For those interested, a Yankee historian has done us the service of writing a fair history of Semmes’ life titled Wolf of the Deep.
In the midst of the Soviet-style iconoclastic frenzy of 2017, a group of anarchists announced their plans to assault statues to Confederate heroes across the country. Among their list of targets was a statue that stands over Mobile’s Bankhead Tunnel.
The statue is dedicated to Raphael Semmes, a Marylander, who settled in Mobile, Alabama and earned a modest living in a legal practice. Semmes is a man who would have needed no introduction in his day and age, but whose daring life and times have been largely forgotten in this fallen age. Prior to his humble retirement, Semmes lived an extraordinary life on the high seas as a daring captain and pirate.
During the early days of the War Between the States, Semmes commanded the CSS Alabama, the most successful commerce raider in maritime history, a feat accomplished in the heat of the campaign for Southern Independence, when Semmes was in his late fifties.
Raphael Semmes was born in 1809, graduated from Charlotte Hall Military Academy, and, emblematic South’s long tradition of sending her finest to serve in the Imperial regime, served as a midshipman in the US Navy. By the 1840’s, Semmes had established himself as a daring and capable officer and commanded two ships during the Mexican-American war.
With no wars to fight, Semmes entered into semi-retirement, settling in Mobile, Alabama to write his memoirs and tend to a lighthouse on Perdido Bay, near a portion of the Florida Panhandle that rightfully belongs to Alabama—a story for another time.
Never a man to rest on his laurels, Semmes leapt at the opportunity to return to the seas when the Secession occurred, immediately resigning from his post in the US Navy and accepting a commission in service to the Confederacy.
Semmes served as a real life Rhett Butler, a daring blockade runner who broke through Imperial attempts to starve out the crucial port of New Orleans. Blockade runners were crucial to the survival of the Confederacy, delivering needed supplies, tying up Union resources in pursuit, and occasionally capturing and burning Union commerce vessels. Semmes’ first ship, the CSS Sumter, began her life, as many commerce raiders did, as a merchant vessel. The Habana was reborn as Sumter and outfitted with arms in New Orleans. In her six months of service, Sumter captured or sunk 18 Union ships, a sterling record that would recommend Semmes for promotion. Sumter was retired due to engine wear in Gibraltar in 1862 under the eyes of hungry US Navy ships, the USS Kearsage among them. In her retirement she continued to serve the Confederacy, though under the British Naval ensign, as a commerce vessel delivering supplies to the starving South.
Semmes and a group of spies conspired to procure another ship, built in secret in Liverpool due to British neutrality laws. Initially christened the Enrica, the ship sailed to the Azores, where Semmes and the ships crew oversaw her outfitting as a raider with eight guns over a grueling three days. Semmes and his crew re-commissioned the ship at sea in a brief ceremony punctuated by a prayer and a playing of Dixie. The ships fitting motto was “Aide-toi et Dieu t’aidera,” or “God helps those who help themselves.”
During her first year the Alabama sank twenty Yankee whalers in and around the Azores. In aiding the Texans, she sank the Union ship Hatteras in an engagement in Galveston Bay. During a subsequent expeditionary raid, Semmes and the Alabama crew captured 29 ships before retiring to Cape Town in South Africa for refitting. Semmes and the ship made such an impression that the locals wrote a folk song, “Daar Kom die Alibama,” which is still played today.
Together with a recommissioned bark known as the Tuscaloosa, the Alabama patrolled the waters around South Africa for a month, capturing two Union ships before sailing for the Indian Ocean where she took an additional three ships.
A final excursion into the South Pacific had worn the ship badly and in June of 1864 she entered the port of Cherbourg, France for refitting.
The Alabama had, at this point, taken 65 Union vessels and was widely feared as a scourge among the Yankee navy. The USS Kearsage, upon hearing of the vessel’s arrival in France, rushed to close off the port and signaled for reinforcements. Semmes understood that he had a choice at hand: let the Alabama spend the remainder of the war on the sidelines or to sail out and engage the Kearsage, his enemy from his time at the helm of the Sumter.
Ever daring, he chose to fight.
The Battle off Cherbourg was brief, and the cunning of Semmes and his crew could not overcome the disadvantages they faced. Semmes and his crew sailed directly at the Kearsage, lined up for a broadside, and fired a flurry of 370 shots before she was sunk by hits beneath the waterline. Over forty of the Alabama’s crew died in the engagement and seventy were captured by the Kearsage. Semmes and a contingent of his crew escaped imprisonment aboard a British yacht, the Deerhound.
Despite the battle’s brief duration, its ferocity and the reputation of the Alabama had drawn a large crowd that watched the engagement from shore, including Manet, who painted a depiction of the scene.
In 1984, a French minesweeper located the wreck of the Alabama, and in 2002, scores of artifacts were recovered, including a crew-member’s jaw which was returned to Mobile and buried.
Semmes quickly returned to service aboard a Confederate ironclad, the Virginia II. In the aftermath of the fall of Richmond, Semmes oversaw the destruction of the Confederate fleet, to avoid it falling into Union hands. Semmes and his sailors rushed to join Lee’s fight on the land as the Naval Brigade. Despite their daring, they arrived too late, though a small portion of the Naval Brigade arrived in time to fight at Sailor’s Creek.
In April of 1865, Semmes and his men surrendered to Sherman and were subsequently paroled. Semmes was briefly charged with treason, though these charges were dropped. Semmes spent the aftermath of the war in Mobile, again writing his memoirs and working as an attorney. He died over a decade later from food borne illness.
Anonymous’s 2017 “Day of Denouncement” came and went with Raphael Semmes statue going untouched. The announcement was likely a bid for media attention to spur incidents such as those witnessed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where masked antifa trash appeared suddenly and ripped down a beloved statue, Silent Sam.
By familiarizing ourselves with the heroes, these statues are dedicated to and sharing their stories we ensure the survival of Confederate memory in Southern hearts, a monument that cannot be torn down.
Oh, I'm a good old Rebel, now that's just what I am; For this "Fair Land of Freedom" I do not give a damn! I'm glad I fit against it, I only wish we'd won, And I don't want no pardon for anything I done.