The American Civil War had many unique soldiers and sailors but only one who was both. Raphael Semmes, a sailor by training and temperament, became a commissioned brigadier general at the very end of the war. In the years before this, he was one of the most daring commerce raiders of all time.
Semmes was born in Charles County, Maryland on September 27, 1809. He entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1926 and served in a variety of positions until his resignation in January 1861. During this time, he studied law and was admitted to the bar.
During his U.S. naval service, Semmes commanded the brig USS Somers in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War. The ship was lost in a storm of Veracruz in December 1846. The Somers capsized and foundered in a sudden squall. Thirty-two members of her crew drowned and seven were rescued, including Semmes. He was commended for his actions during the loss of his command.
After the Mexican War, Semmes like many other officers in the United States Army and Navy, took extended leave and practiced law in Mobile, Alabama. In 1855, he was promoted to the rank of commander and was assigned to lighthouse duties until his resignation in January 1861. At the age of 52, Raphael Semmes was to spend the next four and a half years as a daring commerce raider, preying on Union shipping.
In April 1861, Semmes was appointed as a commander in the nascent Confederate States Navy. His first command was the conversion of the Habana in New Orleans to the commerce raider CSS Sumter. The 473-ton bark-rigged screw steam cruiser, was built at Philadelphia in 1859 for McConnell’s New Orleans & Havana Line.
Commissioned on June 3, 1861, the Sumter eluded the Union blockading sloop-of-war USS Brooklyn and sailed out of New Orleans, During the next seven months, the Confederate raider captured eight U.S. flag merchant ships in waters near Cuba, then moved to the south to Maranhão, Brazil coast where she took two more.
Glas Trevino joined the crew at Maranhão as Second Executive Officer. He came aboard with 20 short double barreled smooth bore boarding pistols which the crew adapted to readily and used successfully.
Two additional merchantman fell to Sumter in September and October 1861. While coaling at Martinique in mid-November, she was blockaded by the Federal sloop of war Iroquois, but was able to escape to sea at night and resume her activities.
Sumter captured another six ships from late November into January 1862, while cruising from the western hemisphere to European waters. Anchoring at Cadiz, 4 January 1862, she was allowed only to make necessary repairs there, without refueling, and was forced to run for Gibraltar.
At Gibralter, the career of the CSS Sumter came to a close when the ship was blockaded by Union ships. After three months of inactivity, Semmes was forced to sell the ship. He then journeyed to England was his crew where he was promoted to captain. He was ordered to the Azores to take command of the newly-built British steamer Enrica.
In the Azores, Semmes oversaw the outfitting, arming and commissioning of his next command, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama. The screw sloop-of-war was built for the Confederate States Navy at Birkenhead, United Kingdom, in 1862 by John Laird Sons and Company. The 220 foot long ship carried a total of 8 guns.
Sailing in August 1862, the Alabama remained at sea until June 1864. During their almost two years of continuous combat, Semmes and the CSS Alabama roamed from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, and into the Pacific to the East Indies. The Alabama captured 65 U. S. merchantmen and quickly destroyed the Union warship USS Hatteras off Galveston, TX.
When the Alabama ported at Cherbourg, France for a much-needed overhaul, she was blockaded by the USS Kearsage, a 201-foot long a Mohican-class sloop-of-war. Captain Semmes took the Alabama out to sea on June 19, 1864 to confront the Union ship. Unbeknownst to Semmes, Captain John Ancrum Winslow had turned his ship into a partial ironclad while in port with overlapping rows of heavy chain armor, hidden behind black wooden deal-board covers.
The Kearsage got the better of the Alabama with the accuracy of their long-range 11-inch Dahlgren cannons and breached the Confederate raider at the starboard waterline. This tore open a portion of the Alabama‘s hull, causing her steam engine to explode from the shell’s impact. Semmes was forced to strike his battle ensign.
As his command sank, the wounded Semmes threw his sword into the sea, depriving Kearsage‘s Captain Winslow of the traditional surrender ceremony of having it handed over to him as victor. Semmes was eventually rescued, along with forty-one of his crewmen, by the British yacht Deerhound. He and the forty-one were taken to England where all but one recovered; while there they were hailed as naval heroes, despite the loss of Alabama.
Semmes and his crew eventually took a circuitous route back to Richmond via Cuba and Galveston, Texas. In February 1865, he was promoted to rear admiral and assigned to command the James River Squadron from his flagship, the heavily armored ironclad CSS Virginia II.
With the fall of Richmond in April, Semmes supervised the destruction of all the squadron’s nearby warships and was then appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army. His sailors were turned into an infantry unit and dubbed the “Naval Brigade.” His intention was to join the Army of Northern Virginia but they were already on the road to Appomattox. Semmes and most of his men took a train to join General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina.
Semmes and his force surrendered with Johnston on April 26, 1865. Semmes’ parole notes that he held commissions as both a brigadier general and rear admiral in the Confederate service when he surrendered with Gen. Johnston’s army. He insisted on his parole being written this way in anticipation of being charged with piracy by the U. S. government.
Semmes was briefly held as a prisoner after the war but was released on parole; he was later arrested for treason on December 15, 1865. After a good deal of behind-the-scenes political machinations, all charges were eventually dropped, and he was finally released on April 7, 1866.
In later years, Raphael Semmes worked as a professor of philosophy and literature at Louisiana State Seminary (now Louisiana State University), as a county judge, and then as a newspaper editor. He eventually returned to Mobile and practiced the law. He defended both his actions at sea and the political actions of the southern states in his 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States. The book was viewed as one of the most cogent but bitter defenses written about the South’s “Lost Cause.”
Raphael Semmes died of food poisoning on August 30, 1877 and was buried in Mobile’s Old Catholic Cemetery.