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].

Link Between Value of Money and Gold a Quaint Relic of the Past

This Serial Number 1 Stephen Decatur $20 1878 Silver Certificate, Fr. 306b, is believed to be the first silver certificate ever produced. It sold for $175,375 at a May 2005 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1961, I was a member of a high-powered bowling team that competed on Tuesday nights at the South Gate Bowling Center in Southern California. We all had 200-plus averages, but only managed to win one league championship in the four years we were together. In February, one of my teammates, Carl Belcher, bowled a perfect game (12 strikes) and received 250 silver dollars from a promotional gimmick the arena used to attract customers. Nobody paid much attention and I personally thought it was an unnecessary inconvenience to lug the sacks to a local bank to get rid of them.

Most of the silver dollars in circulation were probably in Nevada since all the Reno and Las Vegas casino slot machines used them instead of tokens. Even paper currency was printed with the promise to “pay to the bearer on demand … one silver dollar,” which evolved into “one dollar in silver.” For a while, it was possible to get a small plastic bag of silver equivalent to the denomination of the paper currency.

Silver certificates were authorized by two Acts of Congress. The first on Feb. 28, 1878, followed by another on Aug. 9, 1886. These notes are particularly attractive, quite rare and sometimes expensive. At one time, I owned an especially distinguished $20 bill with the head of Captain Stephen Decatur, naval hero of the War of 1812. It was serial number 1 and experts believe that since the Treasury generally printed the $20s first, this note was probably the first silver certificate ever printed. Heritage Auctions auctioned it in 2005 for $175,000 when I sold my currency collection.

However, after Executive Order 6102 of 1933, there were no more gold coins or silver dollars minted in the United States and paper notes were used for denominations above 50 cents. Up to 1964, dimes, quarters and half dollars were minted in 90 percent silver, and half dollars contained 40 percent silver from 1965-70. Even the lowly penny had most of its copper content removed and is now made primarily of zinc, with a thin copper plating.

For 4,000 years, the only period in which civilization has not based its currency on metal, especially gold and silver, is the past 46 years. On Aug. 15, 1971 (“A date that has lived in infamy”), President Richard Nixon announced the temporary suspension of dollars into gold. The White House tapes from the previous week reveal that he thought gold prices would explode after being de-linked since the Federal Reserve would print money like crazy once the currency was not collateralized and this overprinting would affect jobs (unemployment had just gone from 4 percent to 6 percent). And Nixon was “not about to be a hero” (his words) on inflation at the expense of employment.

Then the administration imposed a rigorous regime of wage and price controls, enforced by IRS audits and leverage over federal contracts. The plan failed spectacularly and the 1970s were rife with double-digit inflation, energy shortages and ultimately the “stagflation” that torpedoed both the Ford and Carter presidencies.

Flash forward to today as we are still trying to use monetary policy to solve economic issues and unwilling to even touch the critical fiscal issues that are fundamental to the future economic challenges everyone acknowledges. The only thing that has changed is that there is no need to actually print money when it can be “whistled into existence” via monetary legerdemain called quantitative easing, where the Federal Reserve loans money to the Treasury Department.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the world’s central bankers have materialized $12.25 trillion by tapping on a computer keyboard. For perspective, the value of all the gold that’s ever been mined, according to the World Gold Council, is a mere $7.4 trillion. The historical linkage between the value of our money and its metal content is a quaint relic of the past.

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].

After Disaster of 1812, President Madison and First Lady Recovered Their Legacies

james-madison-circa-1812-meissen-saucer
This James Madison Meissen saucer, circa 1812, sold for $13,145 at a November 2011 Heritage auction. Little material culture was produced during Madison’s presidency.

By Jim O’Neal

Three days after the fall of Washington in the War of 1812, James and Dolley Madison returned in the wake of the British departure. They visited the ruins of the capital and White House, which sunk them into melancholy.

That the president of the United States had been burned out of his house mortified America, and the symbolic impact transcended the sad reality. Madison was accused of cowardice because he had fled, and the press claimed Dolley could have saved more than she did … a lot more. A Washington newspaper even stated angrily that a positive result of burning the White House was that it ended her queenly entertaining.

These difficult times came to a sudden, happy ending with the news of the Battle of New Orleans and the return of the American delegation from Ghent with a peace treaty. The president jubilantly proclaimed the war was at an end. While the glory of the hour went to General Andrew Jackson, both the president and first lady recovered their legacies and good names.

The White House had been burned to a shell, but it was the neatest of fires as the refuse had fallen precisely within the stone walls and no debris was scattered on the grounds. Crews dug for salvage in the deep bed of ashes and rubble that filled the basement, however not much was worth saving. The refuse was simply thrown into a nearby gully and attention turned to rebuilding (an important distinction).

A bill for rebuilding was rammed through Congress in two days to make sure Washington, D.C., remained the capital – and not some more-centralized area beyond the mountains, like Cincinnati, as some had proposed. Any “Phoenix” would rise from these ashes. As President Madison carefully pointed out, “the bill specifically stated ‘rebuilding’ not relocation.”

Considering that it took nearly 10 years to build the first WH, reconstruction moved along quickly, but not fast enough for the man who occupied the unfinished White House in October 1817.

A tall, blush-faced Virginian who looked all of his 58 years, James Monroe was the last luminary of the Revolutionary generation to occupy the presidency. Like George Washington, he had fought in the War of Independence and had been wounded at Trenton. Years later, he served as a delegate in negotiations with France for the Louisiana Purchase. During the Madison administration, he had been Secretary of State and Secretary of War, always with an eye on the presidency.

When he finally reached his goal, he knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. Refusing to act as head of his party, he instead insisted that the war had united all Americans into one and that political parties were no longer needed! He proceeded to usher in “The Era of Good Feelings.”

We miss him.

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].