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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

Review

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

“Named the Alabama, this cruiser had as her captain Raphael Semmes, who had already proved his prowess as a salt-water guerrilla on the now-defunct C.S.S Sumter. For the next two years Semmes and the Alabama roamed the seas and destroyed or captured sixty-four American merchant ships before being sunk by the U.S.S. Kearsarge off Cherbourg in June 1864.” – James M. McPherson, BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: The Civil War Era

That’s it. That’s all the CSS Alabama rates. A couple of sentences (less than a full paragraph!) in a book that runs over 800 pages in paperback. That’s all it ever rates in most Civil War histories --- a brief mention, maybe in a footnote. You would think there would be a whole book in there.

And you would be right.

"Keith and Clavin have righted a great slight and thrown the efforts of the two great ships and their crew into the spotlight. This is a masterwork of historical recovery and will be a proud addition to anyone’s Civil War library."

Phil Keith (who sadly passed away before the book’s publication) and Tom Clavin have collaborated to drag the men of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama out of the gray, dim footnotes of history. Despite its clunky, unfortunate title, TO THE UTTERMOST ENDS OF THE EARTH is a stellar retelling of Civil War naval history, focusing not on the blockade or the showier Monitor-Virginia duel, but on the lonely shadow war fought by the Alabama on American shipping.

It was H.L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, who said, "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats." Raphael Semmes was a native Marylander like Mencken, and was living the quiet life of a lawyer and naval reservist in Mobile when war broke out. He successfully glad-handed his way into the captaincy of a small merchant steamer and converted her into a successful commerce raider in the Caribbean, before being trapped in the port of Gibraltar. When the Confederacy was able to procure a cruiser from Britain and smuggle her out to the Azores, Semmes took command, armed and refitted the ship, and set off on a highly successful career of intercepting Union shipping.

The primary difficulty that Semmes and the Alabama faced was that (due to the Union blockade of Southern harbors) she did not have a home port. Historically, this has been a problem for privateers, who are more successful when they can have a base of operations, such as Port Royal in Jamaica, where they can offload stolen goods, sell prizes and recruit hearty tars to prowl the Spanish Main in search of treasure. Semmes had to do all that, along with buying coal, and was only able to use neutral ports of call to do so. His ship was undermanned, and thus he wasn’t able to send out prize crews for captured ships. This turned him into one of history’s greatest arsonists, ranking with Nero and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

What always puzzled me about the brief mentions of the Alabama in Civil War history was that her final battle was fought in France of all places. But Semmes was forced to range much farther than that. In search of friendly neutral ports, he sailed (and steamed, as the Alabama could operate on both sails and steam power) as far afield as South Africa, and even to Singapore, in search of unwary Union merchantmen.

The authors wisely don’t focus all too much on the success of the Alabama. There’s not a great deal you can say about overwhelming victories against defenseless opponents after a while. The story then becomes about the worldwide hunt for the raiders, the corresponding voyage of the USS Kearsarge to block them, and the climactic battle that closes the book.

In TO THE UTTERMOST ENDS OF THE EARTH, Keith and Clavin have righted a great slight and thrown the efforts of the two great ships and their crew into the spotlight. This is a masterwork of historical recovery and will be a proud addition to anyone’s Civil War library.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on April 15, 2022

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 Phil Keith with Tom Clavin

  • Publication Date: April 12, 2022
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hanover Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1335471413
  • ISBN-13: 9781335471413