||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Semmes, Raphael (September 27, 1809 – August 30, 1877)
Raphael Semmes was a highly successful Confederate admiral, whose use of the
British–built ship Alabama led to a diplomatic dispute between the United
States and British governments that was not settled until 1872.
Raphael Semmes was born on September 27, 1809, in Charles County, Maryland,
to Catherine Middleton Semmes and Richard Thompson Semmes, a tobacco farmer.
His parents died while he was a child, so he was raised by two uncles. He
received a private school education in Georgetown, with a brief stint at
Charlotte Hall Military Academy. He became a midshipman in 1826 and entered
active duty in 1832. On his first naval assignment, he traveled throughout the
Caribbean and Mediterranean. During leaves of absences he studied law under his
brother’s tutelage and passed the Maryland bar in 1834. That same year he moved
to Cincinnati, where in 1837 he married Anne Elizabeth Spencer. The couple
would later have seven children.
Semmes was at sea for several years, and then bought land in Alabama. He was
indifferent to slavery but believed that the South economically suffered under
Northern dominance. He served in the Mexican War, participating in General
Winfield Scott’s arrival at Veracruz and fighting at Cerro Gordo, Churubusco,
and Chapultepec. In November 1847, he went back to Alabama and wrote the
popular Service Afloat and Ashore During the Mexican War (1851). In
1856, he was appointed lighthouse inspector for the Gulf of Mexico region, then
was promoted to secretary of the Lighthouse Board in Washington, D. C.
In January 1861, Semmes resigned from the U. S. Navy when Alabama seceded
from the Union. He was assigned by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to
purchase materiel and hire mechanics to manufacture ordnance. After the capture
of Fort Sumter, Semmes took over command of the CSS Sumter, the only ship
in the Confederate Navy at that point. For six months under his helm it was a
successful blockade runner, capturing eighteen prizes. Forced to abandon the
ship at Gibraltar, he purchased the CSS Alabama from shipbuilders in
neutral Britain. The swift and mighty Alabama proved to be a highly
effective vessel, seizing or destroying 69 Union ships over its career before
being defeated by the USS Kearsarge in June 1864. After touring Europe,
Semmes returned as a hero to the Confederacy. Promoted to rear admiral, he took
command of the James River squadron that protected the Confederate capitol of
Richmond. Forced to flee when Richmond fell, he finally surrendered to Union
forces at Greensboro, North Carolina.
President Johnson granted Semmes a pardon in May 1865, and he returned to
Alabama. Upon landing at Mobile, he was arrested by order of Navy Secretary
Gideon Welles on charges of international piracy. After three months in a
Washington, D. C., jail, Semmes was released when the charges against him were
dropped. Elected as probate judge of Mobile County, he was soon forced out of
office by Radical Republicans. In 1866, he began teaching at Louisiana State
Seminary, but political pressure again compelled him to resign. He served
briefly as editor of the Memphis Daily Bulletin before establishing a law
practice in Mobile. He wrote The Cruise of the Alabama and Sumter.
Raphael Semmes died on August 30, 1877.
The construction or equipping of Confederate war vessels in
officially–neutral Britain raised the ire of Union officials during the Civil
War and was a major impediment to improving U.S.–British relations after the
war. This controversy, often called the “Alabama claims,” was finally resolved
in 1872 by an international board of arbitration. The following year, Britain
paid the United States fifteen–and–a–half million dollars in gold.
Sources consulted: Robert Saunders, Jr., “Semmes, Raphael,”
American National Biography (online); Mark M. Boatner, ed., The Civil War