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 Posted: Sun Jun 30th, 2013 10:24 am
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Texas Defender
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  For much of June of 1861, a small screw steam ship of less than 500 tons had been in the waters near the Pass a la 'Outre, some 40 miles southeast of New Orleans. Her captain, who had recently been commissioned a commander in the Confederate Navy, was waiting for his chance to run past several blockading Union ships and escape to the high seas.

  This small ship was no longer the merchantman HABANA. She had been converted into a warship and re-named the CSS SUMTER. Her captain was determined to make her a success as a commerce raider. But before that could happen, she would have to elude some of the most powerful ships of the US Navy.

  His chance came on this date in 1861. He got his ship up to full speed and burst out of the pass. He was spotted by the USS BROOKLYN and a long chase ensued. The captain of the SUMTER showed great skill in outsailing his opponent, who gave up the chase.

  The SUMTER was the first ship to fly the Confederate flag on the high seas. Her captain turned her south, and on 03 July 1861, she captured her first prize. There would soon be many more, and the name of the ship would become well known, as would the name of her captain. He was Raphael Semmes.

  By the end of 1861, the SUMTER had captured 18 ships. This caused great consternation in the north. Not only were the ships lost, but insurance rates for the rest shot up, and some owners reflagged their ships to neutral countries.

  By this time, however, things were not going well for the SUMTER. She was badly damaged by a storm near the end of the year, and was desperately in need of repairs. She made the port of Cadiz in Spain, but could not make repairs there. The ship was then able to reach Gibraltar, but once again was unable to make repairs. Meanwhile, the US Navy covered the area with warships, waiting for the SUMTER to come out. She would not and indeed could not. But her mere existence occupied several Union ships for a considerable part of 1862.

  Commander Semmes abandoned the ship, which remained in port throughout the year. In December she was sold to a British merchant. Her career as a combatant was over, but that of her captain was not.

C.S.S. Sumter - 290 Foundation

  Raphael Semmes was promoted to captain and was sent to England to take command of a new ship that was under construction. She was then known as: "Hull 290." Upon completion, she was christened the ENRICA. But this ship wasn't the harmless merchant that she appeared to be. Escaping to the high seas, she was armed and re-named the CSS ALABAMA.

  In her less than two year career, this most famous of CSN commerce raiders took 64 ships. Her career ended on 19 June 1864 off Cherbourg, France. The badly worn out ALABAMA fought a losing battle against the USS KEARSARGE.

  His ship was sunk, but Captain Semmes was able to escape to England, and then back to the CSA. He was promoted to rear admiral and in early 1865, he was given command of a small squadron of ships in the James River. Jefferson Davis also commissioned him a brigadier general of artillery, thus making him both an admiral and a general.

  After the war, Admiral Semmes was charged with treason and piracy. But after a review of his actions was made, he was released and never brought to trial. He returned to Alabama.

  Admiral Semmes was treated shabbily by the occupying authorities who kept him from taking any public office, and made life difficult for any entity that would employ him. So, he resumed his law career and wrote his memoirs. He remained a heroic figure to southerners for the rest of his days, and is still so regarded today.

Encyclopedia of Alabama: Raphael Semmes

Last edited on Sun Jun 30th, 2013 03:52 pm by Texas Defender



 Posted: Sat Jul 6th, 2013 11:40 am
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TD....cool post! My brother had a model of the Alabama when we were kids. I just knew it had it had lost a battle off coast of France during the war. Good to hear the whole story.



 Posted: Sat Jul 6th, 2013 03:55 pm
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Texas Defender
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BHR62-

  Commerce raiders are typically used by a weaker naval power against a stronger one. Their purpose is to attack the enemy's merchant ships to destroy their logistical base. The French call this kind of warfare: "Guerre de course," which translates to: "War of the chase." The raiding nation can employ privately owned ships that it commissions (Privateers), or its own naval units, or a combination of both. Battles against enemy warships are generally avoided, unless quick victory is certain, or fighting is necessary in order for the raider to escape.

  The weaknesses of commerce raiders usually relate to the necessity of operating far from friendly bases. The raiders must often deal with shortages of fuel or ammunition, or provisions, as well as the problem of finding places to repair damage or worn out machinery. Usually, there is little or no support system, and the raider must deal with these problems alone.

  In order to accomplish its mission, the raider must find its prey, while avoiding enemy combatants, for if it is damaged, its mission could well be over. If the raider's general location is known, the stronger naval power can almost always concentrate more powerful ships to the area to track it down.

  In the case of the CSS ALABAMA, in June of 1864, she was greatly in need of repairs, and bottled up in a French port. A US Navy warship of the same approximate strength had found her, and more US Navy ships were on the way to her location. Captain Semmes chose to do battle with the USS KEARSARGE, hoping to escape afterwards. But he must have known that his mission was at an end, since it would be highly unlikely that he could escape without further damage.

  Besides being in poor condition, another disadvantage that the ALABAMA had was the inferior quality of her powder. This might have been the primary cause of the defeat of the ALABAMA, since she was able to hit the stern of the KEARSARGE with a shell. The shell failed to explode. If it had, it might have destroyed the KEARSARGE's ability to steer, allowing the ALABAMA to escape. But it is highly unlikely that a badly damaged ALABAMA could have eluded other US Navy ships that were on their way there.

  Starting in World War I, the Germans introduced a new kind of raider, which was the U-boat. It added a new dimension to eluding superior naval power, which was to escape beneath the surface. But for surface raiders, the problems remained the same.

  I would compare the situation of the CSS ALABAMA in Cherbourg harbor to that of the German surface raider ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE in Montevideo in December of 1939. The GRAF SPEE could outgun anything that it could not outrun, and outrun anything that it could not outgun. But off the River Platte in December of 1939, she was discovered by three British cruisers, and a battle ensued.

  More damage was done to the cruisers than to the GRAF SPEE, but she did suffer damages, and was chased into a neutral port. (Where she could not make repairs). A new British heavy cruiser arrived on the scene to replace the heavily damaged one that left the area, so there were still three British cruisers present that were waiting for the raider to come out. Meanwhile, more powerful units were on their way there.

  The GRAF SPEE could have come out and done battle again, and perhaps she could have escaped temporarily. But at the very least, she would have suffered more damage, and her destruction would have been inevitable. So the German captain scuttled his ship in the River Platte on 17 December 1939.

Admiral Graf Spee - World War II - Kriegsmarine - Pocket Battleship



 Posted: Sun Jul 7th, 2013 03:35 am
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Hellcat
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That might have knocked out Kearsarge's ability to maneuver. Which could have allowed Alabama the chance to escape. But I remember reading somewhere that the commander of the Kearsarge ordered chain put out on her sides to increase protection from Alabama's shells. Not that it would offer that much protection against exploding shells though.



 Posted: Sun Jul 7th, 2013 04:11 am
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Hellcat-

  The KEARSARGE got some protection from chains covering the areas of her engines. The chains had a thin covering of wood.

  Here is an account of the battle by a member of the crew of the KEARSARGE.

The C.S.S Alabama and U.S.S. Kearsarge Duel

  The shell that hit the stern post of the KEARSARGE is explained in the paragraph beginning: "The KEARSARGE received twenty-eight shot and shell..." Below that paragraph, the chain protection is explained.



 Posted: Sun Jul 7th, 2013 11:47 pm
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Hellcat
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Ok, I still want to find the book that I got the info on the chain from, but the DANFS entry on the Kearsarge and the NHHC's Navy Department Library article on Semmes and the Alabama both compliment what was said in Shotgun's article you posted.

Last edited on Sun Jul 7th, 2013 11:47 pm by Hellcat



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