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].

Ineffective Leadership is the Last Thing Needed in the White House

franklin-pierce-daguerreotype
This Franklin Pierce daguerreotype, housed in a leatherette case, sold for $15,525 at a November 2003 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Millard Fillmore was the last Whig president and also the last to represent the kind of American nationalism that had appeared during the War of 1812. His successor, Franklin Pierce (1853-57), was a northern Democrat who supported the extension of slavery and a nominee selected by his party in order to win both northern and southern votes. He had praised the Compromise of 1850 and promised to prevent slavery from becoming a national issue.

He was swept into office with the greatest electoral landslide since James Monroe.

A politician’s politician, the curly-headed Pierce never lost an election. At his inaugural ceremony, he stood away from the lectern and spoke extemporaneously; it was more of a sermon than an inaugural address. He challenged the nation with the promise of a bright, prosperous future and his listeners cheered as though they had been delivered at last.

He was also a master of knowing how to get along with all people – evidenced by the fact he is the only president in history who served a complete term without making a single change in his Cabinet. But he totally misjudged the temper of the time, since he regarded the abolitionists as a lunatic fringe that should be ignored. And when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the repeal of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, he unwittingly let loose a storm that made slavery a greater national issue than ever before.

Unable to accomplish much due to a deeply divided Congress, President Pierce still desperately wanted to be nominated for a second term. But just before the Democratic Convention began in Cincinnati on June 2, 1856, reports of bloodshed in Kansas alarmed the country. Armed battles raged between anti- and pro-slavery factions, firing up public anger.

The telegraph wires clicked constantly, with Pierce anxiously reading each dispatch. In the oval room, he read newspapers until his eyes grew too tired and then had his wife read them to him. He followed every detail of the convention, considerably more confident than he should have been. At the convention, Pierce’s supporters abandoned him in favor of Stephen A. Douglas, but the strategy failed and James Buchanan took the prize home to Pennsylvania.

Buchanan was the last of the weak, compromising northern Democratic presidents, more sympathetic to slave owners than to northern abolitionists. When he tried to push through Kansas as a slave state, he infuriated the North and shattered the Southern Democratic Party. As Southern states seceded from the Union, one by one, in the last months of his administration, Buchanan stood by helplessly, unable to take resolute action.

This string of three weak, ineffective men – Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan – clearly demonstrate the unequivocal effects of poor leadership, as the catastrophic violence of a civil war nearly destroyed our young nation.

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].

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]