American Civil War: Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes

Raphael Semmes during the Civil War
Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, CSN. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Raphael Semmes - Early Life & Career:

Born in Charles County, MD on September 27, 1809, Raphael Semmes was the fourth child of Richard and Catherine Middleton Semmes. Orphaned at an early age, he moved to Georgetown, DC to live with his uncle and later attended Charlotte Hall Military Academy. Completing his education, Semmes elected to pursue a naval career. With the assistance of another uncle, Benedict Semmes, he obtained a midshipman's warrant in the US Navy in 1826. Going to sea, Semmes learned his new trade and succeeded in passing his exams in 1832. Assigned to Norfolk, he cared for the US Navy's chronometers and spent his spare time studying law. Admitted to the Maryland bar in 1834, Semmes returned to sea the following year aboard the frigate USS Constellation (38 guns). While aboard, he received a promotion to lieutenant in 1837. Assigned to the Pensacola Navy Yard in 1841, he elected to transfer his residency to Alabama.

Raphael Semmes - Prewar Years:

While in Florida, Semmes received his first command, the sidewheel gunboat USS Poinsett (2). Largely employed in survey work, he next took command of the brig USS Somers (10). In command when the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Semmes commenced blockade duty in the Gulf of Mexico. On December 8, Somers became caught in a severe squall and began to founder. Forced to abandon ship, Semmes and the crew went over the side. Though he was rescued, thirty-two of the crew drowned and seven were captured by the Mexicans. A subsequent court of inquiry found no fault with Semmes' behavior and praised his actions during the brig's final moments. Sent ashore the following year, he took part in Major General Winfield Scott's campaign against Mexico City and served on the staff of Major General William J. Worth.

With the end of the conflict, Semmes moved to Mobile, AL to await further orders. Resuming the practice of law, he wrote Service Afloat and Ashore During the Mexican War about his time in Mexico. Promoted to commander in 1855, Semmes received an assignment to the Lighthouse Board in Washington, DC. He remained in this post as sectional tensions began to rise and states started to leave the Union after the election of 1860. Feeling that his loyalties were with the newly-formed Confederacy, he resigned his commission in the US Navy on February 15, 1861. Traveling to Montgomery, AL, Semmes offered his services to President Jefferson Davis. Accepting, Davis sent him north on a mission to covertly buy arms. Returning to Montgomery in early April, Semmes was commissioned as a commander in the Confederate Navy and made head of the Lighthouse Board.

Raphael Semmes - CSS Sumter:

Disappointed with this assignment, Semmes lobbied Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory to allow him to convert a merchant vessel into a commerce raider. Granting this request, Mallory ordered him to New Orleans to overhaul the steamer Habana. Working through the early days of the Civil War, Semmes changed the steamer into the raider CSS Sumter (5). Completing the work, he moved down the Mississippi River and successfully breached the Union blockade on June 30. Outrunning the steam sloop USS Brooklyn (21), Sumter reached open water and began hunting Union merchant vessels. Operating off Cuba, Semmes captured eight ships before shifting south to Brazil. Sailing in southern waters into the fall, Sumter took four additional Union vessels before returning north to coal at Martinique.

Departing the Caribbean in November, Semmes captured six more ships as Sumter crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving at Cadiz, Spain on January 4, 1862, Sumter badly required a major overhaul. Prohibited from doing the needed work in Cadiz, Semmes moved down the coast to Gibraltar. While there, Sumter was blockaded by three Union warships including the steam sloop USS (7). Unable to move forward with repairs or escape the Union vessels, Semmes received orders on April 7 to lay up his ship and return to the Confederacy. Taking passage to the Bahamas, he reached Nassau later that spring where he learned of his promotion to captain and his assignment to command a new cruiser then under construction in Britain.

Raphael Semmes - CSS Alabama:

Operating in England, Confederate agent James Bulloch was tasked with establishing contacts and finding vessels for the Confederate Navy. Forced to operate through a front company to avoid issues with British neutrality, he was able to contract for the construction of a screw sloop at the yard of John Laird Sons & Company in Birkenhead. Laid down in 1862, the new hull was designated #290 and launched on July 29, 1862. On August 8, Semmes joined Bulloch and the two men oversaw the construction of the new vessel. Initially known as Enrica, it was rigged as a three-masted barque and possessed a direct-acting, horizontal condensing steam engine which powered a retractable propeller. As Enrica completed fitting out, Bulloch hired a civilian crew to sail the new vessel to Terceira in the Azores. Sailing aboard the chartered steamer Bahama, Semmes and Bulloch rendezvoused with Enrica and the supply ship Agrippina. Over the next several days, Semmes oversaw Enrica's conversion into a commerce raider. With the work complete, the he commissioned the ship CSS Alabama (8) on August 24.

Electing to operate around the Azores, Semmes scored Alabama's first prize on September 5 when it captured the whaler Ocumlgee. Over the next two weeks, the raider destroyed a total of ten Union merchant ships, mostly whalers, and inflicted around $230,000 in damage. Moving toward the East Coast, Alabama made thirteen captures as the fall progressed. Though Semmes desired to raid New York harbor, a lack of coal forced him to steam for Martinique and a meeting with Agrippina. Re-coaling, he sailed for Texas with the hope of frustrating Union operations off Galveston. Nearing the port on January 11, 1863, Alabama was spotted by the Union blockade force. Turning to flee like a blockade runner, Semmes succeeded in luring USS Hatteras (5) away from its consorts before striking. In a brief battle, Alabama forced the Union warship to surrender.

Landing and paroling the Union prisoners, Semmes turned south and made for Brazil. Operating along the coast of South America through late July, Alabama enjoyed a successful spell that saw it capture twenty-nine Union merchant ships. Crossing to South Africa, Semmes spent much of August refitting Alabama at Cape Town. Eluding several pursuing Union warships, Alabama moved into the Indian Ocean. Though Alabama continued to increase its tally, hunting became increasingly sparse particularly when it reached the East Indies. After overhauling at Candore, Semmes turned west in December. Departing Singapore, Alabama was increasingly in need of a full dockyard refit. Touching at Cape Town in March 1864, the raider made its sixty-fifth and final capture the following month as it steamed north toward Europe.

Raphael Semmes - Loss of CSS Alabama:

Reaching Cherbourg on June 11, Semmes entered the harbor. This proved a poor choice as the only dry docks in the city belonged to the French Navy whereas La Havre possessed privately-owned facilities. Requesting use of the dry docks, Semmes was informed that it required the permission of Emperor Napoleon III who was on vacation. The situation was made worse by the fact that the Union ambassador in Paris immediately alerted all Union naval vessels in Europe as to Alabama's location. The first to arrive off the harbor was Captain John A. Winslow's Kearsarge. Unable to gain permission to use the dry docks, Semmes faced a difficult choice. The longer he remained at Cherbourg, the greater the Union opposition would likely become and the chances increased that the French would prevent his departure.

As a result, after issuing a challenge to Winslow, Semmes emerged with his ship on June 19. Escorted by the French ironclad frigate Couronne and the British yacht Deerhound, Semmes approached the limit of French territorial waters. Battered from its long cruise and with its store of powder in poor condition, Alabama entered the battle at a disadvantage. In the fight that ensued, Alabama hit the Union vessel several times but the poor condition of its powder showed as several shells, including one that hit Kearsarge's sternpost, failed to detonate. Kearsarge faired better as its rounds hit with telling effect. An hour after the battle began, Kearsarge's guns had reduced the Confederacy's greatest raider to a burning wreck. With his ship sinking, Semmes struck his colors and requested help. Sending boats, Kearsarge managed to rescue much of Alabama's crew, though Semmes was able to escape aboard Deerhound.

Raphael Semmes - Later Career & Life

Taken to Britain, Semmes remained abroad for several months before embarking on the steamer Tasmanian on October 3. Arriving in Cuba, he returned to the Confederacy via Mexico. Arriving in Mobile on November 27, Semmes was hailed as a hero. Traveling to Richmond, VA, he received a vote of thanks from the Confederate Congress and gave a full report to Davis. Promoted to rear admiral on February 10, 1865, Semmes took command of the James River Squadron and aided in the defense of Richmond. On April 2, with the fall of Petersburg and Richmond imminent, he destroyed his ships and formed a Naval Brigade from his crews. Unable to join General Robert E. Lee's retreating army, Semmes accepted the rank of brigadier general from Davis and moved south to join General Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina. He was with Johnston when the general surrendered to Major General William T. Sherman at Bennett Place, NC on April 26.

Initially paroled, Semmes later was arrested in Mobile on December 15 and charged with piracy. Held at the New York Navy Yard for three months, he gained his freedom in April 1866. Though elected probate judge for Mobile County, federal authorities prevented him from taking office. After briefly teaching at the Louisiana State Seminary (now Louisiana State University), he returned to Mobile where he served as a newspaper editor and author. Semmes died at Mobile on August 30, 1877, after contracting food poisoning and was buried in the city's Old Catholic Cemetery.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).