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Commerce-Raiding Cruisers

Among all the developments in naval warfare that were brought about between 1861 and 1865, the art of commerce-destroying, as systematized and applied by Raphael Semmes of the Alabama, will not be reckoned the least important. In saying this, it must be understood that reference is made, not to its ethical, but to its military aspect. As a mode of carrying on hostilities it is neither chivalrous nor romantic, nor is it that which a naval officer of the highest type would perhaps most desire to engage in; but it fulfils, in an extraordinary degree, the main object of modern war, that of crippling an adversary.

The Confederate cruisers were wooden vessels of some twelve hundred tons displacement, and had sail power through which they could make long voyages at a fair rate of speed without the use of coal. Steam power enabled eight Confederate cruisers to wreak utter havoc on the entire Union merchant fleet, a blow from which American shipping took decades to recover. Whether merchant or naval, 17th and 18th century sailing ships had been close to identical in speed and protection. But the advantages enjoyed by an armored, high-speed, shell-firing cruiser over a steamer of the same era, post-1860, gave it enormous superiority as a commerce raider in comparison to its frigate predecessors.

In crossing calm belts, near the equator or elsewhere, a few tons of coal would expedite them greatly, or, when a vessel was sighted, would enable them to overtake her, and if she carried the Yankee flag, they seized whatever they desired, took the crew on board, burned the vessel, and landed her crew at the most convenient time. With the favors that were shown these cruisers, surreptitiously and openly, in British ports, to which they always went when convenient, in whatever sea, their coal and other supplies were kept up. Ocean telegraphy had no great extension. They committed ravages in one region, then would sail to another, choosing a sailing route where, under the prevailing winds, a concentration of vessels might be expected, and there reenact their destructive purposes, and then set sail again for some distant point on some other route where they were likely to find their prey. Under such conditions they were capable of effecting great damage and avoiding the few vessels that were sent after them.

Commerce-destroying had been practised on a considerable scale in earlier wars; but the introduction of fast steamers -- variously termed commerce-destroyers or cruisers -- enabled Semmes to carry his operations to a point of perfection that had never before been attained. His preliminary cruise in the Sumter showed him the possibilities and the limitations of this species of warfare; and he entered upon the cruise of the Alabama with a well-considered plan of operations. He began with a careful study of the ocean highways of commerce; and these determined the locality of his successive cruising-grounds. It is upon this discovery of strategic points that his patent chiefly rests.

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 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. 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. From August 1862 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 and sinking one Federal warship, USS Hatteras. On 19 June 1864, Semmes took her to sea to fight the Union cruiser USS Kearsarge and was wounded when she was sunk in action.

These developments attracted the attention of Captain Baron Louis-Antoine-Richild Grivel, the ideological forefather of the Jeune Ecole. Grivel wrote a book in 1869 describing how new technology and inventions could help make commerce raiding (guerre de course, literally war of race) an effective anti-British strategy. In the 1880s the French, facing the overwhelming superiority of the British battlefleet, attempted an asymmetric strategy. The French admirals, of the movement that became known as the "Jeune Ecole," reasoned that a large number of fast, commerce destroying cruisers working the shipping lanes, could sigificantly affect Britain's trade.

Guerre de course required oceangoing ships, such as Merrimack (before her metamorphosis into CSS Virginia) and, later, Isherwood's ill-fated Wampanoag.

The publication in 1890 of an abstract of Admiral Porter's paper for the Naval Institute criticising the general tendency to reduce the sail power of naval vessels and rely more and more on steam, has called forth a general expression of the views of naval officers on that subject. Although Admiral Porter has for a number of years had little to do with shaping the policy of the navy, he has never ceased to have the interests of the service at heart, and all his utterances on naval subjects uniformly commanded respectful attention.

The venerable Admiral was not alone, however, in his regret at the disappearance of sails. He had with him, in greater or less degree, nearly all of the older officers of the navy, men who saw much of their service in ships like the Constellation, the Independence, and the Portsmuth, in which sails 'alone were the means of propulsion, and who afterward commanded like the Hartford, the Kearsarge, and the Trenton, in which, steam power was provided, most of the cruising was done under sail. The older naval constructors, too, have seen the sails disappear with much regret, as they were naturally proud of the ships and brigs which, with their piles of white canvas, were regarded as models of grace and hearty in every port in the world. Chief Constructor Wilson, and his able assistant, Constructor Philip Hlchborn, were inclined to doubt whether it has been altogether expedient to rely so entirely upon coal as is done in some of the new vessels.

The United States was one of the last nations to begin the reduction of sail power on naval vessels. The first step was not taken until the construction of the four Roach vessels was commenced, and here the reduction was so slight that either the Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, or Dolphin would be able to get along fairly well at sea with totally disabled engines. After these came the Charleston and the Newark, tlc former an English design, from which sails had practically vanished, and the latter a Navy Department design, in which the sails were retained to about the same extent as in the Roach cruisers. The armored cruiser Maine is also to have full sail power, while the battle ship Texas is to have bare military masts. The Baltimore and Philadelphia have only military masts.

The abolition of sails, of course, rendered necessary the supplying of ships with the best types of engines and the carrying of a sufficient coal supply to last for extensive voyages. The matter of coal supply is of special importance to a nation like the United States, with very few coaling stations abroad, and this furnished one of the strongest for the construction of commerce-destroying cruisers of very large displacement, high speed, and enormous coal endurance.

Towards the end of the 1880s the United States began turning out commerce-destroying cruisers like the Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and San Francisco, that look so formidable, and were the objects of so much pride at the naval review in 1893. Built at an average in cost more than $1,250,000, their sides would öfter little more resistance to even the smallest rapid-fire guns of an enemy than so much pasteboard.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:37:28 ZULU