(September 27, 1809–August 31, 1877)
Jon L. Wakelyn
Once fabled as a romantic navy captain whose derring-do against the hated Yankees made him a legendary figure to generations of Southern youth, now the life story of Raphael Semmes is barely known outside the confines of the Confederate Naval Museum in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Perhaps this neglect is related to the paucity of study of the Civil War navy and especially that of the Confederacy. Perhaps it is also because the South is a region that prides itself on law and order, and those who support the protection of private property do not know quite what to do with a leader whom history has accused of piracy and treason. Also, for anyone attempting to assess Semmes’s life, the contradiction between the conservative, by-the-book career naval officer and the commander of the privateer Alabama who sank countless millions of dollars’ worth of commercial shipping requires much explanation. Too, Semmes’s own action-filled memoirs allowed him to create his own legacy, which most biographers generally have adhered to, at times at the expense of reality.
To place the man, his motivation, and his activities into perspective and to assess his accomplishments requires another look at the life itself. It begins with the history of an English Roman Catholic family that had come to Maryland during the seventeenth century. The men of that family had carved out great wealth as merchant seamen in that Chesapeake border region. Raphael’s parents were Richard Thompson Semmes, of French origin, and Catherine Middleton, the daughter of a wealthy southern Maryland family. The future sea captain was born in Charles County, Maryland, on September 27, 1809. His parents died when he was quite young, but he had the good fortune of being raised in the family of his Uncle Raphael, a prominent Georgetown merchant and banker. Uncle Raphael brought up his nephew along with his son Thomas Jenkins Semmes, later a congressman from Louisiana and a Confederate States senator, who would be quite useful to the future admiral. Uncle Raphael enthralled his nephew with stories of his heroic naval service during the War of 1812. Young