Semmes One of Greatest Commerce-Raider Captains in Naval History

The oil on canvas Sinking of the Alabama, circa 1868, by American marine painter Xanthus Smith (1839-1929) sold for $38,837 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

By the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, seven of the Southern slaveholding states had seceded from the Union before even hearings his inaugural address. In it, he declared, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

During the run-up to the 1860 election, Lincoln had chosen not to actively campaign and simply refused to comment on the issue of slavery. However, his Democratic opponent, Stephen A. Douglas (the “Little Giant”) campaigned across the country. In the South, he denounced threats of secession, but warned that Lincoln’s election would inevitably lead to that tragic end.

Capt. Raphael Semmes

I have often wondered if the Civil War could have been averted if Lincoln had taken his inaugural speech to the South before the election or if a civil war was the only alternative to end slavery permanently. I suspect emotions were too high and that many actually hoped for a war, especially after all the heated rhetoric in places like South Carolina.

It became a moot point when barely a month later on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on the Union garrison Fort Sumter and forced it to surrender. Now president, Lincoln announced that part of the United States was in a state of insurrection and issued a call for military volunteers. Four states – Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina – refused to provide troops and instead joined the Confederacy.

As positions hardened, Lincoln proclaimed a naval blockade against the seceded states, however, this was a futile effort since the Navy only had 42 ships to monitor 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline. They started chartering ships for blockade duty and soon there were 260 warships in service. Their task was made easier since the Confederate “Navy” consisted of 10 river craft armed with a total of 15 guns and not a single ship on the high seas.

Even the South’s military mobilization was devoted almost exclusively to ground forces since this was clearly the most urgent short-term priority.

However, one man was determined to change that. His name was Raphael Semmes (1809-1877) from Mobile, and following Alabama’s secession from the Union, Semmes was offered a Confederate naval appointment. He resigned from the U.S. Navy the next day, Feb. 15, 1861, and set off to the interim Confederate capital of Montgomery. There, he met with Jefferson Davis – the newly inaugurated president of the Confederate States of America – and Stephen R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy. He outlined his plan to take the war to the enemy … not the federal Navy (that was too large to challenge), but to the U.S. merchant fleet.

In 1861, the U.S. Merchant Marine was the largest in the world. No one surpassed the skill and ingenuity of Yankee shipwrights in the design and construction of wooden vessels. America’s carrying trade had steadily increased in the 1840s-50s, fueled by the discovery of gold in California, treaty ports in Japan and China, and the whaling fleet that operated from the North Atlantic to the Bering Straits.

Semmes theory was that if Confederate cruisers could disrupt the merchant marine, the powerful shipping interests in the North would force the Lincoln administration to reconcile with the South and end the war. After studying naval commander John Paul Jones, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, Semmes was convinced a weak naval power could neutralize the merchant marine of a more powerful adversary.

President Davis approved the concept and thus launched the career of Raphael Semmes as one of the greatest commerce-raider captains in naval history. Along the way, he traveled 75,000 nautical miles without ever touching a Confederate port and is credited with 64 of the 200-plus Northern merchantmen destroyed by Confederate raiders, many as the commander of the cruiser CSS Alabama. (The warship was eventually sunk in battle with the USS Kearsarge in 1864.)

Fittingly, he is a member of the Alabama Hall of Fame and a monument by sculptor Caspar Buberl (1834-1899) still stands proudly in Mobile … unless, of course, Monument Marauders figure out who he was.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cotton Gin Extended America’s Abhorrent Practice of Slavery

The 1796 patent signed by George Washington for “new machinery called the Cotton Gin” realized $179,250 at a May 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1776, Scottish economist, philosopher and teacher Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a book that helped create a new understanding of modern economics. A pervasive theme was the idea that any economic system could be automatic and self-regulating if it was not burdened by monopolies or artificial trade barriers. This theory has become widely known as “the invisible hand.” It heavily influenced my favorite economist Milton Friedman and his Free to Choose basic philosophy.

One highly topical insight was that slavery was not economically viable and contributed to inefficient markets. Aside from the obvious moral issue, Smith believed slave owners would benefit by switching to a wage-labor model, since it was much more inexpensive to hire workers than own them and provide decent conditions. Buying slaves was much more costly due to ongoing expenses of feeding, housing and caring for workers with a high mortality rate, workers who eventually would have to be replaced.

In the United States, there was also a major disconnect between the concepts of all men being created equal and the cruel practice of slavery, which was prevalent especially in the agrarian states of the South. Although many sincerely believed that slavery would gradually die out, powerful Southern states needed some kind of assurances before they agreed to the new federal Constitution. Section 9 Article 1 of the Constitution barred any attempt to outlaw the slave trade before 1808. Other provisions prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled from other states, and further required them to return “chattel property” (slaves) to their owners. Kicking the issue down the road 20 years enabled the delegates to reach a consensus.

Historian James Oliver Horton wrote about the power slaveholder politicians had over Congress and the influence commodity crops had on the politics and economy of the entire country. A remarkable statistic is that in the 72 years between the election of George Washington (1788) and Abraham Lincoln (1860), in 50 of those years, the president of the United States was a slaveholder; as was every single two-term president.

The passage in 1807 of the Act of Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in America, and the Slave Trade Act in Great Britain marked a radical shift in Western thinking. Even as late as the 1780s, the trade in slaves was still regarded as natural economic activity. Both U.S. and European colonies in the Caribbean depended on slave labor, which was relatively easily obtained in West Africa.

However, it was really the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 that dramatically extended the abhorrent practice of slavery. Cotton was suddenly transformed from a labor intensive, low-margin commodity with limited demand into a highly lucrative crop. Production in Southern states exploded as demand skyrocketed. The number of slaves grew concurrently from 700,000 in 1790 to 3.2 million by 1850. The United States quickly grew into the largest supplier in the world and snagged 80 percent of the market in Great Britain, whose appetite seemed insatiable.

As an economist, Adam Smith was undoubtedly right about hiring workers versus owning them, but everybody was too busy getting rich to worry about optimizing labor costs. And the more demanding abolitionists in the industrializing North denounced slavery the more Southern states were determined to retain it. It would take a bloody four-year Civil War and 630,000 casualties to settle it.

Harry Truman once explained why he preferred one-armed economists: It was because they couldn’t say “On the other hand…”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Henry Wirz Among Most Notorious Confederate Prison Officials

This Civil War-period unmounted albumen print of Andersonville Prison by A.J. Biddle went to auction in June 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

Henry Wirz (1823-65) was born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a tailor. He grew up with an abiding passion for medicine, however, his family had limited resources and his father insisted on a more pragmatic mercantile career. After migrating to America, he ultimately claimed to be a physician and successfully started assisting doctors, despite most certainly lacking any formal training or medical degrees.

At the start of the Civil War, he was living in Louisiana. He enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry and became a sergeant. At the important Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862, Wirz was wounded above his right wrist, which incapacitated him for life. Seven Pines was strategically important since it led to the appointment of Robert E. Lee as Confederate Commander, which had a profound effect on the duration of the war.

In April 1864, (now) Captain Wirz was ordered to Camp Sumter near Anderson in Georgia, where he was given command of the prison that would become known as the infamous Andersonville Prison. It was already crammed with war prisoners and low on critical supplies that would only worsen as the war dragged on. Wirz made a feeble attempt to reorganize, but he lacked the necessary authority and all attempts to gain a promotion were denied. He had the support of superior officers, who called him “major,” but it is not clear if he attained that rank.

Henry Wirz

As the war continued, conditions at Andersonville deteriorated and many prisoners blamed Wirz, describing him as a brutal tyrant. Observers were critical of his accent, excessive use of profanity and outbreaks of rage. By the end of the war, he was among the most notorious Confederate prison officials.

Perhaps because of naïveté or unaware of the North’s anger over prison conditions, he made a tactical blunder and did not join the other prison officials who fled. Instead, he stayed at Andersonville, where he was arrested, taken to Washington and tried on charges of murder and mistreatment of prisoners. A hostile military commission limited his defense against conflicting testimony, found him guilty, and hanged him on Nov. 10, 1865, in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison (near the site where the U.S. Supreme Court stands today).

It was a messy hanging since his neck did not break and he was strangled to death. The trial is controversial yet today. In 1909, the Georgia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to him at Andersonville. It may be a while before monument protestors figure out who he was.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Confederate Torpedoes Wreaked Havoc on Union Vessels

This carte de visite of Lt. Frank Cushing, who led a mission that destroyed the Confederate ironclad Albemarle in 1864, went to auction in November 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

“Torpedo” is a generic name for a variety of naval and land mines employed by the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The word derived from a Latin name for an electric ray fish whose sting numbs its prey. It was first used to describe a weapon in 1776. It was disapproved on moral grounds because targets were struck without warning. The torpedo satisfied the Confederacy’s urgent need to compensate for its inferior strength of arms.

Torpedoes destroyed more Union vessels than all other actions, with 43 sunk or damaged, per best estimates. The psychological effect was obviously incalculable, but it was an important factor. Curiously, only one Confederate vessel fell victim to a Union torpedo … the ironclad CSS Albemarle in Lt. William Cushing’s famous commando raid.

Torpedo manufacturing proliferated with a major factory in Richmond, at Augusta Powder Works, and at many small facilities in various Southern cities. In Atlanta, even wives of naval personnel at the Naval Arsenal pitched in to help (an early version of Rosie the Riveter in World War II). Designs were configured to solve the three major issues: how to deliver the torpedo, how to keep the powder dry, and how to detonate the charge.

Some torpedoes were simply set adrift in a river to strike a ship’s hull in random collisions. Others were anchored and held in “plantations” set at a 45-degree angle downstream. This allowed Confederate vessels unobstructed passage over the frame, but Union ships travelling upstream would trigger explosions on contact.

Another clever variation was the “coal torpedo,” a bomb disguised as a lump of coal and hidden in coal bunkers. Later shoveled into a Union ship’s boiler, it had a devastating effect on the ship, the crew and others near the explosion. A “clock torpedo” smuggled aboard a ship at City Point on the James River created one of the most spectacular and costly explosions of the war.

It is amazing what desperate people will do, even to their fellow citizens, during war. The American Civil War is a tragic example of the horrors that can occur.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

People of South Carolina were Eager, Even Jubilant, to Start an All-Out War

This Confederate albumen photograph of Fort Sumter, taken two days after Union Major Robert Anderson surrendered, sold for $1,875 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Fort Sumter, S.C. – site of the first battle of the Civil War – was located on an artificial island inside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. A pentagon with block walls 300 feet long, 40 feet high and up to 12 feet thick was still under construction in late 1860.

On Dec. 26, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie, at the edge of the harbor entrance, to Fort Sumter to reduce their exposure to an attack. Just days earlier, South Carolina had declared their state an independent republic and they resented the “foreign” U.S. flag. They considered Anderson’s transfer of troops an act of aggression.

They considered it another hostile act when the lame-duck James Buchanan administration sent an unarmed merchant ship with reinforcements in January 1861. As the ship approached Charleston Harbor, shore batteries opened fire and forced it to turn back.

Apparently, few recognized how eager (perhaps more than just eager) the people of South Carolina were to start an all-out war against what they considered the oppression of the North. Some even prayed for it to start.

On Feb. 15, 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress in Montgomery secretly resolved that “immediate steps should be taken to obtain possession of both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens … either by negotiation or force.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis then dispatched three commissioners to Washington to try diplomatic negotiations. However, he also ordered P.G.T. Beauregard (full name Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard) to take command of the harbor and start formal preparations for the use of force.

Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

General Beauregard (one of only eight full generals in the Confederacy … ever) proceeded to extend and enlarge the batteries, targeting the fort. His preparations nearly complete, he advised President Davis on March 27 that expulsion of the Union troops “ought now to be decided in a few days.” Davis replied that Anderson should not be allowed to buy provisions in Charleston.

Want to start a war? Surround a fort with canons … cut off any reinforcements … and restrict its provisions. Then get a match and prepare to light the fuse.

On April 10, Beauregard was ordered to demand an evacuation of Fort Sumter, and if refused, to “reduce it.”

On April 12, 1861, 50 Confederate guns and mortars launched more than 4,000 rounds on an ill-equipped Fort Sumter. They surrendered after 34 hours. Two days later, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the “insurrection.” The president was not willing to start a war over the slavery issue, but the taking of federal property was leading to disunion, something the president was not going to allow, even if it meant all-out war.

The U.S. flag would not be raised over Fort Sumter again until April 14, 1865, exactly four years after the surrender. Who would have guessed? Obviously, few if any of the people who were so jubilant when the war started and so utterly demoralized when it ended.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Newspapers Have Been Rushing to ‘Break News’ for 150 Years

A Nov. 21, 1863, edition of the New York Tribune, which reprinted President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, sold for $632.50 at a June 2005 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Today’s occasionally frenetic journalism began during the Civil War, for two basic reasons.

The first was the telegraph, since this was the first instant-news war in history, and the issue was much like we have with today’s internet. Reports could be filed almost immediately and it resulted in a mad rush to be first with “breaking news.”

The other was steam, used for steam-powered locomotives and the relatively new steam-powered printing presses. Reporters could hop on a train and return to their offices quickly if a telegraph office wasn’t handy. Either way, the demand for timely and accurate news from the front lines transformed American journalism. It was a culture of “Telegraph all the news you can get, and when there is no news, send the rumors.”

They did a lot of that, and the competition was ferocious. New York had 18 daily newspapers, with four or five focused on the war – including the New York Tribune (Horace Greeley), The New York Herald (James Gordon Bennett), and The New York Times (Henry J. Raymond). Of the three, Greeley was the acknowledged celebrity and well-known for his erratic views as opposed to straight news.

He would later challenge President Grant’s reelection in 1872 by splitting the Republican Party, which resulted in the Democrats cancelling their convention and throwing their support to Greeley. So it was Republican Grant against Liberal Republican Greeley … and no Democrats. Grant won easily and Greeley died before the Electoral College could vote (Greeley actually received three posthumous electoral votes).

Bennett may have been the first great genius in American journalism. He had migrated from Scotland after being trained as a Catholic priest, had the finest education, and was devoted to a balanced approach to the news. However, even he occasionally fell victim to rushing to print too fast.

An interesting feature of the “war newspapers” was that each copy was handed around and read by dozens of people. Another is that the armies – both sides – did not report casualties. There were no official lists of those killed, captured or wounded. This was done by individual reporters, who compiled lists and published them. This enhanced reader interest immensely when a reporter was covering specific units where loved ones were involved.

As a group, Civil War correspondents were a motley group of ruffians who called themselves the “Bohemian Brigade.” There was lots of criticism, particularly of The New York Herald, for sending out these hard-drinking characters into the field. Even so, simply substitute today’s gossipy and irresponsible websites for the Civil War telegraph and it becomes perfectly clear how little reporting the news has changed in 150 years.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Insidious Practice of Slavery Violated Every Principle that Men of Goodwill Supported

thomas-hart-benton-slave-master-with-slaves-study-for-the-american-historical-epic
This crayon with pencil and ink on paper by American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), titled Slave Master with Slaves (Study for The American Historical Epic), circa 1926, realized $35,000 at a December 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Slavery was the great exception to the rule of liberty proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and established in the U.S. Constitution. The first African slaves (about 40 in all) were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Va., in 1619 to aid in the production of lucrative crops like tobacco.

By the time of America’s founding, the number had grown to 500,000, mostly in the five southernmost states. Slavery was never widespread in the North, but many profited indirectly by the practice. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states had abolished slavery, but the “peculiar institution” remained absolutely vital to the South.

Even as the U.S. Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic trade flourished, and the slave population more than tripled over the next 50 years. By 1860, it was up to 4 million, primarily in cotton-production areas of the South.

One naive hope had been that slavery would slowly die as a simple matter of business economics. In 1776, Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) argued that the plantation system was uneconomic since slave labor cost more to maintain than laborers paid a competitive wage. But, in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, making slave-based production lower in cost. The insatiable demand for cotton from Europe was irresistible to the southern agrarian-based economy.

Overlooked in all of this was a brilliant insight by Smith. He noted that slavery ended in the Middle Ages in Europe only after the state and church became separate and strongly independent. His insight was that it is nearly impossible to end slavery in free, democratic forms of government, primarily because many of the legislators would also be slave owners and unlikely to act in ways that were not in their best interest.

Similar arguments later appear in the works of French philosopher Auguste Comte, known for his ideas regarding the “separation of the spiritual and the temporal.”

That was exactly the situation in the United States since many of the founders – most notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – owned slaves and the South had always been dominated by self-interest. The obvious implication is that war was not only probable, but inevitable and unavoidable.

So the inexorable forces of profit versus human rights continued to accelerate, with only pauses, as the deeply conflicted country tried to find compromises (e.g. 1820) that simply delayed the inevitability of war. Kick-the-can strategies never achieve anything except temporary lulls.

Quite predictably, ours required a bloody civil war to (finally) reconcile the Constitution and an insidious practice of slavery that violated every principle that men of goodwill supported.

Both Smith and Comte tried to warn us, but their theories did not include any useful solutions, except perhaps to implement a kingdom … the very thing we were fleeing.

Even after 620,000 lives were lost in the Civil War, a number that exceeds all our other conflicts combined … and with the passage of 150 years … we are still struggling with race and inequality as our legislators try to find compromises.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].