Captain Raphael Semmes of the CSS Alabama is well known to those who have studied the naval side of the Civil War. His exploits around the world in the Confederate States Navy made him a much-needed hero to the people of the South and an infamous pirate to the leadership and merchants of the North. He was, however, not the only sailor named Semmes who fought in the bloodiest conflict this nation has known. Another Semmes, largely unknown, fought with the U.S. Navy in a backwater squadron on the tropical coasts of Florida and gained a reputation there as an aggressive and successful ship commander. Alexander A. Semmes, who finished the Civil War as a lieutenant commander, was Raphael’s cousin. Both were born and raised in Maryland, but Alexander stayed loyal to the Union.1
In the two decades before the Civil War, the small U.S. Navy saw both Semmes cousins serve on various ships and stations around the world. By the time Alexander assumed command of the USS Tahoma in December 1862, he already had seen 22 years of naval service. Starting under sail and transitioning to steam, Alexander was a veteran of skirmishes with the natives at Grand Bereby in Africa in the 1840s, had sailed with the Brazil Squadron in the frigate Congress in 1851, and had fought Russian-American Indians on Puget Sound in the Pacific in 1856.2 Before he came to the East Gulf Blockading Squadron at Key West to command the Tahoma, Alexander had served as a lieutenant on board the steamer Rhode Island and later commanded the steamer Wamsutta, a 270-ton steamer mounting 5 guns with a crew of 75.’ It was during his six months in command of the latter vessel on the South Carolina and Georgia coasts that Alexander was promoted to lieutenant commander.
Alexander’s transfer to the East Gulf Blockading Squadron came at a time when the Navy was rapidly strengthening its forces everywhere in an effort to tighten the blockade. Florida was located close to the blockaderunning transshipment ports of British Nassau and Spanish Havana, and its coastline contained many isolated islands, bays, and rivers that provided shelter to blockade-evading vessels. It was only a two- or three-day sail to make the comparative safety of neutral foreign waters protected by powerful European navies. Manufactured goods and munitions came in through these desolate hide-aways—cotton, turpentine, and cattle made up the outbound cargoes.
As the war progressed and the Navy’s blockade of the Confederacy’s major ports increased in effectiveness, Florida’s shoreline provided one of the last alternative routes for smaller vessels avoiding offshore patrols. By 1863, however, even the vast stretches of the barren Florida seaboard began to see more Union naval activity. Like the other blockading squadrons, the number of ships increased for the East Gulf Squadron—from 18 vessels in April 1862 to 37 vessels in March 1865—and they began to make their presence felt in previously secure Confederate areas.
The squadron covered Florida from St. Andrew Bay (east of Pensacola), around the Gulf to the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys, and up the east coast to Cape Canaveral, for a total of approximately 900 miles of Confederate coastline. During the war, more than 300 captured blockaderunning vessels were brought into the squadron’s base at Key West for disposition.
In many ways, this squadron’s war would prove to be an eerie foreshadow of another war the U.S. Navy would fight on another jungle coastline a century later. It was a war of blockade, penetrations up rivers and bays, sailors battling the enemy ashore in amphibious raids, and joint operations with Union Army units trying to establish bases along the coast. The enemy rarely wore uniforms, seldom stood and fought in large formations, employed guerrilla tactics, and was indistinguishable many times from the pro- Union refugees in island settlements who were dependent on U.S. Navy coastal patrols for protection.
This was the situation Lieutenant Commander Alexander Semmes found in Florida when he arrived to relieve Lieutenant John C. Howell and assume command of Tahoma. Laid down at the Thatcher Yard at Wilmington, Delaware, in October 1861 and launched less than three months later, she was one of the famous “90-day gunboats” that had been ordered in July 1861. The 158-foot Tahoma had a crew of about 100 and was armed with a rifled muzzleloading 8-inch Parrot gun, two 24-pounder howitzers, and two 20-pounder Parrot rifled guns.4
Under Semmes, the Tahoma was assigned to patrol the west coast of Florida, particularly the area of Tampa Bay and adjacent coastline, which gave him room to be flexible and seize the initiative. This he proceeded to do immediately.
In the first six months of 1863, the Tahoma captured seven ships. On 8 January, the sloop Silas Henry was taken, loaded with sea-island cotton, in southeastern Tampa Bay. The British sloop Margaret, bound for St. Marks, was captured 24 miles off St. Petersburg on 1 February. Next came the 50-ton schooner Stonewall, captured off Pea Creek on 22 February. She, like many captured vessels, subsequently was taken into the Navy and used very effectively as an inshore blockading vessel.
In May, the Tahoma seized the schooner Crazy Jane. She was intercepted offshore, northwest of Egmont Key at the entrance of Tampa Bay. She had no name painted on her, nor flag or papers. Her crew claimed to be British but failed to produce any evidence supporting their contention. In the end, her cargo of turpentine and cotton, lack of identification, and location doomed her, and she was sent to Key West like the others.
On 6 June, the Tahoma spotted a schooner lying close inshore under the guns of the Confederate battery at Gadsden’s Point (near present day MacDill Air Force Base) in Tampa Bay. Semmes took the Tahoma close in, then sent three of his boats under the command of his executive officer to capture the schooner. When the boats got within half a mile of the schooner the shore battery opened fire on them. Under the heavy fire of the battery and a field piece drawn up by the Confederates, the men from the Tahoma boarded the schooner and found her aground. Disdaining retreat, they kedged, towed, and sailed her off the bottom and away from the enemy. Meanwhile, the Tahoma provided counter-battery fire with her Parrot gun and silenced the Rebel field gun. The schooner, whose name had been partially obscured by paint, was found to be the Statesman, loaded with cotton.
Nearly two weeks later, 18 June proved a busy day for Semmes and his crew. That morning, approximately seven miles southwest of Anclote Keys off Clearwater, the Tahoma chased a suspicious schooner. Once captured she was determined to be the Harriet, for which there had been an alert since April 1862, when she was spotted in neutral Havana harbor after having run the blockade outbound with cotton. After she was caught by the Tahoma, her captain acknowledged he had tried everything he could think of to avoid being captured by Semmes, to no avail.
Later that same day, Semmes’s crew spotted the schooner Mary Jane, whose crew ran her ashore on a small key near Clearwater Harbor to escape capture. She ended up a total loss, with little of her cargo or equipment being salvageable. What little was saved was taken by the prize crew on board the Harriet to Key West.
This first six months of duty on the Florida coast proved quite successful for Semmes. In the late summer, he was about to get more action—courtesy of Rear Admiral Theodorus Bailey, the squadron commander at Key West. On 20 August 1863, Bailey ordered Semmes to temporary duty in command of a recently captured fast Confederate blockade runner named the James Battle. Semmes was to take her to the coast, from Tampa Bay north to St. Marks, on a three-week expedition to scour the area for enemy vessels and attack any Confederates land bases. Secrecy and disinformation were to play crucial roles in this mission.
Because of Rebel spies in Union-occupied Key West, the ostensible object of the James Battle’s departure from Key West was a routine run of provisions and stores to the blockading ships around Tampa Bay. The former blockade runner was outfitted for the expedition with men, supplies, and equipment from the Tahoma. Several 12-pounder rifled field pieces were loaded on board the James Battle, one of which was to be delivered to the USS Fort Henry, then at Cedar Keys, after Semmes began his return voyage to Key West. In case Semmes needed any additional men for his operations, reinforcements were to be obtained from the ships in the Cedar Keys area. In addition to maintaining utmost secrecy and moving rapidly, another caution in his orders advised he should capture ships at the beginning of his cruise, leaving attacks on towns and or artillery batteries until the return southward.
On 23 August, Semmes took the James Battle out the Northwest Passage channel of Key West, bound for the mainland of Florida. The next day Sani- bel Island was sighted and the James Bat- tie continued north along the coast. At Tampa Bay they met with the USS Huntsville, delivering provisions and receiving some firemen in return. On the 27th, having received more reinforcements from the Fort Henry at Cedar Keys, they proceeded to the mouth of the Suwanee River to capture a British- built Confederate steamer reported to be there.
Upon arrival in the area Semmes’s pilot could not find the channel into the river, and the James Battle ran aground twice. She was gotten off each time, but a third time proved far worse. She lay there, within sight of the Confederates, for 12 days. While she lay stranded and impotent, a steamer came close to shore and Semmes tried to decoy her to him by using the less smoky anthracite coal the James Battle carried from her days as a blockade runner. All that night Semmes could see the mysterious ship offshore and sent two armed boats to the mouth of the river to attack if the vessel made a run toward shore. By the morning of the 30th, however, the stranger had left. Transforming a setback into an opportunity to further the war effort, Semmes used the time aground to send his boats out to chart the surrounding area.
After finally getting afloat on 12 September, Semmes took the James Battle back to the Cedar Keys, where he added the schooners USS Annie and USS Two Sisters to his expedition. He proceeded with his small flotilla to the Rebel haven of Bayport, about 60 miles north of Tampa Bay, where a battery of guns reportedly guarded several Confederate vessels.
Three days later, they arrived off Bayport, and ran into the same problem as at the Suwanee—shallow water with the channel markers removed by the Rebels. Semmes sounded out a channel with his boats to get close enough to reach the enemy battery with his guns. As his boats got closer, they discovered a large 200-foot steamer camouflaged by tree branches. The slow progress of the sailors’ boats alerted the enemy to Semmes’s intentions, and they burned their ship and a cotton warehouse on the bay before the Union sailors could get to them. The Confederates having saved him the trouble of destroying the depot and ship, Semmes left the area with his vessels and returned the various men and ships to their original assignments. He arrived at Key West on 19 September, made his report to Admiral Bailey, and returned to the Tahoma.5
This expedition showed the Confederates their shipping was not safe anywhere. It also gave the Navy valuable in- formation about the channels into the enemy bases on the coast, albeit the hard way.
Semmes’s next adventure was an attack on Tampa. He and Admiral Bailey planned this operation with the goal of destroying enemy ships then lying in the Hillsborough River. These ships, the steamer Scottish Chief and the sloop Kate Dale, had been eluding the blockade for some time.
The operation commenced on the evening of 16 October, with the Tahoma assisted by the USS Adela, a seven- gun steamer. When in position near Tampa, both ships opened fire on the town and the battery protecting it. In an unfortunate twist of fate, the family of Henry Crane, a pro-Union Floridian serving on hoard the Tahoma as a master’s mate, still were in the Confederate town at their home hoping to be exchanged under flag of truce to join other refugees. The family was terrified that evening by the sudden arrival of a shell fragment from the Tahoma that barely missed Crane’s daughter as she sat at the dinner table.
Meanwhile, a landing party of 100 bluejackets from both ships went ashore under cover of darkness and the ships’ barrage. The unit was guided by a determined pro-Union Floridian named J. A. Thompson, who was so ill he was carried on a litter during the operation. They marched 14 miles on a circuitous route until they found the target vessels lying hidden in the river above the town. After capturing several crewmen from the Rebel ships, the sailors set fire to the vessels and made their way back to the rendezvous beach to be picked up. Once there, Confederate cavalry and infantry attacked them, causing considerable casualties. The A dela fired shells into the enemy while a rear guard of sailors defended the landing beach. The coolness of the landing party, embarking under heavy fire, was commended by Semmes and Bailey in their subsequent reports.6
This operation, which cost Semmes 18 men killed, wounded, or captured, was a resounding success. Not only was the main objective of destroying the Rebel ships achieved by a daring and dangerous amphibious operation, Confederate confidence in the security of their base at Tampa was shattered as well. Semmes had made his mark on the war in Florida.
In January 1864 Semmes left the squadron, bound for his own marriage in Baltimore in February. That June he received command of the monitor Lehigh in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. After nine months of very active service in the Charleston area, Semmes was ordered to take the Lehigh to the James River Squadron, where final operations against the Confederate defenses of Richmond were being conducted.
During the time that Alexander was on the west coast of Florida, his cousin Raphael was cruising the world in the Alabama and destroying Union shipping. Three days after Alexander captured the Silas Henry in Tampa Bay, Raphael was on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico sinking the USS Hatteras in the famous battle off Galveston, Texas, on 11 January 1863. As Alexander was writing his report of the successful operation at Tampa in October of that year, Raphael was on the other side of the globe, nearing the East Indies. The day after Raphael lost his ship to the USS Kearsarge in 1864, Alexander was ordered to assume command of the Lehigh. And when Alexander was ordered to take the Lehigh to the James River in March 1865, Raphael already had been there for a month, defending Richmond as a rear admiral and eventually becoming a general commanding the naval brigade ashore in the waning days of the Confederacy.7
After the war, Alexander stayed in the Navy, serving on various ships and stations, and progressed in rank until 18 March 1882, when he was promoted to commodore. On 30 June 1883, he received command of the Washington Navy Yard. Devoted to the U.S. Navy for 44 years, his life ended tragically on 22 September 1885, when he committed suicide while still in command at Washington. He left behind a widow, Mary, and a 12-year-old daughter, Eleanor. His death officially was described as suicide by reason of temporary insanity, which Mary tried without success to have ruled within the line of duty, caused by the stresses of his many years of service. She was successful, however, in receiving a widow’s pension for the rest of her life, which ended in 1917, 53 years after she married the man with the famous last name.8
1. John M. Taylor, Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1994), p. 3.
2. Lewis Randolph Hamersly, Records of Living Officers of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (Philadelphia: L. R. Hamersly & Co., 1890), pp. 451-52.
3. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, 8 vols. (Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1959-1981), vol. 8, p. 88.
4. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, vol. 7, pp. 12-13; Roger Chesneau and Eugene Kolesnik, eds., Conways All The World’s Fighting Ships, 1860-1905 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1979), p. 129.
5. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 30 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922), series 1, vol. 17, pp. 540-542; Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-1865, 4 vols. (Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1966), vol. 3, pp. 7, 21, 34, 77, 91, 96, 112.
6. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, vol. 17, pp. 570-579; George E. Buker, Blockaders, Refugees & Contrabands: The Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 1993), pp. 65-68.
7. Hamersly, Records of Living Officers, p. 452; Taylor, Confederate Raider, pp. 224- 230; Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, vol. 4, p. 83; Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-1865, vol. 5, p. 37.
8. Personnel/medical records of Alexander Semmes, National Archives; Hamersly, Records of Living Officers, p. 452.