Northern state yields only top Confederate naval officers
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.
Rear Adm. Raphael Semmes commanded the CSS Alabama, inflicting heavy losses on the Federals.
Commodore Franklin Buchanan commanded the ironclad CSS Virginia but was wounded and missed the Monitor battle.