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Sea Raider

March 2023
2min read

What was true on the land was also true on the water. The sea raid was like the cavalry raid. It was bold, eye-filling, inspiring, and in the grand tradition, and it could be done (given the right leader) with the materials at hand. But it did not—in the nature of things, it could not—lead to final victory. Undying legends could be erected on the exploits of a Confederate cruiser like Alabama , which flitted across the seven seas like a destroying wraith, a great ship under a. great captain; but to destroy the Northerners’ ability to go on with the war something quite different was needed—something like the makeshift improvisations that produced the ironclads Merrimac and Tennessee , which could hit the Yankees where they really lived.

It was Alabama that got the attention, however; Alabama , and her famous skipper, Raphael Semmes, who was the Confederate Navy’s exact counterpart of Jeb Stuart. Like Stuart, Semmes was brave, competent, and effective, with a flair for that little something extra which the born leader of men has to have. He had every qualification he needed for his job, but the job itself was a fragment from the earlier wars, aimed at the sort of thing that might have brought victory in the old days but that could not possibly do it in the Civil War.

Semmes gets the full treatment in Edward Boykin’s new book, Ghost Ship of the Confederacy , and a fine tale it is. Semmes may have been the most accomplished commerce destroyer who ever lived. Putting to sea in 1861 in a rickety teakettle of a converted merchantman hastily fitted out as a cruiser and given the name Sumter , he took eighteen prizes, drove the Federal Navy almost frantic, and wound up at last at Gibraltar, with his ship almost ready to fall apart. Leaving it there, he went to England, took over the British-built and British-manned Alabama , and went off on one of the great sea raids of all time. In 22 months he roamed the Atlantic and Indian oceans and took 69 prizes. The American flag was all but driven from the sea, and American ship owners, hit squarely in the pocketbook, cried in anguish that this Semmes was a pirate who wanted hanging. All in all, Captain Semmes did his foes a good deal of harm.

But if Yankee commerce was extremely vulnerable to a daring sea raider, the Yankee nation itself was not. The war had taken on a new dimension, and it could never be won by commerce raiding any more than it could be won by heroic cavalry raids. It could be won, finally, only when one contestant or the other had been made utterly incapable of going on with the fight, and in the grim totality of that kind of war the commerce destroyer did not pack enough weight. Semmes cost the American shipping community enormous sums, but the American economy as a whole kept growing stronger. Semmes did perfectly what he was supposed to do; it was the job itself that failed to measure up.

Ghost Ship of the Confederacy , by Edward Boykin. Funk & Wagnalls. 404 pp. $4.95.

Like Stuart, Semmes played his part with an air, right to the end. Late in the spring of 1864, U.S.S. Kearsarge caught up with him while he was at anchor in Cherbourg Harbor. Semmes served formal notice on Captain Winslow, of Kearsarge , that he would go outside and fight just as soon as he finished a few shore-side arrangements, and Winslow quietly accepted the challenge. (The whole business reminds one of two lace-cuffed duelists arranging for a meeting under the trees at tomorrow’s dawn.) Presently the two warships left the harbor, almost in company, steamed carefully out past the limit of French territorial waters, and then squared off and began to fight.

The fight went quickly wrong, for Semmes. His fuses and powder were defective, and Winslow’s gun crews were much better marksmen than his. In little more than an hour Alabama was a sinking wreck. She went down, Kearsarge picked up some of the crew, Semmes and others were rescued by a British yacht—which promptly took them off to England, out of the reach of vengeful Yankees—and the great story was over.

So it was a great story—and nothing more. Like Stuart, Semmes was on a dead-end street. Glamorous cavalry and glamorous sea raider alike came out of the romantic idea of war; that is, they were born of a national viewpoint by which the present had to resemble the past. They could do magnificent things, leaving a bright streak of color on the land and the sea—and, in the end, the war would go on about as it would have done if these things had not been.

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