Current LiteratureThe Illustrated London News, vol. 45, no. 1273, p. 174.
August 13, 1864
Cruise of the Alabama and Sumter. (2 vols. Saunders, Otley, and Co.) The name of Captain Semmes, first of the Sumter, afterwards of the Alabama, has gone forth into all lands wherever printed news can penetrate or the trumpet-tongue of fame is heard. Henceforth the name of Semmes is historic, and "290" is a charmed number. Sympathisers with Confederates and sympathisers with Federals were equally moved with wonder and admiration as they read first how the Sumter, and then how the Alabama, defying and eluding pursuit, suddenly pounced upon their prey. It seemed that a second Paul Jones had arisen; the story of the "Phantom Ship" seemed to be realised. The Federal cruisers were as much at a loss "as if they dodged a water-sprite," and their commanders must often have cursed in their hearts the laws relating to "the marine league" and to "the twenty-four hours' start," which gave their active and audacious foe so many chances of evading capture or destruction. But neither Sumter nor Alabama was to go on for ever causing joy to friends and despair to enemies. A day came when the Sumter was "laid up," and a fatal Sunday morning dawned upon which Captain Semmes, in the opinion of some people, lost his head and fought the Kearsarge, and the Alabama sank stem foremost in the waters of Cherbourg. The adventures of the two far-famed vessels are now recounted in two volumes, the contents of which are compiled "from the private journals and other papers of Commander R. Semmes, C.S.N., and other officers." The account, no doubt, will be eagerly perused; but the lovers of excitement, the revellers in naval battles, and the admirers of "fire-eating" will find very little to entertain them. The only fight (except that fatal one off Cherbourg) in which Captain Semmes was engaged was one off the coast of Texas, when he, with a superior weight of metal, sunk the U.S. gun-boat Hatteras. For the rest, it is a story of eluding stronger vessels, of weathering storms, of capturing and destroying defenceless ships, of disputing about the laws of neutrality, and of quelling mutinies. That there should have been mutiny is not surprising when Captain Semmes says of the Alabama's crew:--"Many of my fellows, no doubt, thought they were shipping in a sort of privateer, where they would have a jolly good time and plenty of license. They have been woefully disappointed, for I have jerked then down with a strong hand, and now have a well-disciplined ship-of-war. Punishment invariably follows immediately on the heels of the offence. It has taken me three or four months to accomplish this; but when it is considered that my little kingdom consisted of one hundred and ten of the most reckless from the groggeries of Liverpool, this is not much." Joining the last few words with Captain Semmes's remark, "The modern sailor has greatly changed in character; he now stickles for pay like a sharper, and seems to have lost his recklessness and love of adventure" (vol. i., p. 296); and with the notorious fact that the majority of the Alabama's crew were Englishmen, one is inclined to think that "hatred to the flag of the old Union" (vol. ii., p. 295) was not likely to have been amongst "their chief active passions," and that the only union they were particularly anxious to keep out of is that which is synonymous with workhouse. That they were attached to their captain there is no doubt, and that they fought gallantly is equally certain; but their antecedents make it more probable that they fought on "Harry Smith of the Wynd's" principle than on any other; and, though "one who was hailed from the Kearsarge with the offer of a rescue declined it civilly and made his way for the neutral flag" (vol. ii., p. 294), it is more likely that his conduct was prompted by fear of being made a prisoner than by a chivalrous "detestation of the Yankee." Of course, all sorts of excuses are made for the defeat of the Alabama; for even at billiards the defeated player discovers something in his cue, or the table, or the pockets which was peculiarly unfavourable to him, and fully accounts for his failure; but it is clear that if Captain Semmes was aware of the disadvantages under which he would fight--and he must have known most of them--he ought to have declined the engagement. Besides, it is not very magnanimous to quote Captain Winslow's statements (vol ii., p. 291) when they are favourable to the Alabama and to doubt them (p. 279 et seq.) when they are not. We read, also, "a year previous to this meeting the Kearsarge had laid (sic) at anchor close under the critical eye of Captain Semmes. He had on that occasion seen that his enemy was not artificially defended." It appears, then, that the Kearsarge was quite willing under these circumstances to fight the Alabama; and as she had been "constantly in pursuit," it seems very unlikely that Captain Winslow should have had either inclination or time for getting "iron-clad." It is not pleasant to read paltry excuses for the misfortune of a gallant gentleman. Captain Semmes fought and lost, and there is an end of it. Insinuations against the truthfulness, fairness, and humanity of his enemy cannot mend the matter; a dignified silence would have been more becoming. Captain Semmes has done wonderful damage to his enemies and has been of wonderful assistance to his cause; it is only to be regretted that his exploits were not as glorious as they were numerous. His province was to cripple his enemy's commerce, and he did it to a miracle; and if it makes the philosopher almost weep to think that so much produce of human labour--so much subsistence for human beings--should have been ruthlessly sunk in the barren sea, Captain Semmes is ready with a justification....
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