The Confederate States Navy was considerably smaller than the United States Navy. In order to have an impact in the war at sea the Confederate government built a number of commerce raiders. They were used, as their name implies, to raid the sea lanes for Northern merchantmen and impede trade between the Union and Europe.
These rebel cruisers did not “alter the outcome of the war,” wrote James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, but “they diverted numerous Union navy ships from the blockade, drove insurance rates for American vessels to astronomical heights, forced these vessels to remain in port or convert to foreign registry [the raiders concentrated their attacks on ships flying the American flag], and helped topple the American merchant-marine from its once-dominant position, which it never regained.”
These commerce raiders were wooden cruisers were steam powered and screw propelled ships. A number of them were built in Great Britain. In order to avoid problems relating to neutrality they were armed in international waters.
Perhaps, the most famous of the Confederate commerce raiders was the C.S.S. Alabama. Built in secrecy by John Laird Sons and Company in Birkenhead, United Kingdom the Alabama was launched on July 29, 1862. She was sailed to Azores for commissioning and arming. There her captain, Raphael Semmes, took command.
Over the course of her career the C.S.S. Alabama burned 65 Union vessels of various types, most of them merchant ships. Captured ships’ crews and passengers were never harmed, only detained until they could be placed aboard a neutral ship or placed ashore in a friendly or neutral port. The Alabama was sunk by the U.S.S. Kearsarge in a one-hour gun battle off Cherbourg on June 19, 1864.
The C.S.S. Florida was the first of the foreign-built commerce raiders. She was built by William C. Miller & Sons of Toxteth, Liverpool and departed port on March 22, 1862 as the Oreto. She was commissioned as the C.S.S. Florida in the Bahamas on August 17, 1862 where she was also armed and provisioned. At first, the Floridawas commanded by Lieutenant John Newland Maffitt but he was replaced due to ill health by Lieutenant Charles Manigault Morris in February 1864.
During her career the Florida took 37 prizes while two of her prizes took another 23 ships. On October 7, 1864 the Florida was captured illegally in the neutral port of Bahia, Brazil by the U.S.S. Wachusett. The Florida was sailed to Newport News, Virginia where in a strange end to the raider, she was sunk after some say a deliberate collision with a troop ferry.
The C.S.S. Sumter was originally the merchantman Habana. Built in 1859 in Philadelphia, she was purchased by the Confederate government in April 1861. She was converted to a cruiser and under the command of Raphael Semmes was renamed the Sumter in June 1861. From then until January 1862 the Sumter took 18 prizes. While coaling at Gibralter the Sumter was trapped by Union warships and was forced to become inactive. Many of her crew including Semmes were reemployed on the C.S.S. Alabama. In December 1862 she was disarmed and sold at auction.
The C.S.S. Shenandoah was the last Confederate ship to surrender. She was designed as a British commercial transport vessel for the East Asia tea trade and troop transport. She was built on the River Clyde in Scotland by Alexander Stephen & Sons. The Confederate Government purchased her in September 1864 for use as an armed cruiser to capture and destroy Union merchant ships.
The Shenandoah was captained by Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell. The ship traveled from Britain through the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean to Australia, arriving in Melbourne on January 25, 1865. Over the her period of service she took 38 prizes. The Shenandoah first learned of Lee’s surrender from a prize on June 27, 1865. At the same time Waddell also read Jefferson Davis’ proclamation that the “war would be carried on with renewed vigor.”
On August 2nd Waddell learned of the final Confederate collapse and the surrender of the remaining Confederate armies. He disarmed his ship and proceeded to Liverpool. He surrendered his ship and crew to British naval authorities in order to avoid a trial for piracy by the victorious Union authorities. The British turned the ship over to the United States who eventually sold it to the Sultan of Zanzibar. Eventually, all of the crew returned to the United States.
Confederate commerce raiders had great success disrupting Union merchant shipping. Over the course of the war they captured and sank numerous Union merchant vessels. They discouraged many more from sailing under the United States flag. In the end the war at sea was not a major factor in the Union victory but we still remember these daring raiders of the sea.