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].

Stephen Douglas Understood Rebels were Resolute

This Stephen A. Douglas campaign silk ribbon sold for $8,125 at a May 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Stephen A. Douglas was known as “Little Giant” due to his diminutive stature and superb oratorical skills. During his successful campaign for reelection to the senate in 1858, he engaged in a series of historic debates with Abraham Lincoln.

The “Great Debates of 1858” were a series of seven debates where the main issue was slavery. Media coverage was intense and major newspapers in Chicago sent stenographers to create verbatim texts of each one.

At the time, state legislators elected U.S. senators. The efforts of both Douglas and Lincoln were designed to enhance the probability of their parties winning the Illinois legislature.

Douglas, as a Democrat, won the senatorial race, but the visibility of the debates significantly elevated Lincoln in national prominence. This led directly to Lincoln winning the 1860 presidential election … defeating Douglas, who ran a weak fourth in the electoral vote behind John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky and even John Bell of Tennessee.

Despite this loss, Douglas was an astute political strategist and quickly realized that supporting Lincoln (and the federal government) was critical to avoiding an all-out civil war. So he launched a grueling speaking tour on behalf of the Union, preaching the need for unity – an effort that was to no avail, as we know.

After Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln proclaimed a state of rebellion and called on Douglas for his advice regarding calling up 75,000 troops to quell it.

Douglas suggested one change: Increase troop size to 200,000, since “you do not know the purposes of these men as well as I do.”

He then died of typhoid fever on June 3, 1861, just weeks after the start of hostilities on April 12. The war would grind on for four years and result in 620,000 deaths.

Douglas was right. The purpose of those men was war.

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].

The 1850s Represented a Challenging Time for America

u-s-senator-jefferson-davis-gold-pocket-watch
U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis presented this gold pocket watch to Franklin Pierce the year Pierce was nominated for president. Pierce was Davis’ favored candidate since Pierce had not openly opposed slavery. This watch sold for $15,535 at a June 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

jefferson-davis-and-franklin-pierceIn 1819, the United States was a divided nation with 11 states that permitted slavery and an equal number that did not. When Missouri applied for admission to join the Union as a slave state, tensions escalated dramatically since this would upset the delicate balance. It would also set a precedent by establishing the principle that Congress could make laws regarding slavery, a right many believed was reserved for the states.

In an effort to preserve harmony, Congress passed a compromise that accepted Missouri as a slave state and Massachusetts would be divided (creating Maine) and admitted as a free state. The passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 earned U.S. Senator Henry Clay the nickname of the “Great Pacificator.”

It was the first real crisis over the slavery issue and kicked the can all the way to the 1850s, however, observers like Thomas Jefferson were profoundly upset. He said just the threat of disunion in 1820 caused him to be apprehensive about the future. He foresaw the potential for civil war, saying, “My God, this country is going to have a blow up. When it hits us, it’s going to be like a tornado.”

Those words would prove to be eerily prophetic.

By the 1850s, the disagreement had splintered into a five-way dispute. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans arguing with the Southern Democrats. The Northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, versus the Southern Democrats through Jefferson Davis. There were heated arguments between Frederick Douglass (and the political abolitionists) and William Lloyd Garrison, who favored non-violent moral suasion, and both against the non-political-process abolition that led to John Brown’s violent actions.

The War with Mexico (1846-48) had fueled these contentious debates since there was no consensus on how to treat the vast new territories of California, Utah, New Mexico or even Texas. After years of wrangling, the Compromise of 1850 put a bandage on it and several other lingering issues (e.g., the Fugitive Slave Act, the banning of slave trade in Washington, D.C.). Neither side was satisfied, but the Union remained intact.

However, the tentative peace was fleeting. When the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, with cooperation between U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, the inevitability of a civil war was finally a stark reality. The election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final straw and seven Southern states seceded, even before his inauguration, to form a new confederacy.

Formal hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on the Federal seaport of Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., and would not end for four bloody years. Even Jefferson’s metaphor of a tornado never contemplated the death and destruction that took place.

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]