MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – The statue of Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes remains in limbo, as Mobile and cities across the South re-evaluate tributes to soldiers from the Civil War.
But it is likely most Mobilians know little about the man behind the statue. He is best-known for his service in the great conflict of the 19th century, but contrary to what some might think, he played no role in the state’s greatest conflict – the famous battle of Mobile Bay.
The details of Semmes’ life fill seven biographies. The inscription on the statue summarizes his life like this: “Sailor. Patriot. Statesman. Scholar and Christian Gentleman.”
In reality, Semmes was full of contradictions. He was a fiercely loyal Mobilian who was born and raised in Maryland and spent a majority of his life outside Alabama. He was a slave owner who married the daughter of a prominent abolitionist from Ohio.
He was a career naval officer who did not merit much note until the war made him a legend. He spent the war sailing around the world looting Union vessels. Historians have described him as the most successful raider of commercial ships in maritime history.
But it is the issue of slavery that has his place above the Bankhead Tunnel under fire. It has been nearly a week since the city removed the statue in the dead of night. City leaders have not said what they plan to do with the monument long term, while Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has threatened a lawsuit under a law forbidding local governments from removing Confederate monuments at least 40 years old.
If Semmes is a controversial figure now, however that decidedly was not he case in June 1900 when city leader unveiled the statue that would stand for 12 decades.
A massive crowd gathered at Royal Street and Duncan Place for the event, which took place after a deluge. In fact, the rains would return, driving the ceremonies indoors.
But weather was no deterrent to citizens excited about honoring their favorite son. The throng spilled on to the sidewalks and galleries in the surrounding neighborhood, according to news accounts at the time.
Dignitaries included Mayor J.C. Bush; the late admiral’s daughter, Electra Semmes Colston; and the Catholic bishop of Mobile, Edward P. Allen. William J. Sanford – who was running what would be a successful campaign for governor – was one of the featured speakers.
Perhaps foreshadowing the current debate, Sanford spoke of the importance of remembering Semmes. The Mobile Daily Register quoted him as saying, “That posterity, failing to appreciate and perpetuate the worth of its ancestors, will itself leave for its posterity nothing worth preserving in marble.”
Semmes’ views on slavery were conventional for the time, which is to say he supported the institution. He both owned and rented slaves, and although never a large-scale slave holder, he supported the Southern cause in his contemporary writings.
His writings also provide a window into how early Southern revisionism started. In his post-war memoir, “Service Afloat During the War Between the States,” he insisted the issue of the conflict was tariffs, not slavery.
One interesting historical footnote: Semmes fought in the Mexican-American War and found himself manning howitzer on a church room outside Mexico City. On the other side of the roof was a young Army lieutenant who would go on to fame and power – Ulysses S. Grant.