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For other uses, see Semmes (disambiguation).

Raphael Semmes
September 27, 1809(1809-09-27) – August 30, 1877 (aged 67)
Raphael Semmes.jpg
Portrait of Rear Admiral Semmes
Place of birth Charles County, Maryland
Place of death Mobile, Alabama
Place of burial Old Catholic Cemetery (Mobile, Alabama)
Allegiance United States of America
Confederate States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
Confederate Navy
Years of service USN 1826–1860
CSN 1860–1865
Rank Rear Admiral (briefly Brigadier General)
Commands held USS Somers (Mexican War)
CSS Sumter (Civil War)
CSS Alabama (Civil War)
James River Squadron (Civil War)
Battles/wars Mexican-American War
American Civil War

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 of 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

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 steamer into the cruiser/commerce raider CSS Sumter. In June 1861, Semmes ran the Federal blockade in the Sumter and commenced a career as one of the greatest commerce raiders in naval history.

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 travelled to England, where he was promoted to captain. He then went to the Portuguese island of Madeira in the Atlantic and converted a commercial vessel into a warship that became world-famous as CSS Alabama. Semmes sailed on the 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, the 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 secretly turned his ship into a makeshift ironclad by draping the sides with heavy chains. This, combined with the poor quality of gunpowder on the Alabama, ensured a Union victory. As the Alabama was sinking, Semmes threw his sword into the sea, thereby 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[1], 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. 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. His sailors were turned into an infantry unit and dubbed the "Naval Brigade". 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. 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.

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), and also as a judge, and a newspaper editor. He returned to Mobile and resumed his legal career.

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, 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.

See also


  1. ^ Canon, Jill. Civil War Heroes. Bellerophon Books, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2002, p. 39.


  • Eicher, John H., & Eicher, David J.: Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3
  • Alabama Hall of Fame

Further reading

  • Semmes, Raphael, The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter, Carleton, 1864, Digitized by Digital Scanning Incorporated, 2001, ISBN 1-58218-353-8.
  • Confederate Raider, Raphel Semmes of the Alabama, John M. Taylor, 1994, ISBN 0-02-881086-4.

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
John K. Mitchell
Commander of the James River Squadron
February 18, 1865 – to end of war
Succeeded by


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