Tom Chaffin’s book, Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah is the story of ironic success of the Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah during and after the Civil War.
Despite the reviews you may read elsewhere, this book is not a gripping page turner. Well, if you find page upon page detailing the drudgery of a sea voyage in the mid-nineteenth century gripping then maybe those reviews are accurate after all. The Shenandoah may have accomplished some interesting things, but very little of what it did was dramatic or filled with danger.
The ship goes months and months without ever firing its guns in anger. In fact, the ship was designed to prey on largely defenseless merchant vessels and to stay far away from actual naval vessels of the US Navy. Unless you find piracy or privateering exciting when the victims are defenseless and never put up a fight, you won’t find much action in the pages of this book.
The parts of the journey where danger actually was involved (a hurricane, getting caught in constantly shifting ice floes) are told with the same dry detachment that characterizes the rest of Chaffin’s prose. Sailors washing their clothing in the rain after a month at sea gets the same treatment as the ship being almost crushed in the ice.
Despite Chaffin’s attempts to make it otherwise, the story of the Shenandoah is a story of incompetent, short-sighted, micro-managing middle management; a crew composed of mercenary sailors enticed by the promise of wealth they will never see to join an ideological voyage; and ill-defined and meaningless objectives generated by upper management. In short, the Shenandoah mirrors that of many modern corporations. If you’re looking for interesting non-fiction to take your mind off your day-to-day concerns, look elsewhere.