By Jeff McCord
How the South’s “Pirate” Helped Establish the U.S. Virgin Islands
With no exaggeration, Captain Semmes noted in his memoirs, “the very mention of my name had the same effect upon the Yankee Government as shaking a red flag before the blood-shot eyes of an infuriated bull.” There’s ample evidence that Raphael Semmes prowled Virgin Island and nearby waters — first in his converted merchant vessel, the C.S.S. Sumter, and later in his notorious warship C.S.S. Alabama, a fully rigged sailing and steam ship that could out-run virtually every naval vessel of her era. Both ships required coal and provisions and Danish St. Thomas and other neutral European owned Caribbean islands offered everything needed, including ports in which captured Union merchandise could be sold.
The C.S.S. Alabama, alone, captured and burned at sea fifty-five Union merchant ships valued in the many millions of dollars. She also sank the U.S.S. Hatteras in a revealing battle off Galveston, her first combat action. Semmes won the engagement through subterfuge. When the Hatteras spotted the Alabama and came close to investigate, hailing her for identification, Semmes shouted back through the speaking trumpet that she was the neutral HMS Spitfire and then fired a broadside into the hapless Union ship.
Semmes followed this same strategy in most hostile encounters, earning a reputation as a “pirate” within U.S. Navy circles. Time-after-time, when spotting a Union ship on the horizon, Semmes would use steam power as needed to overtake the target, then raise the British flag. When the relieved Union captain raised the stars and stripes in reply, Semmes quickly hauled down the Union Jack, ran up the Confederate ensign and captured his prey.
In his popular book, “The Cruises of the Alabama and Sumter,” published in London in 1864 during the War, Semmes described the sad fate of one captured merchant ship, after he took off her crew and cargo:
“It was about ten o’clock at night when the first glare of light burst from her cabin-hatch. Few can forget the spectacle. A ship set fire at sea! It would seem that man was almost warring with his Maker. Her helpless condition, the red flames licking the rigging as they climbed aloft, the sparks and pieces of burning rope taken off by the wind and flying miles to leeward, the ghastly glare thrown upon the dark sea as far as the eye could reach, and then the death-like stillness of the scene.”
Semmes was well aware that writing such scenes captured the imaginations of journalists and the public. He courted both in the South and North. In 1863, for example, while visiting the French island of Martinique, Semmes wrote a taunting, public letter to the New York manufacturers of a popular patent medicine that consisted mostly of St. Croix rum:
“I regret to inform you that twelve cases of your most beneficial Plantation Bitters found on board the Ariel, will not reach their destination, having been transferred to my vessel . . . Sirs, I trust you will not fail to freight each vessel likely to cross my path with Plantation Bitters and I will guarantee to place a case in the hands of [Confederate] President Davis.”
In a fine example of Yankee ingenuity and marketing prowess, the Bitters’ makers published Captain Semmes’ entire letter in a January 11, 1863 New York Times ad:
“[We] are exceedingly obliged to the gallant Captain for such a capital advertisement . . . [It] is but a sample of the widespread fame of Plantation Bitters. No [product] before ever performed so many cures . . .They are just the thing for the weak, debilitated and careworn of all ages and conditions of life, acting as a gentle stimulant and thorough tonic. ”
Although readers likely found the ad humorous, President Lincoln did not. The U.S. Navy had been devoting enormous resources trying to capture Semmes. Beginning in 1861, for instance, the U.S.S. San Jacinto, the first propeller driven steam frigate in the U.S. Navy, began searching the West Indies. In October, her Captain, Charles Wilkes, wrote his Washington superiors about his meeting in St. Thomas harbor with the U.S.S. Powhatan, a side-wheeler frigate built in Virginia’s Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and the U.S.S. Iroquois, which had been among the first American ships to visit Japan in the 1850s when Commodore Matthew Perry opened diplomatic relations and trade with that reclusive nation.
At St. Thomas, the San Jacinto, Powhatan and Iroquois coordinated their searches for Semmes. And, one month later, in November, 1861, the Iroquois caught up with him in French Martinique. But, the ostensibly neutral French authorities helped Semmes and his ship escape.
Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (who later purchased Alaska for the U.S. from Russia) concluded that America needed its own Caribbean island as a naval base. Lincoln agreed and Seward opened negotiations with Denmark to purchase St. Thomas. Although talks stretched until after the War was concluded, the U.S. and Denmark actually reached a sales agreement in 1866, but Congress never ratified the deal. Instead, it was not until 1917 during World War 1 that the U.S. finally bought the Danish West Indies, renaming them the U.S. Virgin Islands.
At War’s end, Semmes, by then a Confederate admiral, was arrested by U.S. forces in Richmond and charged with piracy. After being held for a few months, he was released and permitted to go home to Mobile, Alabama where he practiced law, taught at a college and became a journalist. Tragically, he died at age 67 after eating some bad shrimp. The Caribbean exploits of Captain Semmes are a sub-plot in my fact-based novel, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea.”
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on Amazon.com: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.