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It is better to meet danger than to wait for it. He that is on a lee shore, and foresees a hurricane, stands out to sea and encounters a storm to avoid a shipwreck… Charles Caleb Colton

Confederate raider : Raphael Semmes of the Alabama  John M. Taylor  Washington : Brassey’s, c 1994  Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xi, 317 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 287-308) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG 

Loss of USS Somers, 8 December 1846 Line engraving from "The Illustrated London News", 23 January 1847, entitled "Wreck of the American Brig 'Somers'.", depicting Somers on her beam ends after she capsized off Vera Cruz, Mexico, while chasing a blockade runner. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Loss of USS Somers, 8 December 1846 Line engraving from “The Illustrated London News”, 23 January 1847, entitled “Wreck of the American Brig ‘Somers’.”, depicting Somers on her beam-ends after she capsized off Vera Cruz, Mexico, while chasing a blockade runner. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Raphael Semmes entered the Navy as a Midshipman in 1826, he subsequently studied law and was admitted to the bar while remaining in the service. During the Mexican War, he commanded the brig USS Somers in the Gulf of Mexico which was lost in a storm off Vera Cruz.

Loss of USS Somers, 8 December 1846Lithograph by A. Mayer, Paris, depicting a whaleboat crew from the French Navy brig le Mercure rescuing survivors of the capsized Somers, off Vera Cruz, Mexico. Somers is visible in the right background, on her beam ends. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Loss of USS Somers, 8 December 1846 Lithograph by A. Mayer, Paris, depicting a whaleboat crew from the French Navy brig le Mercure rescuing survivors of the capsized Somers, off Vera Cruz, Mexico. Somers is visible in the right background, on her beam-ends. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

His first command had a checkered past. USS Somers, a 259-ton Bainbridge class brig, was built at the New York Navy Yard and was commissioned in May 1842. She made a brief shakedown cruise to the Caribbean area, then left New York in September on a training voyage to the west coast of Africa as part of the anti-slaving squadron. While en route home in late November, a suspected mutiny led Somers’ officers to arrest three members of the crew, including Midshipman Philip Spencer, son of the then Secretary of War. Tried and found guilty they were executed by hanging leading to a considerable controversy when Somers returned to the United States later in the month.

Raphael Semmes Halftone of a photograph taken in 1861, just before he entered the Confederate States Navy. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Raphael Semmes Halftone of a photograph taken in 1861, just before he entered the Confederate States Navy. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Somers operated along the U.S. Atlantic coast and in the West Indies during 1843-45. In the spring of 1846 war began with Mexico, and the brig joined the blockade off that nation’s Gulf coast. In November 1846, she captured and destroyed the schooner Criolla and in December 1846, while commanded by Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, Somers was chasing a blockade runner off Vera Cruz when she was caught in a sudden storm. Capsized by the heavy winds, she quickly sank with the loss of more than thirty of her crew but Semmes was commended for his actions in that incident.

CSS Sumter (Confederate Cruiser, 1861-1862)Contemporary photograph of an artwork by Clary Ray, 1894. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

CSS Sumter (Confederate Cruiser, 1861-1862)Contemporary photograph of an artwork by Clary Ray, 1894. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

While on extended leave after the war, he practiced law in Mobile, Alabama. Promoted to the rank of Commander in 1855, Semmes was assigned to Lighthouse duties until 1861, when Alabama’s secession from the Union prompted him to resign from the U.S. Navy and join the Confederacy.

CSS Sumter (1861-1862)Ship's officers on deck. They are Seated, left to right: First Lieutenant William E. Evans; Commander Raphael Semmes, Commanding Officer; and First Assistant Engineer Miles J. Freeman. Standing, left to right: Surgeon Francis L. Galt; Lieutenant John M. Stribling; First Lieutenant John M. Kell, Executive Officer; Lieutenant Robert T. Chapman; and First Lieutenant Becket K. Howell (Marine Corps). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

CSS Sumter (1861-1862)Ship’s officers on deck. They are Seated, left to right: First Lieutenant William E. Evans; Commander Raphael Semmes, Commanding Officer; and First Assistant Engineer Miles J. Freeman. Standing, left to right: Surgeon Francis L. Galt; Lieutenant John M. Stribling;
First Lieutenant John M. Kell, Executive Officer; Lieutenant Robert T. Chapman; and First Lieutenant Becket K. Howell (Marine Corps). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Appointed a Commander in the Confederate Navy in April 1861, Raphael Semmes was sent to New Orleans to convert a steamer into the cruiser CSS Sumter. He ran her through the Federal blockade in June 1861 and began a career of commerce raiding that is without equal in American naval history. During Sumter’s six months’ operations in the West Indies and the Atlantic, he captured eighteen merchant vessels and skillfully eluded pursuing Union warships.

CSS Alabama (1862-1864) Sepia wash drawing by Clary Ray, November 1894. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

CSS Alabama (1862-1864) Sepia wash drawing by Clary Ray, November 1894.
Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

CSS Sumter, a 437-ton bark-rigged screw steam cruiser, was built at Philadelphia as the merchant steamship Habana. Purchased by the Confederate Government at New Orleans in April 1861, she was converted to a cruiser and placed under the Semmes command. Renamed Sumter, she was commissioned in early June 1861 and broke through the Federal blockade of the Mississippi river mouths late in the month.

CSS Alabama (1862-1864) Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama's commanding officer, standing by his ship's 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863. His executive officer, First Lieutenant John M. Kell, is in the background, standing by the ship's wheel. The original photograph is lightly color-tinted and mounted on a carte de visite bearing, on its reverse, the mark of E. Burmester, of Cape Town. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC), 1931. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

CSS Alabama (1862-1864) Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama’s commanding officer, standing by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863. His executive officer, First Lieutenant John M. Kell, is in the background, standing by the ship’s wheel. The original photograph is lightly color-tinted and mounted on a carte de visite bearing, on its reverse, the mark of E. Burmester, of Cape Town. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC), 1931. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Early in July, the pioneering Confederate Navy commerce raider captured eight U.S. flag merchant ships in waters near Cuba, then moved to the South American coast where she took another pair. Two more merchantman fell to Sumter in September and October 1861. While coaling at Martinique in mid-November, she was blockaded by the Federal sloop of war Iroquois, but was able to escape to sea and resume her activities. Sumter captured another six ships from late November into January 1862, while cruising from the western hemisphere to European waters.

"The Approach of the British Pirate 'Alabama'." Line engraving after a drawing by Homer, published in "Harper's Weekly", Volume VII, January-June 1863, page 268, depicting an anxious scene aboard a merchant ship as the Confederate cruiser Alabama comes up. This may represent the capture of the California mail steamer Ariel off Cuba on 7 December 1862, as there were many ladies among the prize ship's passengers. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

“The Approach of the British Pirate ‘Alabama’.” Line engraving after a drawing by Homer, published in “Harper’s Weekly”, Volume VII, January-June 1863, page 268, depicting an anxious scene aboard a merchant ship as the Confederate cruiser Alabama comes up. This may represent the capture of the California mail steamer Ariel off Cuba on 7 December 1862, as there were many ladies among the prize ship’s passengers. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

With his ship badly in need of overhaul, he brought her to Gibraltar in January 1862 and unable to obtain needed repairs, she was laid up in April and remained inactive when the arrival of Federal cruisers made a return to sea impossible. Watched by a succession of U.S. Navy warships, among them the sloop of war Kearsarge and gunboat Chippewa she at least diverted ships from pursuit of other elements of the Confederate Navy. CSS Sumter was sold to private owners in December 1862. Renamed Gibraltar, she worked as a blockade runner in 1863 and was reportedly lost in an English Channel storm in about 1867.

USS Hatteras (1861-1863) (right)19th Century print, depicting the sinking of Hatteras by CSS Alabama, off Galveston, Texas, 11 January 1863. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

USS Hatteras (1861-1863) (right)19th Century print, depicting the sinking of Hatteras by CSS Alabama, off Galveston, Texas, 11 January 1863.
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

After taking himself and many of his officers to England, Semmes was promoted to the rank of Captain and given command of the newly built cruiser CSS Alabama. CSS Alabama, a 1050-ton screw steam sloop of war, was built at Birkenhead, England, for the Confederate Navy. After leaving England she rendezvoused at sea with supply ships, was outfitted as a combatant and placed in commission in August 1862.  Cruising in the North Atlantic and West Indies during the rest of 1862 she captured over two-dozen union merchant ships, of which all but a few were burned. Among those released was the mail steamer Ariel, taken off Cuba in December with hundreds of passengers on board.

Confederate States Navy Officers who served with Raphael Semmes Line engraving by H.B. Hall, Jr., New York, featuring portraits of seven officers who served with Semmes in CSS Alabama and were present during her engagement with USS Kearsarge. In center is Lieutenant Richard F. Armstrong. The others are (clockwise from top): Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair, IV (or Jr.); Midshipman Eugene A. Maffitt; Midshipman Edwin M. Anderson; Master's Mate George T. Fulham; First Lieutenant (later Captain) Becket K. Howell, Marine Corps; and Acting Master Irvine S. Bulloch. Howell and Armstrong also served with Semmes in CSS Sumter. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Confederate States Navy Officers who served with Raphael Semmes Line engraving by H.B. Hall, Jr., New York, featuring portraits of seven officers who served with Semmes in CSS Alabama and were present during her engagement with USS Kearsarge. In center is Lieutenant Richard F. Armstrong. The others are (clockwise from top): Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair, IV (or Jr.); Midshipman Eugene A. Maffitt; Midshipman Edwin M. Anderson; Master’s Mate George T. Fulham; First Lieutenant (later Captain) Becket K. Howell, Marine Corps; and Acting Master Irvine S. Bulloch. Howell and Armstrong also served with Semmes in CSS Sumter. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Alabama began 1863 by sinking USS Hatteras near Galveston, Texas in January. She then moved into the South Atlantic, stopped at Cape Town in August, and went on to the East Indies, seizing nearly 40 more merchantmen during the year, destroying the majority and doing immense damage to the seaborne trade of the United States. The Confederate cruiser called at Singapore in December 1863, but soon was back at sea to continue her commerce raiding.

USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864 Painting by Xanthus Smith, 1922, depicting Alabama sinking, at left, after her fight with the Kearsarge (seen at right). Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864 Painting by Xanthus Smith, 1922, depicting Alabama sinking, at left, after her fight with the Kearsarge (seen at right). Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

From then until June 1864, Semmes took his ship through the Atlantic, into the Gulf of Mexico, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the East Indies, capturing some sixty merchantmen. At the end of her long cruise, Alabama was blockaded at Cherbourg, France, while seeking repairs. In June 1864, Semmes took her to sea to fight the Union cruiser USS Kearsarge and was wounded when she was sunk in action. Rescued by the British yacht Dearhound, he went to England, recovered and made his way back to the Confederacy.

Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, CSN Portrait by Maliby Sykes. Semmes is depicted wearing the belt buckle of a Confederate States Navy Admiral. Courtesy of the State of Alabama. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, CSN Portrait by Maliby Sykes. Semmes is depicted wearing the belt buckle of a Confederate States Navy Admiral.
Courtesy of the State of Alabama. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Semmes was promoted to Rear Admiral in February 1865 and commanded the James River Squadron during the last months of the Civil War. When the fall of Richmond, Virginia, forced the destruction of his ships, he was made a Brigadier General and led his sailors as an infantry force. Briefly imprisoned after the conflict, he worked as a teacher and newspaper editor until returning to Mobile, where he pursued a legal career.

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