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.)

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