May 31, 2015 - The War at Sea    No Comments

Silencing Claims of Confederate Piracy

As the victorious North blamed the British for their merchant marine woes done with the hand of Confederate raiders, it demanded payment as a settlement. The Northern negotiators were reminded that their New England ancestors were branded uncivilized pirates by England and guilty of the very acts they accused Southern patriots of.

Bernhard Thuersam,


Silencing Claims of Confederate Piracy:

“The diplomatic correspondence of the United States during the Civil War teems with denunciatory assaults upon the Confederate Government for attacking their commerce. The Alabama, Florida, etc., are invariably called “piratical cruiser,” and their commanders “pirates.” The destruction of American ships at sea was described by Mr. Seward, Mr. [Charles] Adams, and the Consuls, as being opposed to the sentiments of “civilized and commercial nations,” and “unauthorized acts of violence upon the ocean,” as the indulgence “of a purely partisan malice,” as “barbarous acts,” malicious and piratical,” etc.

The British public learned . . . that during the American War of Independence, and to a much greater extent during the war of 1812-15, the cruisers of the United States were repeatedly and specifically ordered to destroy British merchant ships at sea, and not attempt to bring them into port.

In face of these facts, which the over-astute diplomacy of Mr. Seward either suppressed or at least ignored, the European sentiment in respect to the action of the Confederate Government was gradually modified, until at last public opinion settled down to the very general belief that the United States had no sort of justification for their complaints and denunciations, and that, as between two belligerents, the Confederates were practicing a perfectly lawful and justifiable mode of harassing their enemy, and adding to the cost and burden of the war which was being waged against them, and the violent interference with their claim of self-government.

It is generally known that some months after the end of the war, the late Admiral [Raphael] Semmes…was arrested at his house in Mobile, and carried to Washington, under military guard. He was held in confinement for some time, and the purpose was to institute criminal proceedings against him [for piracy].

About that time, Mr. John A. Bolles, the Solicitor to the Navy Department of the United States, published an article in the Atlantic Monthly under the title “Why Semmes of the Alabama Was Not Tried.” Mr. Bolles cites Cooper’s “Naval history” to prove that during the “Revolutionary War” many British vessels were captured by Colonial cruisers and destroyed at sea.

Referring to the history and policy of the United States during the war with England, commonly called the “War of 1812,” he says: — “Not less than seventy-four British merchant-men were captured, and destroyed as soon as captured, under express instructions from the Navy Department, and in pursuance of a deliberate purpose and plan, without any attempt or intent to send or bring them in as prizes for adjudication.

The orders of the Department upon the subject are numerous, emphatic, and carefully prepared. They need to be studied and remembered, and they effectually silence all American right or disposition to complain of Semmes for having imitated our example in obedience to similar orders from the Secretary of the Confederate Navy. Such were the policy and the orders of President Madison and of the Secretary of the Navy in 1812, 1813, 1814; and such, beyond question, would be the plan and the instructions of any Administration under the circumstances.”

(The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe, 1861-65, James D. Bulloch, Sagamore Press, 1959, pp. 114-119)

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