Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Review--Last Flag Down

Baldwin, John and Ron Powers. Last Flag Down: The Epic Journey of the Last Confederate Warship. Three Rivers Press, New York. 2007. 354 pages 332 text. Notes, glossary, bibliography, index, map.

I must admit to knowing very little about the naval aspects of the Civil War. After reading Last Flag Down: The Epic Journey of the Last Confederate Warship I can't say I know much more. The is supposed to be the story of the warship Shenandoah's 15,000 mile trip to help save the Confederacy. While loosely it succeeds it is really more a work to glorify one of the crew.

What I did learn was that the book was a seemingly biased account that would have probably been better off written as a biography of Lt. Conway Whittle, the Shenandoah's second in command. The reason for this is that co-author John Baldwin (Ron Powers of Flags of our Fathers fame is the other co-author) is a relative of Whittle. Whittle is portrayed as being the rational and talented leader while commander James Waddell is seen to be a brooding incompatant who should not have been in his position. Is this truthful? I can't say becasue I haven't read anything else on the subject. Am I inclined to take this at face value? No, especially once you realize that one of the prime sources is Whittle's log. Whittle of course feels he should have been in command and his log shows a strained relationship with Waddell all the way through.

We do learn that the crew managed to outsmart the Union navy and get the ship out of England. From there they were able to get the ship renamed and in condition to go after northern ships. Though shorthanded the raider is able to use it's superior speed and manueverability to run down and capture "enemy" ships. Capture means take the crew prisoner, take what they can use and then sink the ship. Many of these prisoners sign on to work on the ship. Their options of course were to do this or stay below deck shackled only to be dumped at whatever port is convenient. Enemy means mostly unarmed commercial vessels and not Union warships. The CSS Shenandoah makes a year long voyage, crossing the equator four times in it's attempt to help save the Confederacy. In the end the crew ends up where they started and ultimately left to the mercy of the English court system.

The book clocks in at 354 pages with index, bibliography, notes, and a much needed and used glossary. If you don't have a good grasp of boating terms you will use this repeatedly. There is a sail plan and also a diagram of the Shenandoah which are useful. Also included is a very simplistic map with an outline of the route taken. While better than nothing the map was not of great value and showed little detail. While not a difficult read the book never really grabbed hold of me and made me want to not put it down.

Again the work is really short on Civil War history and would be better classified as a biographical work. For those interested in life aboard an early naval ship this might be an interesting work. For those hoping for an unbiased work dealing with Civil War naval history they should look elsewhere.

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