Raphael Semmes

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Raphael Semmes

Raphael Semmes (1809-1877), American naval officer of the Confederacy, commanded the Sumter and Alabama in their daring raids on Northern shipping during the Civil War.

Raphael Semmes was born in Charles County, Md. Appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy at 16, in 1837 he was promoted to lieutenant. During the long periods of inactivity that characterized naval service in those days, Semmes had the opportunity to study and then to practice law.

During the Mexican War, Semmes commanded the brig Somers and then served with distinction in the campaign against Mexico City. He recounted these experiences in Service Afloat and Ashore during the Mexican War (1851).

Soon after Alabama seceded from the Union, Semmes resigned his commission and accepted an appointment as commander in the Confederate Navy. In April 1861 he was assigned to command the C.S.S. Sumter at New Orleans. The Sumterran the Federal blockade in June and, during a long voyage that culminated at Gibraltar, took 18 prizes. Semmes left the worn-out Sumter at Gibraltar and started back to the Confederate States. At Nassau he was intercepted by orders to take command of the English-built steam bark Enrica, which he armed and on Aug. 24, 1862, commissioned off the Azores islands as the C.S.S. Alabama.

During almost 2 years on the high seas commanding the Alabama, Semmes burned, sank, or captured and sold 55 Union vessels. But on June 19, 1864, the Alabama's career abruptly ended at Cherbourg, France, where the U.S.S. Kearsarge had blockaded it. In an ill-advised burst of chivalric resolve, Semmes had challenged the better-equipped Kearsarge to combat. Superficially the antagonists were evenly matched; in reality the odds heavily favored the Kearsarge. After an engagement of about half an hour, the Alabama struck its colors and then sank. Semmes was rescued by an English yacht, one of many that had come to witness the engagement.

Returning to the Confederacy, Semmes was promoted to rear admiral and assigned to command the James River squadron. When Richmond fell, he destroyed his gunboats and retreated south with his sailors. He and his men were included in the surrender of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army on April 26, 1865.

After the war Semmes (like many Confederates) spent several months in Federal prison. Afterward he was occupied variously as a teacher, editor, and lawyer. He also wrote his famous Memoirs of Service Afloat (1869), a vivid account of the voyages of the Sumter and the Alabama in which he took literary revenge on the enemy. In 1877 he died at his home in Mobile after a brief illness.

Further Reading

Semmes's Memoirs of Service Afloat, during the War between the States (1869) is available in an abridged version, The Confederate Raider Alabama, edited with an introduction by Philip Van Doren Stern (1962). Biographies of Semmes include Colyer Meriwether, Raphael Semmes (1913); Walter Adolphe Roberts, Semmes of the Alabama (1938); and Edward Carrington Boykin, Ghost Ship of the Confederacy: The Story of the Alabama and Her Captain (1957).

Additional Sources

Semmes, Raphael, Memoirs of service afloat during the War Between the States, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Taylor, John M., Confederate raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama, Washington: Brassey's, 1994.

Tucker, Spencer, Raphael Semmes and the Alabama, Fort Worth, TX: Ryan Place Publishers, 1996. □

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Raphael Semmes (sĕmz), 1809–77, American naval officer, b. Charles co., Md. He took part in the Mexican War, practiced law at Mobile, Ala., and was in the Lighthouse Service from 1856 to Feb., 1861, when he resigned his commission as commander. He soon took the same rank in the Confederate navy. His first ship, the Sumter, did considerable damage to Northern commerce before she was bottled up at Gibraltar in Jan., 1862. In Aug., 1862, Semmes, now a captain, took command of the Alabama (see Confederate cruisers), and a two-year cruise made him the naval hero of the Confederacy. After the Alabama was sunk by the Kearsarge, Semmes returned to the South. He was promoted to rear admiral (Feb., 1865) and charged with the naval defense of Richmond.

See H. A. Gosnell, Rebel Raider (1948); C. G. Summersell, The Cruise of C.S.S. Sumter (1965).