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The Fiery Trail of the Alabama

By John M. Taylor
Summer 1991 • MHQ Magazine

The Confederate raider and her touch skipper set a record for merchant-ship destruction that has never been equaled.

Workers in the John Laird Shipyard at Birkenhead, near Liverpool, watched attentively on the morning of May 15, 1862, as a handsome steam bark slid into the waters of the Mersey River. The vessel was known to them as No. 290, for hers was the 290th keel laid at the Laird yards. Upon launching, she was named the Enrica, but the identity of her owners remained a subject of speculation, for she was being built to the specifications of a Royal Navy cruiser. As May turned into June, the new vessel sprouted three tall masts that would enable her to carry a broad spread of canvas and took on two 300-horsepower engines for steam propulsion.

In the waterfront bars of Liverpool, it was said with a wink that the actual purchaser of the Enrica was the Southern Confederacy, then locked in a war to establish its independence from the United States. For once, the tipsters were right on the mark. The possibility that No. 290 was destined for the Confederacy had not been lost on the U.S. minister in London, Charles Francis Adams, who was bombarding the Foreign Office with demands that the ship be seized. By mid-July, James Bulloch, the adroit Confederate naval agent who had supervised construction of the Enrica for the government in Richmond, knew that time was growing short.

The ever-imaginative Bulloch arranged for the Enrica‘s departure from England in the guise of a gala trial run. On the fine morning of July 29, the new bark sailed down the Mersey with local dignitaries on board. At dusk, however, Bulloch and his guests returned to Liverpool on a tugboat, leaving the Enrica off the coast of Wales at Moelifra Bay. British authorities had in fact been attempting to detain the Enrica, and Bulloch had thwarted them by the narrowest of margins.

On Sunday, August 10, the Enrica arrived at the island of Terceira in the Azores. Eight days later the Agrippina, a tender under charter to Bulloch, showed up with equipment for the Confederate cruiser, including a 100-pound Blakely rifle, an eight-inch smoothbore, six 32 pounders, and provisions. That afternoon a second vessel, the Bahama, arrived with officers and hands for the new vessel. Thanks to Bulloch, the complicated logistics of equipping and manning a cruiser outside British waters were carried out without a hitch. On Sunday, August 24, in the presence of the crews of the Enrica and the Bahama, the Union Jack fluttered down from the mainmast and was replaced by the naval ensign of the Confederacy. A band played “Dixie,” and the mystery ship was officially christened the Confederate steamer Alabama.

The cruiser’s designated commander was 52-year-old Raphael Semmes, a Maryland native who had taken up residence in Alabama. Semmes had entered the U.S. Navy in 1832 and by 1861 had achieved the rank of commander. He was widely read in naval history and marine law and had written several books, including a lively narrative of his naval service during the Mexican War. A strong advocate of states’ rights, Semmes had resigned his Federal commission even before the firing on Fort Sumter.

In April 1861 Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen Mallory gave Semmes command of one of the South’s first warships, the 437-ton screw steamer Sumter. The Sumter and her more powerful successors were intended to tackle one of two missions that Mallory had established for the Confederate navy: to attack the North’s merchant marine, so as to increase the cost of the war to the enemy and thus encourage Lincoln to acknowledge Southern independence. The navy’s other mission–to construct a fleet of ironclads capable of breaking the Federal blockade–was beyond Confederate capabilities, but the first was not.

It had taken Semmes about two months to convert the Sumter into a warship, but he assembled a nucleus of able officers-no mean feat in the agrarian South, with its limited seafaring tradition. The Sumter broke the Federal blockade off New Orleans on June 30, 1861, and reached the open sea. Thereafter, during a six-month cruise, the little raider burned eight Northern ships and released ten others on bond–a procedure under which the owners of an American ship’s neutral cargo were expected to reimburse the Confederacy for goods not destroyed.

Eventually, boiler problems and a need for coal obliged the Sumter to call at Gibraltar. There she was blockaded by three Federal warships, with no prospect of escape. Having made the most of his ship’s limited capabilities, Semmes directed that the Sumter be sold, and set out to Britain with most of his officers. There, to the disappointment of Bulloch, who had hoped for the command, Semmes was given the far more powerful Alabama.

Semmes’s first challenge in the Azores was to persuade enough British sailors to sign aboard the Alabama. So that he could take his new command to sea. He assured the hands of the Alabama and the Bahama that they were free to return to Britain if they chose, but he painted a glowing picture of life aboard the Alabama. He offered good pay–£4 10s, a month in gold for seamen, and £7 for firemen–plus grog twice a day and the prospect of prize money. He touched only briefly on the issues of the American war, but promised excitement and adventure. To his relief, he was able to sign on 80 British crewmen–enough to take the Alabama to sea. As time went on, he would supplement this nucleus with recruits from captured vessels.

Once Semmes had his officers and crew, he turned his attention to his ship. The Alabama represented the zenith of a hybrid marine form: ships powered by both sail and steam. She measured 220 feet in length, had a beam of 32 feet, and displaced 1,040 tons. She carried enough coal for 18 days’ steaming and had an innovation found on few ships of her day a condenser that provided a gallon of fresh water per day for each man on board, enabling her to remain at sea for extended periods. Her two-bladed screw could be raised into a well when she was under sail, thus posing no drag in the water. She could make about 12 knots under sail alone, to which her engines could add another three knots.

She came with a year’s supply of spare gear. In the words of one of her officers, Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair, the Alabama “was at the same time a perfect steamer and a perfect sailing vessel, each entirely independent of the other.” The ship’s armament also was impressive: six 32-pounders and two pivot guns. A visitor to the Alabama would comment, “What strikes one most . . . is to see so small a vessel carrying such large metal.”

Semmes was under orders to avoid engagements with enemy warships, for his was a special mission. The Alabama, as her commander wrote later, “was the first steamship in the history of the world–the defective little Sumter excepted–that was let loose against the commerce of a great commercial people.” And Semmes set to his mission with a vengeance.

The Alabama had been at sea for only 10 days when, on September 5, she sighted the first of the 65 victims she would claim over the next 22 months. The ship was a whaler–the Ocmulgee, of Edgartown, Massachusetts–and the capture was easy, for the Ocmulgee had a whale lashed alongside when the Alabama approached. The raider had been flying the American flag-an accepted ruse in war-and in Semmes’s recollection, nothing could exceed the Yankee skipper’s “blank stare of astonishment” when the Alabama finally ran up the Confederate ensign.

The Ocmulgee‘s crew was transferred to the Alabama, along with some provisions; officers were permitted to bring one trunk with them, others a single bag. Semmes prepared to burn the whaler, but with the guile that would become his trademark, he waited until daylight: Whalers operated in clusters, and he did not want to scatter them with an unexplained fire at night.

The Alabama spent two months in the Azores, burning eight vessels in all. The American whaling fleet–or what was left of it–returned to its home ports in New England, where ship owners filled the Northern press with tales of the “pirate” Semmes. The Alabama, too, worked her way westward. Semmes briefly considered throwing a few shells into New York City, but he thought better of it and instead seized several grain carriers off the Newfoundland banks.

The Alabama‘s captures followed a pattern. The raider would hail a ship on sight. If she did not heave to, Semmes would fire a blank cartridge. If she still failed to respond, he would send a shot from a 32-pounder across her bow, and that would bring her to a halt. While the prize was boarded, Semmes stayed in his cabin; the skipper of his victim was taken to him there. Any ship whose papers showed her to be of neutral ownership was released. If she was U.S.-owned, Semmes transferred her crew to the Alabama.

For a commerce raider, the Alabama operated under an unusual handicap: Because of the Federal blockade, she had no home port to which Semmes might send prizes. He thus had to burn most of the ships he captured. After appropriating any usable provisions, a Rebel boarding party would pile up furniture and mattresses, douse them with lard or some other flammable substance, and fire the ship. Semmes’s first officer was another veteran of the “Old Navy,” John McIntosh Kell. The tough, red-bearded Kell later wrote:

To watch the leaping flames on a burning ship gives an indescribable mental excitement that did not decrease with the frequency of the light, but it was always a relief to know the ships were tenantless as they disappeared in the lonely grandeur, specks of vanishing light in the “cradle of the deep.”

Between captures, the crew had ample opportunity to take the measure of their skipper. Semmes had just turned 53 and was not physically imposing; some thought him past his prime for sea command. His one idiosyncrasy was a carefully cultivated mustache that led his sailors to call him “Old Beeswax,” but he was a tough disciplinarian; in his postwar memoir he outlined his command philosophy:

On weekdays . . . about one fourth of the crew was exercised, either at the battery or with small arms. This not only gave them efficiency in the use of their weapons, but kept them employed–the constant employment of my men being a fundamental article of my philosophy. . . . My crew were never so happy as when they had plenty to do, and but little to think about.

Whatever the hands may have thought of Old Beeswax, Semmes appears to have enjoyed the respect of virtually all his officers. First Officer Kell worshiped his commander. And Lieutenant Sinclair later wrote that “Semmes understood just how to keep himself near the hearts and in the confidence of his men, without in the slightest degree descending from his dignity, or permitting direct approach.” Semmes also impressed everyone with his professionalism. He was a student of every facet of seamanship-he digresses in his memoir to discuss how variations in temperature affect the currents-and he had a childlike wonder at the natural beauty of the sea.

Probably only Kell glimpsed the virulent hatred that Semmes nourished for his enemy, the Yankees. Of them Semmes had written in his journal, “A people so devoid of Christian charity, and wanting in so many of the essentials of honesty, cannot be abandoned to their own folly by a just and benevolent God.” Yet not even his loathing for Northerners as a class could totally destroy his admiration for them as seamen, and as the war went on, the task of burning their ships became less satisfying to him.

Semmes dealt with his prisoners as humanely as conditions permitted. Captured crews were usually housed on deck but were afforded some protection from the elements. When the prisoners included women passengers, Semmes’s officers turned over the wardroom for their use. Prisoners received full rations, and cooks among their number had access to the Alabama‘s galley. Officers were occasionally placed in irons, generally after Semmes had heard reports of mistreatment of Confederate prisoners. Because prisoners were a nuisance, Semmes got rid of them as fast as possible. Sometimes he landed them at a neutral port, but more often he transferred them to a captured ship whose cargo he had bonded.

From Newfoundland the raider worked her way south to Martinique, where, on their first liberty, crewmen got so drunk that Semmes put some twenty sailors in irons. The incident was a reminder that while the Alabama‘s officers were reliable seamen, committed to the Confederate cause, most of the British crewmen were not. Much as the duke of Wellington once called his army the scum of the earth, Semmes called his crew

a precious set of rascals. . . faithless in . . . contracts, liars, thieves, and drunkards. There are . . . exceptions to this rule, but I am ashamed to say of the sailor class of the present day that I believe my crew to be a fair representation of it.

Kell, who supervised the boarding of every prize, had a firm rule that no member of the Alabama’s crew could board a captured vessel until any supply of spirits was thrown overboard. Even so, he and Semmes were constantly on the alert for smuggled liquor.

Semmes had passed up the temptation to show his flag off New York City the previous fall, but in the Caribbean he was inclined to stretch his orders and play a role in the ground campaign along the Texas coast. A Federal force under General Nathaniel P. Banks had captured Galveston in October 1862. Confederate forces had subsequently recaptured Galveston, but the city was blockaded by five Federal warships when the black-hulled Alabama arrived there on January 11, 1863,

Semmes considered his options. The city that he had contemplated bombarding was now in friendly hands, and he could hardly take on five enemy warships. While he deliberated, the Federals detached one of their fleet, the gunboat Hatteras, to check out the new arrival. It was a fatal error. Semmes set out toward open water, steaming slowly, luring his pursuer away from the other Federal warships.

Night had fallen by the time the Hatteras reached shouting distance of the Alabama, and Semmes, in reply to a hail from the Yankee, identified his ship as HMS Petrel. While the Federal captain dispatched a boat to check out his story, Semmes ran up the Confederate ensign and loosed a broadside at point-blank range.

The Hatteras was an underpowered side-wheeler that had no business engaging the powerful Alabama. The U.S. gunboat struck her flag after an exchange that lasted only 13 minutes; a few minutes later she sank in the shallow waters of the gulf. Two of her crew had been killed and three wounded. Semmes rescued the survivors and set course for the Atlantic.

The Alabama stopped at Jamaica, where Semmes paroled his prisoners and partook of the hospitality that he would encounter in British possessions throughout the Alabama‘s two-year cruise. Then he turned his ship southeast around Brazil to work the heavily traveled trade routes of the South Atlantic. Four more ships were stopped and burned in the first weeks of 1863, raising the Alabama‘s total to 30.

However, coaling the raider was proving to be a problem. She still had the services of the Agrippina as a tender, but it was difficult for Semmes to anticipate every supply requirement, and he had little confidence in the master of the Agrippina. In southern latitudes, moreover, coal tended to be scarce as well as expensive. Fortunately for Semmes, he had a generous Supply of gold for payment of ship’s bills in remote corners of the world.

In June 1863, off the coast of South America, Semmes captured the U.S. clipper Conrad, bound for New York with wool from Argentina. He had been waiting for such a prize, and rather than burning her, he commissioned her as a Confederate cruiser, the Tuscaloosa, arming her with guns captured from another ship. This was one more example of Semmes’s creative approach to commerce raiding; but the Tuscaloosa had little success as a raider.

From South America, Semmes set sail for the Cape of Good Hope. In August 1863 the Alabama reached Cape Town, where Semmes supervised some badly needed repairs on his ship. The Confederate commander found himself a celebrity in the British colony, in part because his latest seizure the Sea Bride, from Boston-had been within sight of the cape. As in Jamaica, the Alabama‘s officers were exhaustively entertained. Semmes held a shipboard “open house” that produced, in his view, “a generous outpouring of the better classes.” He also came within a day of encountering a Federal warship that had been dogging his trail, a well-armed paddlewheeler, the Vanderbilt.

For all the outrage in the Northern press concerning the Alabama‘s depredations, pursuit of the raider was disorganized and ineffectual. This was partly deliberate. The Confederacy never had more than a handful of commerce raiders at sea, and of these only the Florida–commissioned around the same time as the Alabama and destined to destroy 38 ships–was in the Alabama‘s class. The Lincoln administration regarded the maintenance and strengthening of the blockade of Southern ports as its first priority; it was not willing to weaken the blockade to track down the Alabama, the Florida, or one of their lesser consorts.

Even making allowances, however, Federal pursuit of the Alabama showed little imagination. The U.S. Navy dogged Semmes’s trail as if convinced that the raider would remain in the area of its most recent capture. Semmes later wrote that had Navy Secretary Gideon Welles stationed a heavier and faster ship than the Alabama along two or three of the most traveled sea-lanes, “he must have driven me off, or greatly crippled me in my movements.”

From Cape Town, the Alabama worked her way eastward across the Indian Ocean. There, most of the ships encountered proved to be neutral, and friendly captains warned Semmes that the Federals had a warship, the Wyoming, patrolling the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Jawa. Nevertheless, Semmes seized and burned a New York clipper, the Winged Racer, off Java, and set off in pursuit of another, the Contest, the following morning.

The pursuit of the Contest proved to be an omen. For the first time, the Alabama, employing both sail and steam, was initially unable to overtake her prey. But the sun rose higher, the morning breeze died, and the Confederate raider eventually closed in. The Contest was burned–not without regret, for several of the Alabama‘s officers vowed that they had never seen a more beautiful vessel. Only the failing wind had enabled the Alabama to make the capture, however, and Semmes realized that 18 months at sea had taken a toll on his ship,

On December 21, 1863, the Alabama anchored at Singapore. There Semmes saw new evidence of the effectiveness of his campaign: Singapore harbor was filled with U.S. ships that had taken refuge there rather than chance an encounter with the Alabama. Within days of her arrival, about half of these were sold to neutral nations and flew new flags. The Straits Times estimated that Singapore was playing host to some seventeen American vessels aggregating 12,000 tons, some of which had “been lying there for upwards of three months and most of them for at least half that period.”

On Christmas Eve 1863, the Alabama set course westward. Pickings were predictably slim, but the crewmen had their hands full with their own ship. The raider’s boilers were operating at reduced efficiency, and some of her timbers were split beyond repair. First Officer Kell observed that the Alabama was “loose at every joint, her seams were open, and the copper on her bottom was in rolls.” For all of Semmes’s skill at improvisation, nothing but a month in dry dock could restore the raider to fighting trim.

By early March the Alabama was again off Cape Town, but because a belligerent vessel could provision at the same neutral port only once in a three-month period, she had to pass ten days offshore before docking. After coaling at Cape Town, Semmes turned northward. He intended to put his ship into dry dock in France, but he must have realized that the time necessary for repairs made it likely that the Alabama would be blockaded in port as the Sumter had been.

On April 22 the raider made the second of only three captures during 1864: the Rockingham, carrying a cargo of guano from Peru to Ireland. After the crew was taken off, Semmes directed that the prize be used for target practice–the raider’s first live gun drill in many months. Sinclair later recalled that the sea was smooth and that the gun crews “amused themselves blithely’ at point-blank range. Semmes thought his gun crews fired “to good effect,” but Kell was less impressed: Of 24 rounds fired, only seven were seen to inflict damage. Ultimately, Semmes had to burn the Rockingham.

On April 27 the Alabama made her final capture, the Tycoon, out of New York with a mixed cargo. Semmes burned the Yankee vessel and resumed his northward course. He later wrote:

The poor old Alabama was. . . like the wearied fox-hound, limping back after a long chase. . . . Her commander, like herself, was well-nigh worn down. Vigils by night and by day. . . had laid, in the three years of war he had been afloat, a load of a dozen years on his shoulders. The shadows of a sorrowful future, too, began to rest upon his spirit. The last batch of newspapers captured were full of disasters. Might it not be that, after all our trials and sacrifices, the cause for which we were struggling would be lost?

On June 11, 1864, the Alabama docked at the French port of Cherbourg. Word of her arrival was telegraphed all over Europe, and three days later the U.S. Navy ship Kearsarge appeared off the breakwater. Semmes had not yet received permission to make repairs at the French navy docks at Cherbourg, but he was allowed to disembark his prisoners and take on coal.

The Confederate commander faced a crucial decision. He knew his ship needed a refit, and he probably realized that the prudent course would be to do as he had with the Sumter: put her up for sale and fight another day. But his fighting blood was up, and he had no great respect for his enemies. Nor was he inclined to solicit recommendations from his officers; as skipper of the Sumter and then the Alabama, he was accustomed to making his own decisions. Shortly after the Kearsarge appeared, he called Kell to his cabin and explained his intentions:

As you know, the arrival of the Alabama at this port has been telegraphed to all parts of Europe. Within a few days, Cherbourg will be effectively blockaded by Yankee cruisers. It is uncertain whether or not we shall be permitted to repair the Alabama here, and in the meantime, the delay is to our advantage. I think we may whip the Kearsarge, the two vessels being of wood and carrying about the same number of men and guns. Besides, Mr. Kell, although the Confederate States government has ordered me to avoid engagements with the enemy’s cruisers, I am tired of running from that flaunting rag!

Kell was not sure the decision to fight was wise. He reminded Semmes that in the Rockingham gun drill only one in three fuses had seemed effective. But Semmes was not to be deterred. He sent a message to Captain John A. Winslow of the Kearsarge, whom he had known in the Old Navy: He intended to fight.

Sunday, June 19, 1864, was a bright, cloudless day of Cherbourg. Aboard the Alabama, boilers were fired at daybreak, and Semmes inspected his crew at muster. Decks and brasswork were immaculate, and the crewmen were dressed in blue trousers and white tops. By 9:45 the cruiser was under way, cheered on by the crews of two French warships in the harbor.

The clash between the Alabama and the Kearsarge was, among other things, pure theater. It seemed that everyone in France wanted to watch what would prove to be the last one-on-one duel of the era of wooden ships. Excursion trains brought the curious, and throngs of small craft hovered outside the breakwater. Painter Edouard Manet, with brushes, paints, and easel, was on one of them,

The two ships were almost equal in size and armament. Both were hybrid steamers of about the same tonnage. The Alabama carried 149 crewmen and mounted eight guns; the Kearsarge had a crew of 163 and mounted seven guns. The outcome of the battle would depend largely on the skill of the gun crews and the condition of the ships, but the Kearsarge had an ace in the hole: The enterprising Winslow had made imaginative use of his ship’s chains, draping them along vulnerable parts of the hull as impromptu armor and concealing them behind wood paneling. Semmes later denied knowledge of the chains, but there is evidence that he was warned about it.

After the Alabama entered the English Channel, Semmes steered directly for his antagonist, some four miles away. He rotated his two pivot guns to starboard and prepared to engage the enemy on that side. The Alabama opened fire at about 11:00 a.m., and soon both ships were exchanging shots from their starboard batteries. The Kearsarge sought to run under the Alabama‘s stern, but Semmes parried this move by turning to starboard.

The two antagonists thus fought on a circular track, much of the time at a range of about 500 yards. They made seven complete circles during the course of the action, reminding one Northern sailor of “two flies crawling around on the rim of a saucer.” Semmes may initially have wanted to put his ship alongside the Kearsarge for boarding, but the Yankee’s greater speed ruled out this option.

From the first, the firing from the Alabama was rapid and wild. The Confederate cruiser fired more than 300 rounds, only 28 of which struck the Kearsarge, many of them in the rigging. In their excitement, the Alabama‘s gunners fired some shot without removing the caps on their fuses-preventing them from exploding-and in other cases fired ramrods as well. It was not a disciplined performance. One of the Alabama‘s crew conceded that the Confederate batteries were badly served: “The men all fought well, but the gunners did not know how to point and elevate the guns.” In addition, the dark smoke emitted by the Alabama‘s guns lent credence to Kell’s fear that the raider’s powder had deteriorated.

In contrast, Winslow and his crew fought with disciplined professionalism. Kell later conceded that the Yankee guns were “aimed with precision, and deliberate in fire.”

“The firing now became very hot,” Semmes related, “and . . . soon began to tell upon our hull, knocking down, killing and disabling a number of men. . . in different parts of the ship.” Semmes ordered his gunners to use solid shot as well as shell, but to no effect. Meanwhile, the Alabama‘s rudder was destroyed, forcing the Confederates to steer with tackles. In desperation, Semmes offered a reward to anyone who could put the Kearsarge‘s forward pivot gun out of action.

Sinclair recalled how an 11-inch shell from that weapon entered the Alabama at the waterline and exploded in the engine room, “in its passage throwing a volume of water on board, hiding for a moment the guns of my division.” With his fires out, Semmes attempted to steer for land, only to have the Kearsarge station herself between the Alabama and the coast.

Shortly after noon, Semmes gave the order to abandon ship. The Alabama had suffered only nine killed in the battle, but some 20 others, including Semmes, had been wounded; twelve more would be drowned. Semmes and Kell, along with about 40 others of the Alabama‘s complement, had the good fortune to be rescued from the water by a British yacht, the Deerhound, which took them to England rather than turn them over to the Kearsarge, 70 more were picked up by the Kearsarge, and another 15 by excursion boats,

Semmes was lionized in England–British admirers replaced the sword that he had cast into the English Channel–but he was bitter over the loss of his ship, blaming the debacle on his defective powder and the Kearsarge‘s protective chains. In point of fact, the battle off Cherbourg was the Civil War in microcosm: the gallant but outgunned South, ignoring its own shortcomings, heedlessly taking on a superior force.

During her 22 months at sea, the Alabama had burned 54 Federal merchant ships and had bonded ten others. When, after the war, British and U.S. negotiators determined that Britain owed the United States a total of 815.5 million for damage caused by ships sold to the Confederacy, the amount charged to the Alabama–86.75 million–was much the highest. In addition to her remarkable toll in merchant shipping, the Alabama had sunk an enemy gunboat, the luckless Hatteras, and had brought untold embarrassment to the Federal navy. Semmes’s record with the Alabama would not be approached by any raider in modern times.

Yet the raider’s influence on the outcome of the Civil War was almost imperceptible. Its toll, however remarkable, represented only about 5 percent of U.S. shipping; the bulk of the U.S. merchant fleet stayed in port, transferred to neutral flags, or took their chances on the high seas. After all, the Confederacy’s three or four commerce raiders could not be everywhere. Soaring rates for marine insurance added to the North’s cost of waging war, but such economic damage was insignificant alongside the cost of the ground fighting in terms of either lives or matériel. The Northern states–economically self-sufficient–could ignore the depredations of Confederate raiders.

After the war, Semmes suggested that the North at first could not comprehend the threat posed by Confederate commerce destroyers. Yet when the threat materialized, he noted ruefully, the North was “too deeply engaged in the contest to heed it.”

By the summer of 1864, there was no possibility of a replacement for the Alabama, and Semmes could have lived out the war comfortably in England. Instead, he made his way back to the Confederacy by way of Cuba and Mexico. In Richmond he was promoted to admiral and assigned to the command of the James River squadron in Virginia. Following the evacuation of Richmond, he burned his boats and formed his men into a naval brigade that served under General Joseph E. Johnston in the final weeks of the war. After the war Semmes was briefly under arrest, but he was never brought to trial and supported himself with a small law practice until his death in 1877.

Raphael Semmes was not the first commerce raider in the history of naval warfare, but he was the first to operate in the age of steam and he may have been the best of all time. Notwithstanding the unavailability of any home port, he managed to keep a wooden ship at sea for nearly two years without an overhaul and without losing either a crewman or a prisoner to disease.

As a strategist, he demonstrated that a nation with a weak navy could nevertheless inflict great damage on any foe with a substantial merchant fleet. It is hardly surprising that Kaiser Wilhelm II made Semmes’s postwar memoirs required reading for his admirals. In both world wars, German submarine and surface raiders would refine the qualities of speed, surprise, and endurance demonstrated by the Alabama, but with little of Semmes’s regard for the lives of prisoners and crew.

In taking on the Kearsarge, however, Semmes had let his emotions control his judgment. His gun crews were insufficiently trained, he underestimated the enemy, and he committed a cardinal sin: He didn’t keep his powder dry.

JOHN M. TAYLOR has written extensively on historical subjects. His most recent book is Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama (1994). MHQ

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1991 issue (Vol. 3, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Fiery Trail of the Alabama

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