aphael Semmes was born in Charles County, Maryland, to Catherine Middleton
Semmes and Richard Thompson Semmes, a tobacco farmer. His parents died while he
was a child, so he was raised by two uncles. He received a private school
education in Georgetown, with a brief stint at Charlotte Hall Military Academy.
He became a midshipman in 1826 and entered active duty in 1832. On his first
naval assignment, he traveled throughout the Caribbean and Mediterranean. During
leaves of absences he studied law under his brother's tutelage and passed the
Maryland bar in 1834. That same year he moved to Cincinnati, where in 1837 he
married Anne Elizabeth Spencer. He was at sea for several years, then bought
land in Alabama. He was indifferent to slavery but believed that the South
economically suffered under Northern dominance.
Semmes served in the Mexican War, participating in General Winfield Scott's
arrival at Veracruz and fighting at Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. In
November 1847 he went back to Alabama and wrote the popular Service Afloat and
Ashore During the Mexican War (1851). In 1856 he was appointed lighthouse
inspector for the Gulf of Mexico region, then was promoted to secretary of the
Lighthouse Board in Washington, D. C.
In January 1861 Semmes resigned from the U. S. Navy when Alabama seceded from
the Union and was assigned by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to purchase
matériel and hire mechanics to manufacture ordnance. After the capture of Fort
Sumter, Semmes took over command of the CSS Sumter, the only ship in the
Confederate Navy at that point. For six months under his helm it was a
successful blockade runner, capturing eighteen prizes. Forced to abandon the
ship at Gibraltar, he purchased the CSS Alabama from shipbuilders in neutral
Britain. The swift and mighty Alabama proved to be a highly effective vessel,
seizing or destroying sixty-nine Union ships over its career before being
defeated by the USS Kearsarge in June 1864. After touring Europe, Semmes
returned a hero to the Confederacy. Promoted to rear admiral, he took command of
the James River squadron that protected the Confederate capitol of Richmond.
Forced to flee when Richmond fell, he finally surrendered to Union forces at
Greensboro, North Carolina.
President Johnson granted Semmes a pardon in May 1865, and he returned to
Alabama. Upon landing at Mobile, he was arrested on charges of international
piracy by order of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. After three months in a
Washington, D. C. jail, Semmes was released when the charges against him were
dropped. Elected as probate judge of Mobile County, he was soon forced out of
office by Radical Republicans. In 1866 he began teaching at Louisiana State
Seminary, but political pressure again compelled him to resign. He served
briefly as editor of the Memphis Daily Bulletin before establishing a law
practice in Mobile. He wrote The Cruise of the Alabama and Sumter.
The construction or equipping of Confederate war vessels in officially-neutral
Britain raised the ire of Union officials during the Civil War and was a major
impediment to improving U.S.-British relations after the war. This controversy,
christened "the Alabama Claims," was finally resolved in 1872 by an
international board of arbitration. The following year, Britain paid the United
States fifteen-and-a-half million dollars in gold.