‘Semmes’ is saga of a naval raider

Not the least of the fascinations of the naval part of the American Civil War is that it was fought during a technical revolution.

Steam was gaining ascendance over sail; armor plate was appearing; the first submersibles were being designed; weapons were changing even faster. The smoothbore cannon was on the way out, the fused shell and the rifled gun, which would dominate sea combat all the way through World War II, were appearing.

Yet for all we know about this revolution embodied in popular lore by the famous meeting of the Monitor and Merrimac off the Virginia capes, little has been written to popularize the feats of the Confederate navy, which was faced with overwhelming odds, scant materiel, an enormous seacoast and a Union blockade that was slowly but surely starving “the cause” of needed war materiel, food and cotton revenues.

Historian John Taylor has done what he can to rectify this omission with his straightforward, unadorned story of the South’s most successful seaborne raider, the Alabama, and its quirky, clever commander, Raphael Semmes.

Semmes waged a one-ship war on the merchant marine of the Union, sinking or burning 71 of the more than 200 Union ships destroyed by the Confederate navy, while ranging 75,000 miles without ever entering a Confederate port.

Semmes and his crew of foreigners and pickups lived on their wits and their captures for two years until the Alabama met its end in an uneven battle with the more heavily armored Union ship Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France, in June 1864.

His powder damp from long voyaging, his health declining at age 53 and his ship in need of repair, Semmes had taken refuge in the French port. When the Union warship appeared, however, he did what was typical of him: He sent a polite message to Kearsarge Capt. John A. Winslow announcing his intention to fight off the coast of Cherbourg.

By the summer of 1864, of course, the cause of the Confederacy was irretrievably lost, and as Mr. Taylor points out, Semmes’ uncanny ability to find and destroy merchant shipping, even if it could have continued, would not have altered the outcome. Yet, like the German submarine campaigns of World Wars I and II, Semmes represented a remarkably effective strategy, which if multiplied, could have severely damaged the Union.

A wounded Semmes survived the sinking of his beloved Alabama, but it was not in his nature to dwell on reverses. Rescued from the water by a British yachtsman, he sailed to England, where he was treated as a celebrity. He returned to Virginia and played a conspicuous role in the final defense of Richmond in the spring of 1865, becoming the only Confederate officer to achieve the ranks of both admiral and general.

What kind of man was he? Both admired and hated by his men, he was wiry, high strung, proud and aloof. Sporting large waxed mustachios that stuck out like spikes on either side of his thin-lipped face, he was known as “old beeswax.” He was almost a caricature of the legend of Southern chivalry, sometimes treating defeated foes with elaborate courtesy, rescuing enemy sailors and making sure of the comfort and the diet of his own men. Such a figure soon became a legend to both sides in the conflict.

Mr. Taylor reveals that Semmes, the son of a Charles County farming family whose parents died young, spent much of his youth in Washington. His early call to the sea and a naval career came from watching Georgetown schooners come and go in the busy port at the bottom of Wisconsin Avenue NW. He had a strong intellectual bent as well, qualifying and practicing briefly as a lawyer before moving to Alabama and casting his lot with the secessionists.

Semmes’ methods were what made him a terror to Union shipping. He had no particular technological advantage. His 220-foot Alabama was not an ironclad, but a British-built bark with two auxiliary steam engines that drove propellers. It was slower than larger ships, both paddle-wheel and sail-driven, so Semmes relied on deception and knowledge of the deep-sea lanes to ambush his foes. He would dress the Alabama with the Union (or the British) flag to approach the unsuspecting, then at the last minute change colors and fire a shot, usually a blank to conserve ammunition, which almost invariably caused a merchantman to heave to.

Then, with customary courtesy, Semmes would examine the ship’s papers, and in the case of neutrals carrying no war supplies, release the vessel. In the case of ships carrying munitions or components, however, he invariably would set them on fire after taking such supplies for his own ship as he needed. The captured crews would be put aboard the next neutral ship boarded.

His secret weapon was the very ordinariness of the black-hulled Alabama, indistinguishable from hundreds of other medium-sized freight haulers on the ocean. Her other advantage, of course, was the ability to move at will in calm weather. Semmes, ever careful of his resources, switched from sail to steam as circumstances dictated. His handling of the ship and his use of captured fuel, sails and other supplies caused students of naval tactics to rank him with the great captains.

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