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For other uses, see Semmes (disambiguation).

Raphael Semmes
[[Image:File:Raphael Semmes.jpg|center|200px|border]]Portrait of Rear Admiral Semmes
Personal Information
Born: September 27, 1809(1809-09-27)
Place of Birth: {{{place of birth}}}
Died: August 30, 1877 (aged 67)
Place of Death: {{{place of death}}}
Birth Name: {{{birth name}}}
Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Confederate States of America
Participation(s): {{{participations}}}
Branch: United States Navy
Confederate Navy
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Rank: Rear Admiral (briefly Brigadier General)
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
Commands: USS Somers (Mexican War)
CSS Sumter (Civil War)
CSS Alabama (Civil War)
James River Squadron (Civil War)
Battles: Mexican-American War
American Civil War
*Battle of Cherbourg
Relations: {{{relations}}}
Other work: {{{otherwork}}}

Raphael Semmes (September 27, 1809 – August 30, 1877) was an officer in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1860 and the Confederate States Navy from 1860 to 1865. During the American Civil War he was captain of the famous commerce raider CSS Alabama, taking a record sixty-nine prizes. Late in the war he was promoted to admiral and also served briefly as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army.


Semmes was born in Charles County, Maryland, a cousin of future Confederate general Paul Jones Semmes and Union Navy Captain Alexander Alderman Semmes. He entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1826. After serving in the navy, he studied law and was admitted to the bar.

During the Mexican-American War, he commanded the brig USS Somers in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship was lost in a storm off Veracruz, Mexico, in December 1846. Semmes was commended for his actions during the loss of the Somers.

Following the war, Semmes went on extended leave at Mobile, Alabama, where he practiced law. He was extremely popular there, and the town of Semmes, Alabama was named after him. He was promoted to the rank of commander in 1855 and was assigned to lighthouse duties until 1860. When Alabama seceded from the Union in January 1861, Semmes resigned from the United States Navy and sought an appointment in the Confederate States Navy.

Confederate States service[]

File:Raphael semmes.png

Semmes statue in Mobile, Alabama

In April 1861, Semmes was accepted into the Confederate navy as a commander and was sent to New Orleans, Louisiana, to convert a the Habana into the cruiser/commerce raider CSS Sumter. In June 1861, Semmes, in the Sumter, outran the Union vessel Brooklyn, breached the Federal blockade, and hence launched a career as one of the greatest commerce raiders in naval history.[1]

Semmes's command of CSS Sumter would last six months. He raided U.S. commercial shipping in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, accounting for 18 merchant vessels while eluding pursuing Union warships. In January 1862, the Sumter required a major overhaul. Semmes attempted to have her repaired at Gibraltar, but the arrival of U. S. warships ended her career. The Union ships took up stations outside of Gibraltar to wait for him.

Semmes sold his ship, and he and his crew traveled to England, where he was promoted to captain. He then was ordered to an island in the Azores to take command and oversee the transformation of the newly-built British steamer Enrica into a Confederate warship, which then became world-famous as CSS Alabama. Semmes sailed on Alabama from August 1862 to June 1864. His operations carried him from the Atlantic, to the Gulf of Mexico, around the Cape of Good Hope, and into the East Indies. During this cruise, Alabama captured 69 U. S. merchantmen and destroyed one U. S. warship, the USS Hatteras.


The Sinking of CSS Alabama, engraving, Harper's Weekly Magazine, 23 July 1864.

The Alabama returned to the Atlantic and made port in Cherbourg, France, where she was blockaded by the USS Kearsarge. Captain Semmes took Alabama out on June 19, 1864 and met the Kearsarge in one of the most famous naval engagements of the war. The commander of the Kearsarge had, while in port at the Azores the year before, turned his warship into a makeshift partial ironclad by draping its midsection, down to the waterline, with heavy chain armor. But the poor quality of the Alabama 's much-too-rapid gunnery and the deteriorated state of her gunpowder and fuses ensured a victory for both of Kearsarge 's heavy 11-inch Dahlgren cannons. As Alabama was going down by the stern, Semmes threw his sword into the sea, depriving Kearsage's Captain John Winslow the traditional ceremony of having it handed to him as the victor. Semmes was wounded in the battle, but was rescued, along with forty one of his crewmen[2], by the British yacht Deerhound. Semmes went to England where he recovered.

Semmes made his way back to the Confederacy, where he was promoted to rear admiral in February 1865, and during the last months of the war he commanded the James River Squadron from the heavy ironclad CSS Virginia II. With the fall of Richmond, Virginia, in April 1865, Semmes supervised the destruction of all the squadron's warships and was then appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army. His sailors were turned into an infantry unit and dubbed the "Naval Brigade".[citation needed] Their intention was to join Lee's army after burning their vessels; however, Lee's army was already cut off from Richmond and most of Semmes' men boarded a train and escaped to join Joseph E. Johnston's army in North Carolina.[citation needed] A few men of the Naval Brigade were able to join with Lee's rear guard and fought at Sayler's Creek. Semmes and the Naval Brigade surrendered to William T. Sherman and were paroled at Durham Station, N.C.[citation needed]

After the war[]

Semmes was briefly held as a prisoner after the war. He was arrested for treason on December 15, 1865, but was released on April 7, 1866. After his release, he worked as a professor of philosophy and literature at Louisiana State Seminary (now Louisiana State University), a judge, and a newspaper editor. He returned to Mobile and resumed his legal career.

File:Admiral Semmes House 01.jpg

Captain Semmes died in 1877 in the « Semmes House".

Semmes defended both his actions at sea and the political actions of the Southern states in his 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States. The book was viewed as one of the most cogent, but bitter, defenses of the Lost Cause. The citizens of Mobile presented Semmes with what became known as the Raphael Semmes House in 1871, and it remained his residence until his death. He died in 1877 and was interred in Mobile's Old Catholic Cemetery.

Raphael Semmes is a member of the Alabama Hall of Fame. One of the streets on the current Louisiana State University campus is named in his honor, as is a street in Richmond, Virginia.

Admiral Semmes' battle ensign[]

The Alabama Department of Archives and History has among its collection an important Confederate naval battle ensign listed as "Admiral Semmes' Flag, Catalogue No. 86.1893.1 (PN10149-10150)." Their provenance reconstruction shows that it was presented to Semmes in England sometime after the sinking of the Alabama by "Lady Dehogton and other English ladies." Such presentations of ceremonial colors were uncommon to ship's captains of the Confederate Navy, but a few are known to have received such honors. This Stainless Banner Second National Flag of the Confederacy is huge and made of pure silk, giving it an elegant appearance. Although this battle ensign is in a remarkable state of preservation, its very large size and delicate condition has precluded any up-close measurements, so its various details and dimensions are unavailable. When Semmes returned to the South from England, he brought this ceremonial Stainless Banner with him. It was inherited by his grandchildren, Raphael Semmes III and Mrs. Eunice Semmes Thorington. After his sister's death, Raphael Semmes III donated the ensign to the state of Alabama on 19 September 1929.

See also[]


  1. John D. Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963, ISBN: 0-8071-0834-0, p. 48
  2. Canon, Jill. Civil War Heroes. Bellerophon Books, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2002, p. 39.


  • Alabama Hall of Fame
  • Delaney, Norman C. "'Old Beeswax': Raphael Semmes of the Alabama." Harrisburg, PA, Vol. 12, #8, December, 1973 issue, Civil War Times Illustrated. No ISSN.
  • Eicher, John H., & Eicher, David J.: Civil War High Commands. Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Gindlesperger, James. Fire on the Water: The USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama. Burd Street Press, 2005. ISBN 978-1572493780.
  • Madaus, H. Michael. Rebel Flags Afloat: A Survey of the Surviving Flags of the Confederate States Navy, Revenue Service, and Merchant Marine. Winchester, MA, Flag Research Center, 1986. ISSN 0015-3370. (An 80-page special edition of "The Flag Bulletin" magazine, #115, devoted entirely to Confederate naval flags.)
  • Secretary of the Navy. Sinking of the Alabama—Destruction of the Alabama by the Kearsarge. Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, 1864. (Annual report in the library of the Naval Historical Center.)
  • Semmes, R., CSS, Commander. The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter, (two volumes in one), Carlton, Publisher, New York, 1864. Pre-ISBN era.
  • Semmes, Raphael, Admiral, CSN. Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States. Reprinted by Blue & Grey Press, 1987. ISBN 1555211771.

Further reading[]

External links[]

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|- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
John K. Mitchell |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Commander of the James River Squadron
February 18, 1865 – to end of war |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
last |- |}

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