Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Admiral Raphael Semmes (27 September 1809-30 August 1877) was a naval 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. He also served as a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army late in the war.
Born in Charles County, Maryland, Semmes entered the Navy as a Midshipman in 1826. While serving in the navy he studied law and was admitted to the bar. During the Mexican War, he commanded the brig USS Somers in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship was lost in a storm off of Vera Cruz, Mexico in December 1846. Semmes was commended for his actions during the loss of the Somers.
After the Mexican War, Semmes went on extended leave at Mobile, Alabama where he practiced law. He was promoted to the rank of Commander in 1855 and was assigned to lighthouse duties until 1860. When Alabama seceded from the Union Semmes resigned from the United States Navy and sought an appointment from the Confederate States Navy.
In April of 1861 Semmes was accepted into the Confederate navy as a Commander and was sent to New Orleans, Louisiana and ordered to convert a steamer into the cruiser/commerce raider CSS Sumter. In June 1861 Semmes ran the Federal blockade in the Sumter and commenced a career of commerce raiding which would establish him as one of the greatest commerce raiders in naval history.
Semmes time in command of CSS Sumter would last six months. He raided US commercial shipping in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean accounting for 18 merchant vessels while eluding pursuing Union warships. In January 1862 the state of the Sumter was such that she required a major overhaul. Semmes attempted to have her repaired at Gibraltar but the arrival of US warships ended her career.
Semmes and his crew escaped to England where he was promoted to Captain and was given command of the newly constructed CSS Alabama. Semmes sailed on the Alabama from August of 1862 to June of 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 the Alabama captured some 60 US merchentmen and destroyed one US warship, USS Hatteras.
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 and met the Kearsarge in one of the most famous naval engagements of the war. The commander of the Kearsarge cleverly turned his ship into a makeshift Ironclad by draping the sides with chains. This combined with the poor quality of gunpowder on the Alabama ensured a Union victory. Semmes was wounded in the battle but was rescued by the British yacht Dearhound. 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, commanded the James River Squadron . With the fall of Richmond, Virginia in April 1865 Semmes supervised the destruction of his squadron and was appointed as a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army. Semmes' sailors were made into an infantry force.
Semmes was briefly held as a prisoner after the war. After his release he worked as a teacher and newspaper editor. He returned to Mobile and resumed his legal career.
Semmes defended both his actions at sea and the political actions of the Southern States in his 1869 book 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.
Raphael Semmes is a member of the Alabama Hall of Fame.
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