150 Years Ago: Rebel Raider Captain Makes Admiral (& General)
February 10, 1865 - Perhaps no Confederate naval officer did more to hurt the North and give hope to the South than Raphael Semmes, and in February 1865 President Jefferson Davis turned to Semmes once more for salvation - promoting him to rear admiral and giving the former raider captain command of the rebel ironclad fleet on the James River.
As captain of the rebel commerce raider CSS Alabama, Raphael Semmes had taken or destroyed more than 60 Yankee merchant ships. He had also had twice fought Union warships - one of which (USS Hatteras) he sank. Although defeated in his engagement with the USS Kearsarge in June 1864, Semmes was rescued by an English yachtsman and managed to make his way back home to the Confederacy. After Commodore James Mitchell failed in an attempt in late January to fight his way down the James River to attack the Union base at City Point, President Davis called in Semmes, promoted him to admiral and gave him command of Mitchell's fleet. Semmes flew his flag from the ironclad CSS Virginia II, oversaw repairs to flotilla and made preparations to launch another attack down the river.
Semmes never got to lead the squadron into the epic battle he sought. When General Robert E. Lee was forced to give up Richmond on April 2, Semmes gave the order to scuttle and burn his squadron, then formed his men into the "Naval Brigade." Cut off from Lee, Semmes put his men on a train and headed south to joined General Joseph E. Johnston. As effectively there was no longer a Confederate Navy to be an admiral of, Davis commissioned Semmes a brigadier general - making Semmes the only Confederate officer to hold the rank of both admiral in the navy and general in the army.
Semmes and his men surrendered along with Johnston's army to General William Tecumseh Sherman at Durham, N.C. Initially held as a prisoner of war, he was charged with treason and expected to also be charged with piracy - but all charges were dropped the following April and he was released from custody. Semmes became a professor of literature and philosophy at what is now Louisiana State University and served as a judge. He died of food poisoning in 1877 - the victim of a batch of bad shrimp.
The CSS Alabama is one of the Confederate warships represented in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, Semmes' famous ship appears as a card and a counter and also graces the cover of the game. Generals Lee, Johnston, Grant and Sherman are also present as cards in the game, which although focused on the naval side of the conflict also allows players to fight the entire war on land and at sea.