Having survived the bloody Battle of New Orleans and the loss of their ironclad Yazoo River, captain Samuel Bowater, engineer Hieronymus Taylor, and the survivors of their crew are given new orders -- take command of an ironclad warship being built in Memphis, Tennessee.
Bowater and his men take passage upriver from "Mississippi" Mike Sullivan, one of the wild, undisciplined captains of the River Defense Squadron, only to find, on their arrival, that their ship is not even half built and the enemy is closing fast.
Against their better judgment, Bowater and crew join forces with the mercurial Sullivan on board his ad hoc river gunship the General Page. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Confederates once again fling themselves bravely at the overwhelming power of the Yankee invaders. The deadly back-and-forth fight along the Mississippi ends at last in the massive naval battle of Memphis, and the near-suicidal attempt by the Confederates to hold back the Northern flood.
Filled with wild characters and heart-pounding action, and set against the bold backdrop of the Civil War, Thieves of Mercy is a worthy successor to the W. Y. Boyd Award-winning novel Glory in the Name, the book Bernard Cornwell lauded as "by far, the best Civil War novel I've read."
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About the Author
James L. Nelson has served as a seaman, rigger, boatswain, and officer on a number of sailing vessels. He is the author of By Force of Arms, The Maddest Idea, The Continental Risque, Lords of the Ocean, and All the Brave Fellows -- the five books of his Revolution at Sea Saga. -- as well as The Guardship: Book One of the Brethren of the Coast. He lives with his wife and children in Harpswell, Maine.
Read an Excerpt
Thieves of Mercy
A Novel of the Civil War at Sea
Latitude, elevation and rainfall all combine to render the Mississippi Valley capable of supporting a dense population. As a dwelling-place for civilized man it is by far the first upon our globe.
Harper's Magazine, February 1863
It was a month before the burning of the Tennessee, and ten hours after he met the man, that Samuel Bowater first saw someone smash a chair over Mississippi Mike Sullivan's head.
The one doing the smashing was Ruffin Tanner, a blue-water sailor of nearly twenty years' experience, who had been with Bowater since Bowater had commanded the Cape Fear in Norfolk.
Tanner was a powerful man, certainly as strong as Sullivan, though not nearly as big. The chair, however, was a meager affair, with thin turned legs and a cane seat, and it shattered over Mike's thick head and wide shoulders like a china figurine and did little more than slew his slouch hat around, leaving Tanner red-faced and gripping the two smashed back rails.
It was two days before that chair-smashing, all-hands-in brawl that Bowater finally heard from the Navy Department in Richmond.
After the Battle of New Orleans, after the Yazoo River had been battered to death by Farragut's big ships, Bowater and his remaining men had returned to Yazoo City. They had no other place to go, and the Yankees were still far from that Yazoo, so it seemed like a good choice. Bowater began to send telegraphs off to Richmond, looking for instructions.
On the third of May, word arrived.
Lt. Samuel Bowater,CSN
Yazoo City, Mississippi
You and those men still under your command will proceed with all possible dispatch to Memphis, Tennessee, where you will assume command of the ironclad Tennessee currently building there. You will exert all possible effort in the completion and fitting out of that vessel. Recent events along the Mississippi have made it imperative that this ironclad sloop of war be readied to meet the enemy.
Secretary of the Navy
Bowater read the words with some skepticism. Sometimes it seemed as if Mallory believed that calling a ship an ironclad would make it so. The last time Mallory had ordered him to command an "ironclad" it had turned out to be a broken-down side-wheeler with pine board and cotton bale bulwarks, a "cottonclad." It was a near miracle that they had managed to turn her battered topsides into an iron casement, and Bowater reckoned that his supply of miracles was pretty well played out.
And so he stood in the telegraph office and looked for a long time at the words, until he heard the telegraph operator start to clear his throat in a nervous sort of way.
Ironclad . . . recent events . . .
Bowater could not fault Mallory for his understanding of the tactical situation, even if the Secretary had been mistaken in thinking the chief threat to New Orleans was from the north, and not the Gulf. It was true that Farragut's big men-of-war, built for fighting the British on the high seas, were utterly unsuited for river work. But the Union admiral had managed to drag his heavy squadron bodily over the shallow bar at the mouth of the river and blast his way past the forts and the smattering of Confederate ships defending the river below the city.
Now Farragut was probing upriver, but the farther north he came, and the more the water level continued to fall, the more unwieldy his fleet became.
Flat-bottomed, paddle-wheel-driven, ironclad gunboats. Those were the ships for this river fight. A new vessel for an unprecedented type of warfare.
Mallory knew it, was trying his level best to make it a reality. The Yankees knew it as well, and behind their effort was an almost unlimited industrial capacity. So, for the first year of the war, while the Confederacy struggled to get even one operational ironclad on the Father of Waters, the Union built seven. Those ships, the "City Class" gunboats, were fighting their way south, accompanying the Union Army sweeping along the shore.
Bowater left the telegraph office, wandered along the streets of Yazoo City, still considering the "ironclad Tennessee." What, he wondered, would greet him on his arrival in Memphis. How would he get there?
"Reckon we best get to Vicksburg." That was Hieronymus Taylor's pronouncement, upon learning about the orders. Taylor was a riverboat man, an engineer out of New Orleans who had joined the navy to avoid a possible draft, and for the possibility of killing Yankees, which he found very appealing. He was a part of the world of the Mississippi River, as alien to Bowater as the moon.
"Vicksburg," Bowater repeated.
"Best place to find a boat goin north. Ain't a damn thing movin on this here backwater. We best get to Vicksburg before goddamn Farragut does."
The next day they found a tug that would take them to Vicksburg, and Bowater herded aboard it the thirty-six men still under his command.
He felt like a schoolteacher at times, or the head of an orphanage, with his charges to care for. He had men but no ship to house them, no galley to feed them. It was like having a company of infantry, but infantry were prepared for such living, they had tents and knew how to cook rations. Sailors without a ship were lost men. They looked to Bowater for guidance, but Bowater did not know much more about such things than they did. He had never been in that situation before.
They steamed down the Yazoo River, crowded on the deck of the tug, turned south where the Yazoo met with the Mississippi River. Just above the city, the river took a sharp turn so that for a time they were actually steaming northeast before turning one hundred and eighty degrees. Around the low, marshy point was the city of Vicksburg.Thieves of Mercy
A Novel of the Civil War at Sea. Copyright © by James Nelson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.