On October 17, 1862 William E. Gladstone, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered a speech at New Castle concerning the widening conflict in America. He said:
“We may have our opinions about slavery; we may be for or against the South; but there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army. They are making, it appears, a navy and they have made what is more than either – they have made a nation…” at which point he was interrupted by loud and protracted cheering.”
Was Gladstone’s remark concerning the fledgling Confederate States Navy accurate or convenient hyperbole useful in advancing his party’s interests in the next round of elections for Parliament by catering to the substantial Pro-Southern block of British voters?
An objective examination of the naval resources of the new Confederate States government alone causes the inquirer to suspect hyperbole of Mr. Gladstone.
It is certain, however, that on February 8 of the previous year (1861), at Montgomery, Alabama, a provisional Constitution for the new southern government was unanimously approved by the delegates from seven states recently a part of the old Federal Union. This organic document provided in Article I, Section 5, paragraph 13 for the creation and maintenance of a “Navy.” Four days later the new Congress of those states created several standing committees, one of which was “Naval Affairs.” One of that committee’s first efforts was to send telegrams to certain U. S. Navy officers from states now a part of the new government inviting them to resign and report to the Committee for service in the new Navy.
In response to this call, by February 19, four captains, four commanders and a naval engineer had resigned and tendered their services in Montgomery. One of these was Commander Raphael Semmes.
Semmes and four other former U. S. Navy officers met with the Naval Affairs Committee immediately on February 20. Only three days later, President Davis appointed Stephen Russell Mallory as his Secretary of the Navy. Mallory had served as Chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee of the U. S. Senate since 1854. He was a Floridian, a longtime resident of Key West, an attorney with considerable experience in maritime matters and by all accounts a very capable administrator with a progressive frame of mind. But aside from a steadily growing cadre of former U. S. Navy officers seeking commissions from him, what did he have with which to build – from nothing – a real navy? Worse still, time might be very short.
Clearly, the new government had, like its predecessor in 1776, no navy. It had no warships on hand. The only U. S. Navy yard within the seven Confederate States was that at Pensacola. It was essentially a naval repair facility and coaling station although several ships had been constructed there. It was at present of questionable value because U. S. troops still controlled Fort Pickens located at the sea entrance to yard. Aside from some minimal efforts by state leaders of Louisiana, Georgia and Florida since those states seceded, the entire task of building a Southern Navy lay ahead.
The Confederate Congress assisted shortly by authorizing the creation of four bureaus within the new Navy Department and the C. S. Marine Corps.
Mallory was a very astute choice to head the new Navy Department. As Chairman of the U. S. Senate’s Naval Affairs Committee during the 1850’s he was instrumental in modernizing and rebuilding the very Navy he would now oppose. Its strengths and weaknesses were well known to him. He had an excellent working knowledge of naval administration and was tireless. Thus, he quickly assessed his new circumstances and was under no misunderstanding of the task before him.
The facts were disturbing. Following the secession of four additional states in the late spring of 1861, the resources needed to create and sustain a navy in war time remained meager.
A quick comparison of the U. S. Navy and the resources at its disposal to enhance it with what was available to Secretary Mallory is striking. The Confederate States had significant deposits of coal, iron and copper, but much of this was untapped. Fortunately, the bulk of these resources except copper were in Alabama and Virginia where they were relatively safe from attack. Northern resources of the same material were substantially greater, had been tapped, were immediately available and not easily accessible to C. S. raids. Further, its merchant marine fleet could augment domestic production easily from Europe.
Approximately 84% of the Confederate States’ population was engaged in agriculture. Only 9.6% of the population was urban. These states had, per the 1860 Census, only 159 manufacturing plants with a total capital investment of only $10 million. Its opponent’s manufacturing capacity was ten times as great. There were ten U.S. Navy shipyards at the point of secession. Of these, only two: Gosport Yard at Norfolk, Virginia and the Pensacola Yard, were within these eleven states making up the new government. To these two naval facilities could be added perhaps 50 small private shipyards. The combined public and private naval construction and repair capacity of the new government was still a small fraction of that in the North.
The South had 39 furnaces which produced about 37,000 tons of cast iron in 1860. It also had 84 iron works producing some 27,000 tons of wrought iron and steel annually. The North had 15 times this production.
Of the 2,234 officers of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps in 1861, 321 (15%) resigned and cast their lot with the South. Of the 5,539,812 tons of merchant shipping in U.S. at the time, only 1/10 was Southern owned. Merchant sailors followed the same proportion, such that only about one in ten were Southerners.
While the South had unlimited supplies of live oak and yellow pine timber for ship building purposes, this timber had to be harvested and milled. It had no significant stock of lumber ready for shipbuilding. Transportation of these resources without any central organization was clearly going to be a problem. Existing facilities to cast naval artillery, manufacture tools and ship building hardware, gun powder and other essential material for a navy were very inadequate.
Financially, the economy of the Southern States rested on agriculture, primarily cotton but also rice, tobacco and sugar cane. The value of these commodities approached 40% of the gross national product in 1860. But to convert them into money generally required their shipment abroad, and the Union government intended to block precisely that. Southern banks had 32.8% of all specie (gold and silver coins) in the Union in 1860. But this would not last without critical foreign trade because former merchants and suppliers would require it for payments until the new Nation established credit.
The U. S. Navy had at this time 90 ships. Of these Secretary Mallory had only secured one, the U. S. S. Fulton then at the Pensacola Navy yard. No U. S. Navy officer brought a warship with him when he offered his services to the South.
Mallory knew that the Southern States’ meager merchant marine would be of minimal assistance in supplying temporary vessels. Fortunately for Mallory, the hasty evacuation of the Gosport Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia by Union naval personnel as Virginia seceded resulted in his department acquiring 1,100 pieces of heavy ordnance with bores ranging from 6.4 inches to 11 inches, 450 naval gun carriages, a first class dry dock, 2,800 barrels of gun powder, and thousands of rounds for the ordnance pieces. What was more, there were four scuttled navy vessels of some value including the steam frigate U. S. S. Merrimac.
Gosport was, however, located so as to make it very difficult to defend without the very ships the South lacked. As a result it would be recaptured in May, 1862, and its loss was irreplaceable.
On the positive side, however, a short distance from Gosport Yard by railroad at Richmond was the Tredegar Iron Works, the only establishment in the Confederate States then able to produce heavy guns, large marine engines and other parts essential in naval construction. This foundry would produce half of the 2,300 artillery pieces cast in the South during the entire war.
As Secretary Mallory began to sort out his assets and craft plans to build or buy what his department needed, Lincoln imposed a blockade of all Southern port cities. Great Britain, France, Spain and other significant maritime countries promptly recognized the Confederate States under international law as a “belligerent,” meaning that though the new Nation was not recognized diplomatically, it was treated as a legitimate, organized contestant in the war with the U. S. and this status resulted in specific rights. Had the U. S. declared Southern ports “closed” as George, III had done during the Revolution, it would have been much more difficult under international law to grant such rights.
It soon became clear that the Confederate Navy Department would use all its meager assets for construction of coastal defense vessels, but would have to depend on foreign sources to obtain seagoing ships critically. Since the Northern states brought their navy into play immediately both to block Southern ports and to assist U. S. land forces, it is difficult to imagine a more troublesome and trying position than that thrust upon Mallory and his cadre of naval officers.
Creation of a functional Navy, arranging for both domestic and foreign sources of the essential material and supplies to obtain and operate even a modest naval force was clearly going to take time and monumental efforts. The Confederate Congress appropriated money but money could not shorten the time or reduce the effort essential to do the job. Mallory believed construction of ultra modern “iron clad” ships might equalize the tremendous disparity in the number of vessels between the two combatants. But the Confederacy had no facility to manufacture angle iron or bent frames of steel necessary for a true iron warship and almost no facilities to construct either iron armor or large marine engines necessary to power very heavy craft. Again, time would be required to tool up.
He knew however that key Southern ports must remain open. One historian summed it up thusly: “No cotton exports, no money; no money, no ships; no ships, no cotton exports.” He might have added ‘hence no Confederacy.”
What then was to be done? Until mid-May, 1861 the blockade was ineffective. A plan was critically needed, and once in place that plan must be energetically pursued if the South was to secure its independence as a country.
At this juncture, the carefully thought out plan of Raphael Semmes was presented to Mallory and the President. It was both timely and sound.
Both understood that to create a force to contend with the existing U. S. Navy the first requirement was time. They could not compete with the number of vessels already in commission except by employing the latest naval technology. Semmes urged a plan that might severely damage the U. S. merchant marine and direct some of the Union’s best warships away from blockade duty while Mallory used every resource necessary in the meanwhile to both buy and build ships, create new naval yards and set up manufacturing arrangements.
Semmes proposed to put in place as quickly as possible duly commissioned C. S. N. cruisers to prey immediately on U. S. merchant shipping.
Sadly, a careful examination of all ocean going vessels within Confederate ports in the spring of 1861 by Mallory revealed that only one was suitable, with modifications, for a cruiser. Mallory would shortly offer it to Semmes.
It has been said that:
“…the story of the Confederacy at sea is the story of Raphael Semmes.”
Who then is Raphael Semmes? What does the record show about him as a man, about why he fought for the South and what accounts for his stunning success as an officer in a fledgling navy who took the fight to the enemy literally around the globe?
Raphael Semmes was born on September 27, 1809, in Charles County, Maryland to Richard Thompson Semmes and his wife Catherine Middleton. The elder Semmes was a tobacco farmer. The family were Catholics and among the earliest settlers in Lord Baltimore’s colony. On his mother’s side Semmes was a direct descendent of Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately for young Raphael, his mother died when he was but a year old and his father died in 1823, when the boy was 14. His uncle, Dr. Benedict Semmes, who had just been elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, took Raphael and his only sibling, a brother named Samuel, into his home. Another uncle was a prominent banker and businessman in Georgetown, Maryland and the young Semmes brothers spent much time thereafter with both men.
Young Raphael attended Charlotte Hall Military Academy in St. Mary’s County, Maryland and received private tutoring. He studied Latin and read widely, especially in the classics. His uncle’s house at 3257 N Street in Georgetown placed the boy in the shadow of political luminaries such as Clay and Calhoun. Alexander Stephens of Georgia, long-time member of the U. S. House, visited occasionally at the N Street Semmes residence. The Semmes’ were communicants at Holy Trinity Church, the oldest Catholic congregation in Washington. Young Semmes saw his branch of Christianity as a driving force behind the growth of political liberty in Britain and America and he never left it.
The boy was exposed daily to the ships at the Georgetown wharves from far away ports. The lure of sea and a seafaring tradition among several of his family doubtless led him to seek a naval career.
Until the U. S. Naval Academy was established at nearby Annapolis in 1848, a young man with political connections could be appointed a midshipman in the American navy and be assigned to a ship. Here he would be taught the basics of navigation, astronomy, artillery and how to behave as an officer. Thereafter, he would go before a board of examiners and if he succeeded, become a “passed midshipman” eligible to pursue a career as a U. S. naval officer.
Semmes’ physician uncle was by 1826 Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and on April 1, of that year, successful in getting President John Quincy Adams to appoint the boy a midshipman. He reported to the sloop USS Lexington and sailed on it to the island of Trinidad. Over the succeeding six years he sailed on the Erie, the Brandywine and Porpoise in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. On April 28, 1832 he passed the board of examiners. During that year only 39 of 80 midshipmen tested passed. He was assigned shortly to the naval survey team to examine Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.
Because billets were few in the U. S. Navy during this period, Semmes was frequently on leave of absence. He used these times to study law in the office of his brother Samuel or elsewhere as opportunity permitted. In April, 1834 at age 23, he passed the Maryland bar exam and was admitted to practice. During this time he met Anne Elizabeth Spence of Cincinnati and married her in 1837.
Thereafter Semmes saw service in the Second Seminal War commanding a navy transport steamer supplying troops, and was ultimately assigned to duty at the Pensacola Navy Yard in Florida. In 1841 he bought a lot in nearby Baldwin County, Alabama. Naval duties in the Gulf of Mexico permitted him to build a house on the lot. By 1845 the couple had four children and Semmes had come to regard himself as a citizen of Alabama. He remained such the rest of his life.
In 1843, Semmes received his first seagoing command, the USS Poinsett, one of the navy’s first steamships. The next year he was directed to accompany a State Department envoy to Mexico City. His experience on this mission proved very valuable when the U. S. went to war with Mexico two years later and he became first officer of the ten gun brig USS Porpoise then a part of the U. S. Naval Squadron stationed off Veracruz. The squadron was assigned to blockade seven Mexican Gulf ports.
In 1846 Semmes was part of a naval force detached to operate heavy naval cannon on land during the siege of Veracruz. Here he met Capt. Robert E. Lee, a rising Army officer, who was under orders to place the guns. These naval guns aided materially in the capture of the city.
Commodore Oliver Perry sent Semmes with a formal Navy Department protest to Mexican President Santa Anna in April, 1847. U. S. Gen. Winfield Scott refused to permit the Semmes party through the lines to deliver the protest. Semmes, an able attorney, wrote Scott saying that President Polk had directed Commodore Perry to make the protest and Perry had ordered him to deliver it. If Scott objected, he demanded that the general put his position in writing. Scott stepped aside.
On returning to Veracruz from Mexico City, Semmes was invited by Scott’s deputy, Gen. William J. Worth, to join his staff. With his Commodore’s approval, Semmes served the remainder of the Mexican War with Worth’s command on land.
At the close of the war, Gen. Worth wrote to Gen. Scott:
“To Lt. Semmes of the Navy the most cordial thanks of the general of the division are tendered for his uniform gallantry and assistance; and the general-in-chief is respectfully requested to present the conduct of this accomplished and gallant officer to the special notice of the chief of our Navy.”
In 1850-51 Semmes wrote a book detailing his Mexican War experience. Sales were good and an abridged version appeared in 1852.
Semmes was a supporter of the War with Mexico and favored the admission of Texas as a state. He deplored the Mexican feudal society and was genuinely concerned for the poverty of its peasant class.
Semmes was systematic, a realist and a careful observer. He predicted that the U. S. would in time become the pre-eminent commercial power in the Western Hemisphere and that 20 years hence it would not be “Britannia” who would “rule the waves.”
One of Semmes’ junior officers aboard the USS Somers during this period described his C. O. as “brave, well instructed, and observant…but a silent man. I have seen him, almost daily, standing aft, clinging to a back stay, looking in a fixed direction as if in reflection or introspection. He would remain so for hours.” This behavior followed Semmes throughout his naval service.
Desirous of being with his family, he sought shore assignment and obtained a desirable position again at the Pensacola Navy Yard. The following year he was given command of the USS Flint, a schooner in the Home Squadron which patrolled the western Caribbean. His dispatches to the Secretary of the Navy concerning political instability in Honduras and Mexico demonstrated his keen sense of observation and political acuity. In October, 1849 Semmes moved his family to a new residence in the City of Mobile where educational opportunities for his children were suitable and where at some point he thought a law practice might be developed.
It was at this time that Semmes met Midshipman John M. Kell and represented the young officer and three others in a dispute that arose on the USS Albany. Despite a vigorous defense, Kell was found guilty of disobeying an order and dismissed from the Navy. Semmes was later elated when Kell’s court martial was set aside by the Secretary of the Navy and the young man restored to his rank. This began a life-long friendship.
Semmes’ reputation as a sea lawyer grew during these years resulting in his assignment to numerous navy court martials either as a board member or advocate.
In 1855, he was promoted to Commander and was given command of the steamer Illinois.
The U. S. Navy was a tough place for officers of the age and rank of Semmes during these years. It had no retirement system, and hence far more senior officers than needed making really good assignments hard to get. This also made for poor morale.
In November, 1856 he received an assignment that seems curious for a man of Semmes abilities – he was made Inspector of Stations for the U. S. Lighthouse Service then operated by the Treasury Department but dependent upon the Navy.
This role suited Semmes because it enabled him to do this job, remain in the Navy and practice law in Mobile since his responsibilities for Lighthouses was limited to the Gulf of Mexico. He performed the duties well, and about two years later he was promoted to the office of Secretary of the Lighthouse Service’s Board with offices in Washington, DC. He had to move to the capital.
This move brought Semmes back to his boyhood home.
Politics in the Union’s capital was strident and sectional trouble was steadily increasing. Semmes noted:
“As long as they (New Englanders) were in a minority, they stood strictly on their State rights, in resisting such measures as were unpalatable to them, even to the extremity of threatening secession.”
But, he concluded, when these same people found themselves in the majority they abandoned their doctrine of states’ rights and championed national authority. Increasingly, Semmes began to think the Federal Union was made up of incompatible distinct societies. Semmes pointed to the warning of Alexis de Tocqueville concerning the “tyranny of majority.” Perhaps Semmes’ favorite Revolutionary figure was Patrick Henry of Virginia who opposed Virginia’s ratification of the Federal Constitution because the more populous Northern States would, he believed, seek to dominate their Southern neighbors whose economic base was so distinctly different.
Semmes had little interest in slavery. He regarded the controversy concerning it as a red herring. He said the subject was exploited by Northern leaders to isolate and weaken the South. He made this observation concerning what he perceived as the essentially economic foundation of the dispute:
“The fat Southern goose could not resist being plucked as things stood, but it was feared that if slavery was permitted to go into the (Federal) Territories the goose might become strong enough to resist.”
Semmes had during his career as a Navy judge advocate read extensively in the area of constitutional law. His examination of the founding documents convinced him that the Union was a voluntary compact of sovereign entities. As a result, the powers each delegated to the central government could lawfully be recovered upon a State’s decision to withdraw from that compact.
Unlike many in Washington however, Semmes kept his political views generally to himself. Having a genuine interest in scientific questions he spent his free time at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. This led, in 1860, to a cooperative effort between Semmes on behalf of the Lighthouse Board and the Smithsonian to collect bird eggs along the Florida coast. He also arranged for Lighthouse Board staff to assist in collection of specific scientific data sought by the Director of the Smithsonian.
In the Presidential election of 1860, Semmes was a supporter of Stephen Douglas, though Douglas did not share his views on the constitutional right of a State to secede.
While many Southern-born U. S. Army and Navy officers were no proponents of secession, Semmes approached the subject with a lawyer’s perspective. He not only believed that it was lawful, but after Lincoln was elected he advocated it as the single tool available to save the principals of Jeffersonian Republicanism.
As a citizen of Alabama by choice, when the latter state seceded on January 11, 1861, Semmes called on Clement C. Clay, one of its U. S. Senators, saying that he had decided to resign his commission as a Commander in the U. S. Navy and tender his services to the government then being formed in the South.
On January 21st he sat in the U. S. Senate gallery to hear Senator Jefferson Davis and four other Southerners deliver their departing addresses to that body.
Three weeks later he received a telegram from Montgomery, Alabama asking him to report there at once for service. On February 15, 1861, after 35 years in the U. S. Navy, he delivered his letter of resignation to Secretary of Navy Isaac Toucey. He also resigned as a member of the Lighthouse Board.
He then had a wife and six children. His second son, Oliver, was in his third year at West Point. His wife Anne, being a Northerner, was very anxious about the future. He sent her and his children still at home to his brother’s in Baltimore, Maryland, and proceeded to Montgomery. The trip by train took two days.
En route Semmes pondered what he should say to the new C. S. Naval leadership. He had written to a Southern legislator several months earlier:
“If you are warred upon at all, it will be by a commercial people…It is at ships and shipping, therefore, that you must strike.”
He also realized that he was closing a “volume” of “labors and associations” across a life time. With characteristic resolve he determined to step forward as had his Revolutionary ancestors to strike for the independence of what he termed “his people”.
The ship Mallory gave to Semmes on April 18, 1861 was a 500 ton displacement ocean going steamer built in 1859 for transporting passengers. She was fast, capable of ten or so knots. But she would have to be substantially reworked to become a ship of war. The vessel, named the “Havana” became the C. S. S. Sumter. Semmes set about overseeing the work in a New Orleans private shipyard. The Sumter was 184 feet long with a 30 foot beam. Semmes described her as having “easy and graceful lines” and a “saucy air…” Passenger accommodations were demolished, the main deck was reinforced, magazines for ammunition installed, and its coal bunkers expanded. The ship was armed with an eight-inch pivot gun between its 1st and 2nd masts, (this measurement refers to the width of its bore) and four 32 pound howitzers in broadside (this measurement refers to the weight of its projectile). He chose Lt. John McIntosh Kell of Georgia as his executive officer. Semmes wrote Mallory on June 14th:
“I have an excellent set of men (crew) on board…Shall I be fortunate enough to reach the high seas, you may rely upon my implicit obedience to your instructions to “do the enemy’s commerce the greatest injury in the shortest time.”
The ladies of New Orleans presented the new cruiser a Confederate naval jack on June 3, and a brass band played “Dixie” while cannons boomed as the ship with guests aboard made a trial run in the Mississippi.
To facilitate security of written messages, the captain of the Sumter worked out a code using a copy of Reid’s English Dictionary. He would use it throughout the war for written communication with Mallory.
On June 18, 1861, the Sumter set out seeking an opportunity to ship through the Federal blockade. This occurred on Sunday, June 30. The U. S. S. Brooklyn had left its station to chase a sail and Semmes, using a patriotic local pilot, crossed the bar at Pass á l’Outre with the Brooklyn, a much heavier warship, giving chase.
He lightened his ship by throwing overboard 1,500 gallons of water and a deck howitzer. By extraordinary sailing and a maximum effort by the ships engineers, after a 3 ½ hour chase the Sumter disappeared. U. S. Admiral David D. Porter said it was, “…one of the most exciting chases of the war.” When the Brooklyn dropped out of sight the crew raised three cheers for the Confederate flag. Semmes wrote in his journal that the enthusiasm was such as “could proceed only from the throats of American seamen in the act of defying a tyrant.”
Semmes knew that in two wars against Britain, the outclassed U. S. Navy had made commerce raiding a critical part of American strategy. He remembered John Paul Jones in the U. S. S. Ranger in British waters and Capt. Porter of the Essex ravaging enemy shipping in the Pacific.
By July 3, 1861 The Sumter was off the coast of Cuba. Its first prize was the Golden Rocket of Brewster, Maine, a 600 ton bark. Everything of value to the Confederates was removed and the ship was burned.
The next day, two additional Union merchantmen were captured. Both were taken into port of Cienfuegos, Cuba. Late on the same day two more were added to the convoy.
Semmes being fluent in Spanish, shortly obtained the hospitality of the port and succeeded in re-coaling. He was thereafter guest of honor at a party given by local citizens. Here he saw for the first time that the upper classes in much of the Caribbean were pro-Confederate.
On July 7 the Sumter went back to sea and called at the Dutch port of Curacao. He was again allowed to make repairs and refuel. Leaving the port he captured the Abby Bradford, a New England schooner en route to Venezuela. He put a prize crew aboard her and sent her to New Orleans with a letter to Mallory reviewing his six captures in 26 days at sea. On July 27, he intercepted the bark Joseph Maxwell. Semmes put another prize crew aboard it and sent it to join the vessels left at Cienfuegos earlier. Semmes intended to conduct a prize court there later and sell all five.
Word soon reached the U. S. that a C. S. cruiser was seriously damaging the merchant fleet in the Caribbean and south Atlantic. Three first-class Union warships were sent in late summer, the Powhatan, the Iroquois and the Keystone State. But there was never a careful strategy to locate the cruiser and it was never found at sea.
Semmes had two useful devices to fool a potential prize ship: he had installed a funnel (smoke stack) that could be lowered out of sight to make his vessel appear to be a sailing ship, and he could legally use foreign flags.
His tally for the first month: 10 enemy merchantmen. En route to Trinidad Semmes marveled at the clear water, rainbow colored fish and great clusters of coral all appealing to his scientific interests. Here for the first time a British merchantman dipped her colors as she passed him. On August 4 he visited the British town of “Port of Spain”. The Governor said he would receive the same hospitality extended to Federal vessels. He re-coaled here.
The Lincoln administration urged that all C. S. naval vessels were either pirates or privateers and were entitled to no rights as belligerents. Great Britain rejected that position. To the threat made by Lincoln to hang Southerners captured aboard C. S. ships at sea, Semmes made plain that he would retaliate in kind. All U. S. ships were not the “enemy” however. The master of a Baltimore brig anchored at Port of Spain asked Semmes his intentions and he was told Maryland based ships would not be harmed. Before leaving Semmes exchanged calls with the captain of the H. M. S. Cadmus, a British warship, and in response to questions gave his soon to be standard explanation that the North sought simply to economically exploit the South. What of slavery said the Englishman? Semmes replied:
“With the exception of a few honest zealots, the canting, hypocritical Yankee cares as little for our slaves as he does for our draught animals… When a burglar designs to enter a dwelling for the purpose of robbery, he provides himself with the necessary implements. The slavery question was one of the implements so employed to help in the robbery of the South.”
The British captain was not impressed with the Sumter. He believed she was too lightly constructed for a man-of-war and that her guns were not mounted high enough for effective use at sea. But he had a different view of the Sumter’s captain. He said of Semmes:
“There is no doubt he will do an enormous amount of damage before he is taken, for he seems a bold, determined man and well up to his words.”
Semmes proceeded toward French Guiana in South America. He arrived there at the port of Cayenne on August 15, 1861. From there he proceeded to Suriname where he again coaled this ship. Word reached this port while the Sumter was coaling of the major Confederate victory at Manassas. Semmes ordered an extra round of “grog” for the crew.
Here Semmes observed that the Georgian Kell was everything he hoped for. Kell expanded the ship’s coal storage capacity and exhibited excellent day to day operation of the ship as first officer. Semmes observed in his journal that Kell was 6’2”, broad forehead, blue eyes and brown hair with a magnificent full beard of the same color making him look to Semmes just as Kell’s Highland Scots chieftain ancestors must have appeared.
The Sumter sailed August 31 to Sao Luis, Brazil, arriving September 6 with no new captures. Here Semmes engaged an adroit local, who he referred to as Senior Porto, to act as local political advisor. With Porto’s assistance he succeeded in presenting the Secretary of the Navy’s respects to the local government, and had the Sumter repaired, painted and provisioned. Fortunately, Semmes found here a well to do Southerner working as an engineer. This man loaned the Sumter enough money to continue its cruise comfortably (coal purchases had exhausted the ship’s funds). The Sumter then headed north and on September 25 captured the Maine-built brigantine Joseph Park. The vessel was burned after removing everything of value to the cruiser.
On October 27, 1861, the Sumter captured the 200 ton schooner Daniel Trowbridge from New York. This vessel was transporting provisions including preserved meats, crackers, cheese and flour. Again, all needed goods were removed and the schooner torched.
All the while, Semmes’ prediction to Mallory was proving correct. In New York maritime insurance rates were rising and the press carried stories about the cruiser’s repeated captures. U. S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was even afraid Semmes might capture one of the gold steamers bearing that precious metal from California. He therefore ordered all such ships to move in convoy with U. S. Navy warships. Welles and his advisors thought Semmes to be sailing around Haiti, but he was far away.
On March 9, the Sumter came into Port-de-France on the island of Martinique. Semmes put on a fresh linen shirt, his dress uniform and sword, then called on the governor. Maussion de Cande was cordial. The Sumter’s crew was given liberty and Semmes heard of the Trent Affair. This had occurred weeks earlier when the U. S. S. San Jacinto stopped the British mail steamer Trent on the high seas and removed the Confederate emissaries to Britain and France. This affront to international law was used very effectively thereafter by Semmes.
Here, the Sumter was finally confronted by a pursuer, the U. S. S. Iroquois, a 1000 ton warship, mounting 8 heavy guns. The federal captain, James Palmer, would not take his vessel into the port to anchorage because under international law, he would have to wait 24 hours after the Sumter left to pursue it. Semmes watched the Union vessel though his long glass. The Iroquois came into the harbor several times as if to attack but dared not do so in French waters. The Sumter cleared for action and the men slept at the guns. Semmes protested to Cande and he sided with the Confederates. Cande sent a French warship to warn Palmer to either anchor in port or move outside the three mile legal limit from the port. On November 23 at 8:00 p.m., the black hulled Sumter slipped out of the harbor under cover of darkness as the Iroquois stood watch but did not see it. A timely squall came up which helped. The next day a second larger federal man-of-war arrived – too late. The captain of the Iroquois was relieved of his command. Admiral Porter wrote:
“Semmes was too clever for Palmer.”
Palmer was being very careful. He wrote his superiors afterward that international law gave the Sumter “great immunity” and if he had attacked her within the three mile limit he had been plainly warned that France would consider same as an act of war and retaliate.
Semmes recognized these U. S. ships had almost cornered him. A change in hunting ground was imperative. Several days later he decided to take the Sumter across the Atlantic. It was a bold choice. The Sumter was not designed as a ship of war nor for constant sea duty. Her boilers were already corroded and she leaked at the seams. A crack in here propeller sleeve increased the leakage. Semmes wanted a more sea worthy vessel. He also knew that when news reached U. S. officials that the Sumter was in European waters fear would increase and it was probable more U. S. warships would leave blockade duty to find it.
Soon after he turned eastward, Semmes spotted the Montmorency, a 1,183 ton square rigger. Though a U. S. vessel, its cargo was clearly property of neutrals. He therefore could not burn the ship. Semmes therefore took a $20,000 ransom bond and released it. It was the first of twelve ships he captured during the war to be so treated. On November 26, the Sumter captured and burned the Northern owned schooner Arcade loaded with barrel staves. Here as in all past captures he permitted no random plundering or looting. All crew members were, as usual, transferred to the Sumter. Officers and crewmen were permitted to retain personal property suitable to carry aboard the Confederate cruiser.
The Sumter’s fifteenth prize was the ship Vigilant carrying ballast only near Bermuda. This vessel was burned.
Semmes had ample food and water for the crossing, but not for the crewmen removed from the last three captures. On December 8, 1861, the sixteenth prize captured, a whaler called Eben Dodge furnished an ample supply of new sea boots, pea jackets and warm clothing for the Sumter’s crew. The whaler was then torched. On December 11 the Sumter was caught in a hurricane. Semmes wrote of this storm:
“The sea was mountainous and would now and then strike the Sumter with such force as to make her tremble in every fiber of her frame…the ship behaved nobly, but I had no confidence in her strength.”
The hurricane lasted two days. Thereafter though it was now winter on the Atlantic, sailing was normal. Officers and crew celebrated their first Christmas together.
Semmes now chose to sail to Madeira en route to Gibraltar, a British port. The Atlantic crossing took 30 days in very adverse weather. He learned from an English vessel at this time, that a second C. S. cruiser, the Nashville had joined his efforts and had burned a U. S. clipper in the English Channel.
A recurring problem for Semmes was his crew. Though enlisted at New Orleans, few were Southerners. Most were British and though experienced seamen they cared little for the Southern cause, but much for grog.
Semmes would, based on his long experience in the old U. S. Navy, tolerate no disrespect, drunkenness on ship or other serious misconduct. He was no reformer though. He focused on maintaining fighting efficiency. He rule was
“…punishment should follow the offense, with promptitude and certainty, rather than severity.”
Off the coast of Africa, as the Sumter approached Gibraltar, the cruiser stopped and boarded sixteen vessels but none were U. S. owned. The seriousness of continued leakage forces Semmes to enter the harbor of Cadiz, Spain. Spain feared the U. S., much more than did Britain and France, and was consequently very cool when the C. S. cruiser entered one of its home ports.
The Spanish ultimately permitted the Sumter to be repaired. Its hull turned out to be sound. Three days in the dry dock resulted in a new copper bottom, a new propeller housing that did not leak but no boiler work.
Semmes then chose to sail on to Gibraltar reaching there on January 18, 1862, flying the Confederate colors as he entered. Prior to reaching this port however, the Sumter captured the U. S. merchantman Neapolitan en route from Sicily to Boston loaded with sulfur, a key ingredient of gun powder. The vessel was searched, the crew removed and it was burned with its cargo.
As Semmes expected, he was warmly received by British authorities in Gibraltar. There was much anger still about the Trent Affair, even though Lincoln had released the Southern emissaries and apologized to Queen Victoria.
One keen observer recorded this about the Sumter lying at anchor in Gibraltar:
“I could scarcely believe that so poor a vessel could have escaped so many dangers. She is a small steamer with three masts, a funnel strangely out of proportion to her size, and a tall black hull so high out of the water that she gives you the idea of being insufficiently ballasted. She is …leaky. Her engines are partially above the lower deck, and are surrounded by a cylindrical casing of 6-inch wood covered with half inch iron bars – very poor protection against a 8-inch shot.”
Semmes wired Confederate agents in England seeking funds and urged them to assist in securing a really suitable vessel to replace the Sumter.
Semmes was entertained while in port by Col. Arthur Freemantle commander of the Coldstream Guards Regiment. He received a tour of the fortress protecting the harbor, the great tunnels built in the Rock, and rode horse back with his host to the peak. The British signalman atop the Rock told Semmes that the numbers of U. S. merchant ships had sharply declined of late. Semmes was pleased.
On February 8, 1862 the H.M.S. Warrior entered the harbor. This ship was iron throughout and heavily armored. It was, in all probability the most formidable warship afloat. Such vessel was precisely what Mallory and Semmes discussed a year earlier in Montgomery as essential to counter the disparity in numbers the South faced.
Semmes was not only a skillful sea captain but also an adroit diplomat as he had shown again and again in the Caribbean, in South America and now in Europe. He took every opportunity to make the best public case for his new nation. At this time he noticed a published copy of U. S. Secretary of the Navy Welles year-end report to Lincoln in the British press. This report bristled with references to the Sumter as a pirate craft and suggested U. S. retaliation against any nation who extended belligerent rights to it. Semmes saw an opportunity. He wrote a response and it was published in The London Times. He said in part:
“Mr. Welles…and the press of the Yankee States, call me a privateer. He knows better than this. He knows that a privateer is a vessel that bears a letter of marque and that I am cruising under no such letter. He knows that I have been regularly commissioned as a ship of war of The Confederate States. If he…insists upon calling the citizens of The Confederate States “rebels” under the idea that those states still form a part of the old Yankee concern, then he might characterize me as a rebel man-of-war. But if I am this, so were all the ships of the American Colonies commissioned by the Virginian, George Washington.”
He went on to say with satisfaction that at least six U. S. warships, all larger and more powerful than the Sumter, had been chasing him (instead of blockading). Welles, he said “did not dare to send a ship of equal force to meet me, and if he did…I venture to say [the captain of it] would not dare to find me.” We might add propagandist to the list of Semmes’ skills.
On January 25, 1862 Semmes received a telegram from C. S. agents in London directing him to make no repairs to the Sumter and leave it at anchor. A week later, he received a second communication instructing him to come with his officers to Liverpool immediately to take command of a new cruiser then nearing completion.
On February 12, the U. S. S. Kearsarge a ship which would later loom large with Semmes entered Gibraltar harbor and anchored near the Sumter. As night approached the Sumter’s officers and crew treated the vessel to a rousing stanza of “Dixie.” Two other federal vessels soon focused on the Sumter.
On April 11, 1862, Semmes turned over command to Midshipman Richard Armstrong and a skeleton crew of twelve. He and the remaining officers returned to London. The Sumter’s life as a C. S. cruiser had ended. She had captured eighteen enemy vessels. Of those seven had been destroyed. The Sumter’s operational cost was $28,000.00, a fraction of the damage she had done. Lt. Commander Kell said of her:
“…the little Sumter has never had full justice done her…No ship of her size, her frailness, and her armament ever played such havoc on a powerful foe.”
The impact of the Sumter (and the Nashville) was exactly as Semmes hoped. In early 1861, the premium for war risk insurance on U. S. ships ranged from 1 to 3 percent of insured value, but by the end of the year it was 4 percent and rising. Approximately 120 U. S. merchant vessels were transferred to British registry during the same time so as to operate under British protection.
Late in the year, C. S. authorities sold the Sumter to a British trading company for $19,500 thereby recovering about ¾ of the whole cost of her cruise.
Unknown to Semmes that spring (1862) but consistent with his discussions with Secretary Mallory, substantial progress had been made toward providing him with a first class cruiser to replace the Sumter.
The man responsible for this progress was naval officer and secret service operative Capt. James Dunwoody Bulloch. A native Georgian of a prominent family which had furnished Revolutionary patriots, including a governor of that State, Bulloch had served as a commander in the pre-war U. S. Navy. He was particularly equipped with the knowledge, experience and discretion for the job of managing covert affairs and securing 6 steam powered ships with supplies in Europe for the Confederate States.
Bulloch had been sent to Britain in May of the previous year. He promptly and discretely contracted for two first class navy cruisers from British shipbuilders. He was simply adroit as a “cloak and dagger” operative. The first cruiser, ultimately named the C. S. S. Florida was completed before Semmes’ party arrived in London. In fact, it had already been dispatched to Nassau where it would receive its heavy guns.
This first of several modern sea raiders to fly the Confederate flag had been placed in the hands of Capt. John Newland Moffit, an able and experienced officer who would use it effectively.
Semmes was at this time promoted from commander to captain for his service on the Sumter. But there was no new cruiser available for him. He and his officers therefore left London en route back to the Confederate States. However, upon arrival in Nassau he found, to his surprise, that Mallory had sent orders that he return to England and take command of the second cruiser Bulloch had contracted for. This splendid vessel now referred to only as No. 290 would be the C. S. S. Alabama. Semmes replied to Mallory:
“In obedience to your order, assigning me to the command of (the Alabama) I will return by the first conveyance… I will take with me Lieutenant Kell, Surgeon Francis Galt and First Lt. of Marines Beckett Howell. The cruiser will be a fine ship, quite equal to encounter any of the enemy’s steam sloops of the class of the Iroquois, Tuscarora and Dakota…”
Captain Semmes and his officers arrived in Liverpool on August 8, 1862. He had to exercise great caution. The Union spy network in England had slowly become more effective at gathering information concerning ships the South had secretly contracted for either with builders or owners.
Anticipating problems getting this first class man of war out of England – even though she carried no weapons, Bulloch had proceeded months before she was ready to leave, to select crew members, purchase and load supplies and arrange for coaling. He contracted with the owners of a bark to carry the cruiser’s arms and munitions to whatever point outside the country he would later select to rendezvous with the ship.
In late July, just a few weeks before Semmes arrived, U. S. Ambassador Charles F. Adams furnished the British Foreign Ministry with affidavits claiming the Enrica had a military “character” and probably belonged to the Confederate States. On the 26th Bulloch’s reliable information network told him the Alabama was not safe and might be seized within the next couple of weeks by British authorities to satisfy Adams.
Bulloch arranged for Laird Brothers – the construction firm – to promptly ready the ship for a day long shakedown cruise or sea trial.
Capt. Matthew J. Butcher, a confidant of Bulloch’s and a very competent British merchant marine captain was engaged to get a crew on board immediately. No Confederate officer or agent went near the ship. Bulloch set the trial up as a festive occasion in broad daylight. There were flags, civilian guests including ladies, a catered lunch on board and music. The ship moved down the Mersey River from the Laird docks on July 29. Guests were transferred to a tender and returned to shore.
Butcher then took the ship to Moelfra Bay in Wales. The U. S. S. Tuscarora was in the vicinity and Bulloch wanted the ship in a quiet, little frequented spot. His crew was told the ship would be going to Havana, Cuba on a routine business trip.
Bulloch’s sources were correct; Lord Palmerton had decided to detain No. 290 for investigation, but the paperwork did not get done in time. The ship had been gone a full 24 hours before Laid Brothers received the order.
Semmes and his officers were fully informed as to all this on arrival and went out to meet their new cruiser in the Azores aboard the Bahamian a merchant vessel secretly owned by the C. S. government and available to Bulloch.
The rendezvous took place there on August 20, 1862. Semmes wrote in his journal:
“She (the Alabama) was, indeed, a beautiful thing to look upon.”
The Alabama was much larger, much more powerful and dramatically more suited for his purpose than the C. S. S. Sumter. The new warship had been custom built for its work per the careful planning of Bulloch.
She was 1,040 tons, 220 feet long and drew 15 feet of water fully loaded. The brand new marine engines were each 300 horsepower. She had twin screws both of which were designed to retract so that she could use her sails without drag. She could hold 350 tons of coal – 18 days worth. She had a sophisticated apparatus for converting sea water to fresh water capable of generating 120 gallons a day. She had cost $237,000.00.
Her armaments consisted of modern artillery selected for her intended purposes: a 110 pounder Blakely rifle gun on a forward pivot and a 68 pounder stern gun that could fire solid shot or explosive shells. In broadside she mounted six 32 pounder smooth bore guns.
Semmes probably chuckled when he found that her three masts were of the very best Southern yellow pine and were thus flexible in a gale. Her rigging was of the latest design: Swedish iron wire rather than hemp rope or cord.
Work set about immediately to transfer her guns, stores, munitions, equipment, coal and supplies from the tender sent out by Bulloch and from transport Bahama. This work took three days. The harbor was remote and no Union ship interrupted it. Among the items Semmes brought were 17 chronometers taken from the U. S. vessels the C. S. S. Sumter had captured.
Semmes took the new ship out into international waters off the Azores to legally recruit his crew – ever the sea lawyer, he did not want to violate British law by doing so inside a foreign country.
On a Sunday morning with his officers dressed out in their new C. S. naval uniforms, he summoned all hands, mounted a gun carriage and read his commission from the Secretary of the Navy, announcing that the ship was christened the C. S. S. Alabama. A cannon fired and the Stars and Bars were cast to the breeze. A small band of seamen musicians played “Dixie”. Semmes released all the Alabama’s crew from their contract to go to Havana. He described his mission, promised good food, grog twice a day and double the wage paid by the British navy. He said:
“…my lads,…the ship is as fine a vessel as ever floated… We are going to burn, sink and destroy the Commerce of the United States. Your prize money will be divided proportionately according to each man’s rank. There is Mr. Kell…all who are desirous of going with me…give (him) their names.”
Eighty including men from the tender and the Bahama signed up. The Alabama set a course to the northeast and proceeded. Shortly Semmes began to drill his gun crews. Lt. Arthur Sinclair described his fellow officers on the Alabama thusly:
“…they had all seen service in the United States Navy excepting one – Lieut. John Low (who was an Englishman and trained in the merchant service) and were thoroughly competent for the exceptional work required of them. The engineers were not only able to handle the engines in all emergencies, but to make the frequent and often difficult repairs that usually are intrusted only to machine shops. The masters mates were thorough seamen, quite competent to take the deck and maneuver or navigate the ship. They were invaluable…the midshipmen were…apt and intelligent, and before many months were all able to work the ship and handy with sextant and chronometer.”
Officers came from the following Southern States:
- Ala. – 1
- Ga. – 6
- Fla. – 1
- Va. – 3
- La. – 5
- N.C. – 1
- S.C. – 2
On September 5, the Alabama took its first capture, loaded with sperm oil, the U. S. whaler “Ocmulgee”, named for a river in Georgia. Its 37 man crew was taken on board and all useful stores were removed. The next morning the Ocmulgee was burned.
Semmes observed that his crew looked sharp in their new white shirts and blue deck trousers. The Ocmulgee’s officers and crew were placed with food in their whale boats and released to go the short distance back to the Azores.
Shortly the Alabama added two Boston whalers as prizes: the Starlight and the Ocean Rover. The latter had 1,100 barrels of whale oil aboard. The crews were landed on the island of Flores.
Before Semmes could address his two prizes, a third appeared. It was the 398 ton New London, Connecticut whaler Alert. It was loaded with supplies only, including tobacco, and was particularly valuable. After removing everything he could use, Semmes burned all three ships.
Within a couple of days the Alabama took its 5th and 6th prizes, the whaling schooner Weatherguage and a 119 ton brig, the Altamaha – curiously also named for a Georgia river. These were also clearly Northern vessels and received the same treatment as the earlier prizes.
On September 13, the whaler Benjamin Tucker of New Bedford, Connecticut was captured and burned. One of her crew enlisted on the Alabama, the first of many. Three days later the whaler Courser of Provincetown, Massachusetts was captured and burned. Semmes now had a large number of prisoners from the recently burned ships. He released them with food into their whaleboats and they set out for Flores like the earlier crews. Before burning the Courser, the Alabama’s gun crews used the vessel as a target – their first.
Within the week the Alabama took its ninth and tenth prizes, one after a three and a half hour chase. Both were burned. Interestingly, these ten enemy vessels had an aggregate value of $232,000.00 roughly equal to the cost of the Confederate cruiser. The Alabama had been at its work less than a month.
At the end of the month Semmes changed hunting grounds. He set sail for Newfoundland intending to take his new cruiser into the enemy’s comfort zone.
On October 3, 1862, 200 miles southeast of Newfoundland the Alabama captured the 839 ton Brilliant loaded with flour and grain. The ship and cargo were valued at $164,000.00, the most valuable capture to date. It was searched, useful material removed and it was burned. A second ship was shortly spotted and it too was a Union merchantman. However, on boarding the Emily Farnum, Semmes found that its entire cargo was legitimately the property of a neutral and it was released though the ship was a Union vessel. Semmes forced its captain to take the crews of the last three vessels captured.
Semmes obtained the Emily Farnum’s captain’s agreement that, as a condition of the vessel’s release, he proceed on his current course for Liverpool. However, as soon as the ship was out of the Alabama’s reach, its captain broke his pledge and turned back to Boston to raise the alarm.
Unknown to Semmes, but certainly as he expected, the burning of the Brilliant, which was from New York City, caused howls on Wall Street. An article in the New York Herald compared Semmes to Jean Lafayette and Capt. Kidd. Even so, no crewman or officer of any captured vessel had been harmed by the Confederate commander and the destruction of the merchantmen and whalers was perfectly consistent with international law and the historic policy of the United States during the Revolution and War of 1812.
Semmes set up a routine for gunnery practice that required at least one day per quarter be devoted to it. He wanted more but his ammunition was too precious and hard to come by to allow it. The C. S. Marines on board also drilled regularly to support any contested boarding.
Once a week Semmes had his ship thoroughly cleaned. He was careful to give his crew ample time off for personal purposes such as mending clothes and even for evening entertainment on deck including usual ship music.
Semmes carefully avoided discussing his plans or object with anyone but the first officer believing secrecy to be essential to a cruiser’s success. Semmes was ever visible on the quarter deck and could, even in the dead of night, appear with remarkable speed when summoned.
Semmes’ plans were working well. On October 18, U. S. Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, wrote in his diary:
“The ravages by the steamer…Alabama are enormous.”
Wells was being bombarded by frightened merchants and alarmed marine insurance companies.
By the end of October, the Alabama had captured off the New England coast the U. S. merchant vessels Wave Crest, the Dunkirk and the Tonawanda, the last being a very large 1,300 ton packet, as well as the Manchester, the Lamplighter, the Lafayette and the Crenshaw. The first two were burned, but the third had 75 passengers on board and was thus saved. For this reason Semmes took a bond for it in the amount of $80,000.00 payable to the Confederate States. Among the crew of this vessel was a seaman and the seaman’s slave, David White. Semmes, with an obvious sense of amusement, declared that since Northern soldiers regarded Southern-owned slavers as “contraband” he would reciprocate and informed White that he was free. Delighted White associated himself with the Alabama’s naval surgeon. Dr. Galt, and was put on the ship’s roll as a wardroom steward.
Interestingly, Semmes’ wardroom steward was an Italian named Bartelli.
Semmes was careful to remove and read all newspapers found on his captures. He later wrote:
“Perhaps this was the only war in which the newspapers ever explained beforehand, all the movements of armies and fleets to the enemy.”
He took full advantage of the information, including the description and location of the 192 listed Federal gunboats nicely detailed.
Later that fall the Alabama encountered a hurricane on the Atlantic coast. This storm, however, altered Semmes’ plan to enter New York harbor and fire the anchored merchantmen there. The damage to the Alabama from the hurricane could not be ignored and Alabama’s coal supply was dangerously low making a good escape too risky.
At the end of October, the Alabama captured the Lauretta whose captain claimed his cargo was owned by neutrals. Semmes’ careful sea lawyer training revealed the documents were fabricated. The ship was burned. The next day a New York ship loaded with lumber, the Baron de Castine, was captured. The vessel had little value and Semmes transferred all his prisoners from the last few prizes to her and sent a message by her captain to the president of the New York Chamber of Commerce thanking him for his complimentary remarks as to the C. S. S. Alabama and saying that the more the Yankee abused him the more complimented he felt.
Now, Semmes having done much good work off Boston and New York, sought another area to hunt. The careful Bulloch had arranged for the Alabama’s coal tender to meet it shortly at Martinique. So Semmes set out for that rendezvous.
En route the Alabama captured the whaler Levi Starbuck. One historian has called it “a floating warehouse.” From it Semmes removed a wide assortment of needed naval supplies and food stuffs.
On November 7, 1862, another Northern merchantman was captured and burned. Nine of its crew promptly enlisted on the Alabama. This vessel carried passengers including the U. S. Consul to India. Though a New Englander, Semmes viewed him as a “gentleman” and turned over two cabins to the ship’s captain and the Consul, the latter with children.
The Alabama entered the harbor of Fort-de-France in the Caribbean a second time. The Alabama was again received hospitably by the French governor, released its prisoners from recently captured ships and made repairs.
Here, for the first time, certain drunken members of the crew became seriously disrespectful and rebellious. Twenty were seized and held, then repeatedly doused with buckets of cold water – for two hours. Shivering in the November air – the men begged for mercy and were retuned to duty.
On November 19, the U. S. S. San Jacinto a fourteen gun, 1,450 ton warship sailed into the harbor – the first enemy vessel to find her. The Alabama beat to quarters and cleared for action. The French would have none of it and demanded that the 24 hour international rule be recognized, then stationed a French warship in the harbor to keep the peace.
The French captain quietly furnished Semmes his charts showing the best channels out of the port. Semmes shipped out after dark.
Soon afterwards the Alabama captured and burned another U. S. whaler near the coast of Venezuela. Here the Alabama’s tender, the Agrippina met it and delivered a fresh supply of coal. Semmes learned from captured newspapers at this time that Federal Gen. Nathaniel Banks was planning to attack Galveston, Texas via a joint land/sea effort in December.
The Alabama then captured another well stocked U. S. merchantman, the Parke Cereb of Boston, resupplied its food stuffs, then torched the vessel. This brought the Alabama’s total value of ships destroyed to $1.2 million or four times her own cost.
The next capture was unusual. On December 7 near Cuba, Semmes stopped the Ariel, a very large, modern side wheel steamer. It was full of passengers who screamed when the warning shot was sent across her bow. Semmes thought diplomacy was in order. He sent his most diplomatic officer, Lt. Armstrong, in a handsome new uniform with dress sword in the Captain’s gig to pacify the ladies. Armstrong at Semmes direction assured the dozens of ladies on deck that his ship was officered by gentlemen not ruffians.
A young woman accepted his statement and asked for a button from his tunic. More followed suit until no buttons were left. All private property was respected.
There was no stock of useful supplies, no significant gold and no military hardware on board. There were however, 500 passengers including a whole company (140 men) of U. S. Marines. Because the ship belonged to Cornelius Vanderbilt, a leading Northern businessman, Seems wanted to burn it, but had no means of dealing with the mass of passengers.
He accepted a bond for $261,000, as a result, and let the ship and all aboard go.
As the Alabama pulled away, the ladies on the Ariel called for “three cheers for Semmes and the Alabama…” which followed. They waived handkerchiefs until it passed out of sight.
On New Years Day, 1863, Semmes wrote in his diary:
“Success, as a general rule, attends him who is vigilant and active, and who is careful to obey all the laws of nature.”
No objective observer would say Semmes was not vigilant or active. He now set out for Galveston to interrupt Banks. On January 11 the lookout spotted five Union warships off Galveston Bay which were firing into the city. The Union naval commander saw the Alabama approach and sent the U. S. S. Hatteras to intercept her. The Hatteras was a 1,126 ton ship built the previous year. She had seven guns.
Semmes relished the offered combat and moved out to sea to meet her away from her squadron. The two ships maneuvered for attack. Both signaled the other to identify itself. At Semmes’ command Lt. Commander Kell called out through his sea trumpet, “This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama” and opened fire. The ships were 100 yards apart, but continued to close to 40 yards.
Semmes stood on the horse block (a raised platform above the quarter deck). The Hatteras targeted the Alabama’s stern to disable her steering which made his position very dangerous.
After 7 minutes the 110 pounder Blakely gun put a shell through the Hatteras side at the waterline. A second shell hit her engine and disabled it.
The Union squadron commander sent the U. S. S. Brooklyn to aid the Hatteras but the move was too late. The Hatteras was seriously damaged and on fire. Her captain, Homer Blake, signaled to surrender. Blake rowed over to the Alabama and handed Semmes his sword. Semmes invited Blake to his cabin. The fight took about 15 minutes. The Alabama’s gunners fired six broadsides in that time, one every 2 ½ minutes.
The result was: one man wounded on the Alabama, two killed and five wounded on the Hatteras. Ten minutes after the latter’s crew was removed, she sank. It was then dark. The Alabama shipped away before the Brooklyn arrived. U. S. Admiral Porter wrote later that Semmes:
“displayed great daring in thus bearding the lion in his den, and entering waters he knew to be full of the enemy’s gunboats.”
The Alabama was struck seven (7) seven times by artillery fire from the Hatteras, but the damage was slight. The Alabama now had 118 U. S. Navy officers and seamen on board as prisoners.
Semmes released his prisoners at Port Royal, Jamaica on January 20. He was asked to speak to a gathering of the British subjects on the 24th and did so. He said that he greatly appreciated the public sympathy he observed for the Confederate States and the cordial reception he had thus far had at British ports. He emphasized the South’s commitment to free trade and its right to independence. The Kingston newspaper which covered the speech said that at no time did he allude to the Alabama’s daring exploits but combined “valor with modesty” in contract to the “bombastic displays” of Northerners.
Here, the Alabama’s paymaster, Clarence Yonge – a Southerner – deserted with £ 400 of the ship’s money.
Returning to its work, the Alabama captured the Golden Rule of New York City and the Chatelaine of Boston on January 25 and burned both after removing items of value. Prisoners from both were discharged at Santo Domingo.
Over the next month or so three more Yankee merchantmen were captured. A fourth was searched and released since its cargo was Peruvian guano consigned to Belgian owners.
A fifth capture was the John A. Parks of Maine carrying pine lumber with duly notarized certificates that the cargo belonged to British citizens. However, an examination of the mail captured on her revealed a letter saying the ownership was false. The ship was burned.
Two U. S. merchantmen were boarded and released on bond at this time because their cargos appeared to be bona fide property of foreign nationals.
A U. S. whaling schooner did not escape the torch however.
Semmes could not know that the Alabama’s sister ship, the C. S. S. Florida which went out first had not yet taken a single capture until January, 1863 due to yellow fever aboard and had to run the blockade into Mobile. But shortly the Florida made three captures and another in February, then four more in March. The two ships were doing great work as Spring 1863 began. A third C. S. cruiser, the Georgia, was about to join them.
During 1863 alone the Confederate cruisers caused 348 U. S. ships totaling 252,579 tons to be sold to British owners – 4 times the number of such sales in 1862.
Within days, two more ships were captured and burned by the Alabama. One of these resulted in a formal protest by the U. S. State Department to Great Britain. In it Secretary Seward reminded Lord Russell that the construction of the Alabama by Laird Brothers was, in his view, a “criminal act” and the British should pay damages. Nevertheless, Union sailors saw things differently. Ten of them from the last two captures enlisted as crewmen on the Alabama. The British government denied all responsibility, saying the vessel left England unarmed and the property of British citizens.
Semmes headed for the coast of Brazil. Here a capture furnished him with full bunkers of very good coal. Midway between South America and African two whalers were captured and burned. Shortly a third whaler also fell prey – the Alabama’s 16th.
The merchant ships Dorcas Prince, Union Jack and Sea Lark – all U. S. vessels were captured in May.
In her eight months at sea the Alabama had now sunk one Union warship and burned 37 merchantmen and whalers worth $2.5 million.
In mid-May, 1863, the Alabama encountered the C. S. S. Georgia at Bahia. Word reached them that the C. S. S. Florida was at Pernambuco, Brazil. Lt. Sinclair recorded, “We can…boast of the Confederate squadron of the South American station.”
Semmes missed his family and noted in his journal that he had not seen his wife in two years. Three of Semmes’ sons were in Confederate service – one in the navy, two in the army.
Three captures occurred at this time but hunting was poor. Despite this, U. S. Secretary of the Navy Wells sent additional war ships to chase the three C. S. cruisers. On one of the prizes Semmes found an unmarried “chambermaid”. He noted in his journal the “shameless…common practice of Yankee skippers of converting their ships into brothels.”
By June 5 the Alabama had two more captures, the last of which had on board four 12 pounder cannon which he kept.
On June 20, a fine new clipper ship, the “Conrad”, was captured and Semmes armed her with the captured cannon renaming her C. S. S. Tuscaloosa. He placed here in command of Lt. John Lowe.
Lowe was a confidant of James Bulloch and was an excellent choice. He gave Lowe three officers and 11 sailors with instructions to cruise between Brazil and South Africa.
Semmes could not know that earlier in the year Welles had written U. S. Admiral Samuel DuPont that detachment of Federal warships to pursue Confederate cruisers on the high seas had seriously weakened the blockade of Confederate ports. Semmes had, however, counted on that result.
Hunting again became poor and Semmes decided to steer for Cape Town, South Africa. Capture of a Maine based merchantman replenished the Alabama’s food supplies at this time. The ship, valued at $350,000, was then burned. On reaching Saldanha Bay, South Africa the Alabama crew overhauled the ship, paying particular attention to the machinery and caulking.
On August 1, 1863, he was entertained by Boer farmers.
As he approached Cape Town and within sight of the shore, Semmes captured the Sea Bride of Boston. The local newspaper report described the event:
“…about five miles from the Bay, the Alabama came down upon the Sea Bride…evidently taken by surprise. Like a cat watching and playing with a…mouse, Capt. Semmes permitted his prize to draw off a few yards…and then pounced on her. She first sailed around the Yankee from stem to stem… The way that fine, saucy, rakish craft was handled was worth riding a hundred miles to see.”
Semmes, the cruiser captain, diplomat, sea lawyer and propagandist took full advantage of the reception the Alabama received in Cape Town.
Hundreds flocked to see the ship and numerous photographs were taken.
A reporter described Semmes:
“He is rather below middle stature with a spare body frame. His face is care-worn and sun burnt, the features striking – a broad brow with iron grey locks straggling over it, grey eyes, now mild and dreamy, then flashing with fire as he warms in conversation, a prominent nose, thin compressed lips and well-developed chin… He was dressed in…grey uniform with battered shoulder straps and faded gold trimmings.”
Cape Town authorities brushed aside the protests of the U. S. consul. Here Semmes sold the Sea Bride for $16,940.00 and later the cargo of wool she carried all to be credited to C. S. accounts in Britain.
Here also Semmes learned of the twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Admiral Sir Baldwin Walker, Royal Navy commander in the area restored Semmes’ spirits by having him and Kell to dinner and sharing confidential information on the U. S. ship, Vanderbilt, then in African waters seeking her.
At Cape Town, two Prussian naval officers whose ship had wrecked at Table Bay earlier applied for and were received as members of the Alabama’s crew.
At the end of September, 1863, Semmes was again concerned for his family’s safety, and hoped that “God would bless them and his “beloved country”, and bring peace, independence and prosperity.”
The Alabama now proceeded across the Indian Ocean. In early November she captured a U. S. merchantman, the Amanda, and burned her. Passing through the Sunda Strait into the South China Sea Semmes spotted his 57th capture, the Winged Racer. She carried sugar, coffee, tobacco and other useful items. Then to the shock of the Malays who watched, he burned the ship after removing what he needed.
On November 11 another fine clipper was captured, after a good chase. On December 2, the Alabama reached Pula Condore in Vietnam. Here Semmes set about repairing and refitting the ship with approval of the French governor. Work included cleaning the ship’s bottom with a waterproof caisson crafted by Lt. Kell. On December 21, the Alabama entered Singapore harbor where 21 U. S. merchantmen were anchored for protection. Semmes wrote in his journal that the Chinese are “borne to industry” and a “wonderful people.”
Here a group of U. S. merchant shippers invited the Alabama’s officers to a bar. The result was an offensive toast and a short brawl in which the South prevailed.
On Christmas Eve the Alabama put to sea. A ship was shortly captured that though obviously U.S. in character had British registration papers. Semmes carefully examined all the evidence found the papers fraudulent and burned her. Rumor now circulated that the Alabama’s goal was to reach San Francisco and burn the city. On December 26, flying the new Confederate Naval Jack rather than the Stars & Bars, the Alabama captured the Highlander and the Sonora, both New England merchants. They were burned.
New Year’s Day, 1864, found the Alabama re-entering the Indian Ocean. Two weeks later she captured and burned the Emma Jane of Bath, Maine en route to Burma. On January 30 she crossed the equator for the third time and anchored off the Comoro Islands at the northern tip of Madagascar. Semmes was struck by the announcement by natives that even they had heard of the Alabama.
Early in March Semmes and his ship were again at Cape Town and again were warmly received. The British however had seized the Tuscaloosa. The sea lawyer wrote a vigorous protest to Adm. Walker rightly asserting that under international law no government other than the Confederate Sates was permitted to examine the antecedents of a duly commissioned warship. Walker forwarded Semmes legal analysis to London and the British government ordered the Tuscaloosa released.
War news was now bad. The Alabama needed a major overhaul if it was to remain effective and Semmes knew this required first class naval yard. On March 25, 1864, he set out to find one. On April 22, the Alabama spotted and captured the 976 ton Rockingham of Portsmouth, heading home with guano from Peru. Semmes used the empty ship for gunnery practice. Ominously, Lt. Kell noted one in three shells fired failed to explode.
The 64th capture occurred on April 27, the 717 ton Tycoon carrying general merchandise was relieved of all the Alabama could use including clothes for the crew and burned.
On May 12, 1864, Semmes wrote in his journal “suspecting our fuses to be bad, we got up some shells today and tried several.” He found all were bad and began to re-fuse the shells left in the ship. But these too proved untrustworthy. His powder was now undependable.
He referred to the Alabama late in May as “a crippled hunter limping home from a long chase.” No Union vessels were encountered thereafter in the Atlantic. The strategy of Mallory and Semmes had worked.
During her 22 months at sea the Alabama never visited a Confederate port – as did the Florida and the Nashville. It traveled 75,000 miles and overhauled 294 vessels of which 64 were U. S. owned merchantmen in international waters. It commissioned one into Confederate naval service and sold another for a handsome profit. Of the remaining 62, 52 were burned and ten bonded. He valued the ships captured at more than $5 million. After the war the value was set at $6.75 million. Along the way the Alabama sank the only Union warship engaged. This record would not be approached by any sea raider until the era of submarine warfare in the early 20th century.
But, the Alabama, like all naval vessels eventually must find a port to be thoroughly refitted and repaired. For the Confederate States all such naval facilities were very dangerous places. At such places its ships could be blockaded, it could be seized or it could be challenged by superior vessels.
As the Alabama neared Europe, Semmes decided to land at Cherbourg, France. He knew that British policy had turned against the South due largely to the decline in Confederate military fortunes. He thought France would be friendlier. The port had excellent French navy repair facilities. On June 11, 1864, he dropped anchor there. He released the prisoners from his final two captures.
He was told that the use of French navy docks and repair facilities required the Emperor, Napoleon III’s, consent and he was on holiday. While he waited, he sent a report to Flag Officer Samuel Barron, the senior C. S. N. officer in Europe.
Semmes was then almost 55 year of age and had been experiencing declining health for most of the year. He had been constantly at sea on either the Sumter or the Alabama for three years. He admitted that he could go no further without much rest.
On June 13, 1864 Semmes learned through the Confederate spy network that the U. S. S. Kearsarge was en route to block Cherbourg harbor. The next day the Kearsarge arrived.
The Kearsarge was a 1,031 ton ship about the same age as the Alabama. But its captain had draped chains along its sides for armor purposes. Because this was unsightly he had covered them with boards forming a box like device on each side 50 feet long. This captain, John Winslow, was three years younger than Semmes, was out of favor with Navy command because of undistinguished service and public criticism of Abraham Lincoln. Semmes knew Winslow from the Mexican War.
Semmes was determined not to be bottled up. He had escaped the first U. S. navy vessel to reach him – the San Jacinto and had sunk the second – the Hatteras. He was perfectly willing to fight Winslow’s ship if necessary. He considered leaving the Alabama “laid up” in Cherbourg and seeking another ship. He believed the Kearsarge was a fair match and he elected not to run. He had an aggressive, warrior based personality.
Semmes invited Lt. Kell to his cabin and told him of his decision. Then asked his opinion. Kell was not persuaded. Kell reminded Semmes that the Kearsarge mounted two 11 inch pivot guns which while lacking the range of the Alabama’s pivots carried a harder punch. The Alabama had been built for speed, while the Kearsarge had heavier construction. But the Alabama’s speed had been seriously reduced by the condition of her hull. Finally, there was the critical problem of defective powder. Semmes replied that, weighing all factors, it was necessary to take their chances.
The French permitted the Alabama to take on all coal she needed. Kell prepared for battle. Guns, magazines and shell rooms were carefully examined. Several whole barrels of powder were unusable and were thrown overboard. Semmes wrote, finally, in his journal:
“The combat will no doubt be contested and obstinate, but the two ships are so equally matched that I do not feel at liberty to decline it. God defend the right and have mercy on the souls of those who fall…”
Semmes then asked the Confederate agent in Cherbourg to communicate to his U. S. counterpart that he intended to meet the Kearsarge. He then turned over the ship’s funds 4,700 British gold sovereigns to the agent, and the 60 or so chronometers he had captured.
For three days the crew coaled the ship and drilled for battle. Both Prussian officers asked to be permitted to fight.
The Confederate agent, Mr. Bonfite, did not like the odds and wired the Confederate ambassador, John Slidell, in Paris asking that he forbid the fight. Slidell declined saying he had confidence in Semmes judgment.
It is unclear whether Semmes heard rumors about chain armor on the Kearsarge. But he was about to know for sure.
Semmes celebrated Mass at a Catholic church in Cherbourg and was back on his ship at 10:00 p.m.
The next morning June 14th at 10:00 a.m. the lookout on the Kearsarge shouted “she’s coming out and heading straight for us.” Some 15,000 crowded the bluffs and docks for a view of the fight.
The noted French artist, Edouard Manet, was there with pencils and sketchbook to record the battle.
As the Alabama steamed out she passed the French passenger line “Napoleon”, whose crew cheered, and the band on deck played “Dixie”.
Semmes again mounted a gun carriage and gave the crew a very rousing exhortation which reminded them of the ship’s successes, its voyages across the globe and its renown. He concluded with saying that all of this should make them proud and their country grateful. Alabama had become a household word wherever civilization extends. It should not now be tarnished.
A great cheer rose from the crew. At 10:57 a.m. the Alabama opened fire but shots were high and only damaged the Kearsarge’s rigging.
It became apparent shortly that the Union ship was a faster vessel. This led to a closing of range which took away the Alabama’s advantage of having longer range heavy guns, and exposed it to the damaging 11 inch guns of the Kearsarge.
Naval gunnery was such at this period that 10% accuracy was regarded as acceptable. For 15 minutes after firing began neither ship inflicted significant damage. Then an Alabama shell passed through Kearsarge’s starboard bulwarks exploded and killed 3 men. A few minutes later what would have been a fatal shot was fired from Alabama’s massive 110 pounder forward pivot. It glanced off the Kearsarge’s counter and struck her vital stern post. But it did not explode – bad powder or fuse. Had it done so it would have destroyed the ability to steer the Union ship. But the impact was still felt from stem to stern.
Thereafter the Kearsarge’s 11 inch Dahlgrens began to smash the Alabama. A Union shell exploded near the Confederate’s rear pivot gun and killed or wounded most of its crew.
Midway through the fight Semmes was wounded in the hand from a shell fragment. He had it bandaged but did not leave the quarterdeck. The two ships were fighting clockwise – in circles —at a range of 500 yards. They made seven complete circles.
The Alabama’s gunners were much less experienced than those of their opponent. They fired more often but hit less. The smoke from the Alabama’s guns was thick and heavy indicating the powder had deteriorated.
Forty-five minutes into the battle a Union shell penetrated the Alabama’s starboard side and exploded in the coal bunker. The Union gunners cheered.
The Alabama began to take on water from the hits. Kell reported that she had only about 10 minutes.
Just before noon Semmes made the fateful decision. Cease firing. Haul down the colors. A white flag was raised on the spanker boom.
Two seaworthy boats remained on board and they were launched, filled with wounded.
On the Kearsarge only the three men killed early on had perished through the battle.
The Alabama was not so fortunate. Nine were killed and twenty wounded. In addition, because of the curious delay on the part of Capt. Winslow, the Kearsarge left many Alabama officers and sailors in the water, unrescued, for more than 20 minutes despite Lt. Kell’s urgent request for aid. As a result twelve sailors drowned bringing the Alabama death toll to twenty one. Among those who drowned were Capt. Semmes’ cabin steward, David Llewellyn, the ship’s assistant surgeon, and the slave Semmes had freed when he captured the Delaware.
During the hour and half or so of battle the Alabama fired about 350 shots at its opponent, which responded with about 175 rounds.
Semmes and Kell were among the very last to leave the ship. Seeing these men and others in water unassisted the British racing yacht “Deerhound” intervened and pulled thirty nine out including both officers.
The Deerhound’s Captain, Evan Jones, noticed the reverence and regard of the rescued crewmen toward Semmes. The rescused men were taken to South Hampton.
Later in England, Semmes was given a fine new naval sword. On it was inscribed:
“Presented to Captain Raphael Semmes, C.S.N., by officers of the Royal Navy and other friends in England, as a testimonial of their admiration of the gallantry with which he maintained the honour of his country’s flag and the fame of the Alabama in the engagement off Cherbourg with a chain-plated ship of superior power, armament and crew, June 19, 1864.”
In his after action report to Commodore Bacon, Semmes stated, “the enemy was heavier than myself, in ship, battery and crew, and I did not know until the action was over that she was also ironclad.”
The British and French reaction to the battle was positive as to the C. S. S. Alabama. News accounts from both countries favored Semmes.
After several weeks rest, Semmes and his officers returned to the Confederate States on a British vessel via Matamoros, Mexico.
He was promoted to Rear Admiral on February 20, 1865, by President Davis “for gallant and meritorious conduct in command of the steam-sloop Alabama…” The remaining months of the war were spent in Richmond commanding the James River Squadron, C. S. N.
After the war he returned to Mobile and lived until 1877. The day following his death all businesses closed in Mobile, cannons were fired at regular intervals from dawn until sunset. The city officials declared it a day of mourning. Funeral services were conducted at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and a hearse drawn by four matched white horses led the procession from church to cemetery. Despite heavy rainfall hundreds walked behind the hearse. It was, one historian said, much like a “burial at sea.”
Semmes’ plan had succeeded, the C. S. Naval cruisers had both devastated the Union merchant marine and had weakened the blockade, buying critical time to build and employ some fifty naval vessels used to attack and defend along the Southern coastline and enabling supplies to continue coming through the Union blockade.
In 1872, writing for Harper’s Weekly Magazine, John A. Bolles, Chief Judge Advocate of the U. S. Navy, said of Semmes:
“Never in naval history has an order been so signally obeyed; never has there occurred so striking an example of the tremendous power of mischief possessed by a single cruiser. Semmes restless energy and untiring zeal found no voyage too long, no movement too prompt…no danger too great, no labor too wearisome…in the accomplishment of his mission.”
He was, said Bolles, “like our own Bainbridge, Morris, Porter and Stewart…” who carried out his orders to the letter.