Based primarily on the words of those who lived it, A Confederate Biography is a comprehensive narrative of the cruise of the CSS Shenandoah. More than a thrilling sea story, the journey provides a window of historical perspective on the Civil War. From October 1864 to November 1865, the officers of the Shenandoah carried the Confederacy and the conflict around the globe and to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm. Their observations looking back from the most remote and alien surroundings imaginable, along with viewpoints of those they encountered, illuminate the hearts and minds of contestants North and South.
These Americans stood together in defense of their country as they understood it, pursuing a difficult and dangerous mission in which they succeeded spectacularly after it no longer mattered. Through their eyes, the potentially decisive international arena of the war, governed by complex maritime and trade law, comes alive. The neutrality, or lack thereof, of major European powers was a central concern to both sides. Shenandoah was smack in the middle of this diplomatic maelstrom and contributed to it.
And within the navy, a generational clash arose between antebellum orthodoxy and a professional officer corps emerging from the new Naval Academy, rapid technological advances, contemporary social reforms, and the crucible of war. This difference was manifest between the captain of Shenandoah and his young lieutenants. The men they led, however, were a polyglot assemblage of merchant sailors of nearly every nation and color—including several Yankees and African Americans—operating within its own rigidly authoritarian and cramped society.
Shenandoah herself was a magnificent vessel, the epitome of rich and ancient maritime heritages, but also a paradigm of dramatic transitions from the small wooden sailing navy to the second largest, most powerful, and technologically advanced fleet in the world. Her commerce raiding mission was a watery form of asymmetric warfare in the spirit of John Mosby, Bedford Forrest, and W.T. Sherman. It was arguably the most successful military effort of the Confederacy in terms of cost versus mission accomplished, but the strategic effectiveness of the strategy remains questionable.
Shenandoah fired the last gun of the Civil War, set the land of the midnight sun aglow with flaming Yankee whalers, and, seven months after Appomattox, lowered the last Confederate banner. This is a biography of a ship and a cruise, and a microcosm of the Confederate-American experience.