Semmes: Rebel Raider

By Kane, Robert B. | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Semmes: Rebel Raider


Kane, Robert B., Air & Space Power Journal


Semmes: Rebel Raider by John M. Taylor. Potomac Books (http://www.potomacbooksinc.com/Books/ Features.aspx ), 22841 Quicksilver Drive, Dulles, Virginia 20166, 2003, 128 pages, $15.96 (hardcover), $10.36 (softcover) (2005).

The two best-known naval battles of the Civil War are the clash of the first ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in April 1862 and the engagement between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama off the French coast in June 1864. These battles represented two aspects of the Confederacy's naval strategy to overcome the Union's naval superiority: use ironclad warships to sink the Union's wooden ships blockading Southern ports, and use commerce raiders to divert Union warships from the blockade to protect Union merchant ships. The strategy failed because the Confederacy did not have the industrial base to produce large numbers of ironclads, and the commerce raiders, of which the CSS Alabama was the best known, failed to draw many Union warships away from the blockade. Interestingly, many Civil War students would recognize the ship more than they would its chivalric commander, Capt Raphael Semmes, the subject of this biography.

John Taylor, son of Gen Maxwell D. Taylor and author of a number of books and articles, especially on the Civil War, has written an informative and lively biography, a concise treatment of his wellregarded, full-length biography of Semmes. As captain of the CSS Sumter and the CSS Alabama, Semmes, in just two cruises, struck fear into the hearts of Union merchant sailors and shipowners with the capture of nearly 100 Union merchant ships valued at $6 million - about 36 percent of the merchant shipping destroyed by the Confederate Navy. Southerners revered Semmes as a hero, and the Union sailors he captured generally respected him. However, Northerners, especially the merchants and shipowners financially hurt by his escapades on the high seas, reviled him as a pirate.

Born in Maryland in 1809 and orphaned at age 10, Semmes received his naval commission in 1826 and served on several naval vessels before the Civil War. During his shore duties, he studied and practiced law to supplement his naval officer's pay. In 1841 Semmes purchased land near Mobile, Alabama, while he was stationed at the Pensacola naval base and ultimately came to consider Alabama his home. …

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