I needn't have worried. Seahawk Burning is, at its core, a story about naval warfare during the American Civil War but it is (to my great relief) sparing in its treatment of reeves and roaches and rostrums and things of that ilk. It focuses much more on the personal feelings of the novel's principal characters and the political intrigues surrounding the war. Actually I do like political novels about real-life events, and so I found Seahawk Burning immensely entertaining.
Seahwak Burning is the final novel in a trilogy by Randal Peffer about the Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes. The action follows Semmes and his ship the CSS Alabama as he seizes and burns scores of Yankee merchant ships while dodging Federal Navy ships trying to catch him. I had always thought that the naval action in the Civil War was principally along the eastern seaboard of North America, but the Alabama was, in fact, waging her war of terror all the way across the South Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Captain Raphael Semmes standing by CSS Alabama's 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863.
U.S. Naval Historical Center photograph, original photograph by an unknown photographer.
The novel follows three other narrative threads related to Semmes' campaign: the political scene in Washington as President Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, discuss how to put an end to the Alabama's destruction of the nation's shipping, while simultaneously struggling with various other political forces hampering their efforts; the activities of US Navy Captain John Winslow and his ship the USS Kearsarge as he prepares to trap and destroy the Alabama; and the travels of Semme's mistress, Maude Galway, as she seeks to evade capture by both Federal and Rebel agents.
Allan Pinkerton and Harriet Tubman play a part in the story and there is the occasional mention of a minor character somehow involved on the fringes of the plots against Lincoln - John Wilkes Booth. This gives the novel a strong sense of impending doom which mirrors the forebodings of Semmes and Winslow as the story leads to what the reader feels all along will be the inevitable final scene of an epic naval battle between the Alabama and the Kearsarge.
Edouard Manet. The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama. 1864.
The John G. Johnson Art Collection, Philadelphia, PA, USA
The switching of the narrative between the four main threads of action gives the book a fast pace and I found it totally gripping. I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next to each of the principal characters and could hardly bear to put the book down. I also particularly enjoyed Peffer's accounts of some of the technical problems that naval captains of the day grappled with on sailing ships that also had the new-fangled coal-fired steam engines for extra speed.
I think this book may even have converted me to being a fan of historic naval fiction. About two thirds of the way through it I realized I was actually getting a kick out of all the talk of stunsails and royals and starboard whisker stays and the like, even if I still have no real idea what they are.
I give Seahawk Burning two thumbs up.
Oh, and for my two readers who think that you can't have a sailing blog or a sailing story without some knitting... there is some knitting in Seahawk Burning. Really!