The city of Mobile, Alabama, was important not only as a test site for the first submarine. It was also the adopted home of Raphael Semmes, a former naval officer and native of Maryland who had settled in Mobile after the end of the Mexican-American War. Semmes practiced law until the outbreak of the Civil War, and, in 1861, began advocating for the use of commerce raiders by the Confederacy. Because the United States had a powerful fleet of merchant ships, Semmes believed that privateering could strike a blow at the northern war eff ort. Semmes first converted a New Orleans steamer into a raider, which he named Sumter, but by the summer of 1862, he began to captain a new cruiser built in Great Britain, which he named the Alabama, after his adopted state. Over the next two years, Semmes and the Alabama captured or destroyed more than sixty Union merchant ships, worth more than $6.5 million. The cruiser, along with other Confederate commerce raiders such as the Florida, significantly limited the scope of the United States merchant marine. Although the ship could never dock at a Confederate port, Semmes and his 144-man crew kept themselves supplied with the contents of captured northern vessels and also docked at foreign ports to purchase stores and maintain the ship. In June 1864, when Semmes made such a stop to have the ship refitted in the French port of Cherbourg, the Alabama was hemmed in by the USS Kearsarge and sunk. Semmes escaped the vessel and returned to the Confederacy, where he was promoted to rear-admiral in 1865. After the war, he returned to Mobile, where he lived until his death in 1877.
Although Mobile contributed the innovative Hunley and a heroic ship captain to the Confederate war effort, the city itself faced hardship during the war. It served as the Confederacy’s most important port city in the Gulf of Mexico after New Orleans, Louisiana, was captured by Union forces in May of 1862. Yet despite its prime location, Union ships blockaded the port, and its geography made it difficult for blockade runners to sneak through. (The only channel deep enough for blockaders was also narrow and easily blocked by Union ships.) Nevertheless, early in the war, some bold Confederate civilians found sneaking goods into Mobile to be a lucrative business opportunity. Small gray ships with fast engines slipped in and out of the port under the cover of darkness, bringing much needed supplies into the Confederacy and shipping southern cotton to Caribbean markets. By 1864, though, even the most successful blockade-running ships had been captured and burned by the United States Navy. Fewer goods could be imported to Alabama, and citizens living in the state experienced increasing food shortages.