widespread panic in Northern cities, made headlines in the major daily newspapers, and brought enormous pressure on Welles to "stop the rebel pirate." At one point there were nearly forty Union ships sent to hunt down Read in a cat-and-mouse game that finally led to his dramatic capture off the coast of Maine.
Sea Wolf of the Confederacy brings to light this fascinating yet little known episode of the war, combining Shaw's flair for powerful storytelling with extensive research culled from contemporary newspapers, journals, and official war records. Taking readers to the heart of the action on the decks of the burning ships, Shaw offers a compelling portrait of the complex Read and an insightful new perspective on the divisions splitting North and South during this dark time in American history.
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March 30, 2004
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Excerpt from Sea Wolf of the Confederacy by David W. Shaw
Western Mississippi, Yazoo River,
2:00 A.M., July 15, 1862
Acrid smoke drifted lazily skyward from the tall funnel of the Confederate ironclad Arkansas, signifying the activity below in the fire room as the coal heavers set to their work with a will at the open doors of the furnaces beneath the boilers. The dull light of a lantern flickered in the pilothouse, but little of it was visible from outside. Only a swath of yellow penetrated the shadows from the port cut into the iron to give the commander and the two river pilots a view ahead without being exposed to enemy fire.
Arkansas was a cumbersome vessel, ugly to the seaman accustomed to the sharp lines of a full-rigged sailing ship. Her main deck hardly cleared the water's surface, and the oak-andiron-reinforced walls protecting the guns resembled a boxlike fort. In the darkness on the water below the diminutive heights of Haynes Bluff, her form loomed above the landing -- indistinct, like a small island merged with the shore.
The spring rains had come and gone, and with the onset of summer the water level of the river began to drop. Drawing fourteen feet, Arkansas was deep for work on a tributary of the Mississippi River. On each bank of the Yazoo rose a dense forest choked with briars and vines, and blowdown was piled high from the endless cycle of passing thunderstorms and annual inundation that temporarily spread an inland sea across the Mississippi flood plain. Overhanging branches might easily snag the smokestack, or one of the many shoals might easily trap the ironclad, making her a prize of any patrols sent from the two Union fleets anchored several hours away just above Vicksburg beyond DeSoto Point on the Mississippi River.
The nearly two hundred men down below, deep inside the ironclad, prepared for the battle to come as the ship's deckhands cast off the lines and the pilots muttered commands to the helmsman, who turned the wheel as directed. Orders were relayed via a tin speaking tube to the engineers on duty at the ship's two low-pressure steam engines. The 165-foot warship maneuvered away from the shore into midchannel, and started slowly downriver keeping just enough way on to maintain steerage in the current. Men moved about on the gundeck filling the tubs between the guns with fresh water for the sponges needed to swab the barrels after each shot, lest a lingering spark prematurely explode the next charge rammed home.
Other crewmen poured sand around the guns to soak up blood and help prevent the gunners and powder boys from slipping. They piled bandages and tourniquets at various locations while the surgeons below on the berth deck readied the surgery. The instruments -- scalpels, forceps, and saws -- shone brightly in the dim light. Down below, the churn of the ship's twin propellers was a dull roar.