North­ern state yields only top Con­fed­er­ate naval of­fi­cers

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Richard P. Cox

It is some­what ironic that Mary­land, a state with strong South­ern sym­pa­thies, did not se­cede from the Union yet pro­duced the only Con­fed­er­ate naval of­fi­cers to at­tain the rank of ad­mi­ral. Franklin Buchanan be­came the Con­fed­er­acy’s high­est-rank­ing naval of­fi­cer, while Raphael Semmes be­came its most fa­mous naval hero.

The Con­fed­er­ate navy was topheavy with Mary­lan­ders. In ad­di­tion to the only two ad­mi­rals, Mary­land fur­nished one com­modore, seven cap­tains, four com­man­ders, seven lieu­tenants com­mand­ing ves­sels or shore bat­ter­ies and 15 other lieu­tenants. In all, 163 doc­u­mented Mary­lan­ders served as of­fi­cers in the rel­a­tively small Con­fed­er­ate navy.

Franklin Buchanan was one of the most il­lus­tri­ous of­fi­cers in the Fed­eral Navy. He was born in Bal­ti­more in 1800 and joined the Navy as a mid­ship­man in 1815. Over the 4 1/2 decades of his U.S. naval ser­vice, Buchanan saw ex­ten­sive and world­wide sea duty. He then be­came the first su­per­in­ten­dent of the U.S. Naval Academy, served no­tably dur­ing the Mex­i­can War and ac­com­pa­nied Adm. Matthew C. Perry on his ground­break­ing ex­pe­di­tion to Ja­pan. Just be­fore the Civil War, he was com­man­dant of the Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard.

Most U.S. naval of­fi­cers who joined the Con­fed­er­ate navy sim­ply re­signed, but the Fed­eral Navy De­part­ment, no doubt think­ing them traitors, re­fused to ac­cept their res­ig­na­tions. In­stead, their names were stricken from the roll, and they were marked as dis­missed.

This sit­u­a­tion caused some em­bar­rass­ment for Buchanan, who was one of the most se­nior mem­bers of the Fed­eral ser­vice. Think­ing Mary­land would se­cede, Franklin ten­dered his res­ig­na­tion in April 1861. When his home state did not leave the Union, he vig­or­ously tried to with­draw his res­ig­na­tion. The Navy De­part­ment re­buffed him and dis­missed him from the ser­vice in May. One ver­sion has it that Buchanan was am­biva­lent about giv­ing up his 45year naval ca­reer, but his slave­hold­ing in-laws goaded him into re­sign­ing.

Buchanan joined the Con­fed­er­ate navy and re­ceived a cap­tain’s com­mis­sion in Septem­ber 1861. Af­ter head­ing the CSN’s Of­fice of Or­ders and De­tail, he was placed in com­mand of the James River de­fenses in Vir­ginia. He com­manded the iron­clad CSS Vir­ginia (for­merly the Mer­ri­mack) as it rammed and sank the USS Cum­ber­land, shelled the USS Congress into sub­mis­sion and ran the USS Min­nesota aground at Hamp­ton Roads on March 8, 1862. He was wounded in the ac­tion and re­lieved of com­mand be­fore its fa­mous bat­tle with the USS Mon­i­tor the next day.

Buchanan was pro­moted to ad­mi­ral in Au­gust 1862 and sent to com­mand Con­fed­er­ate naval forces in Mo­bile Bay, off the coast of Alabama. He over­saw con­struc­tion of the iron­clad CSS Ten­nessee and was on­board dur­ing its gal­lant bat­tle with Rear Adm. David Far­ragut’s Fed­eral fleet on Aug. 5, 1864.

Wounded and taken pris­oner dur­ing the bat­tle, Buchanan was not ex­changed un­til Fe­bru­ary 1865. He was on con­va­les­cent leave un­til the war ended. Fol­low­ing the war, Buchanan re­turned to Mary­land, where from 1868 to 1869 he served as pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Agri­cul­tural Col­lege, now the Univer­sity of Mary­land.

Buchanan failed to file the col­lege’s an­nual re­port as re­quired by law. Sub­se­quent in­quiries by the trustees re­vealed he had com­mit­ted the in­sti­tu­tion to $6,000 in debt with­out au­tho­riza­tion. Shortly there­after, he re­signed and moved to Mo­bile, Ala., to head an in­sur­ance com­pany. Buchanan later moved back to Mary­land and died at his es­tate on the East­ern Shore in 1874.

Raphael Semmes was born in Charles County, Md. in 1809. He was a de­scen­dant of one of the first fam­i­lies to settle Mary­land in the 1630s. He en­tered the Navy as a mid­ship­man in 1826. From 1832 to 1835, Semmes took a leave of ab­sence to study law and was ad­mit­ted to the bar.

As a lieu­tenant, he com­manded the brig USS Somers in the early stages of the Mex­i­can War, only to lose his ship and half his crewin a vi­o­lent storm in the Gulf of Mex­ico off Vera Cruz. A court of in­quiry ac­quit­ted him of any wrong­do­ing, and he went on to serve with dis­tinc­tion for the bal­ance of the war.

While on ex­tended leave af­ter the war, Semmes prac­ticed law in Mo­bile. He was pro­moted to com­man­der in 1855. He was as­signed to light­house du­ties un­til 1861, when Alabama’s se­ces­sion prompted him to re­sign from the U.S. Navy.

Ap­pointed a com­man­der in the Con­fed­er­ate Navy in April 1861, Semmes was sent to New Or­leans to con­vert a steamer into the cruiser CSS Sumter. He ran it through the Fed­eral naval block­ade in June 1861 and be­gan a ca­reer of com­merce raid­ing that is per­haps un­equaled in naval his­tory. Dur­ing Sumter’s six months’ op­er­a­tions in the West Indies and At­lantic, Semmes cap­tured 18 mer­chant ves­sels and skill­fully eluded pur­su­ing Fed­eral war­ships. With his ship badly in need of over­haul, he brought it to Gi­bral­tar in Jan­uary 1862 and laid it up when the ar­rival of Fed­eral cruis­ers made a re­turn to sea im­pos­si­ble.

Af­ter Semmes and his of­fi­cers made their way to Eng­land, he was pro­moted to cap­tain and given com­mand of the Bri­tish­built cruiser CSS Alabama. From Au­gust 1862 un­til June 1864, Semmes took the Alabama through the At­lantic, into the Gulf of Mex­ico, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the East Indies, cap­tur­ing mer­chant­men and sink­ing one Fed­eral war­ship, the USS Hat­teras.

At the end of its long cruise, the Alabama was block­aded at Cher­bourg, France, while seek­ing re­pairs. On June 19, 1864, Semmes took it to sea to fight the Fed­eral cruiser USS Kearsage and was wounded be­fore the Alabama was sunk in ac­tion. Res­cued by a Bri­tish yacht, Semmes went to Eng­land, re­cov­ered and made his way back to the Con­fed­er­acy.

In the lit­tle less then two years of the Alabama’s ca­reer, the ship’s crew­cap­tured nearly 70 mer­chant ves­sels, many of which were burned and sunk. Semmes’ vic­to­ries, com­bined with those of James Ire­dell Wad­dell on the CSS Shenan­doah, vir­tu­ally de­stroyed the North’s mer­chant fleet, and it never fully re­cov­ered. Semmes be­came the South’s prin­ci­pal naval hero.

Partly be­cause of his hero sta­tus, Semmes was pro­moted to rear ad­mi­ral in Fe­bru­ary 1865 and com­manded the James River Squadron dur­ing the last months of the war. When the fall of Rich­mond forced him to de­stroy his ships, Semmes again made his­tory by be­ing made a bri­gadier gen­eral and com­mand­ing his sailors as an in­fantry bat­tal­ion. As a re­sult, Semmes is prob­a­bly the only Amer­i­can to have­worn a star while serv­ing in two branches of the mil­i­tary.

Semmes was ar­rested for trea­son and im­pris­oned briefly af­ter the war. The de­struc­tion Semmes caused on the Alabama so em­bit­tered North­ern pub­lic opin­ion that al­though he re­ceived a par­don with other prom­i­nent Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers af­ter the war, his civil lib­er­ties were never com­pletely re­stored. Fol­low­ing his re­lease, he was a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and lit­er­a­ture at the Louisiana State Sem­i­nary (now Louisiana State Univer­sity), was a state court judge and edited a news­pa­per. He even­tu­ally re­turned to Mo­bile and re­sumed his ear­lier law prac­tice.

Semmes also wrote a num­ber of mem­oirs, in­clud­ing those of his ser­vice dur­ing the Mex­i­can War and his com­mands aboard the Sumter and Alabama. His “Mem­oirs of Ser­vice Afloat Dur­ing the War Be­tween the States” (1869) is a read­able sum­mary of his Con­fed­er­ate naval ca­reer and an ex­cel­lent por­trayal of the the­ory of the Lost Cause.

Semmes died in Mo­bile in 1877 and is buried there.

Richard P. Cox is a lawyer and free­lance writer. He is a mem­ber of the Ch­e­sa­peake Civil War Round Ta­ble and lives in An­napo­lis, Md.

Li­brary of Congress

Rear Adm. Raphael Semmes com­manded the CSS Alabama, in­flict­ing heavy losses on the Fed­er­als.

Con­fed­er­ate Mu­seum of Rich­mond

Com­modore Franklin Buchanan com­manded the iron­clad CSS Vir­ginia but was wounded and missed the Mon­i­tor bat­tle.

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