Raphael Semmes

Birth: 1809


Raphael Semmes (September 27, 1809 - August 30, 1877) was an American naval officer who served as captain of the Sumter and Alabama while in service of the Confederate States of America. He was born in Charles county, Md., 27 Sept., 1809; d. in Mobile, Ala., 30 Aug., 1877. President John Quincy Adams appointed him a midshipman in the U.S. navy in 1826, but he did not enter upon active service until 1832, the intermediate years being spent in study. In 1834, after returning from his first cruise, he was admitted to the bar, but decided to remain a seaman. In 1837 he was promoted lieutenant, and in 1842 he removed to Alabama.

At the beginning of the war with Mexico he was made flag-lieutenant under Com. Conner, commanding the squadron in the Gulf, and in the siege of Vera Cruz he was in charge of one of the naval batteries on shore. He was in command of the U.S. brig "Somers" on the blockade of the Mexican coast, when the brig foundered in a gale, and most of her crew were drowned. Lieut. Semmes served for several years as inspector of light-houses on the Gulf coast, in 1855 was promoted commander, and in 1858 became secretary of the light-house board at Washington. On the secession of Alabama, 15 Feb., 1861, he resigned his commission in the U.S. navy and reported to Jefferson Davis at Montgomery, who instructed him to return to the north and endeavor to procure mechanics skilled in the manufacture and use of ordnance and rifle machinery and the preparation of fixed ammunition and percussion-caps. He was also to buy war material. In Washington he examined the machinery of the arsenal, and conferred with mechanics whom he desired to go south.

Within the next three weeks he made a tour through the principal workshops of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, purchased large quantities of percussion-caps in New York, which were sent to Montgomery without any disguise, made contracts for light artillery, powder, and other munitions of war, and shipped thousands of pounds of powder to the south. He returned to Montgomery on 4 April, to find that he had been commissioned commander in the Confederate navy, and placed in charge of the light-house bureau, which he relinquished within two weeks to go to New Orleans and fit out the "Sumter," with which he captured eighteen merchantmen.

After the blockade of that ship at Tangiers by two U.S. men-of-war, he sold her and went to England, having been promoted meantime to the rank of captain. There the fast steamer "Alabama" was built for him, and in August, 1863, he took command of her at the Azores islands, put to sea, and captured sixty-two American merchantmen, most of which he burned at sea. Upon her loss in the battle with the "Kearsarge," on 19 June, 1864 (see Winslow, John A.), he returned to England, and in London was presented by officers of the British army and navy with a sword to replace that which he had cast into the sea from the deck of his sinking ship. On 3 Oct., 1864, he sailed for Havana, whence he reached Bagdad, a Mexican port on the Gulf, and passed through Texas and Louisiana.

He was appointed rear-admiral, and ordered to the James river squadron, with which he guarded the water approaches to Richmond until the city was evacuated. At Greensboro', N. C., on 1 May, 1865, he participated in the capitulation of Gen. Johnston's army. He returned to Mobile and opened a law office. There, on 15 Dec., 1865, he was arrested by order of Sec. Welles and was imprisoned. The reason, as given by the attorney-general of the United States was his liability to trial as a traitor, which he had evaded by his escape after the destruction of the "Alabama."

From his prison he wrote to President Johnson a letter claiming immunity for all past deeds under the military convention, to which he was a party at Greensboro', and the subsequent quarrel between Mr. Johnson and the Republican majority of congress interrupted any proceedings looking to his trial. He was released under the third of the president's amnesty proclamations, and in May, 1866, was elected judge of the probate court of Mobile county, but an order from President Johnson forbade him to exercise the functions of the office. He then became editor of a daily paper in Mobile, which he gave up to accept a professor's chair in the Louisiana military institute. He afterward returned to Mobile and resumed the practice of law, in which he was occupied till his death.

He published "Service Afloat and Ashore during the Mexican War" (Cincinnati, 1851); "The Campaign of Gen. Scott in the Valley of Mexico" (1852); "The Cruise of the Alabama and Sumter" (New York, 1864); and "Memoirs of Service Afloat during the War between the States" (Baltimore, 1869). The action of the British government in permitting the "Alabama" and other similar cruisers to be fitted out in its ports gave rise to the so-called "Alabama claims" on the part of the United States, settled by arbitration in 1873. (See Grant, Ulysses S.) — His cousin, Alexander Jenkins, surgeon, b. in Georgetown, D. C., 17 Dec., 1828, was educated at Georgetown college, and graduated at the National medical college, Washington, D. C., in 1854. He subsequently studied in Paris and London, and on his return settled in Georgetown, D. C., but removed to New Orleans, La.

He was commissioned a surgeon in the Confederate army in 1861, served in that capacity in Gen. Thomas J. Jackson's corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, was surgeon in charge in the Jackson military hospital, Richmond, Va., became medical inspector of the Department of Northern Virginia in 1862, inspector of hospitals in the Department of Virginia in 1863, and president of the examining boards of the Louisiana, Jackson, Stuart, and Winder hospitals, Richmond, Va., in 1865. He was visiting physician to the Charity hospital, New Orleans, La., in 1866-'7, removed to Savannah, Ga., and in 1870-'6 was professor of physiology in the Savannah medical college. Subsequently he took orders in the Roman Catholic church, and in 1886 he became president of Pio Nono college, Macon, Ga. He was a secretary of the American medical association in 1858-'9, a member of several professional societies, and the author of medical and other papers.

His publications include "Medical Sketches of Paris" (New York, 1852); "Gunshot Wounds" (1864); "Notes from a Surgical Diary" (1866); "Surgical Notes of the Late War" (1867); "The Fluid Extracts" (1869); "Evolution the Origin of Life" (1873); and the "Influence of Yellow Fever on Pregnancy and Parturition" (1875).


Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1900) pgs. 459-460.

Books & Publications

Book Title Date
Service Afloat (1887) Service Afloat 1887
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