Arts & Culture

Confederate Gunboat Diplomacy

How Mobile’s Admiral Raphael Semmes became the terror of the Yankee seas

photo: Image courtesy of the Naval Historical Center

Admiral Raphael Semmes on the desctruction of his ship, the gun cruiser CSS Alabama, by the Federal warship Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France, 19 June, 1864:

“A remarkable spectacle presented itself on the deck of the sinking ship, after the firing had ceased, and the boats containing the wounded have been shoved off.  Under the order which had been given, ‘Every man save himself who can!’ all occupations had been suspended, and all discipline relaxed.  One man was then as good as another. The Kearsarge stood sullenly at a distance, making no motion that we could see, to send us a boat.  The Deerhound [a large steam yacht belonging to a wealthy British textile manufacturer] and the French pilot-boats were also at a considerable distance.  Meantime, the water was rushing and roaring into the ship’s side, through her ghastly death-wound, and she was visibly settling — lower and lower. There was no panic, no confusion among the men.  Each stood, waiting his doom, in the most perfect calmness.  The respect and affection manifested for their officers was touching in the extreme.  Several gathered around me, and seemed anxious for my safety [Semmes had been painfully wounded during the battle]. One tendered me this little office of kindness, and another, that. Kell [Semmes’ loyal first officer since the beginning of the war] was near me, and my faithful steward, Bartelli, also was at my side.  Poor Bartelli!  He could not swim a stroke – which I did not know at the time, or I should have saved him in the boats – and yet he was calm and cheerful, seeming to think that no harm could befall him, so long as he was at my side.  He asked me if there were not some papers I wanted, in the cabin.  I told him there were, and sent him to bring them.  He had to wade to my stateroom to get them. He brought me the two small packages I had indicated; and, with tears in his eyes, told me how the cabin had been shattered by the enemy’s shot – our fine painting of the Alabama, in particular, had been destroyed.  Poor fellow!  He was drowned ten minutes afterward.

“The ship settled by the stern, and as the taffarel [taffrail] was about to be submerged, Kell and myself threw ourselves into the sea, and swam out far enough from the sinking ship to avoid being drawn down into the vortex of waters. We then turned to get a last look at her, and see her go down. Just before she disappeared, her main-topmast, which had been wounded, went by the board; and, like a living thing in agony, she reared her bow high out of the water, and then descended rapidly stern foremost, to her last resting place. A noble Roman once stabbed his daughter rather than she should be polluted by the foul embrace of a tyrant. It was with similar feeling that Kell and I saw the Alabama go down.  We had buried her as we had christened her, and she was safe from the polluting touch of the hated Yankee!”

These were bold words, indeed, from a man who had just lost a battle and his ship as well, but Semmes was no ordinary skipper. Aside from the immortal Lord Nelson, or perhaps Sir Francis Drake, history would be hard-pressed to conjure a more dashing mariner than Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, who, during his two years aboard the Alabama, made her the most feared ship in the Confederate navy. In total, Semmes captured or sank more enemy commerce than any seafaring warrior ever recorded before, and it wasn’t until the era of submarines in the First World War that his record was surpassed. Worshipped in the South as a hero, but reviled in the North as a pirate, Semmes was a prime candidate for the hangman’s noose after the war, but he managed to escape that, too, when Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells couldn’t find a sufficient legal excuse.

Raphael Semmes was born in Charles County, Maryland, in 1809, to a life of mixed privilege. His father, a distant cousin of Francis Scott Key, of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame, was a prosperous tobacco farmer, but both parents died when Raphael was a boy, and he and his brothers were taken to live with their uncles in Georgetown, in what is now the District of Columbia. As teenagers, they were enthralled by the yarns of their uncle Alexander, who owned a shipping fleet, and while young Samuel went on to study law, Raphael — through the connections of his uncles — received a coveted presidential appointment to train as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy.  These being the days before establishment of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, training as a midshipman was arduous and sometimes onerous duty, with hazing from commissioned officers, low pay, and long months — even years — at sea. In 1832, six years to the day after his appointment, Semmes passed his final midshipman exam, ranking second in his class, and became a United States naval officer.

But these were austere times for the U.S. Navy. With no battles to fight since the War of 1812, officers were frequently put on partial pay leave, and Raphael was no exception. For the next three years he was almost exclusively on leave, but, being industrious, decided to study law at the offices of his brother, and by 1835, at the age of twenty-six, he was admitted to the Maryland bar — just in time, it seemed, for the United States to again begin embroiling itself in wars.  First, there was the Seminole War, in which Semmes was given a steamer to command in Florida, and in 1837 he was promoted to lieutenant, after which he was promptly put on leave again. For some unrecorded reason, he decided to open a law practice in Cincinnati, where he met, and married, a tall, stately brunette named Anne Elizabeth Spencer, of a prominent local family.

The two immediately began producing children, six in all, but next came the Mexican War, and Semmes was again tapped for sea duty. He served in the blockade and capture of several cities of Mexico’s east coast, then he was called upon by the commanding general, Winfield Scott, to accompany an expedition into the interior of the country for an attack on Mexico City itself, where he was cited several times for bravery.

It was during this period that Semmes first began keeping the journal that became the basis for his voluminous future writings. It reveals him to be surprisingly erudite for a man with little formal education (as a boy he had tutors, but attended no college).  His considerable opinions were formed both by the empirical knowledge gained by worldwide seafaring travels and by the growing political sectionalism that was festering toward civil war. By heritage, marriage, and avocation, Semmes might have gone either way. He was a Marylander when that border state dangled by a thread to the Union; his wife was from Ohio, he owned but a few house servants, and he had a promising career as an officer of the U.S. Navy. But early on, he began identifying with the Southern cause. In the 1830s he had been posted at the Federal naval base at Pensacola, Florida, and not long afterward moved his family to Mobile, Alabama, where, in between wars and cruises, he set up a successful law practice.

photo: Image courtesy of the Naval Historical Center

A tinted sepia photograph of Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes (foreground) on the gun deck of the CSS Alabama leaning on one of the big 32-pound naval cannons. Sent by the Confederate government to disrupt Union trade, Semmes became the most successful commerce raider known up to that time.

Semmes’ position on slavery was never a strong one, but things he had seen on his tours abroad seemed to have modified any strong stand for its abolition. When, for instance, he observed the collapse of the sugar economy in the Caribbean Islands following emancipation in the 1830s by England and France, he concluded that the freed slaves would rather sit under a tree and eat coconuts than improve themselves by working for pay, and his expeditions to Mexico convinced him that the peons there were treated far worse than the slaves of the South.

He asserted that the furious schism then enveloping the nation stretched right back to the inception of the original colonies.  He contended that the North had been populated by the Puritan inheritors of the “Praise-God-Barebones” stock of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads who had landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, while Southerners were descended from Cromwell’s enemies, the “gay Cavaliers” of King Charles II and his glorious Restoration, who had settled at Jamestown, Virginia.

In the two hundred years that had elapsed since then, Semmes argued, the North had evolved accordingly, “gloomy, saturnine and fanatical,” and “seemed to repel all the more kindly and generous impulses” of the Southern nature. “Trade occasionally drew the two peoples together,” Semmes wrote, (forgetting, perhaps momentarily, that his wife was from Ohio), “but they were repelled at all other points.”  He went on to point out the differences in geography and the economics that, he claimed, caused the Northern states to outlaw slavery; then identified as the true proximate culprit the trade protection laws (the “Tariff of Abominations”) passed by Northern members of Congress that had nearly started the Civil War thirty years early.

It was the tariff (actually, a series of them, beginning in 1816) that, according to Semmes, had enriched Northern manufacturing and shipping interests at the expense of the cotton-growing South and led to the friction that finally ignited irrevocably over the issue of slavery. If nothing else, Semmes’ argument is interesting because — unlike many Southerners who backed secession — he posits with lawyerly-like reasoning that, from the beginning, the North and South were actually two separate nations in their background, culture, psychology and character, held together only by the accident of geography, commerce, and a common language, and should never have been a country in the first place. At any event, Semmes had at least convinced himself of these things, and on February 15, 1861, even before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy and tendered his services to the Confederate States of America.

His first job, given to him by Jefferson Davis himself, was to go north and try to buy up a lengthy shopping list of armaments that Davis knew would be required for the coming struggle. That he succeeded at least in part — obtaining machinery and expert workers for advanced cannon and artillery rifles — was testimony to the weird state of affairs that existed between the Federal government and the new Confederate states, which Lincoln was frantically trying to coax out of secession.  For his part, Semmes detested having to wine and dine with these Northern arms merchants, whom he considered oily traitors to their own cause. However, when Fort Sumter was fired upon and the affair opened in earnest, Semmes went south looking for a sea command.

He soon got it, in the form of the CSS Sumter, (formerly Havana), a 500- ton, 184-foot steamer that had just been purchased by the Confederate government at New Orleans.  In the beginning, she wasn’t much to look at.  “I found her only a dismantled packet-ship, full of upper cabins, and other top hamper…but as unlike a ship of war as possible,” Semmes remembered.  Still, “her lines were easy and graceful, and she had a sort of saucy air about her, which seemed to say that she was not averse to the service on which she was about to be employed.”

And what service was that?  Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory concluded that his government would be within its rights to send out armed cruisers under the Confederate flag to prey on Union civil commerce, with a mind toward seriously disrupting Northern trade. Unfortunately, the South had no navy at all at the beginning of the war, and would have to start from scratch with such ships as the Sumter.  Little did anyone realize then, North or South, what a scourge these commerce raiders would be, especially when commanded by Raphael Semmes.

It took Semmes two months to get Sumter shipshape since, as he pointed out, there were no Southern navy yards where he could simply hand over a list of things to be done. Instead, everything had to be improvised, from cutting her superstructure down, to re-rigging the ship, making room for the enormous amounts of coal she would need, and arming her with modern weapons. This done, however, on June 30, 1861, Semmes steamed the Sumter down the Mississippi, eluded the blockading Union warships, and three days later off the coast of Brazil took her first prize, an American merchantman named the Golden Rocket. This ship — which Semmes noted with satisfaction “was from the Black Republican State of Maine” — was burned and sunk after removing anything of value plus her officers and crew, a practice that Semmes continued for the duration of the war. Of particular interest to Semmes were the chronometers of the captured ships. He was fascinated by these intricate and often beautifully designed nautical instruments for measuring longitude, and during the next half year seventeen more U.S. merchantmen, and their chronometers, fell prey to Sumter‘s tender mercies.

The life of a commerce raider was dangerous business, as Semmes well knew, and before long, fate — in the form of the United States Navy — caught up with him.  Semmes had been so successful in the Caribbean and Atlantic that when word of his presence got around, the pickings became monotonously slim, and in November he decided to sail the Sumter into the waters off Europe and North Africa.  During the next two months Semmes captured six more prizes, finally venturing into the Mediterranean to find a neutral port where he could replenish his coal and repair his nearly worn out boilers. He almost succeeded at the British-held island rock of Gibraltar, but was foiled by the U.S. consul, who persuaded the British that it would be in violation of international law for them to aid the raider. Lying in port, the Sumter‘s boilers finally blew up from overuse and, worse, several of the U.S. men-o’-war that had been scouring the seas for him finally caught up and blockaded the harbor. The Sumter‘s usefulness was therefore at an end, and Semmes reluctantly left her on the docks to be sold while he traveled to take possession of the most dreaded and infamous commerce raider of all, the CSS Alabama.

Image courtesy of Son of the South

The Alabama had been built near Liverpool, along with six other Confederate cruisers, including the Florida and the Shenandoah, ostensibly for the foreign nations, but everybody — especially the enraged U.S. ambassador — knew they were being produced for the Confederate navy. Unlike the Sumter, the Alabama was constructed strictly as a commerce raider — long, sleek, and fast, with a disguised smokestack, a retractable propeller for speed, a three-hundred horsepower engine, and a condenser for converting saltwater to fresh.  She was armed with six thirty-two pound guns in broadside and, fore and aft, a 100-pound rifle in the bow, and an eight-inch smoothbore astern. Her complement of ten officers were mostly ex-U.S. Navy men, handpicked by Semmes, including her first officer, Lt. John McIntosh Kell, whom Semmes had first met while defending him in a court-martial for disobedience in the old navy in 1849. The crew, however, consisted mostly of the kind of toothless wharf rats found along the English docksides, whom Semmes himself described as “a precious set of rascals, faithless in the matter of abiding by their contracts, liars, thieves, and drunkards.”

Thus equipped, the Alabama set out to make naval history. First she savaged a series of American whalers near the Azores, by which time the reprobate seamen had transformed themselves to the point that Semmes could write: “I have never seen a better disposed or more orderly crew.  They have come very kindly into the traces.”

Semmes was a consummate mariner, with the unique advantage of understanding the various and complex sea currents, winds, and tides. This led him to know where Yankee whalers, merchantmen, and transports would likely be, so that the Alabama would suddenly appear unexpected as a ghost.  From the coasts of South America and Africa to the North and South Atlantic, across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, American merchant ships were being lost almost weekly.

All this activity produced results far in excess of the mere capturing of Yankee ships: maritime insurance rates skyrocketed, causing customers north of the Mason-Dixon Line – including the Federal government – to pay exorbitant prices, and many ships refused to sail at all. A great many ship owners “sold” their ships to foreign investors, notably in England and France, to thwart their capture and destruction by Semmes and other raiders. This often frustrated Semmes, for while he knew that the ship had been built in North America, he nevertheless felt honor-bound to observe international protocols.  Not only that, but the furious secretary of the U.S. Navy was forced to dispatch a score of Federal warships to search for the Rebel raider in six of the seven seas, thus reducing the effectiveness of the Union blockade of Southern ports.  Still the Alabama rampaged on, at one point engaging one of her pursuers, the cruiser USS Hatteras, in a violent nighttime gun battle and sinking her in a mere thirteen minutes.  She had become so famous that, wherever she put in, enthusiastic crowds would gather just to see her and meet her crew.

By then, however, the Alabama had been in action nearly continuously for a year and a half, and badly needed an overhaul. Confederate reversals, especially at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, had made Britain leery of harboring Southern ships, so Semmes took the Alabama into harbor at Cherbourg, France, in hopes of getting a refit.

The ship was tired, beams split, boilerplate thin, bottom fouled, and her gunpowder questionable after so many months at sea.  Semmes was negotiating with French authorities when ominous word came that the USS Kearsarge had appeared just outside the breakwater, having been notified of Alabama‘s presence by the American consul.  Semmes weighed his options: other Union warships would soon be arriving; Alabama’s foul bottom would slow her considerably; her faulty powder created another unknown.

Nonetheless, Semmes reached a quick and fateful decision: Rather than allowing his ship to be bottled up in Cherbourg harbor for the duration, he would fight the Kearsarge — winner-takes-all.  Accordingly, that evening Semmes notified both the French authorities and the U.S. consul that he intended to meet the Kearsarge the next day. After issuing what amounted to a challenge for a duel, Semmes began preparing the Alabama for the fight of her life. He took on a full load of coal and had the men scour the decks and polish the brass. He discarded any gunpowder he thought was suspect, took down rigging and spas that might get in the way, had the men check their pistols and sharpen their cutlasses, write their wills, and spread sand on the decks (as a precaution against men slipping in blood once the battle started).  He also brought ashore for safekeeping the cash for the ship’s payroll, plus about 4,700 British gold sovereigns (worth about $500,000 in today’s money), as well as his collection of sixty-odd chronometers that he had taken as prizes from captured ships. These things having been done, Semmes, a devout Catholic, went ashore to Mass.

Word spread quickly that the Alabama was going to fight the Kearsarge, creating wild excitement for miles around.  A great throng descended upon Cherbourg, so that by the next morning, a warm, hazy summer day, they lined the cliffs, some 15,000 of them, “like so many flocks of turkeys,” according to one spectator.

Shortly after nine o’clock Semmes ordered his hundred and fifty officers and crew to formation on deck and told them, among other things, “The flag that floats over you is that of a young Republic, who bids defiance to her enemies, whenever and wherever found.  Show the world that you know how to uphold it.  Go to your quarters!”  With that the Alabama, her gun crews stripped to the waist, steamed out into the English Channel, where the Kearsarge waited about seven miles offshore.  Coincidentally, both Semmes and the Kearsarge‘s captain, John M. Winslow, a friend and messmate of Semmes’ in the old navy, had elected to fight with their starboard batteries. Thus, as the action began about eleven o’clock, the two ships entered into a series of clockwise circling movements in the dead calm sea, spiraling from south to north at a firing distance of about half mile. One might picture two dance partners who detest each other, locked in a furious embrace as they swirl round and round across the ballroom floor.

An 1885 Century Magazine sketch tracking the Alabama’s battle with the Kearsarge June 19, 1864. A crowd estimated at 15,000 lined the cliff’s of Cherbourg to witness the spectacle, looking “like so many flocks of turkeys.”

Semmes, watching carefully through his spyglass, was both startled and perplexed to see that both solid shot and shells from the Alabama actually seemed to bounce off Kearsarge‘s midships, where her vital powder magazines and engines were located.  This was because Captain Winslow had taken the precaution to drape some seven hundred feet of huge anchor chains on the topsides of his ship, making her, in fact, “ironclad” in that section, and disguising the ruse by boarding over the chain and painting the planks black.

Soon the Alabama‘s defective powder began to present a problem.  By most estimates, a third of her shells failed to explode.  Her lack of speed was a factor, too.  Right before the battle, Semmes had lamented, “Our bottom is in such a state that everything passes us. We are like a crippled hunter limping home from a long chase.”  An 11-inch shell from the Kearsarge blew a hole in the Alabama‘s starboard side, killing half of the sixteen men manning an 8-inch gun and mangling the rest, so that “the deck was strewn with arms, heads, legs, and shattered trunks.”  One of the seamen began shoveling the remains overboard.  Shells from the Union ship blew apart the Alabama‘s insides, and after an hour and ten minutes of fighting the engineer came up to report that the furnace fires were drowned out by rushing water. First officer Kell went below to survey the damage and noted that the holes in the ship “were large enough to admit a wheelbarrow.” Semmes knew he was licked. He had turned seven circles around the Kearsarge and now, in the middle of the eighth, he told Kell to strike the colors.

The pleasure yacht Deerhound immediately began picking up survivors after the Alabama sank.  Nineteen men were dead and another twenty-one wounded.  Semmes, Kell, and a number of other officers and men hauled aboard Deerhound were taken to Southampton, England, where — to the great consternation of Winslow and the U.S. authorities — they were received like royalty. News of the sinking of the Alabama rocketed around the world, and it has subsequently become one of the most famous naval battles ever fought.  The French impressionist artist Edouard Manet captured the event in a much celebrated painting that hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

During his reign as a commerce raider, Semmes either sank or bonded more than $10 million worth of enemy ships and goods ($128 million today) and caused serious disruptions in Northern trade. At one point, no fewer than twenty-five Yankee warships had been pulled off other duties to hunt him down. To the end of his days, he remained bitter over Winslow secretly armoring the Kearsarge with chain plate; to Semmes’ antique sense of honor, it was akin to a man showing up for a duel wearing a bulletproof vest under his coat.

Semmes managed to return to the Confederacy in the waning days of the war and was made an admiral in charge of ironclads on the James River east of Richmond.  After that city fell, he took his naval battalion as guard for Jefferson Davis and the Rebel cabinet as they fled south.  For this duty he was also made a brigadier in the Confederate army, the only officer on either side to hold a star in two services.

When he finally returned home to Mobile after the war, Semmes found his wife, Anne, out in the garden of their home, hoeing a vegetable patch with their two former house slaves.  He tried to put his life back together, but was soon arrested by order of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells on a string of disagreeable charges, beginning with treason. After four months of incarceration, however, the U.S. attorney general concluded that there was insufficient cause to try him and Semmes was set free.  He returned to Mobile and was elected to a judgeship, but quickly dispossessed of the post under the new rules of Reconstruction, which decreed that no high-serving Confederate officer could hold political office. In 1868 he received a pardon, resumed his law practice, and wrote his defiant but much admired Memoir of Service Afloat During the War Between the States, which became an instant best seller. It was about this time that Semmes arranged for the sale of the chronometers he had taken ashore for safekeeping before the final battle. It brought enough for him to distribute $220 in “prize money” to each of his nine former officers on the Alabama — today worth about $2,700.  Some years after the war, an English lady he had met in London wrote to ask how he felt about his old enemies, but she might not have wondered. “I still hate the Yankee as cordially as ever,” Semmes told her. “Maybe even worse, if possible.”

A group of Mobile’s wealthier citizens bestowed on Semmes a striking three-story brick home, which stands today on oak-shrouded Government Street. In the summers he repaired to a cottage at Point Clear, a resort on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, where he particularly enjoyed teaching young children to swim, and where, on August 30, 1877, at the age of sixty-seven, he died a victim of seafood poisoning — of all things.

All businesses in the city closed the day of his funeral, and every half hour from sunrise to sunset a cannon was fired in his honor. At the turn of the twentieth century a life-sized bronze statue was erected to his memory at the foot of Government Street, where it meets the Mobile River. It remains there still, implacable, defiant, and stern. Unlike most statues of Confederate soldiers, the one of Raphael Semmes does not face south, but west, looking toward his home right down the street and into the setting sun.

In 1985, sonar on a French Navy minesweeper about seven miles off Cherbourg accidentally picked up what looked like the wreck of the Alabama, lying in about two hundred feet of water. Subsequent exploration by divers of a joint U.S.-French consortium recovered numerous items from the wreckage, including the five-ton aft Blakely pivot gun, personal weapons, tools, and a handsome set of china from the officer’s mess.  Because of her wooden construction, however, the ship herself can never be successfully raised, and except for the fish that swim through her shattered hull, she remains solitary and undisturbed among the mysteries of the deep.