Until June 2020, Raphael Semmes stood on a traffic median along Government Street in Mobile, Alabama—at least his bronze statue did. On the far side of the intersection, the Bankhead Tunnel plunges below the city street and beneath the empty concrete pad where Semmes once stood, then onward, underground, beneath the Mobile River. When Semmes stood here, he had his back toward the water, but a riverside hotel now blocks the view. That water had once made Semmes an international terror.
Semmes now enjoys a cooler spot out of the Alabama sun. He has been nestled in a nook in the air-conditioned History Museum of Mobile where visitors can now see him up close.
Semmes’ statue once stood on a twelve-foot pedestal, lifting him above the daily throng. Cars passed along either side of the divided street, and motorists caught at the stoplight in any direction might have been able to spare a glance—if they weren’t quickly checking their text messages or chatting with their passengers. Mardi Gras parades marched right past the statue, sometimes adorning it with tossed beads.
The statue’s new placement in the museum sets Semmes on the floor. At eight-feet, six-inches tall, the statue is still larger than life size—part of the perception of Semmes himself as larger than life—but standing as close to eye level as possible creates a much different interaction for a visitor. It’s easier to examine the statue and contemplate both man and sculpture. People can actually look at it rather than glimpse it as they parade or drive by.
The museum has aided this process with panels that explain who Semmes was and how his statue came to be. Dedicated on June 27, 1900, the statue stood in a public space for 120 years until relocated into the museum. During the protests of the summer of 2020, the statue and its base were vandalized, prompting city leaders to remove the statue. A committee of local stakeholders was formed to discuss the statue’s future. Upon the committee’s recommendation, a space was created for the statue in the history museum.
Although one of Mobile’s most famous residents, Semmes was a transplant rather than a native. Born in Maryland in 1809, he moved to the city on the bay after the Mexican-American War. He practiced law and retained his U.S. naval commission until the outbreak of the Civil War, at which time he resigned from the Federal navy to join its newly created Confederate counterpart. Semmes rose to international fame during the war as captain of the commerce raider the CSS Alabama.
Built in Liverpool, England, in 1862, the Alabama captured 65 other vessels over its two-year career, including military and commercial targets. It was finally destroyed off the coast of France in June 1864 by the USS Kearsage. It took Semmes and his crew most of the rest of the year to return to the Confederacy, where they made their way to Richmond and were, of all things, converted into infantrymen. Semmes himself was appointed a brigadier general for the last months of the war.
As one of Mobile’s most famous wartime participants, it’s a little wonder that his admirers chose to erect the statue as a way to commemorate the war’s fiftieth anniversary.
But the same controversy that made Semmes a darling of the Confederacy made him a problematic figure in his own time and continues to make him a problematic figure today. This goes beyond the racial issues that have recontextualized Confederate monuments in our own time. The Confederacy was a government built on the notion white supremacy, and Semmes was an important figure in support of that government. Semmes himself recognized slavery as “the true issue of our war….”
Beyond that, to properly consider Semmes, one must consider: was he a lawfully acting officer of a belligerent nation or was he essentially the captain of a pirate ship?
Commerce raiders are a fact of war. However, international law did not recognize the Confederacy as a legal entity. Thus, the Alabama’s commerce raiding was not an official war act; it qualified as piracy.
So, was Semmes in fact a criminal?
There was, as Kris White explained to me, an effort to file some paperwork to try and lend the Alabama‘s status some legitimacy, although I’ve not had time to dig into yet. I do know, though, that controversy over the Alabama and restitution for the losses it inflicted stretched on for more than a decade after the war. Feelings remained bitter long after.
The general public has little attention span for such technicalities, though, so it’s little wonder residents of Mobile simply saw their adopted son as a Confederate war hero. He led a postwar life as a respected member of the community and worked as a professor at Louisiana State Seminary (the eventual LSU) and as a newspaperman. He died from food poisoning contracted by eating shrimp—as “Gulf Coast” a way to go as I can imagine.
I considered all these things as I admired the Semmes statue in the museum, just as I admired the museum’s efforts to offer a fuller context for the statue.
I know many people advocate leaving statues where they stand in public spaces. If that’s what a public process decides, then so be it. Mobile’s public process chose to offer visitors a different kind of opportunity to interact with their Confederate statue. As a result, I had a much fuller experience with the Semmes statue there, up close, than I would have out in the full sun of a humid Mobile afternoon.
It has left me with much to think about.