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Raphael Semmes (1809–1877)

At the helm of the CSS Sumter, converted into a man-of-war in June 1861, and later as captain of the CSS Alabama, Raphael Semmes excelled at implementing the South’s naval strategy of destroying Yankee commerce. In the first three years of the conflict, Semmes captured or sank more than eighty merchant vessels, representing six million dollars of trade. The Alabama accounted for the vast majority of these prizes, for a total of about sixty-nine strikes. Built in Liverpool, England, in 1862 and armed in the Azores so as to not violate England’s neutrality, the Alabama quickly became legendary. In January 1863, only four months after Semmes acquired her, the Alabama was already a serious vexation for the Lincoln administration. Navy secretary Gideon Welles vented his chagrin in his diary: “Thus far the British pirate Alabama, sailing under rebel colors, has escaped capture. As a consequence there are marvelous accounts of her wonderful speed, and equally marvelous ones of the want of speed of our cruisers . . . . She will be a myth, a ‘skimmer of the seas’ till taken.”

On June 19, 1864, one of the war’s most celebrated sea battles occurred off the coast of Cherbourg, France. The Alabama had just put into port for repairs when the USS Kearsarge discovered her. Semmes, buoyed up by his string of naval victories, challenged Captain John A. Winslow to a duel. After the opening salvos, it soon became apparent that the larger Kearsarge was the fitter and superior vessel. It sank the infamous Alabama in little more than an hour. Semmes and most of his crew were rescued by an English yacht, the Deerhound. Semmes’s raiding days were over, but not his service in the Confederacy. Made a rear admiral in January 1865 and given command of the James River Squadron protecting Richmond, Semmes was soon forced to burn his ships with the Union advance upon the Confederate capital. He then organized his sailors into a brigade of militia and hastened south to North Carolina, where he surrendered with General Johnston’s army that spring.

Louis Prang Lithography Company (active 1856–1899, after a photograph)
Lithograph with tintstone, circa 1864
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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