Southern Seahawk: A Novel of the Civil War at Sea
Though I am a big fan of the War Between the States, I am not very knowledgeable about that part of the conflict that took place on the high seas. I found Southern Seahawk, the first novel in the Seahawk Trilogy, to be a great lesson in the dangers, risks, and unpredictable playing field that fighting on the water entails.
Author Randall Peffer’s nautical tale grows from the true story of Commander Rafael Semmes, who became the Union’s “Public Enemy Number One” at the beginning of the war. When I read Semmes’ background, I knew instantly that this was the stuff legends are made of. In 1861, Semmes took his Confederate cruiser Sumter through the Federal Blockade of the Mississippi in a daring escape that marked the beginning of an audacious and enterprising career. The captain seized eight enemy ships in four days, a record never surpassed by any other captain of a warship. During Semmes’ career he captured and burned more than 80 prizes, making him the most successful maritime predator in history, and causing marine insurance rates to go so high in the North that many Yankee ships refused to sail.
Peffer’s descriptions of the ships of war and the stormy seas that Semmes must conquer are so visual that it puts the reader within the crashing waves. He effectively captures the feeling of vulnerability that captains faced when racing a storm or sitting dead in the water during a lull in beneficial breezes. Readers like myself, who don’t know much about naval fighting, are taught how fate can conspire against one side or the other with a simple change of the weather or a mishap in the engine room.
The maritime plotline in Southern Seahawk is entwined with one that includes infighting and bickering in the Lincoln cabinet, and the spy games of historical figures like Rose Greenhow, detective Allan Pinkerton and Semmes’ fictional mistress. The naval aspect, espionage and Washington politics should intrigue Civil War buffs, and the subplot of the romance between Semmes and his Irish mistress should attract those with a more casual Civil War interest.
By the very vivid imagery of the writing, you can tell the author is a seaman – and he is. Peffer is the long-time captain of the Phillips Academy/Andover’s research schooner Sarah Abbot. His enthusiasm for the topic of the sea is expressed through his striking and descriptive prose that puts readers on a ship’s deck smelling the salty air. He is also the author of other nautical books, including Killing Neptune’s Daughter, Logs of the Dead Pirate Society and Watermen.
As an author, I did have a few problems with this novel, most strikingly the lack of attention to period dialogue and the overuse of unnecessary foul language (that would not have been used in the 1860s). I am a sticker for authentic language however, and don’t believe most readers would find this an alarming flaw. I was also a bit confused from time to time by the point of view the author uses, but again, writing is my craft, so it may be that most readers would not care or notice this shortcoming. Lastly, I am old-fashioned (some might say a prude), and so do not enjoy reading historical fiction that contains gratuitous sex, especially when it involves whips and chains and homosexual innuendos. Just not my cup of tea.
Overall, I doubt Peffer can be matched in writing about the sea.
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