Monday, December 29, 2008

Holiday Reading

I've been using some of my holiday "downtime" to locate, buy, and read additional books related to the project. Added to the collection: Norman Delayney's John McIntosh Kell of the Raider Alabama (Thanks to John Taylor for the recommendation!); Shark of the Confederacy by Charles Robinson III, and Spencer C. Tucker's Raphael Semmes and the Alabama. While each taught me something new, Robinson's volume was especially valuable because it includes information I had read elsewhere without attribution. especially in Boykin's Ghost Ship of The Confederacy , while Robinson's work is thoroughly notated. Boykin tells a good story, but he attributes nothing, perhaps exhibiting his background in advertising.
I've also purchased a new engraving:

It was originally published in The Soldier in Our Civil War, 1885. I'm aware of the controversy over the desecration of books by folks who take volumes apart and sell the individual pages, but this illustration had already been removed, the damage already done. And for what it is worth, the illustration will likely be more appreciated and loved in its new home than hidden away where it was. Or is that just me trying to justify my purchase?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Comet Connection

We're certainly not the first to note it, but the appearance of a comet the same day both of Raphael Semmes raiders went to sea is another part of the marvelous lore about the man and his vessels.
The Sumter escaped from the mouth of the Mississippi on Sunday June 30th, 1861 and on that first night at sea, Semmes sees what becomes known as The Great Comet of 1861 (C/1861 j1) It had been "discovered" the previous month. Then, on August 24, 1862 at Midnight, Bullock leaves the Alabama on the Bahama for Liverpool. As he leaves, “Swift’s Comet” blazes across the star-filled sky…the first appearance of that comet since 1739.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Day 1862, CSS Alabama

(From the log book of Capt. Raphael Semmes, Thurs., Dec. 25.)

The second Christmas since we left our homes in the Sumter. Last year we were buffeting the storms of the North Atlantic, near the Azores; now we are snugly anchored in the Arcas; and how many eventful periods have passed in the interval! Our poor people have been terribly pressed in this wicked and ruthless war, and they have borne privations and sufferings which nothing but an intense patriotism could have sustained...

Our crew is keeping Christmas by a run on shore, which they all seem to enjoy exceedingly. It is, indeed, very grateful to the senses to ramble freely over even so confined a space as the Arcas, after tossing about at sea in a continued state of excitement for months... Yesterday was the first time I touched the shore since I left Liverpool on the 18th of August last.

My thoughts naturally turn on this quiet Christmas-day, in this lonely island, to my dear family. I can only hope, and trust them to the protection of a merciful Providence. The only sign of a holiday on board tonight is the usual “splicing of the main-brace”, giving Jack* an extra allowance of grog."

(*Ordinary seamen on the ship.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Books Etc.

As this photo shows, the archival materials we've been collecting continue to accumulate...the "thumbs-up" bookends are intended to inspire a positive frame of mind about the project, despite the economy! The Confederate money (top left) is a .25 bill issued in Montgomery on January 1, 1863 (it somehow cost more than a quarter now...inflation I suppose.) The postcard of the 1901 Semmes statue in Mobile (top right) was mailed to an address in a Berlin suburb on September 16, 1905.
In addition to these physical objects, both of our computer hard drives have big segments devoted to our favorite Civil War ship and her Captain.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Humor? Political Commentary? None of The Above?

During our day-at-The-Archives in Montgomery, Bob and I noticed at the bottom of one particular bond the signature of the Captain....with a hand drawn flourish around the end of his signature with the word "Seal" added.

It was Captain Joseph J. Brown of the steamer Montmorenci, boarded by The Alabama on November 25, 1861, who added that little unofficial "seal". Was the Captain making a statement, and not a complimentary one, about The Alabama and/or Semmes? Was he making a joke? Or am I reading too much into what may have been a common occurrence?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

This month in CSS Alabama History

Dec 2, 1863 Alabama arrives at the French Island of Pulo Condore. Lt. Kell builds a partly submersible compartment. Ship’s pumps keep the compartment clear of water as the careened hull is scraped.

Dec 3, 1861 Sumter captures and burns The Vigilant.

Dec 5, 1862 Alabama captures and bonds The Union.

Dec. 5, 1864 President Lincoln requests the sternpost of Kearsarge, with an unexploded shell from the Alabama imbedded in its timbers, be cut out and transported to Washington, D.C., where it can be seen today in the Naval Historical Center.

Dec 7, 1862 Alabama captures and bonds the California steamer The Ariel off Cuba with 700 passengers on board including 150 Marines.

Dec 10, 1846 While chasing a blockage runner during the Mexican War, Semmes loses the USS Somers in a storm. Forty-six crewmen are lost. Semmes is later cleared of any wrongdoing and assigned to The Raritan, where he shares quarters with Lt. John Winslow, who had also just lost a ship, the brig Morris, on a reef off Vera Cruz, Mexico. The two hard-luck officers would later meet under much different circumstances off the coast of Cherbourg, France.

Dec 11, 1860 Semmes writes from his position at the Lighthouse Board in Washington, D.C., “The great government under which we have lived so long, and prospered so greatly, is probably destroyed.”

Dec 11, 1861 Sumter is crippled by a cyclone.

Dec 1864 Semmes, returning from England by way of Mexico after the sinking of Alabama, meets son Oliver in Louisiana. They travel together to Mobile.

Dec. 15-21, 1865 Semmes arrested at his home in Mobile, taken to New Orleans, and then shipped to New York on board the steamer Costa Rica, exiting the mouth of the Mississippi River by the same route he used in 1861 to run the Union blockade in the Sumter.

Dec. 21, 1863 Alabama sails into Singapore.

Dec. 24, 1863 Alabama captures and burns The Martaban, which is actually The Texas Star attempting to avoid capture with an ownership and name change.

Dec. 25, 1863 Alabama spends Christmas Day at Malacca.

Dec. 26, 1863 Alabama captures and burns The Sonora.

Dec. 26, 1863 Alabama captures and burns The Highlander, by some accounts displaying the new flag of the Confederacy for the first time.

Dec. 27, 1865 Semmes arrives in New York City under arrest, staying at the Astor House, the same place he stayed in 1861 while shopping for ships for the Confederacy.

Dec. 29, 1865 Semmes, under arrest, is taken by train to Washington, D.C. and kept in the dispensary of the Navy Yard for five days, after which he is moved to the attic. During confinement he pens a diary which now resides at the Alabama Dept. of Archives and History. The Dahlgren gun, reportedly the weapon that eventually destroyed the Alabama in her battle with the Kearsarge, was invented at the Navy Yard where Semmes is held captive.

Dec. 31, 1864 Kearsarge crewmember Joachim Please, an African-American sailor, is awarded the CMO for his actions during the battle with Alabama.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Feeling the spirit of Raphael

Sure, maybe it was the fact that Thanksgiving was just 48 hours away, or that the Christmas Season was underway, but when we spent several hours at the Alabama State Archives in Montgomery on November 25, actually seeing some of the documents associated with The Alabama and The Sumter and Admiral Semmes...well let's just say it was an amazing feeling to actually touch The CSS Alabama logbook (cotton gloves notwithstanding) that was on board till Saturday, June 17, 1864; to see the actual sketch Semmes made, perhaps the very first documentation showing how to sail a ship through a hurricane...and to hold one of the bonds Semmes demanded in return for releasing a prize. We had both been so immersed in our research and reading that finally actually seeing and touching the artifacts was truly awe inspiring. Our archives journey was for planning purposes, in advance of the day we go to shoot video.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Eye-witness to final battle helps sketch the action

During the battle between the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France on June 19, 1864, John Lancaster and family witnessed the event from their steam yacht The Deerhound. Like the Alabama, the Deerhound was built by Laird shipbuilders of Liverpool.

Immediately following the sinking of the Alabama, the Deerhound picked up Raphael Semmes and many other Alabama officers and crew. There were allegations that Deerhound’s presence had been pre-arranged, especially after the yacht dropped the Alabama survivors off in England instead of handing them over to The USS Kearsarge. These allegation were denied by Semmes, Lancaster, and others.

In recent correspondence with John M. Lancaster in Great Britain, a descendant of John Lancaster of The Deerhound, we were apprised that among the passengers on-board the steam yacht that day were John Lancaster’s 22-year-old son Robert, a lawyer. Soon after the battle, Robert sketched the action of the Deerhound picking up survivors. He sent his sketch to The London Illustrated News, which employed a professional artist to render a version based on Robert’s sketch. This illustration with accompanying article, including a letter from Robert, was published July 2, 1864, less than two weeks after the battle. An excerpt is below.

The newspaper report erroneously listed Robert, instead of his father, John, as the owner of The Deerhound.
The Illustrated London News, vol. 45, no. 1266, p. 2.
July 2, 1864
We are now enabled, by the courtesy of Mr. Robert Lancaster, of Hindley Hall, Wigan, to present our readers with another Illustration of the same subject, which appears on our front page. Mr. Lancaster is the owner of the yacht Deerhound, which was present during the whole of the battle, and which was happily instrumental in saving the lives of Captain Semmes, thirteen officers, and twenty-six men of the Alabama, when they had leaped into the water as their ship went down. Mr. Lancaster says in his letter, which accompanied this drawing:--

"I have endeavoured to take the sketch just at the moment the Alabama was going down. We were then about one hundred yards from the sinking vessel, and about twice that distance from the Federal ship, and between the two.

Our two boats were a little ahead of us and pulling towards the wreck and the crew, most of whom had jumped overboard and were floating about on loose spars and other things.

One of the Alabama's boats, after having taken the wounded on board the Kearsarge, returned and picked up another boatfull, and then came alongside the Deerhound, where, to prevent her falling into the hands of the Federals, she was sunk by some of the Alabama's men.

The sides of the Kearsarge were very much cut up, nearly all the chain-plating being exposed on the starboard side.

Just as the Alabama went down, the mainmast, which had been struck by a shot, fell. The Kearsarge's boats were not lowered until after the Alabama had disappeared altogether.

I shall be most happy if this sketch will be of any use to you. It is the most correct you will be able to get as to the position of the vessels and boats."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Semmes/Big Apple Connection

Admiral Semmes was no stranger to New York City.

September 8, 1826. The teen aged Semmes is called to duty in The U.S. Navy. He reports to the U.S.S. Lexington in New York Harbor.

March, 1861 Semmes searches that same harbor for ships to buy for the fledgling Confederate Navy. (He found none.) He stays at Astor House, a prominent Hotel favored by New York City's politically connected.

October 19, 1862 Semmes takes The Baron De Castine and loads on board the prisoners from the last three ships he's burned. He sends the ship into NY Harbor...knowing what impact the arrival will have: In Service Afloat, he later wrote " There must have been a merry mess in the cabin of the Baron that night, as there were the masters and mates of three burned ships. New York was " all agog " when the Baron arrived, and there was other racing and chasing after the "pirate," as I afterward learned.

October 23, 1862 The CSS Alabama was just 250 Miles from New York City, and Semmes wants to attack, to “fire the ships he found there”.

Semmes hated the city. Almost from the day he took his first Yankee "prize" (ship), the New York City newspapers had conducted a campaign against Semmes, calling him a "pirate" and spreading lies about his activities. On October 28, 1862 , when The Alabama burned the Lauretta, Semmes told her captain to send a sarcastic message to Mr. Low of the New York City Chamber of Commerce, thanking them for the "complementary" resolutions they had passed in regard to the Alabama. “The more the enemy abused me, the more I felt complemented.”

October 29, 1862 Chief Engineer Freeman delivers the bad news to Semmes. There isn't enough coal left for the attack. Master’s Mate George Fullam writes in his log: “We were considerably startled and annoyed. To astonish the enemy in New York harbor, to destroy their vessles (sic) in their own waters, had been the darling wish of all on board.”

Attacking New York City had actually been proposed six months earlier. On March 7, 1862, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory wrote to Captain Franklin Buchanan, Commander of the CSS Virginia:

SIR: I submit for your consideration the attack of New York by the Virginia. Can the Virginia steam to New York and attack and burn the city? She can, I doubt not, pass Old Point safely, and in good weather with a smooth sea could doubtless go to New York. Once in the bay she could shell and burn the city and the shipping. Such an event would eclipse all the glories of the combats of the sea, would place every man in it pre-eminently high, and would strike a blow from which the enemy could never recover. Peace would inevitably follow. Bankers would withdraw their capital from the city. The Brooklyn Navy Yard and its magazines and all the lower part of the city its magazines and all the lower part of the city would be destroyed, and such an event, by a single ship, would do more to achieve our immediate independence than would the results of many campaigns. Can the ship go there?

(Capt. Franklin Buchanan never did attack New York. He was later promoted to ranking officer in the Confederate navy and surrendered to David G. Farragut in the battle of Mobile Bay on Aug. 5, 1864.)

December 16, 1865
Arrested by Federal Troops in Mobile, Semmes is taken to New Orleans on the steamer Louise.

On December 20, 1865 they board the steamer Costa Rica bound for New York, which they reach eight days later. Again, he stays at The Astor House. But this time as a prisoner in transit, under guard. "Strange Reminiscences" he writes in his "prison diary". A sailor still, Semmes makes frequent reference to the weather conditions as part of his entries.

(Semmes was taken from NYC to the Washington Navy Yard where he was held prisoner until the new Johnson Administration decided there wasn't enough support...or evidence... to put him on trial. He's released on April 7, 1866 and returns to Mobile.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This Month in CSS Alabama History

Nov. 2, 1862 CSS Alabama captures and burns The Levi Starbuck.

Nov.6, 1863 CSS Alabama captures and burns The Amanda.

Nov. 8, 1862 CSS Alabama captures and burns The Thomas B. Wales.

Nov.10, 1863 CSS Alabama captures and burns The Winged Racer.

Nov.11, 1863 CSS Alabama captures and burns The Contest.

Nov. 13, 1864 Semmes travels with son Oliver from Alexandria, VA to Mobile, AL.

Nov. 15, 1925 Arthur Sinclair, last survivor of the CSS Alabama, dies in Baltimore, MD.

Nov.19, 1862 CSS Alabama escapes from Fort DeFrance, eluding the USS San Jacinto cruising offshore.

Nov.30, 1862 CSS Alabama captures and burns The Parker Cook.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Raphael Semmes' two very different stays at Knox Hall in Montgomery

Raphael Semmes was a guest in Montgomery at Knox Hall at least twice. He stayed there on the eve of the Civil War...on February 18th, 1861, as the guest of the home's owner. The ante-bellum Greek Revival house was built by Architect Stephen Button in 1848 for William Knox, the Father-In-Law of one of Semmes cousins. Knox met Button in 1846 while serving on The Montgomery Building Commission. The Irish born Knox had founded The Central Bank of Montgomery, the first institution to lend monty to the new Confederate Government. He lived in the house with his wife Anna and their fourteen children.

Semmes first stay in Knox Hall came when he returned to Montgomery from a CSA military shopping trip to Washington, D.C. He had left the Capitol by train just as Abraham Lincoln's Inaugural was getting underway. He arrived in the new Capitol of the Confederacy just in time to witness Jefferson Davis sworn-in as President.

At the war's end...three weeks after Semmes surrendered to Federal Parole Officers in Greensboro North Carolina...on May 25, 1864, Semmes again stayed in the Greek Revival Knox home.

In between the two visits, Semmes used his naval expertise on both The CSS Sumter and The CSS Alabama to go on a Northern-commerce destroying tour of much of the world. That still-unmatched achievement will be the focus of our documentary.

Friday, October 31, 2008


We are the Co-Producers of a documentary in production at Alabama Public Television about the Confederate Civil War ship The CSS Alabama and her Captain, Raphael Semmes. We started on this path in 2007 when we received a review copy of the most recent of many books about the man and the ship: Wolf of The Deep: Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama, by Stephen Fox.

At the time, Tim was hosting an interview program on APT, so he booked the author as a guest during Fox's scheduled publicity trip through Montgomery that Fall and set about to read the book. "I've lived in Alabama since 1976, but I didn't grow up here, and my knowledge of the Civil War was rudimentary to say the least. Stephen's book was amazing! I was now greatly looking forward to the interview, which was taped on August 2nd and aired on August 5th.
Bob has always been a History Buff, and he too read the book and found the subject fascinating." Late in the year, Stephen e-mailed us and suggested a documentary...and we were off.

Wolf of The Deep was recently released in paperback.

We have already interviewed Fox, as well as the head of the CSS Alabama Association, Robert Edington, Admiral Semmes Great-Great Grandson Oliver J. Semmes III, Phillip Nassar, the Mobile attorney instrumental in preserving U.S. interests in the remains of the ship, and the chief conservator at the Museum of Mobile Shea McLean, who has worked extensively on preserving artifacts from and of the ship and her crew.

As of this first posting on this brand new blog, we are knee deep in planning the out-of-state-and-country journeys we'll have to make to tell the full story, for The CSS Alabama was born and died far from the Confederate State whose name she bore. She was built by a British company in Liverpool, and sunk on June 19, 1864 off the coast of France in the last battle between sailing ships in history.

Raphael Semmes 200th Birthday will fall on September 27th next year, and while we would like to have the documentary air on that date, it probably won't be quite ready. But the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War is in the Spring of 2011, and we anticipate growing interest in all things related to it as we approach that anniversary year.

This blog is very much a work in progress! We hope you will stop by often and offer advice!

Bob Corley and Tim Lennox

Montgomery, Alabama