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Admiral Raphael Semmes

A Monograph by His Son, Captain S. Spencer Semmes, Osceola, Arkansas
From: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXVIII, Richmond, Va., 1910, pages 28-40. 

Admiral Raphael Semmes was born in Charles County, Md., on September 27, 1809, of Catholic ancestry. His father was Richard Thompson Semmes, fifth in descent from the first American ancestor, Benedict Joseph Semmes, of Normandy, France, who came over with Lord Baltimore in 1640; and his mother was Catherine Hooe Middleton, a descendant of Arthur Middleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. There was only one other child, Samuel Middleton Semmes, later a well-known lawyer of Cumberland, Md. The mother died during the infancy of the boys, and when Raphael was about ten years old his father died, leaving them almost penniless. The two boys were taken into the family of Raphael Semmes, of Georgetown, D. C., an uncle, and when Raphael was about fifteen years old, he was appointed a midshipman in the United States Navy by another uncle, Dr. Joseph Benedict Semmes, who, at the time, was a member of Congress from Piscataway, who, at the time, no United States Naval Academy, Md. young Semmes was placed on board the seventy-four-gun training ship North Carolina. His first position, on leaving the training ship, was with Commodore Wilkes, at his quarters on Capitol Hill Washington, D. C. Then followed a three years' cruise on the Mediterranean; one in the South Sea with Commodore Wilkes' Exploring Expedition and then a cruise off the west coast of Africa and around the Cape to the East Indies.

All through these years of his boyhood and early manhood, whether on shore or in active service, he assiduously studied languages, literature and law, especially international and marine law, which prepared him for the trying experiences of later years in the Confederate service.

On May 5, 1837, Raphael Semmes, then a lieutenant in the United States Navy, married Anne Elizabeth Spencer, the only daughter of Oliver Marlborough Spencer and Electra Ogden. Mrs. Semmes' grandfather, Oliver Spencer, a Revolutionary Colonel, moved from New Jersey to Cincinnati, when the latter was nothing more than a military post, and her father was the first mayor of the town.

During the Mexican War, Lieutenant Semmes was in command of the brig Somers, doing blockade duty off Vera Cruz. Whilst thus engaged his vessel was suddenly struck by a violent gale, was capsized, and the greater portion of the crew drowned, Semmes himself having been rescued by a boat's crew from the English ship Endymion. After losing his vessel, Lieutenant Semmes was ordered by the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Marcy, to proceed to the City of Mexico under flag of truce, to intercede with the Mexican Government in behalf of some of the members of his crew who had been captured, and whom the government was threatening to execute as spies. Being forbidden by General Scott, in command of the United States Army, from proceeding in a command of the army, Lieutenant Semmes, at the invitation of General Worth, became a member of that General's staff and accompanied the army throughout the entire campaign.

In 1849 Lieutenant Semmes moved from his old home, on the Perdido River, near Pensacola, Fla., to Mobile, Ala., which place he ever afterwards considered his domicile. Having seen considerably more sea duty than any other officer of his date, he was engaged in no active service until 1856, when he was appointed lighthouse inspector on the Gulf of Mexico, from which position he went, two years a afterwards, to Washington, as secretary of the Lighthouse Board, a place much sought after by naval officers, and which he filled until his resignation from the United States Navy, in 1860, upon the breaking out of the war. At the time of his resignation he was a commander in the navy.

Upon resigning, he offered his service to Jefferson Davis, then Provisional President of the Confederacy, and was immediately sent North as a special agent for the purpose of purchasing machinery, guns and munitions of war, in which undertaking he was eminently successful.

Returning to Montgomery, Ala. - the provisional Capital of the Confederacy - Semmes, now a commander in the Confederate States Navy, was placed at the head of the Lighthouse Bureau, and longing for the smell of "salt-water" and the old "sea-life," where he might be able to strike some effective blows for the new-born government to which he had given his allegiance, he applied for and obtained permission to undertake the fitting out of a vessel with the view of preying upon the enemy's commerce. As the most likely point for his enterprise, he proceeded to New Orleans, and, after a diligent search, he ran across a small sea-going packet of about 400 tons, named the Havana, which had been plying between New Orleans and the West Indies, as the most suitable material for his purpose. As his own naval constructor, he at once commenced converting the little merchantman into the best war vessel practicable, and in the face of many difficulties, causing much vexation and considerable delay, he finally completed his task, renaming his miniature cruiser the Sumter. When finally ready for her mission, with as gallant a set of officers as ever trod a ship's deck and sturdy a crew as ever reefed a sail, the Sumter was dropped down to the mouth of the Mississippi River to await an opportunity to run the gauntlet of the Federal blockade. After a few days, perceiving that the Brooklyn, then on duty, had left her anchorage, and was no longer in sight, Semmes immediately shipped his pilot, got up a full head of steam, and made the dash for the open sea. The Brooklyn, which had merely changed her position and was hidden by the shore line, discovering the Sumter's escape, at once gave chase, and although the swifter of the two vessels, after a short time, abandoned the pursuit, leaving the little Sumter free to continue her voyage, as the first sea-rover of the Confederacy. This was on the 30th day of June, 1861.

No sooner did the Sumter find herself free upon the bounding waves than she commenced her work of destruction to the enemy's commerce - some eighteen merchantmen, with their valuable cargoes, becoming her prey within the few months of her Confederate career, from the time of her running the blockade, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, up to the date of her abandonment at Gibraltar.

One of the cleverest feats of the Sumter was her escape from the Iroquois, at the Island of Martinque. Here the Iroquois had kept the Sumter under close vigilance for several days, determined upon her capture whenever she should attempt to put to sea. But Captain Semmes was too shrewd for the Iroquois' commander. Realizing that he must make his exit as soon as possible, or be absolutely cut off from escape by reinforcements of the enemy's vessels, Captain Semmes having in the meantime obtained information that Yankee schooner had been employed to watch the movements of the Sumter and give warning to the Iroquois, took advantage of the first dark night for his dash for liberty. Accordingly, at gun-fire (8 o'clock), after which time the Iroquois was in the habit of drawing within short distance of the port, the Sumter, with all steam on, sped south. When she reached the Yankee schooner the schooner gave the signals, as agreed upon, which Semmes, with his nautical intuition, at once read as saying: "The Sumter is fleeing south." Semmes thereupon extinguished every light aboard, and, Reynard-like, doubled upon his tracks, rushing north, and, as the Iroquois was racing after him to the south, by morning the two vessels were 150 miles apart.

Captain Semmes having taken the Sumter into Cadiz, Spain, for repairs - she being in a very leaky condition from having run upon a rock at Maranham, Brazil - he was received very politely by the commander of the port and at once permitted to go into dock at the naval station. His repairs made, he returned with the Sumter to Cadiz, but being harassed by the commander, who had, in the meantime, been influenced by the Federal Consul, Semmes, in disgust, sailed for Gibraltar - capturing a vessel within sight of the harbor. Being unable to obtain coal at Gibraltar, through the machinations of the ever-vigilant Federal Consul, and being without funds, as soon as they could be procured from our Commissioner in England, which took about a month, the paymaster of the Sumter - Henry Myers - was dispatched to Tangiers, Africa, to purchase and forward a cargo of coal. Upon his arrival in Tangiers, Myers was arrested, through the agency of the Federal Consul, handcuffed, thrown in jail, where he was robbed of his personal effects, maltreated and finally transported to the United States. The Sumter being thus prevented from coaling, and being watched on the outside by Federal cruisers, she was abandoned by her commander and singular to relate, sank a few years afterwards, almost in the same spot where reposed the remains of her successor - the Alabama - and the sword of her former gallant commander.

In no ways daunted, Semmes, now a captain in the Confederate States Navy, proceeded to England, where he found that the Lairds had nearly completed a vessel for the Confederate Government, numbered the "290," and he was assigned to her command when ready for service.

To avoid a violation of the neutrality laws, the "290," left England without armament, and ostensibly as a merchantman, but, in fact, she proceeded to Terceira, one of the group of the Azores Islands, where she was joined by her commander and his officers the crew taking her out volunteering to remain - and her armament and supplies were placed on board from the transports which had previously arrived. As soon as ready for sea, her commander had the Confederate flag run up, read his commission from the Confederate Government, announced the object of his mission, called for volunteers from among the crew - nearly all of whom enlisted - and named the new Confederate cruiser the Alabama. Thus was the Alabama, destined to become famous the world over, launched upon her career of destruction to American commerce and to teach New England shipbuilders and ship owners some of the costs of war.

For nearly two years the Alabama became the terror and the scourge of the seas, in so far as Federal interests were concerned, capturing sixty-two merchantmen, most of which, with their cargoes, were burned, and completely paralyzing or destroying the enemy's commerce. And this, too, although a vessel of not over 200 tons and a speed not exceeding thirteen knots an hour under the combined forces of steam and sail, not only prevented from entering "home ports" for the purposes of coaling, refitting and supplies, by reason of the rigid blockade of the entire Southern coast, but prevented, as well, from putting into neutral ports by the numbers and vigilance of the enemy's cruisers and gunboats, more on the watch to catch her, at disadvantage, and overcome her by force of numbers and weight of metal than in protecting their merchant-marine by seeking an equal encounter. So that the Alabama's work was done almost entirely under sail and upon such supplies as she could draw upon from her captures.

Being in had condition from her long and laborious cruise, with the copper stripped from her bottom, which was foul from barnacles, the Alabama entered the harbor of Cherbourg, France, for much needed repairs, re-fitting and supplies. Three days afterwards the Kearsarge, in command of Captain Winslow, in perfect condition, came from Flushing England. As soon as she put in her appearance, Captain Semmes, realizing that he was to be blockade with the probabilities of speedy reinforcements by the enemy's cruisers, although at great disadvantage, made up his mind to fight and sent word to the captain of the Kearsarge to that effect. After patching up a little and taking on a small supply of coal, on Sunday morning, June 19, 1864, the Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg, to engage her enemy, and, proceeding about seven miles from the French coast, the battle commenced. When the captain of the Alabama concluded to fight the Kearsarge, although he knew that she was considerably the Alabama's superior in speed and somewhat her superior in size, staunchness of construction and armament, he considered the two vessels to be so nearly matched as not to be acting rashly in offering battle, but to justify him in entertaining a hope that he might be able to beat his adversary in a fair fight. But he did not have a fair fight. He thought, as he had every reason to believe, that he was engaging a wooden vessel, when, as it afterwards turned out, the Kearsarge was practically an iron-clad - heavy chain cables having been strung vertically from the top of her deck to the water's edge, which had been cleverly disguised by a covering of deal boards, thus completely protecting her sides, and, at the same time, giving her the appearance of a wooden vessel. This deception, added to the damage condition of the Alabama's ammunition, no doubt lost her the battle, as it was shown by the ripped and torn boards, shattered cables and indentations made by the same upon the sides of the Kearsarge that the Alabama's shot and shell failed to make any penetration into the Kearsarge's hull. In a little over an hour Captain Semmes, finding that the Alabama was sinking, hauled down his broadsides were afterwards fired but the enemy - and turned to the saving by hurrying them off in his few remaining boats; then, throwing his sword into the sea, he commanded his crew to assemble upon the edge of the Alabama's deck, and just before she made her final plunge he gave the order and every should leaped into the whirling waters.

Captain Semmes and about forty of his crew were picked up by the English yacht Deerhound, owned by Mr. Lancaster, and, thus escaped capture by being taken to England.

Most of the remaining officers and crew were rescued by a couple of French fishing boats and the boats of the Kearsarge, which, after a tardy wait, finally came to their succor. Thus did the brave, good, old ship find a hero's grave instead of falling into the hands of the enemy. Her sacred bones lie buried at the bottom of that vast ocean, over the surface of which she once careered so gracefully, the scourge and terror of her foe's merchant-marine, where her requiem will forever be sung by the embracing waves, an example to all nations and all generations to come, of what one little craft, commanded by genius, probity and bravery, can accomplish, when pitted even against a powerful nation.

One of the most valuable and, at the same time, dramatic captures of the Alabama was that of the Vanderbilt "Liner," plying between New York and Aspinwall. The Alabama was lying in wait for a homeward bound vessel of the same "Line," in hopes, by her seizure, of being able to replenish her exhausted treasury from the gold bullion which usually constituted a portion of the cargo, and it was a disappointment, when, instead of meeting up with a homeward bound vessel, the Ariel, outward bound, came in sight. This "Leviathan of the deep" presented a beautiful picture as she "lay to" upon the placid waters, under the guns of the Alabama, with flags flying and the gay apparel of passengers which crowded her decks, fluttering in the breeze.

The Ariel's owner - Commodore Vanderbilt - had been very aggressive and active in the effort to capture or destroy the Alabama, fitting out, at his own expense, a cruiser for that express purpose. And Captain Semmes was therefore itching to burn her, and was only prevented from doing so because of the fact that the Ariel had on board upwards of a thousand passengers, of whom he could make no disposition. Reluctantly, therefore, the Ariel was bonded and permitted to go rejoicing upon her voyage.

When the Ariel was "hove to," her passengers believing that they had verily fallen into the hands of the "Pirate," commenced hiding their valuables, and were in a great state of alarm. But, upon the handsome young Confederate officer, who boarded the Ariel, assuring the passengers that the Alabama was not making war upon women and children and private property, and that, therefore, none of their effects would be molested, they soon became pacified and even friendly, resulting in the young officer returning to the Alabama, shorn of all the brass buttons and gold lace from his uniform, which had been appropriated by the ladies as souvenirs of the meeting.

One of the most troublesome foes Captain Semmes had to contend with was the irrepressible Federal Consul, to be met with at every point, constantly on the alert and active in throwing every obstacle in the way of his coaling and provisioning his vessels, when entering neutral ports. Most of these fellows were men of small mental calibre, whose only code of principle and honor was Yankee cunning and zeal in truckling to their "Big Boss," and who, often, did not hesitate to stoop to underhanded and unscrupulous means in carrying out their incessant warfare.

As an instance of their malignant and petty persecution, nothing was more contemptible than the enticing away of Captain Semmes' cabin-boy. When ready to leave New Orleans with the Sumter, Captain Semmes' relative - the Hon. Thomas J. Semmes - insisted upon his taking with him as his cabin-boy his Negro dining room servant - Ned - who had been raised in the family. Whilst lying in one of the Brazilian ports, Ned was in the habit of going to market every morning for the furnishing of the Captain's table. One morning the basket, with its contents, came on board, but without Ned. It was afterwards ascertained that the Consul, by making the most dazzling promises, had persuaded Ned not to return. As soon as Captain Semmes left port this poor, illiterate Negro was abandoned by his rascally friend  - the Consul - and left among utter strangers and thousands of miles away from home, penniless and to his own resources. The duped boy finally worked his way back to the United States and to Georgetown, D. C., where he was raised, and shortly afterwards died in a hovel from disease brought about by absolute want.

After the loss of the Alabama, Captain Semmes, having first taken a much-needed vacation and rest, returned home - running the blockade in a little New England schooner, which landed him at the mouth of the Rio Grande River, in a little town called Bagdad. From there he worked his way overland to Mobile, Ala. Here he spent a few days with his family, whom he had not seen in four years, and then proceeded to Richmond, where, upon reporting to Mr. Mallory, the Secretary of the Navy, he was placed in command of the James River Fleet, with the rank of Vice-Admiral. In the hurry of evacuating Richmond, no orders were given to Admiral Semmes and no provision made for his leaving. But when he discovered that he had been left behind he blew up his fleet, organized his officers and crews into a brigade, marched them to the railroad depot in Richmond, Va., where he found an old, dismantled engine which he soon had sufficiently repaired to pull a train of cars, upon which he loaded his men, and was thus enabled to leave the city. He joined General Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina with the conferred rank of Brigadier-General in the Confederate States Army. And, shortly afterwards, was surrendered to General Sherman, as part of that army, he having taken the precaution of having his parole describe him, both as an Admiral in the Confederate States Navy and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate States Army.

In his career with the Sumter and Alabama, not only did Admiral Semmes demonstrate his ability to do the enemy the greatest damage possible in the least time, wholly within the requirements and rules of legitimate warfare, but he showed himself the true, chivalrous naval officer, the unexcelled disciplinarian, the learned international lawyer, the man of the most scrupulous probity and the modest, unassuming gentleman. He was ever kind and courteous to his officers, upon whom he looked as members of his family, and, although dealing with crews made up of almost every nationality except Americans

-many of whom were tough subjects - he kept them under thorough the magnetism of his force of character, and doing everything possible for the promotion of their health and comfort, so that harmony and mutual confidence prevailed between officers and men.

In the condemnation and destruction of his prizes, he never made a single mistake, although many of them had endeavored to disguise their nationally by sailing under false papers, which described them as neutrals.

He never permitted the molestation of the private effects of any of the officers, crews or passengers of his captive vessels nor treated them otherwise than with kindness and respect. And he prohibited the appropriation by his officers and men of even as much as a box of cigars or pair of gloves from the cargoes of his prizes. Whatever was suitable and necessary for the supplying of his vessels was turned over to the purser, issued out by him, as Confederate property, and as such accounted for to the government. His care for those under his control was unbounded. First and last he had as many as 500 men under his command of the two vessels - the Sumter and Alabama - and as many as 2,000 prisoners were confined for shorter or longer periods on board of the two ships, and yet he never lost a single man by disease.

After the war Admiral Semmes returned to Mobile, Ala., which place he ever afterwards made his home, and entered upon the practice of law, but early in December, 1865, at the instigation of the Secretary of the Navy, the Hon. Gideon H. Wells, the Admiral was arrested by a sergeant and file of marines and taken, a prisoner, to Washington, where he was incarcerated four months, although at the time he had a regular parole from General Sherman, as one of the prisoners of war surrendered by General Joseph E. Johnston. During Admiral Semmes' captivity, every effort was made to obtain sufficient incriminating evidence against him of cruelty to warrant bringing him to trial before a military commission. But in every instance in which letters had been written to ship owners and ship captains, in the endeavor to obtain this evidence, the reply, substantially, was that, "whilst Admiral Semmes had destroyed their property, yet never had he committed a single act of cruelty or exceeded the strict rules of war in any of his captures."

After being released, Admiral Semmes returned to Mobile, where he was unanimously elected to the office of judge of the Probate Court - the most lucrative position in the State, which he was prevented from filling by United States Military rule, as an unamnestied "Rebel." He was then invited to become the editor of the Bulletin, a daily paper published in Memphis, Tenn. After he had filled this position a few months, Andrew Johnson, then President, caused a controlling interest in the paper to be purchased by partisans, who ousted the Admiral from position of editor.

After this venture, the Admiral again returned to Mobile and renewed the practice of law in connection with his second son -John Oliver Semmes - which he pursued until his death.

Whilst entertaining the strongest convictions of the righteousness of the cause of the South and having done his whole duty in behalf of that cause, when the catastrophe came he accepted the result with the utmost philosophy and went to work to do everything in his power to bring about good feeling and harmony, and this notwithstanding the animosity with which he was pursued and hounded down by Mr. Johnston and Gideon H. Wells and their satellites and every obstacle thrown in the way of his efforts to make a quiet and comfortable support for his family.

Whilst Admiral Semmes was stern and unyielding in the performance of duty, he was, in his family and among his friends, gentleness itself. No one could better express that side of his character than to give the following words of a kinsman - the late B. J. Semmes, of Memphis, Tennessee, who knew him through his entire life: "The dearest love of my boyhood, the highest esteem of my manhood belong to this great and good man, made truly after the image and likeness of his God."

But Admiral Semmes was not only a good sailor - he was a learned scholar of distinguished attainments; he was historian and statesman; more than this, he was a profound lawyer, as an expounder of international law, in controversy with dignitaries and premiers of every nationality. He measured up to that intricate branch of jurisprudence, as familiar with it as Vattel himself, while, as a learned constitutional lawyer, in his exhaustive argument in justification of the South, he ranked by the side of Alexander H. Stephens; with Dr. Bledsone, in his great work, entitled "Is Davis a Traitor?"; with Jefferson Davis himself, and with the great Carolinian, John C. Calhoun. He was a patriot, he lived, fought and suffered for his county, and, above all, he was a Christian gentleman.

Admiral Semmes' private life was as pure and spotless as his public life was heroic. No one meeting, on our thoroughfares or in the forum of our courts, the blithe, erect, but modest, form of the practicing attorney would for one moment have suspected that there stood before him the renowned and redoubtable "Sea King," whose daring deed are written in imperishable letters upon every known continent.

It would be doing injustice to his memory to omit mentioning that, besides his deep legal lore, and those attainments which make him the peer of the most distinguished and scientific men of our country, Admiral Semmes ranks high as a writer, and that his last work, "Memoirs of Service Afloat and Ashore," published a few years after the war, is as brilliant in style as it is profound in thought; the introduction, purporting to be a synopsis of the causes which led to the late Civil War, being one of the most remarkable constitutional arguments that ever emanated from a statesman's pen.

His death was a fitting close of his well-spent and glorious life. A few days' disease having admonished him that death was inevitable, he calmly prepared to meet it as he had met other overpowering foes. His worldly goods being few, demanded but little of his it me; to a noble, loving, devoted wife; to children whom he so dearly loved, the had no other inheritance to bestow but his own proud name, the souvenir of his virtues, the example of his patriotism. This done, he turned his thoughts to that higher kingdom, to which all aspire who have performed on earth their duty to God and man. A dutiful, obedient child of the Holy Catholic Church, he received at the hands of her worthy ministers all the sacraments with which she tenderly speeds the soul to the eternal abode. And it was, surrounded by a desolate family, and his hand clasped in the hands of a fatherly priest, that he gave up to his maker that great and noble soul which never knew any other fear than that of doing wrong.

To-day, in the narrow confines of an humble grave, on the green banks of a little tranquil book, to which Bienville's brother gave his own name, in the retired and calm retreat of the Mobile Catholic graveyard, the remains of one so much loved by his country, so much feared by her enemies, now gently rests with nothing more than a simple monument to mark his last place of repose.

When Attila's soldiers were incising their eyes with their swords that they might weep over him with men's blood and not with women's tears; when Napoleon's soldiers were hiding his grave, "Sur un rocher battu par la vague plaintive"; when

"Kings in dusky darkness hid Have left a nameless pyramid,"

the memory of Raphael Semmes will find in the pages of history and in the hearts of his countrymen "a monument more durable than iron or marble ever raised on the summit of the highest mountain."


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