451 pages

William Morrow


Naval Battles in the Age of Steam

Over the past few years I have read and enjoyed James L. Nelson’s Revolution at Sea saga, a five-novel chronicle of the adventures of Captain Isaac Biddlecomb and his encounters with the British Navy. In Thieves of Mercy, a recent History Book Club selection, Nelson shifts the setting to the Civil War. The author, a resident of Harpswell and a deep-water mariner, combines his impressive knowledge of the sea and naval history with a good story, as he follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Samuel Bowater, an intrepid young Confederate sea captain.

Nelson focuses on two military theaters in Thieves of Mercy. We are introduced to the Mississippi River war in the prologue when Nelson makes a haunting reference to the workers in a Memphis shipyard, “still awake, like the soldiers at Agincourt, too restless to sleep on the eve of battle.” The river war is about flat-bottomed, paddle wheel driven, ironclad gunboats. It is about tides and currents. The men of the river-defense fleet “don’t like deep-water sailors…. As every river man knew, when salt and freshwater mix, it causes a chaotic roiling effect.” The result is a good old-fashioned brawl in the mess hall when men from the two navies are forced to serve together on the same ship.

Stephen Bowater is a Confederate naval officer who, to his dismay, is assigned to command an ironclad gunboat in a rowdy river defense squadron. Our hero has to not only tame the crew, but also familiarize himself with the workings of mid-19th century steamship engines. Nelson has clearly done his homework as he captures the sights and sounds of the engine room. “…The dull roar of the fire in the boiler, the knocking of pipes, the creaking of the A-frame…” He describes engineers looking on their engine rooms “the way women looked on their kitchens, or dogs on their yards, with a distain for intruders who might interfere”.

Nelson’s second theater of the naval war is the Hampton Roads area at the mouth of the James River in Virginia, seen primarily through the eyes of two young women — one of whom, Wendy Atkins, is Bowater’s love interest. Wendy and her intrepid aunt Molly become Confederate spies and have a series of adventures in the weeks following the ironclad battle between the Merrimac and the Monitor in 1862. Included is a meeting with President Lincoln, who actually went to Norfolk in an effort to prod the lagging Union forces into more aggressive actions in the Peninsula Campaign.

Nelson’s nautical and military expertise is particularly impressive in his detailed descriptions of engagements between Confederate gunboats, derisively called “Cottonclads,” and Union ironclads on the Mississippi. One would have thought that ramming disappeared with the Greeks and the Romans, but Nelson reminds us that both Union and Confederate riverboats had rams bolted to their bows. At the end of the book he gives a vivid example of the effects of ramming. “THE QUEEN OF THE WEST struck just forward of the rebel’s wheelhouse. She did not even slow as she plowed on through. The side of the Confederate boat caved in like an eggshell. The chimneys leaned over, threatening to fall on the QUEEN’S foredeck…”

The book contains a useful map of the Hampton Roads area, but I missed a diagram of the relevant battle areas on the Mississippi River. All in all, however, Thieves of Mercy is an exciting, well-conceived historical novel.