Semmes reflected ruefully that though he had done ‘the best we could with our limited means, to harass and cripple the enemy’s commerce, that important sinew of war’, the Union had simply ‘let his commerce go rather than forego his purpose of subjugating us’. 1 Nevertheless, the image (‘tapering royal and sky-sail masts with the snowiest of canvas’) of fine ships captured, looted and destroyed, resonated down subsequent decades. 2
The guerre de course – ‘war against commerce’ – when regarded as sufficient in itself to crush an enemy – was, in Mahan’s apt phrase, ‘a most dangerous delusion when presenting itself in the fascinating garb of cheapness to the representatives of a people’, especially against a power with a healthy commerce and a powerful navy 3 :
‘Where the revenues and industries of a country can be concentrated in a few treasure ships . . . the sinew of war may perhaps be cut by a stroke; but when its wealth is scattered in thousands of . . . ships, when the roots of the system spread wide and far, and strike deep, it can stand many a cruel shock and lose
During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Britain lost 11,000 vessels (representing perhaps 4 per cent of her trade), but her burgeoning wealth had been more than sufficient to finance the several Coalitions against France. Nevertheless, there were voices ready to claim that, by the 1860s ( a fortiori by 1905) circumstances had changed.