Archives For Merchant Raiders

civil war navy

Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson’s latest book, War on the Waters, is a concise naval history of the American Civil War. Most authors and historians focus on the great generals (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.) or the great battles (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh etc.) and often ignore the vital role the navies played in the conflict both on the rivers of the western Confederacy and the high seas. Entire books have been written on various aspects of the naval war – riverine warfare in the west, blockade running, Confederate merchant raiders, foreign intrigue in Europe and the innovations that made their debut in the conflict. McPherson neatly summarizes each of these topics and arranges them in easily digestible chapters that proceed in chronological order.

McPherson’s organization and writing style allow both the uninitiated reader and the Civil War buff to understand the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various personalities, events and inventions that influenced the war. Perhaps most importantly, McPherson accompanies his chapters with strategic or tactical level maps that enable the reader to understand the events which occur in the chapter. McPherson understands the unwritten rule that the inclusion of a relevant map is worth multiple pages of text in helping a reader establish an awareness of the events being described. Along with the maps, various etchings and photos accompany each chapter and neither maps nor illustrations are confined to a few pages in the center or the beginning of the book. This allows the reader to visually grasp the crux of each chapter and makes both the maps and the illustrations more relevant to the narrative being told.

Overall, War on the Waters is a fantastic single volume history of the Civil War’s naval history. McPherson hits all of the highlights of the Civil War – CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor, blockade running, William B. Cushing’s daring raid on the CSS Albemarle, and the first successful attack by a submarine – in only 225 pages. War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the naval literature of the Civil War and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history, naval history or the Civil War.

One of the most unusual clashes in naval history occurred on September 14, 1914 when two former passenger liners fought one another off the coast of Brazil’s Trinidada Island. At the outbreak of World War 1, both the British and German navies put into effect plans calling for the arming of certain ships as auxiliary cruisers to act as wartime supplements to their naval forces. Two such ships were the SS Cap Trafalgar and RMS Carmania.

The SS Cap Trafalgar had been built in 1913 and operated between Hamburg, Germany and South American ports. Following the declaration of war, her civilian crew was replaced by officers and seaman of the German Imperial Navy and she was armed with 2 4.1in. guns. Thus she became SMS Cap Trafalgar and was charged with hunting down and sinking Allied shipping in the South Atlantic. SMS Cap Trafalgar’s opponent, RMS Carmania, was a British mail liner built in 1905 for the Cunard line’s Liverpool to New York route. Similar to SMS Cap TrafalgarRMS Carmania was commandeered by the British Admiralty and became HMS Carmania on August 8, 1914 when she was armed with 8 4.7 in. guns. Unlike Germany’s auxiliary cruisers, Britain utilized its cruisers to protect merchantmen or assist in the hunt for Germany’s merchant raiders.

The two ships were destined to come across one another after each were given orders to proceed to Trindade Island – the Germans were to rendezvous with colliers and the British suspected the island was being used by the Germans as a supply point. Caught with two colliers in broad daylight, the Cap Trafalgar at first fled from the pursuit of the Carmania, however, the Germans reversed course and turned to engage the Carmania. After a brisk 70 minute battle, with both ships ablaze and holed below the waterline the Cap Trafalgar capsized and sank with the loss of 51 officers and crew. While the Cap Trafalgar had been sunk, it had inflicted serious damage on the Carmania and she required extensive repairs at Gibraltar’s dry dock. The Carmania finished out the war in British service and was eventually scrapped in 1932. Even though it involved two of the largest, fastest and most expensive ships in the world, the engagement was of little strategic consequence and is now merely a strange footnote in naval history.

HMS Hood

CC Image courtesy of Patrick McDonald on Flickr

An expedition led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen aboard his mega-yacht Octopus has been forced to abandon their efforts to recover the ship’s bell of the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Hood. Allen and his team have been operating out of Reykjavik, Iceland for the last two weeks, but a combination of weather and mechanical issues with their ROV have caused the team to end its efforts on the Hood this recovery season. Named for Admiral Samuel Hood, the Hood was the second ship to bear his name. The ship entered service in 1920 and is best known for its role in the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck.

HMS Hood and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales intercepted the Bismarck on May 24, 1941 as the Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen attempted to break out into the North Atlantic in hunt of British merchantmen. In a running battle lasting less than 20 minutes, the Bismarck sank the Hood and damaged the Prince of Wales. The Hood took with it 1,415 of her 1,418 man crew. The engagement became known as the Battle of the Denmark Straits and was merely the opening act of a massive 3 day manhunt culminating in the sinking of the Bismarck on May 27th. The Prince of Wales went on to serve in the Pacific Theater where it, along with the battleship HMS Repulse, was sunk by a Japanese air attack. Prinz Eugen survived the war and was later used as a target ship by the US Navy for atomic bomb tests.