Personal Recollections on Raphael Semmes
By Judge Saffold Berney, Mobile, AL.

As printed in Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXXIII, No. 9, September 1925.


The civilized world is so familiar with the public side of Admiral Semmes, his skill and daring as a sailor and his illustrious career as an officer in the old United States navy and afterwards as commander of the Confederate Steamer Alabama, that I will write only of him as a man, as a citizen, neighbor, and friend, whose home after the war was in Mobile, and whose honored remains are interred in Mobile soil.

Raphael I. Semmes was born September 27, 1809, in Charles County, MD., a county in the southern protion of Western Maryland, bordering on the Potomac River, and not far south of Washington City. Maryland was settled by the best blodd of England and France in 1632, under a grant to the second Lord Baltimore, and has always been noted for the character of its people - their culture, education, hospitality, sterling worth, and pride pf ancestry. Admiral Semmes came of the best of this Maryland stock, and his birth and environment were such as to produce the great man he turned out to be.

Shortly after the close of the War between the States, the Admiral removed his family to Mobile and continued to reside in Mobile until his death. Some time afterwards he was elected probate judge of Mobile County, but was unable to qualify because of his political disabilities, which, I believe, were never removed.

As a young man in 1834, while awaiting orders as past-midshipman, he had studied law with a brother in Maryland and had been admitted to the bar in that State. Coming, like nearly all Confederate officers and soldiers, out of the war poor and under the necessity of working for the support of himself and family, he naturally turned to the practise of the law for that support, and, opening a law office in Mobile, began its practise. When I first knew him his law office was on the south side of Conti Street, near Royal, in a small one-story brick building, which has since been removed. The firm was R. & O. J. Semmes. The words "R. & O. J. Semmes, Attorneys at Law" remained painted on the front wall for seven years after the Admiral`s death in 1877.

The first time I ever saw the Admiral was in 1873, when, as a young man, I removed to Mobile to live. He was then sixty-four years old. After that, and until his death, I saw him many times, and came to know him quite well. being myself a lawyer, I frequently saw him in the courts, and heard him try cases in court. My recollection of him is quite distinct.

As to his personal appearance, his statue on Government Street in Mobile is a good likeness of him, as he appeared in life. He was of medium height, slenderly, but well and compactly built, high forehead with hair brushed well back, clear-cut features, penetrating eyes, set deep in his head, well defined nose, thin lips, firm mouth and chin, clean shaven, except for a heavy moustache, hair turning gray, erect, with the active step and carriage of a naval officer.

In manner he was quiet, and reserved, but not, as some supposed him to be, brusque or austere. Whatever of brusqueness or austerity there seemed to be about him, grew out of his military training, his habit of command, the intensely active and absorbing life he had led as a sailor, and the great responsibilities that had rested upon him during his career as a Confederate naval commander. While, sailor like, he was not given to words, he was quite easy to approach, affable and pleasant in conversation, and kind and agreeable in his intercourse with his fellow men; always respectful to the courts, and, accustomed to and knowing, the necessity of submission to authority, respected and aquiesced in their rulings. His knowledge of law, and particularly of admiralty law, was accurate and extensive. He prepared his cases carefully, and handled them well in court. He had the esteem and confidence of everyone, and his practise was good considering the times, the scarcity of money, unsettled conditions, and the few years he had been at the bar.

In his daily walk in life, as he quietly and unassumingly went in and out among us, practising law for his daily bread, like any other ordinary mortal, there was nothing in his manner of the great man, of the famous Admiral Semmes, of the world-renowned sailor, whose name at one time was on every mans tongue and whose fame will last through the centuries to come. After his death, as I passed by his little law office and read his name on the wall, I often thought of this great man, working there for bread like the rest of us, and of what must have been his thoughts, as he sat there in the quiet hours of the nigbt, and his active, restless brain wandered back over the scenes of the past. Gone was the Confederacy, which he had served so faithfully, and for which he had given up his all. Dispersed and scattered were the brave men who had sailed the seas with him and helped to make his fame. Gone were all the ambition, hopes, and illusions of his earlier life, and gone his expectation of future preferment in his chosen calling of the sea. He had given up his position in the old navy and the certainty of high rank and comfortable pay if he had remained in it, to cast his lot with the South, and had gone down to defeat with the South. Now, what was before him? What might he expect from the world? Nothing but the opportunity to labor till the end, in the then poorly paid practise of the law.

He who was born to command, who`s word ahad been law, who had made the name "Alabama" a household word throughout the world and shed a glory upon it that will never fade, must plod along in the obscurity and drudgery of a law office. But he was the same brave soul in adversity that he was in the days of his greatest triumphs, and he went about his new-found duties cheerfully and uncomplainingly.

The occasion upon which I saw the Admiral to his best advantage was when he unveiled the Confederate statue in the "Soldier`s Rest" in Magnolia Cemetary, in Mobile, April 1874. April 26 of that year falling on Sunday, the annual memorial exercises over the Confederate dead were observed on the next day, Monday, April 27. The day was bright and beautiful. A southern spring in all its radiance was with us, and flowers were in profusion; such a spring as that in 1861 when our men went to Virginia, many of them never to return. Business of all kinds in the city ahd been suspended during the hours of the exercises, and the gathering at the cemetary was the greatest I have ever seen there. After prayer, and the singing of several verses of "Conquered Banner," and a beautiful address by the orator of the day, Rev. Dr. Palmer, of New Orleans, the Admiral, who had been chosen to perform the service, proceeded to unveil the statue. He stood with uncovered head and dressed in a plain black suit, on the base of the monument, erect, alert, and with all the fire of the old Admiral burning in his eyes. As he stood there in this attitude, several United States army officers, stationed in Mobile, advanced to the base of the monument, and, in the name of the officers in the United states Army in the city, presented the Admiral with an exquisite floral offering which was appropriately received by him. Then, holding in his hands the cords that were to release the covering which hid the statue, looking down upon the surging crowd around him, and catching the inspiration of the mopment, he delivered a short, elequent speech, in which he told us of the history of the monument, and for what it stood. Then, while the crowd stood with uncovered heads, he drew the veil aside and presented the statue to our view, while the cannon boomed, and the band played "Dixie."

We little thought then that the Admiral`s career here on earth was drawing to its close. A little more than three short years afterwards, at 7:20 O`clock, on Thursday morning, August 30, 1877, he died at Point Clear, Ala., at the age of sixty-eight years. With his grief-stricken family about his bedside, and with his hand clasped in that of a pious priest who pointed his way heavenward, the great Admiral sank to rest. His remains were brought to Mobile the next day and taken to the Cathedral, where the solemn rites of the Catholic Church were performed over them, and they were then interred in the Catholic Cemetary in Mobile. In the city, the tributes of respect where evreywhere to be seen; banks and stores were closed and business of all kind suspended during the funeral hours, and every half hour, from sunrise to sunset the cannon`s boom was heard.

His grave is covered with a plain, white marble slab bearing the simple inscription, "Admiral Raphael Semmes," and beneath his name is inscribed the name of his beloved wife, who has followed him to the grave.

I often go to the Catholic Cemetary, for it is an attractive spot, and I never go there that I do not visit the Admiral`s grave, and the grave of Father Ryan, which is nearby, for in different ways both graves possess a peculiar interest to me. In one sleeps a great sailor, whose skill, daring, and restless activity swept the seas of an enemy`s commerce and for several years baffled and defied its navy; in the other, that sweet anger, the poet priest of the South. But the Admiral`s grave particularly impresses me, for I think of what restless activity , what greatness rests beneath the simple slab and how quietly the great man sleeps after life`s fitful fever.