I am a great lover of naval fiction and a fan of authors like Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester, Alexander Kent, Dewey Lambdin, and others. They tell great and very entertaining stories about the exploits of fictional heroes in the Royal Navy in the historical fiction tradition. Nelson writes in the same tradition and is actually a very good writer, but his subject matter in this and some other books is the Navy of the United States. In this book, dealing with the Civil War, he actually writes about the Confederate Navy, including the famous battles of Plum Point and Memphis. I found this very interesting and also feel that I learned a few things!
Also, while most of the naval fiction literature is about sail ships, this book deals with strange new ships built by the navies of the US, called Ironclads. It features two of the most famous of these ships – the CNN Virginia and the USS Monitor. They were ugly beasts fueled by steam power, with lots of firepowers and framed with iron to protect them. And some of them even had rams!
In this second nautical adventure set during the Civil War, following Glory in the Name: A Novel of the Confederate Navy, Nelson offers both a rousing plot based on actual historical events – as far as I can tell, pretty well researched – seafaring detail, naval battles quite different from the ones we are used to reading about in books from the age of sails, and interesting American frontier type characters. The characters are more than just a tad different from the comparatively stiff and disciplined British naval officers we are used to – these guys and gals are spirited, very lively, wild, and at times quite unruly. Refreshingly so, actually.
The book starts in the spring of 1862. Confederate Lt. Samuel Bowater has been given command of one of the two new ironclads being built by the Confederate Navy, CNN Tennessee. While he awaits his new command, he attends to such diverse matters as ghostwriting a dime novel, using the plot of Hamlet, for “Mississippi” Mike Sullivan, captain of the ram General Page, and later taking Sullivan’s side when the captain thinks a troupe of Shakespearean actors has plagiarized his work. However, Union troops and ships are advancing, and it’s not at all certain Bowater will be able to weigh anchor in time to evade capture.
While waiting, Bowater and his men sail on a side-wheel ram, engage in several naval battles, and generally try to wreck as much havoc as possible on the enemy.
At the same time, Bowater’s lover, Wendy Atkins, is trying to escape Norfolk, Va., before the city falls to the Yankees. In this effort, she has the help of her free-spirited Aunt Molly and the hindrance of Union Lt. Roger Newcomb. After making their way out of burning Norfolk, Wendy and Molly have an improbable if diverting meeting with Abraham Lincoln.
Nelson tells a nice tale, very entertaining. Some of his characters, most notably Mississippi Mike, Wendy, and Aunt Molly, are perhaps too broadly drawn – to the extent where they become caricatures of caricatures. Mississippi Mike is described as “the hardest drivin, hardest drinkin, most dangerous son of a whore riverboat man on the Western Waters.” Even so, Thieves of Mercy is a very interesting and well-written tale of the Confederate navy.