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Captain Semmes, at center, and first officer Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell pose aboard the raider CSS Alabama. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

‘Burning ships trailed Semmes’ wake to waters off Canada, through his old cruising grounds in the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico’

Flames exploded from the deck of the merchantman Golden Rocket, devouring in minutes its tar-coated rigging and masts. On that night-dark sea off Cuba on July 3, 1861, the blaze engaged all the senses: the whoom-whoom-whoom of air sucked into the crackling holds, the heat (even across 500 yards of water) reddening the skin, the stench of tar and timber turning to ash.

Flames reflected in the eyes of those watching from the deck of the Confederate raider CSS Sumter. Golden Rocket’s crew, prisoners all, probably cursed beneath their breath. And although some of Sumter’s sailors may have cheered, others probably mourned the potential prize money lost to the fire. As the charred mainmast followed the flaming mizzen into the sea, Commander Raphael Semmes, the raider’s captain, alternated between melancholy at the cost of the war and elation at his first victory over the Yankees. In time, as Semmes ravaged the Union’s maritime commerce, his melancholy would melt away, leaving embers of martial fervor that often blazed as brightly as Golden Rocket.

Raphael Harcourt Semmes was born Sept. 27, 1809, son of Catherine Middleton and Richard Thompson Semmes. As a child of the Maryland elite, his world encompassed two opposites: the privileges of the planter class and the slavery upon which those privileges ultimately rested. As the eldest son, he seemed destined to ride his lands and perhaps dabble in politics—but fate intervened. By age 14, young Raphael had lost both mother and father. Guardianship of the lad and a younger sibling devolved on Richard’s brothers, Alexander and Raphael.

Uncle Raphael provided a nurturing environment for his nephews, including a private school and tutors. In the evenings, guardian and boys talked: business, events and (inevitably, in the slave-holding states after 1820) politics. But states’ rights and the defense of slavery did not always dominate discussions. When Uncle Alexander visited, the talk turned to seafaring. Alexander owned a small merchant fleet, and as a young man Uncle Raphael had visited ports around the world. For the younger Raphael, a bookish introvert, these talks brought to life the dry histories of Julius Caesar, Marco Polo and Galileo. Influenced by uncles and authors alike, Raphael Semmes decided to apply for a Navy midshipman’s commission.

Another uncle, then serving as a Maryland senator, gained Semmes a midshipman’s appointment from President John Quincy Adams in 1826. Over the next four years Semmes served on the sloop of war Erie and the frigate Brandywine as they showed the flag in the Caribbean, along the coast of South America and in the Mediterranean. During fairly extensive periods of leave (not uncommon in an over-officered navy) and in spare moments aboard ship, he studied law. In 1832, at 22, Semmes was commissioned a passed midshipman, but three years slipped by before he trod the deck of a ship as an officer. During those years, he opened a law practice and gained admission to the Maryland bar.

Recalled to active duty in 1835, Semmes served as acting master of the frigate Constellation, tasked to support the Army during the 1835–42 Second Seminole War. Semmes took command of the small steamer Lt. Izard in 1836, operating on the Withlacoochee River in what ultimately became the state of Florida. To that point, Semmes’ career had been limited to sailing ships. Perhaps his inexperience with steam and riverine operations led to the wreck of his new command, run aground and abandoned in October 1836. Investigations cleared Semmes of wrongdoing, and he was promoted to lieutenant a few months later.

Granted leave, he moved his law practice to Cincinnati, Ohio, and invested in land in Pensacola, beginning his relationship with the Deep South. In 1837 he married Anne Elizabeth Spencer. Anne bore six children, and husband and wife had a very loving relationship for the remainder of their lives. While assigned to Pensacola Navy Base, Semmes invested in land and slaves in Alabama. He relocated his family to that state, settling in Mobile. Though establishing a new life ashore, Semmes also served on or commanded several naval vessels engaged in hydrographic surveys, gaining knowledge that would one day enable him to truly prosper as a captain.

From 1846 to 1848, Semmes participated, afloat and ashore, in the Mexican-American War. In October 1846, he received command of the brig Somers. While serving on blockade duty near Verde Island, the vessel encountered a squall, capsized and sank inside of 10 minutes with heavy loss of life. Exonerated by a court of inquiry, Semmes marched with the Army to Mexico City. His journals formed the basis for a popular 1851 memoir, Service Afloat and Ashore During the Mexican War.

Though Semmes saw but one brief stint at sea in the decade following the war, his promotion to commander and two years as a lighthouse inspector led to service on the Lighthouse Board (1858–1861). Stationed in Washington, with his family relocated to Maryland, Semmes could not help but observe the politics and national discontent engendered by slavery. In later years, he put his thoughts to paper, refusing to attack or defend “the peculiar institution” as a moral issue, while supporting the economics of slavery and the right of Southern states to leave the Union. For Semmes—born in a slave state and an adoptive son of Alabama—the decision to resign from the Navy would have been easy had his wife not encouraged him to hold true to his oath. In the end, Elizabeth took the children and returned to Ohio, while he rode south. They soon reconciled, but reconciliation would be far bloodier for the Union and the newborn Confederacy.

On Feb. 21, 1861, Semmes met with Jefferson Davis, acting president of the Confederacy’s provisional government. The two had first met in the 1850s in Washington when Davis was a Mississippi senator.

Before him Davis saw a man of middling height, slim of stature with piercing eyes and dark hair just beginning to gray. Semmes was clean-shaven, except for a large mustache, so carefully waxed each morning that his sailors would call him, with affection, “Old Beeswax.” His quiet mien, self-confidence and past performance as a naval officer inspired respect from the politician, who immediately tasked him with a trip north to purchase war materiel for the new nation.

Semmes quickly accomplished most of his mission, though he failed to find and purchase ships usable by the infant Confederate States Navy. Returning to the interim capital in Montgomery, Ala., Semmes approached Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, who offered him command of the merchant steamer Habana, built in 1859 but condemned by the naval service as unsuitable for use as a seagoing warship. The eager commander accepted, leaving immediately for New Orleans.

It took two months to refit Habana, commissioned on June 3, 1861, as CSS Sumter. During those months, the first Confederate privateers (privately owned ships operating against enemy vessels under a government-issued letter of marque) put to sea as President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade of the rebellious coast. On the last day of June, Semmes outmaneuvered the sloop of war USS Brooklyn and gained the open sea. Three days later, Semmes and Sumter claimed their first victim, Golden Rocket.

Though 17 prizes (seven burned, 10 sent into friendly ports under bond) followed the first, Semmes never loved his cruiser. At slightly over 470 tons, the 184-foot bark-rigged steamer was slow under steam and sail, and when Sumter had burned its eight-day supply of coal, it sailed like a log due to the drag of its propeller. Its armament comprised just four 32-pounder smoothbores, an 8-inch shell gun and, for a short while, a rather useless howitzer on a land carriage—weapons adequate for terrorizing merchants but not suitable to engage even small Union warships. Its crew and officers, numbering a little over 100, almost unbearably crowded Sumter, especially when Semmes took prisoners aboard.

Yet, Sumter’s six-month pillaging voyage through the Caribbean and across the Atlantic to Spain may not have been possible under anyone but Semmes. His extraordinary knowledge of the ocean, coastlines, weather and shipping lanes, coupled with superb navigational skills, allowed him to find his targets and survive the vicissitudes of the sea. His ship-handling skills and tactical acumen allowed him to escape Union warships. Though Semmes’ belief in harsh discipline earned him a reputation as a bit of a martinet, his leadership skills melded officers and crews of often-disparate nationalities into an effective team.

At the end of 1861, a sea-battered Sumter and its tired crew crossed the Atlantic to Cadiz, Spain. They had virtually closed Union merchant traffic in the Caribbean, forced neutral shippers to withhold goods from Union vessels, and diverted Union warships from the blockade and amphibious support to hunt them. More important, Semmes and Sumter gave the international community an opportunity to reconsider neutrality (a student and practitioner of maritime law, Semmes carefully avoided trampling the neutrality laws). Though Spain evicted Sumter, British Gibraltar welcomed the raider. Without extensive repairs, Sumter could neither sail nor evade waiting Union blockaders, so Semmes paid off his crew and laid up the vessel. He and his first officer, Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell, left Gibraltar expecting to return home; instead, they found everlasting fame. Oddly enough, both home and fame held the same name: Alabama.

John Laird Sons and Company launched Enrica—a screw sloop of war designed specifically for commerce raiding for the Confederate Navy—on July 29, 1862, at Birkenhead, England. Just ahead of Union efforts to force confiscation of the hull, Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch gathered a mostly British civilian crew and sailed for Terceira Island in the neutral Azores. Promoted to captain, Semmes joined Bulloch on August 20 and, supported by Kell and other officers, began to refurbish Enrica with material delivered by Agrippina, the raider’s hired supply vessel and collier.

Semmes, constantly fearing the arrival of a Union warship, drove his officers and men alike to complete the outfitting. Four days later, Semmes moved the ship outside the three-mile limit into international waters and dropped anchor. The captain and his 23 officers donned their new gray coats and formally commissioned the Confederacy’s most powerful seagoing warship, the commerce raider CSS Alabama. Only one need remained: Semmes had to persuade the British sailors aboard to join the Confederate States Navy. When a rousing speech on “the cause” failed to inspire them, Semmes followed with promises of signing bonuses, double wages and prize money (to be paid by in gold at the end of the cruise). Eighty-three men signed on, enough to work the ship. Setting rendezvous sites with Agrippina, Alabama turned westward to begin a voyage that would shape aspects of naval strategy for the next five decades.

Alabama exemplified the best in naval construction of commerce raiders for its time. Displacing 1,050 tons and 220 feet in length, the vessel had bark-rigged sails and a 300-horsepower steam engine (the propeller could be detached and lifted from the water to reduce drag when under sail). Capable of achieving 10 knots under steam or sails (13 knots when conditions allowed the use of both), Alabama could outrun most Union warships let alone the merchantmen it preyed upon. If it could not avoid an enemy, Semmes’ raider packed quite a punch: six 32-pounder smoothbores (three per side), a long-range 100-pounder Blakely rifle on a forward pivot mount, and an 8-inch smoothbore shell gun on an aft pivot. A condenser provided fresh water, and hold space allowed for three months’ worth of provisions. With no homeport open to him, Semmes’ major concerns were coal (he could carry no more than 10 days’ worth), provisions and fresh recruits. As with every raider before him, the answer to his concerns was obvious: Let the enemy provide.

Union merchantmen began providing for Alabama’s needs on Sept. 4, 1862. Entering the whaling grounds off the Azores, Alabama approached the Massachusetts whaler Ocmulgee under cover of a British flag (Semmes would use various neutral flags over the next two years). When the whaler responded by raising the Stars and Stripes, the colors of Dixie quickly replaced the false ensign, and a warning shot brought the enemy to a halt. A boarding party took control of the vessel and began stripping it of anything useful, while Semmes encouraged its crew to sign on with Alabama.

This pattern unfolded repeatedly over the coming months. Sometimes, prisoners crowded Alabama until Semmes could land them at a neutral site or transfer them to a ship bonded as a prisoner cartel (usually because it held large neutral cargoes, and Semmes hesitated to offend neutral powers). Occasionally, a prize crew sailed the captured ship to a neutral harbor, unloaded the prisoners and returned outside the three-mile limit to burn the vessel. In at least one case, Semmes retained a ship as a temporary collier, to his good fortune when Agrippina failed to make its rendezvous (apparently its captain sold his cargo elsewhere before disappearing from sight). Semmes even converted one prize into a raider, CSS Tuscaloosa, which captured two prizes of its own before its seizure by the British.

Burning ships trailed Semmes’ wake to waters off Canada, through his old cruising grounds in the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico. There, in an effort to disrupt a Union invasion of Galveston, Texas, Semmes engaged and destroyed the converted passenger steamer USS Hatteras on Jan. 11, 1863. With no deaths among his crew, Semmes rescued the surviving Yankees and fled east to the Caribbean before turning south for Brazil in hopes of avoiding Union pursuit.

Adding a few vessels to the list of previous captures in his journey south, Semmes sailed from the coast of Brazil for Cape Town. Arriving in August 1863, the crew of Alabama enjoyed a brief respite from heavy weather and Union warships. Refreshed and with some repairs to his ship, Semmes crossed the Indian Ocean to the China Sea, raided in the Strait of Malacca and returned to Cape Town via India and the east coast of Africa. Even in those distant waters, Semmes found few prizes and had to elude the pursuing USS Wyoming. In late March 1864, Alabama anchored again off Cape Town, a worn ship with an exhausted captain.

Since mid-1861, Semmes had spent most of his time at sea, and the constant stress of command had taken its toll. Discovering that his family had returned to the South, the captain fretted over how to get money to Elizabeth to support her and the children. By 1864 it was clear that without intervention by neutral France or Great Britain, Semmes’ Confederacy could not long survive. Alabama also suffered—its coppering warped and dangling, reducing speed and opening its wooden bottom to the ravages of worms; its boilers rusted; age, damp and salt air reducing the effectiveness of its munitions. Worse, to Semmes, the Union press had labeled him and his crew as pirates, a dishonorable charge he could not fight while at sea. At last, making an almost unavoidable decision, Semmes decided to make for a neutral European port, there to refurbish, lay up or sell Alabama.

On June 11, 1864, an epic voyage ended as the raider dropped anchor in the harbor of Cherbourg, France.

Semmes could be proud of his record. In 22 months Alabama had burned 54 Union merchantmen, bonded 10 others and defeated a Union warship. He had driven the Union’s surviving merchant marine to the shelter of foreign flags as he diverted Union combatants from blockade duty. In so doing, Semmes had provided hope for his struggling nation.

The story of Semmes and Alabama should have ended there, but on June 14 the screw sloop of war USS Kearsarge, under Captain John Winslow, entered Cherbourg Harbor to verify the raider’s presence, then took up a blockading station three miles off the harbor. Hoping to win a victory that might shift the European powers from neutrality, Semmes took Alabama to meet the enemy as French civilians gathered to watch.

Seven miles offshore, the warships pounded each other at 1,000 yards or less. Alabama’s gunners fired rapidly but wildly. Kearsarge, somewhat protected by iron chains hung amidships, fired more deliberately. But the deciding factor was the failure of many of Alabama’s corroded shells to explode. An hour into the battle, the raider, its sides riddled and decks covered in blood, began to settle by the stern. With his steering damaged and boilers flooded, Semmes raised a white flag. Slightly wounded in the arm, the Rebel captain tossed his sword into the sea, then leapt in after it, Kell by his side. Two of his men managed to save his journals and private papers. Finally, at 12:59 p.m. on June 19, Alabama slipped beneath the waves, ending its short but valiant career as a commerce raider.

Rescued by a British yacht, Semmes and 40-odd crewmen escaped the enemy. Eventually returned by blockade-runner to the Confederacy and promoted to admiral, Semmes commanded the vessels of the James River Squadron, supporting the Army of Northern Virginia until the abandonment of Richmond forced their destruction in April 1865. Commissioned a brigadier general (the only officer to hold flag rank in both navy and army), Semmes led his sailors to join General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in central North Carolina. They arrived too late for battle, but in time to be paroled with the remainder of the army at Durham Station.

Returning to join Elizabeth and his children, Semmes could not escape what he perceived as Yankee malevolence. Seized in December 1865 on a charge of treason, he spent four months in prison before Congress found insufficient cause to hold him. After his release, Semmes taught at Louisiana State Seminary, wrote his memoirs and practiced law in Mobile. On August 30, 1877, Admiral Raphael H. Semmes, one of the best known and most beloved Southern heroes, and surely among the greatest naval commanders of his age, departed this world on his final voyage.

For further reading, Wade G. Dudley recommends: Admiral Raphael Semmes’ Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States, and Warren F. Spencer’s Raphael Semmes: The Philosophical Mariner.