Maryland native Raphael Semmes was a career Naval officer, having served in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1860. There was an extended leave of absence following the Mexican-American war, in which he settled in Alabama and practiced law. Semmes was offered a Confederate naval appointment in 1861, following the secession of his adopted home state. He resigned his commission, the following day.
Following a fruitless assignment to purchase arms from the North, Semmes was ordered to New Orleans, to convert the steamer Habana into the commerce raider CSS Sumter. Semmes breached the Union blockade in June of 1861, outrunning the sloop of war USS Brooklyn. So began the most successful commerce raider, in naval history.
His was a war on the economic might of the Union. Sumter would eliminate 18 Union merchant vessels from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, constantly eluding the Union warships sent to destroy her. In six short months, CSS Sumter was laid up in neutral Gibralter, her boilers too spent to go on.
On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” in the American Civil War, prohibiting the sale of ships of war. Vessels were permitted neither to alter or improve their equipment while in British waters, but were permitted to enter.
Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862. Enrica left Liverpool that July on a “trial run”, a party of ladies and customs officials on board to allay suspicions that the trip was anything but ‘neutral”.
The ruse was a success. Passengers were transferred to a tug only a short distance from Liverpool and returned to port, while the ship itself continued on to the Terceira Island in the Azores. There she met her new captain. Raphael Semmes.
Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, Enrica was transformed into the 220’, 1,500 ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.
Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two years as commerce raider, Alabama destroyed the Union warship USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.
Alabama was badly in need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg, France, on the 11th of June. The Mohican-class Union sloop of war USS Kearsarge was then on patrol near Gibraltar, making it to Cherbourg by the 14th.
Seeing that he was blockaded, Semmes challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel. “My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain”.
That suited Winslow just fine. Kearsarge took up station in international waters, and waited.
Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg on the morning of June 19, 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained nearby to ensure that combat remained in international waters. Kearsarge steamed further out to sea as the Confederate vessel approached. There would be no returning to port, until the issue was decided.
Captain Winslow put his ship around and headed for the enemy at 10:50am. Alabama fired first from the distance of a mile, firing furiously as the range decreased.
Heavy, overlapping rows of chain armor allowed Kearsarge to be more deliberate, and she chose her shots, carefully.
The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.
Alabama’s forward 7-inch Blakely pivot rifle scored an early success, lodging a 56lb shell in Kearsarge’s exposed sternpost. With its rudder thus bound, Kearsarge’s mobility was sharply limited. It could have been far worse for Captain Winslow, however, had that shell not failed to explode.
One of Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannon found its mark, tearing Alabama’s hull open at the waterline and exploding her steam boiler. Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off. Within an hour of the first shot, the most successful commerce raider in history was reduced to a sinking wreck.
Wounded in the battle, Semmes hurled his sword overboard, denying the Union captain that symbol of surrender. He ordered the striking of his ship’s Stainless Banner and a hand-held white flag of surrender, as Alabama went down by the stern.
For those Confederate sailors rescued by Kearsarge, the Civil War was over. They would spend the rest of the war as prisoners. Raphael Semmes escaped with 41 others, being plucked from the water and taken to neutral ports by the British steam yacht Deerhound, and the private sail yacht Hornet.
Semmes would recover from his wounds, returning to the war ravaged South via Cuba in February, 1865. That April, he would supervise the destruction of all Confederate warships in the vicinity, following the fall of Richmond. Semmes’ former command fought on as “the Naval brigade”, Semmes himself appointed Brigadier General, though the appointment would never be confirmed. The Confederate Senate had ceased to exist.
Elements of the Naval Brigade fought with Lee’s rear guard at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, before their surrender at Appomattox, only days later. Semmes himself was surrendered with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army near Durham Station, North Carolina.
Semmes returned to Mobile after the war, where he resumed his legal career. There were those who wanted to try the man for piracy, but it never happened. Raphael Semmes died an untimely death in 1877, as the result of eating some bad shrimp.
His 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States has been described as one of the “most cogent but bitter defenses ever written”, about the “lost cause”, of the South.