Raphael Semmes – “Last Knight of the Sea”
Between 1862 and 1865, Raphael Semmes and the Confederate cruiser Alabama roamed the world’s oceans, destroying or capturing 66 Union vessels. Students who limit their romantic heroes of the South to Lee, Jackson and Stuart must take a deeper look at this extraordinary individual. The North considered him nothing more than a pirate, but Semmes gained a reputation as a gallant leader and his exploits electrified a beleaguered Confederacy. The two-year unbroken success of the Alabama was “a masterpiece of skilled seamanship and strategy,” and one of few bright spots in the South’s military campaigns.[i] If character is revealed in word and action, then reports from Semmes, his crew, and his victims, should provide us with insights into the nature of a man known as “the last knight of the sea.”
The primary source is Semmes’s autobiography, Memories of Service Afloat During the War Between the States. This is presented as a straightforward biography based on liberal use of entries from Semmes’s logs and journals. The work is not, however, a dry captain’s log, but is infused with comments on everything from local customs to the politics of the War. Reviewers tend to praise its “compellingly real” style with comments like “How refreshing to turn from the pseudo-objectivity (of modern scholarship) to an author who sneers at ‘the sainted Abraham’ and calls the Union flag ‘the flaunting lie.’”[ii] Earlier versions of Semmes’s biography were heavily edited, but the 1996 version used here has corrected that error.
The near-dozen biographies written since Memories Afloat have often merely summarized Semmes’s own words. In contrast, two books from different periods of scholarship provide additional insights from Semmes’s contemporaries, supplemented by a variety of historical sources. Both have received positive peer reviews. W. Adolphe Roberts’s Semmes of the Alabama (1938), represents mid-twentieth century scholarship. This account tends to romanticize its subject and often reserves judgment on Semmes’s actions. Reviewers commend the added detail which augments this “gripping story.” [iii] A U.S. Naval Academy scholar comments that “Old Beeswax really comes to life.”[iv] Others have complained that the work makes several minor errors and that it needs “closer pictures of young Raphael,” a shortcoming addressed in our third source.[v] Warren Spencer’s Raphael Semmes, The Philosophical Mariner (1997), represents recent scholarship. This work expands beyond Memories Afloat, with particular attention to the War with Mexico and Semmes’s post-Civil War life. Despite these useful details about Semmes’s service, some critics complain that even then, it does not “flesh him out” sufficiently. Further, “the author is not critical enough of his subject” and devotes too few pages on the climactic battle with Kearsarge.[vi] In contrast, another reviewer has commended Spencer for his added information and depth of analysis.[vii] Still another cites the use of previously unused private papers and correspondence, and concludes that Spencer “accomplishes what no other has.”[viii] Spencer’s work is the most comprehensive view of Semmes currently available.
Raphael Semmes was born in 1809 to a Maryland slaveholding family. He was an astute student and was appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1826 (the U.S. Naval Academy did not yet exist). A devout Catholic, he demonstrated a central trait of independence by marrying a Protestant at a time when such behavior was extraordinary. After twenty years of uneventful service, duty took him into the Mexican War, where he participated in the naval blockade of Vera Cruz and there experienced his first loss when his small ship, the Somers, capsized in a sudden squall with half her crew.[ix] Spencer claims that Semmes never forgave himself for the loss, even though an inquiry absolved him, and that “this experience may have contributed to his brooding nature.”[x] A different reader may conclude that Semmes, a vain man, was concerned more about his reputation that the loss of his men.
At the end of the war, Semmes returned to uneventful tours in the Caribbean theatre and to a bureaucratic stint in charge of the national Lighthouse Board. It was during this time that he wrote Service Afloat and Ashore, a social and military history of Mexico which became popular in both the United States and Mexico. His book illustrates a belief in racial superiority that would color his later decisions.[xi] In his view, the conquest of Texas, New Mexico and California was simply whites replacing “an inferior people.” Ambiguous on slavery, he was an unapologetic racist. Shortly after Appomattox he wrote to his brother Samuel “Although I cared very little about the institution of slavery, I thought that the subordinate position of the inferior race was its proper position.” Semmes deplored Mexican culture “with but one-sixth of her population governing and overriding the rest,” but his solution was a plantation-like economy. Interestingly, he thought it best to break up Mexico into many smaller states, on the belief that large numbers of political units would protect individual rights through a mutually protective balance of power and by preventing the concentration of power in a central government.[xii] Further insight into Semmes’ character derives from his condemnation of the shelling of defenseless Vera Cruz during the war. He declared such acts against helpless civilians as incompatible with a chivalric code.[xiii] The self-image of a noble knight is never far from Semmes’s writings.
Given the long periods of official leave then common, it was not unusual for lower-grade officers to supplement their income with parallel civilian professions.[xiv] Semmes supported his family as a lawyer in Mobile, Alabama. A political moderate, he backed Stephen Douglas for President in 1860. Semmes was convinced that the South was the victim of economic oppression by the North and that the issue of slavery was a red herring.[xv] The North and the South were “two dissimilar peoples, with widely dissimilar interests.”[xvi] It was his study of constitutional law that led him to side with the south.[xvii] “The doctrine of State’s Rights was the only doctrine that would save our Republic from the fate of all other Republics that had gone before…”[xviii] Semmes struggled to reach a final decision and in December 1860, he sought advice from Alexander Stephens, a longtime southern political figure who opposed secession. But when Alabama followed South Carolina in seceding, honor compelled him to go with her. He wrote his daughter “the fanatic and half-civilized hordes of the North (threaten) the principle of self-government.”
When war broke out, Semmes immediately proposed the creation of a fleet of “commerce raiders” to destroy Union merchant vessels. He even harbored an elaborate legal scheme by which foreign nations could be maneuvered to recognize the Confederacy, paving the way for recognition by Great Britain.[xix] Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, backed Semmes, believing that ships sent against the Northern merchant fleet would draw off the anticipated Union blockade.[xx] In mid-April 1861, President Jefferson Davis announced that the Confederacy would issue letters of marquee against Northern shipping. Nearly simultaneously, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a total blockade of Southern ports.
In late 1861 Semmes received command of a converted steamer which would become the first warship of the Confederacy. He kissed his wife and three children, whom he would not see again for four and a half years, and left the capital as Washington was preparing for Lincoln’s inauguration. He then traveled to New Orleans and rechristened his command – “a ship as unlike a ship of war as possible” – as the Sumter.[xxi] He discovered his first challenge – he was bottled up in the harbor by a faster and more heavily armed warship, the USS Brooklyn. Against the advice of his officers, Semmes waited until early morning and using the current, he boldly sailed out past the Union blockade on the last day of June.[xxii] Brooklyn pursued him, but he lost her after a three hour chase thanks to a brisk wind.[xxiii] This audacious action would prove characteristic of his adventures as a raider. He would repeat it again in November when the USS Iroquois trapped him in a Brazilian port, only to be outwitted as Semmes escaped in the night during a squall.[xxiv]
Four days after his escape, Semmes took his first prize near the coast of Cuba in a manner that became his standard procedure. He closed on his prey flying English colors, then raised the Confederate battle ensign, fired a shot across her bow, and boarded. His prize was the Yankee trader Golden Rocket. Having verified the captured ship’s Northern ownership, and having transferred much of her provisions to the Sumter, Semmes ordered his boarding party “to torch her.”[xxv] The ship was practically new, and she went up in a blaze. For months thereafter, Semmes brooded in his diary about the vision of the ship burning in the night. The idea of destroying another ship clearly troubled him. Semmes’s code of honor is illustrated by the detail that, learning the Golden Rocket had no insurance, he and his officers took up a collection to present to her unfortunate captain.[xxvi] As would become his practice, he invited the captain of the captured ship to officer’s mess and fed the rest of her crew the same as his own.[xxvii] He also removed the Golden Rocket’s chronometer and put it in his own stateroom. By the end of his cruise, he must have had seventy or more in his collection, hanging like the battle standards of captured armies.
Sumter went on to capture ten Yankee merchant ships and destroy another seven during the next half-year. Semmes became the ocean equivalent of John Singleton Mosby, roaming the seas and striking without warning. Now a Southern hero and known affectionately to his crew as “Old Beeswax” for his slick black mustaches, Semmes began to worry about the beating his ship was taking. Her boilers had burned out and when the Union bottled him up in Gibraltar harbor in January 1862 he was desperately searching for repairs. Then he received exciting orders.
His early successes won Semmes command of a new purpose-built cruiser, the Alabama. The ship was constructed in British shipyards through the actions of Captain James Bulloch, a Confederate secret agent who expected to command the ship himself.[xxviii] She was transferred to the Confederacy in the guise of a merchantman using a complex legal process to preserve British neutrality. The rakish, bark-rigged Alabama displaced a thousand tons and with good winds and both engines engaged she could make fifteen knots, which approached top speed for ships of the time. Alabama was 220 feet long and mounted three 32-pounders on each broadside, plus pivot guns fore and aft. Her biggest drawback was that she could only carry enough coal for eighteen days of steaming. Semmes reacted like a young groom, referring to the ship as “my bride” and saying that she had “the grace of a swan.”[xxix] Only a few of her 24 officers were Southerners, while none of the 120 crew was even American. Instead, the crew ranged from English and Irish to French, Spanish and even Russian.
Semmes took command in the Azores in August 1862. From then until June 1864, he sailed the Alabama into all the major oceans of the world, capturing or destroying 66 Union vessels and sinking the warship Hatteras. His actions, and those of other Confederate raiders like the Florida, drove over seven hundred Union merchant ships into British registry, and increased maritime insurance by 900 percent. Ship, captain and crew became heroes of a Confederacy hungry for victories.
Ships taken were either released on bond or burned. International rules permitted Semmes to “parole” or bond a captured ship with the understanding that its owners would pay an indemnity to the Confederate government if the South won the war. Had the Confederacy survived, Semmes and his crew would have earned a portion of that bounty, so potential gain was another factor for their zeal. Late in the year, as the Alabama raided the North Atlantic trade route, Semmes captured the Tonawanda, out of Philadelphia, and the Manchester, out of New York. He burned the second ship, transferred all his prisoners to the first ship and sent her on her way under bond. One passenger of the Tonawanda remained with the Confederate raider. A Negro slave boy, David White had been traveling with his master, a citizen of Delaware, which was now fighting for the Union. The slave was “personal property” and thus could be seized. Semmes did just that. As soon as he had the boy on board, he entered David White as a mess boy at full pay and grade.[xxx] Thereafter, no social difference was made between the newcomer and the white stewards. “Semmes had, in effect, freed a northern-owned slave.”[xxxi]
The stern Captain intimidated many of his prisoners. One would later write that Semmes was “villainous in appearance”; that he “neither spoke to me nor looked at me…although I frequently met him face to face.”[xxxii] A small man of perhaps 130 pounds, Semmes dressed in a thick black woolen coat and carried himself with an erect military bearing.[xxxiii] At a time when full beards were in fashion, he let his moustaches grow to a sinister length, contributing to his piratical image. He was a stiff but fair disciplinarian. His intense stare silenced conversation.
Some of Semmes’ prisoners complained that he practiced harsh treatment such as confinement on deck. New York newspapers printed lurid and completely fictional accounts of mistreatment and villainy, such as the claim that Semmes burned his prizes at night in hopes of luring Union rescuers into a trap. Nevertheless, most captives reported that he was a “knight” who vigilantly imposed the rules of warfare at sea with gentlemanly restraint. For example, when he captured the T.B. Wales in November 1862, he discovered that he had ex-US counsel and his wife, plus the skipper’s wife as prisoners. Each couple had three young daughters. Semmes moved his lieutenants out of their quarters and asked his “guests” to move in. Perhaps thinking of his own distant family, he gave the six girls free reign of the ship and later wrote in his journal that they made him long for home.[xxxiv] In another case, Semmes released the Ariel under bond so that the well-healed passengers would not have to see their personal cargo burned.
In contrast to the rare charges of mistreatment, Semmes captured the brig Baron of Castine only 200 miles from New York. She was of little use to Semmes other than to empty Alabama of her many prisoners. He bonded the ship, put his prisoners on board and sent her back to New York.[xxxv] Semmes later learned that the city was “all agog” when the Baron returned. The incident did much to counter Yankee newspaper accounts of his “piracy” and Semmes was reported to have felt rather smug about the outcome.[xxxvi] Not that he liked “Yankee Puritans,” a term that reveals both Southern and Catholic prejudice. He had a dismal view of their society. We learn something about this prejudice from his own descriptions of those he captured. “Though a Northern man,” he wrote on one occasion, “He…was devoid of the raw-boned angularity which characterizes most of them. He spoke very good English, through his mouth instead of his nose.” Of another he wrote, “Though a New Englander, he was apparently an unbigoted gentleman, and observed all the gentlemanly proprieties.”[xxxvii] Gentlemanly behavior in a Yankee was worthy of a journal entry!
Toward the end of his cruise, Semmes celebrated his fifty-fourth birthday still at sea. His ship was in need of a complete overhaul. Both the Alabama and her captain were worn out. The toll of war and separation from his family wore on his spirits. His began to write in his diary entries such as “I am supremely disgusted by the sea and all its belongings. The very roar of the wind…gives me the blues.” As he read newspapers from captured ships, he learned that the war was going badly for the South, and his depression deepened. “Might it not be,” he wrote, “that after all our trials and sacrifices, the cause…would be lost?”[xxxviii]
The success of the Union blockade meant that the Alabama was never able to come into a rebel port. Semmes found it increasingly difficult to obtain coal and conduct repairs without risk. Accordingly, in June 1864 he put in for needed repairs at Cherbourg, France. Soon after, the Union warship Kearsarge arrived offshore. Fearing that other Union ships would soon join Kearsarge, Semmes decided to engage the enemy. Like an ancient knight flinging down a gauntlet, he sent a message to the commander of Kearsarge, a former shipmate. “If you will give me time to recoal, I will come out and give you battle.”[xxxix] Word of the impending clash quickly spread and within days, curious citizens came by rail and ship to observe history’s last one-on-one contest between wooden ships. Observers crowded the quays for the show. Some came from as far away as England. French artist Edouard Manet painted the battle from direct observation.[xl]
Although there was no time to repair his tired boilers and sheathings, Semmes ordered the crew to touch up the paint and holystone the decks. The two ships met seven miles out at sea. The worn-out condition of his ship was not the least of Semmes’s handicaps. To his dismay, the Union vessel employed an armor of anchor chains hidden behind thin outer planking which deflected most of Alabama’s shots. Those that did hit had minimal effect. Gunpowder and fuses had deteriorated over the long cruise and most did not work. When a lucky shot embedded in the sternpost of Kearsarge, for instance, it failed to explode. For an hour, the Confederate raider was raked by deadly cannon fire, taking a number of shots at the waterline. She fought until her engines began to fail. Finally, in Semmes’s words, “She could no longer swim, and then we gave her to the waves.”[xli] As Alabama sank, Semmes loaded his wounded into lifeboats and sent them to the Kearsarge. Then, in a grand gesture, he threw his sword into the sea and jumped after it. He and a handful of his men were picked up by a British yacht that had joined other civilian boats in observing the battle, and were taken to safety in Britain.
Warren Spencer asserts that “Had Alabama been serviced (and had her) ammunition been fresh, the Kearsarge would not have sunk her.”[xlii] Given the over-match in speed, armament, armor, and the expertise of gun crew, this is certainly debatable. Regardless, Semmes never blamed his crew or his ship for the defeat. To the contrary, he grieved for the twenty-one men he lost during the battle, thirteen of whom had served with him the entire cruise.[xliii] He later wrote that “I felt as a father feels who has lost his children.” Once in Southampton, Semmes would fulfill his paternal obligation by paying off as many of his crew as he could locate. Of the loss of his ship he would write that it was like “…the overwhelming of my household in a great catastrophe. Alabama (had been) my home.”[xliv] If neither crew nor ship were at fault, then what caused the loss? As time passed, Semmes became more convinced that the Kearsarge had won using “concealed armor” – therefore by using Yankee deceit and trickery.[xlv] This portrayal leads historian Warren Spencer to conclude that Semmes’s pride, and perhaps self-respect, had been destroyed.[xlvi] It is more likely that, as a product of Southern chivalry, Semmes saw the battle as a personal duel, in which no gentleman would seek unfair advantage. Whatever Semmes’s state of mind, it did not prevent his continued service to the Confederacy.
Semmes eventually returned home by a circuitous route through Cuba and Mexico, in order to avoid the Union blockade. Soon after rejoining the wife and family he had not seen for four years, he was promoted to rear admiral and given command of the feeble James River Squadron in the defense of Richmond. Within days he was back on duty. He sometimes visited Robert E. Lee in Petersburg, where the sight of the beleaguered city and the constant desertion of both soldiers and sailors must have added to his depression. The end of the Confederacy was near, but he persevered nevertheless. When Lee abandoned the rebel capital in early April 1865, Semmes burned his ships to prevent their capture.[xlvii] Jefferson Davis named him an acting brigadier general and he and his sailors continued to fight as an artillery brigade, first with Lee and then with Joseph Johnston, until the latter’s surrender. Semmes’s rank as a rear admiral should have translated to a major-general but, he wrote, “It was folly, of course, to talk of rank in the circumstances in which we were placed.”
Semmes arrived home a second time by way of Athens, Georgia, which he described as a “quaint little college town.” He was shaken to discover his wife hoeing in the vegetable garden next to his slaves. It was a shock to realize that the war had been harder at home than at sea. Faced with the grim circumstances of the post-war South, Semmes applied for service with the navies of Brazil and Prussia, but neither would have him, fearing loss of U.S. goodwill. This was a factor that he never understood.[xlviii] As if his circumstances were not desperate enough, he was arrested in December 1865 by two dozen Federal soldiers. The initial charge was that after running up the white flag in at Cherbourg, Semmes had failed to surrender his sword to Captain Winslow! This accusation was later elaborated to say that Semmes had “neglected to complete his surrender” and had instead “rejoined” the Rebellion.[xlix] While held on these charges, stories began to circulate again in the Northern press claiming that Semmes had cruelly mistreated his prisoners. Nevertheless, a fair-minded judge found no basis for any of these charges.[l] Finally, after four months of close confinement, President Johnson freed him by special pardon.[li]
Semmes held various jobs over the next few years, including Professor of Moral Philosophy at Louisiana State University, editor of the Memphis Bulletin, traveling lecturer, and part-time lawyer. The success of several articles he wrote while editor inspired Semmes to author the first important Confederate memoir, Memoirs of Service Afloat during the War Between the States, first published in 1869.[lii] It is through this book that we gain the deepest insights into Semmes’s character. Indeed, nearly all biographers draw most of their material from this same source. Historians judge that his memoirs are “as accurate and unembellished as are the ship’s logs.”[liii] Semmes himself did not claim objectivity. When one is “struggling against barbarians,” he wrote, it is not possible to maintain an attitude of detachment.[liv] He depicted the war as a struggle between good and evil. The reader is “conscious of the author’s harsh unwillingness to credit his foes with any honorable qualities.”[lv] A contemporary reader is very conscious of the flowery language so representative of the mid-nineteenth century. This makes it difficult to feel we are in touch with the real Semmes since florid prose tends to camouflage the man. We question if the words reveal true character, or are simply a mask for the society of his times.
The Service Afloat memoirs and his lectures finally gave Semmes the income needed to provide for his family. With the restoration of his civil rights in late 1869, he opened a law office in Mobile with his son Oliver. The South continued to treat Semmes with great respect the rest of his life. He died in 1877 of “bad shrimp” (probably ptomaine poisoning) at the age of sixty-eight.
Warren Spencer subtitled his biography “The Philosophical Mariner” and indeed, Semmes was a self-taught Renaissance Man. He spoke three languages and read voraciously. He could be cool and remote, as required by the war and his office, but he was also passionate, as his post-war defense of his actions demonstrated. His deep study of the Constitution convinced him that the Confederacy was justified to secede. Regarding slavery, he said he “did not hold much for it”, but he nevertheless owned three household slaves.[lvi] He was prejudiced against “Puritans” and against men colored different from himself – except those he knew personally. Semmes never forgave the North or Lincoln in his memoirs. “He had made a war of rapine and lust against eleven sovereign states (that had) not sought war, but peace, and they had found, at the hands of Abraham Lincoln, destruction.”
Word and action reveal a man committed to a rigid code of cavalier honor. War was to be fought according to scrupulous rules under which a gentleman would not stoop to hide his armor behind wooden planks. Fiercely dedicated to the concept of individual rights, Semmes distrusted the Northern “outsider” culture, so alien to his own. He demonstrated great resourcefulness and daring when he snuck past pursuing warships. And when he could no longer run, he challenged his enemy in a clearly outclassed ship. Like many of his countrymen, he held racist views about minorities, even while he often accepted them in one-on-one encounters. The two independent sources cited here take Semmes’s reports at face value, especially when they accept his implied belief that “commerce raiding” was a noble endeavor. Given that all but two of his engagements were against unarmed merchantmen, we still do not have a satisfactory evaluation of the inherent morality of his endeavors, by the standards of his own time, or by our own. This remains a challenge for a future historian.
In 1874, Semmes spoke at the unveiling of a monument for the Confederate dead. They died, he said, “in obedience to the most powerful impulse that can move the human heart – the love of liberty.” He also noted to attending Federal soldiers, that “The War Between the States is at an end,” thus recognizing in one speech both his honor for The Cause and his embrace of reality of its defeat. His was a romantic life in the classical sense. He fought both on land and at sea, experiencing both victory and defeat. He was labeled both a “knight” and a “pirate.” While he lived, his reputation was known – and often feared – by millions around the world. Today school children know the name of the man who commanded the Confederate raider Alabama, but they do not know the name of the man who sank his ship.
[i] Johnson, Ludwell H. Untitled Review in Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 4 (Winter, 1963) 98
[ii] Ibid. 99
[iii] Eggleston, J.D. Untitled Review in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. (Virginia Historical Society, 1939) 272
[iv] Lewis, Charles Lee Untitled Review The Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol.25, No.4 (Organization of American Historians, 1939) 576-577
[v] Robinson, William H. Untitled Review. The Journal of Southern History. (Southern Historical Association, 1939) 115-116
[vi] Delaney, Norman C. Untitled Review. The Journal of Military History (Society for Military History, 1998) 627-629
[vii] Shingleton, Royce Untitled Review. The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 2 (American Historical Association, Aor. 1998) 603-604
[viii] Smith, Gene A. The Journal of Southern History (Southern Historical Association, 1998) 553
[ix] Semmes, Raphael Memories of Service Afloat During the War Between the States. (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). 276 – 277
[x] Spencer, Warren P. Raphael Semmes, The Philosophical Mariner. (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1997) 35
[xi] Ibid. 23.
[xii] Roberts, W. Adolphe Semmes of the Alabama (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1938) 23
[xiii] Spencer. 5.
[xiv] Roberts, W. Adolphe Semmes of the Alabama (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1938) 13
[xv] Semmes. 3
[xvi] Ibid. 53
[xvii] Ibid. 19 – 23
[xviii] Roberts. 12
[xix] Ibid. 55-56
[xx] Spencer. 145
[xxi] Semmes. 96
[xxii] Spencer. 110.
[xxiii] Semmes. 117 – 118
[xxiv] Roberts. 70
[xxv] Spencer. 112
[xxvi] Semmes. 130
[xxvii] Spencer. 113
[xxviii] Roberts. 79-81
[xxix] Semmes. 404
[xxx] Roberts. 109
[xxxi] Ibid. 109
[xxxii] Spencer. 167
[xxxiii] Semmes. 4
[xxxiv] Roberts. 117
[xxxv] Spencer. 149
[xxxvi] Ibid. 148
[xxxvii] Ibid. 149
[xxxviii] Ibid. 172
[xxxix] Semmes. 752
[xl] Spencer. 174
[xli] Ibid. 175
[xlii] Ibid. 175
[xliii] Ibid. 176
[xliv] Semmes. 763
[xlv] Ibid. 754
[xlvi] Spencer. 177
[xlvii] Semmes. 811 – 813
[xlviii] Spencer. 188
[xlix] Ibid. 193
[l] Roberts. 250
[li] Semmes. 824 – 826
[lii] Ibid. 11
[liv] Semmes. 11
[lv] Semmes. 12
[lvi] Spencer. 207