The Other Captain Semmes in Louisiana’s Bayou Country

Most with a passing knowledge of the Civil War are aware of Raphael Semmes. His command of the commerce raiders Sumter and Alabama spanned the globe, earning both a reputation as the Confederacy’s ablest seafarer and a rear admiral’s commission. What most are not aware of however, is that Raphael Semmes was not the only Semmes to command a Confederate warship. There was another, Captain Oliver J. Semmes, who also briefly held charge over a vessel opposing United States advances in southern Louisiana.

The name is no coincidence, as Oliver J. Semmes is Raphael Semmes’s son. Another son, Raphael Semmes Jr., was a midshipman at the Confederate naval academy. Unlike his father and brother however, Oliver was not a navy man, instead receiving an appointment to West Point before the war. He resigned during the secession crisis, serving in the Confederate Army.[1] By 1863, Oliver was a captain commanding the First Regular Battery, Confederate Light Artillery.

Postwar image of Oliver J. Semmes, son of Confederate Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes. (Louisville Courier Journal, May 26, 1901)

As the name implies, this artillery organization was a battery in the regular Confederate Army, not the Provisional Army of the Confederate States. It was organized in New Orleans in late 1861 and after the city’s evacuation Semmes brought the battery west, participating in the failed Confederate counteroffensive that became the battle of Baton Rouge where Semmes worked his cannon “manfully himself,” ending 1862 at Fort Bisland defending the banks of Bayou Teche.[2]

There were a series of skirmishes in late 1862 and early 1863 near the battery’s position. In November 1862 the improvised Confederate war steamer J.A. Cotton disabled several US warships attempting to close and capture Fort Bisland. In January US infantry supported four US warships as they assaulted Fort Bisland and disabled J.A. Cotton, which was scuttled as a channel obstruction. In March, USS Diana was disabled by Confederate forces, captured, and placed into service to replace the lost Cotton.

The US warships (from left to right) Calhoun, Diana, and Estrella. Calhoun was a Confederate privateer captured and repurposed while Diana was captured by the Confederates and ultimately placed under Captain Oliver Semmes’s charge. (Harper’s Weekly, May 9, 1863)

In April, Major General Nathaniel Banks began a campaign to sweep Confederate forces from Bayou Teche and south Louisiana. Elements of his XIX Corps demonstrated against Fort Bisland on April 12, 1863, while a flanking force sought to get behind the Confederate position. The captured Diana assisted in holding back the US forces that day, with Confederate General Richard Taylor acknowledging its crew’s “great skill.”[3]

As the Confederates were drawn to the frontal demonstration, Banks’s flanking force successfully got behind them. Furthermore, the officer commanding Diana grew sick overnight. Either because of his father’s reputation or his own as an artillerist, Captain Oliver Semmes was tapped, elevating him to command a warship just as his father was currently doing.

Diana repositioned on April 13 to stem any potential assault by Banks’s demonstrators while General Taylor investigated reports of the flanking column. Captain Semmes began the day by firing on a group of US scouts with one of Diana’s 32-pounder cannon. A shell passed “in dangerous proximity to our little force” one scout remembered, and the group withdrew to the main US line.[4] Semmes then had Diana fire on a pontoon bridge packed with US troops being used to move Banks’s forces from one side of Bayou Teche to the other. Two of Diana’s shells landed close to the pontoons “splashing water on two or three companies” of the 38th Massachusetts Regiment.[5]

Banks continued demonstrations midmorning and the 18th New York Light Artillery Battery and Battery G, 1st Indiana Artillery advanced and fired into Diana. Confederate counterbattery fire continued for two hours, both from Diana and Fort Bisland. “The shot and shell bursted [sic] in front and all around us” one artillerist recalled, “but we paid them back in their own coin, with interest added.” Another recalled how “a 32-pound shot passed over my head and buried itself in the ground but a few feet behind me” and how “at another time, one came bounding down the road … and just missed my gun.”[6]

Diana was struck at least three times in the exchange. One artillery shell tore away Diana’s flag, while another struck the ship, shattering iron plates protecting the steamer’s boilers and exploding in the engine room. Two men were killed and five wounded in the explosion, including Diana’s chief engineer. A third shell struck a boiler, scalding several engineers. Surveying the damage, Captain Semmes sent a note to General Taylor to keep him informed.

The general returned to Fort Bisland and approached Diana. A soldier appeared on deck to speak with him, but was struck by a US shell and “disappeared as suddenly as Harlequin in a pantomime.”[7] Captain Semmes then yelled ashore, detailing Diana’s damage to the general, who ordered it to withdraw up Bayou Teche. As the steamer retreated, the US artillerists and nearby soldiers “applauded with cheers.”[8]

With US forces outflanking them and with Diana withdrawn, Fort Bisland was untenable and Taylor ordered it evacuated that night for Franklin, Louisiana. By dawn of April 14, Semmes positioned Diana alongside the flank of a small line of Confederate defenders at Irish Bend near Franklin “so that her guns could sweep the fields and woods which the enemy had held.”[9] The point was to stall the US flanking column long enough to allow all of Taylor’s forces retreat further up Bayou Teche to safety.

At the April 14, 1863, battle of Irish Bend, Captain Oliver Semmes fired Diana’s guns into the US lines in attempts to stall their advance so Confederate forces could escape. This image shows shells bursting over US lines as they advance towards Confederate positions. (Harpers Weekly, May 16, 1863)

As US forces moved against the Confederate line, Semmes fired Diana’s guns to stall their advance. One US officer was quickly “annoyed by the fire of the gunboat” as shells landed amongst US artillery.[10] It was enough for most of Taylor’s forces to escape, but once the Confederate soldiers withdrew, it left Diana alone and exposed. Captain Semmes kept the ship manned and guns firing, with orders to stall US advances “to the last moment.”[11] Once General Taylor’s forces successfully escaped, Semmes set Diana ablaze. The ship quickly sank as an obstruction so US ships could not proceed further up Bayou Teche and Captain Semmes and his crew became prisoners of war.[12] Semmes’s tenure commanding a Confederate war steamer lasted less than two days.

Semmes’s actions on Diana were quickly recognized by fellow Confederates in Louisiana as “invaluable in covering the withdrawal” from Franklin.[13] He was not aware of this appreciation though, as Semmes was taken to New Orleans and later sent north on the transport Maple Leaf, but he helped lead a revolt on the ship, which landed most of its Confederate prisoners on the Virginia coast. By 1864, Semmes was a major on General Richard Taylor’s staff, where he ended the war. After the conflict, Oliver Semmes hung up his uniform and eventually spent four decades as a judge in Mobile, Alabama, elected on the Democratic Party’s ticket.[14] He died in 1918.

Though Oliver J. Semmes only commanded Diana for two days, his tenure highlights the difficulties of command during the Civil War, especially for Confederate naval forces. They were forced to often rely on improvised warships or those captured from the United States. Especially in the Mississippi River valley, army and naval forces were forced to work together or operate craft alongside one another, often placing military officers outside their comfort zone. His father, Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, likewise ended up out of his comfort zone at the war’s termination when the admiral’s sailors became an artillery brigade in Joseph Johnston’s army. Regardless, I am sure that father and son traded stories about how the soldier ended up briefly commanding a warship while the sailor briefly commanded an artillery brigade.



[1] Richard P. Weinert Jr., The Confederate Regular Army, (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1991), 12.

[2] H.W. Allen to J.A. Seddon, December 12, 1863, Oliver J. Semmes, First Regular Battery Confederate Light Artillery, Combined Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations Raised Directly by the Confederate Government, M258, RG 109, US National Archives (hereafter CSR).

[3] “Report of Major General Taylor,” The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. 1, Vol. 15, 390.

[4] Frank M. Flinn, Campaigning with Banks in ’63 and ’64, and with Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley in ’64 and ‘65 (Lynn, MA: T.P. Nichols, 1887), 44.

[5] “Report of Lieutenant Colonel Rodman,” OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 15, 351.

[6] “Mack’s Battery in Action,” Manchester Democrat and American, June 27, 1863.

[7] Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War, (New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1879), 131.

[8] Harris H. Beecher, Record of the 114th Regiment, NYSV (Norwich, NY: J.F. Hubbard, 1866), 143.

[9] “Report of Major General Taylor,” OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 15, 392.

[10] “Report of Lieutenant Rodgers,” Ibid, 367.

[11] Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, 134.

[12] Prisoner of War Record, Oliver J. Semmes, First Regular Battery Confederate Light Artillery, CSR.

[13] J.L. Brent to Richard Taylor, September 8, 1863, Ibid.

[13] “Judge Oliver J. Semmes Resigns After 42 Years of Service,” The Birmingham News, January 21, 1917.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!