2 years ago

What Mobile’s iconic Semmes statue says about the debate over Confederate monuments

June 26, 1900, had been a record-setting day in Mobile, dumping 12½ inches of rain in 12 hours. And stormy weather threatened again on the 27th.

But that did not stop thousands of people from showing up at the base of Government Street downtown to honor a local hero of the War Between the States, as the Civil War still was commonly called in the South. By 5 p.m., according to the Mobile Daily Register, an “immense crowd” that included ladies in “summer costumes and beautiful hats” ignored the “ugly black squall” to the east and filled out Royal Street and Duncan Place. They took up the sidewalks and galleries in the surrounding neighborhood.

In front of them sat a giant platform constructed for the unveiling of a bronze statue of Raphael Semmes, a Confederate admiral whom historians later would recognize as the most successful raider of commercial vessels in maritime history.

It is hard to imagine the scale of the presentation. Mayor J.C. Bush, city council members and other public officials sat on the left, while the late admiral’s daughter, Electra Semmes Colston, and other relatives sat on the right. The platform also housed the Semmes Camp No. 11 of the United Confederate Veterans and members of the press.


The Alabama National Guard looked on as the Excelsior Brass Brand banged out “Dixie” and other tunes as a prelude to the afternoon’s speeches. Dignitaries included Edward P. Allen, the Catholic bishop of Mobile, and William J. Samford, who at age 17 had commanded the 46th Alabama Infantry and was in the middle of campaigning for what would be a successful run for governor of Alabama.

The newspaper drew a military metaphor in its description of the proceedings in coverage that took up nearly the entire front page of the next day’s paper: “For about an hour, the dark nimbus clouds were marshalling their flames there, much as an army is marshalling in battle array.”

In his address — interrupted by rain but continued once the assemblage had taken cover indoors — Samford seemed not to consider that possibility that future generations of Mobilians and Alabamians would be any less enthusiastic about bronze-and-granite tributes to “our great men and women” during the noble cause.

“That posterity, failing to appreciate and perpetuate the worth of its ancestors, will itself leave for its posterity nothing worth preserving in marble,” he said.

The Daily Register, in a separate article, agreed, saying, “We shall not likely hear one word of criticism from any respectable quarter of the Union for the passions of war have subsided, and all observers are able to recognize in Semmes the highest form of patriotism a noble bravery, and a chivalry that would have done credit to the proudest knight of the middle ages.”

It should be noted that, in fact, high regard for Semmes was not unanimous. Putnam’s Magazine of New York wrote a scathing review of Semmes’ memoir a few years after the Civil War, concluding, “There never was a meaner, more ungallant enterprise than that of the ship-scuttling skipper of the British pirate Alabama.”

Contemporary controversies

Future generations, as well, very much did question the nobility of Semmes and other Confederate giants immortalized in bronze and marble in Mobile and throughout the country. A movement to remove Confederate statues — through both legal means and outright vandalism — has gained steam since last year’s violent demonstrations by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA.

State law prohibits local officials from disturbing the Semmes statue that overlooks the entrance to the Wallace Tunnel and has been a fixture in the Port City for more than a century. But a group called “Anonymous” last year included the Semmes statue on a hit list of Confederate monuments it wanted removed by destructive means.

The Semmes statue still stands, but the controversy raises two questions few Alabamians likely ever contemplate — who, exactly, was Semmes, and how did his statue come to be?

The inscription on the statue does a decent job of giving the highlights: He was a “Sailor. Patriot. Statesman. Scholar and Christian Gentleman.” The details have filled seven biographies.

The second question is important because critics have argued that the Confederate memorials had less to do with honoring the veterans of the Civil War and more to do with intimidating blacks during the Jim Crow era. They note that many of the statues went during the civil rights movement.

Alabama circa 1900 was a thoroughly racist society, to be sure. The year after the statue unveiling, Alabama voters would ratify a constitution riddled with explicitly racist language and provisions enshrining segregation. But if motivation for the Semmes statue was racial oppression — decades before the civil rights movement — there is no evidence of it in the exhaustive newspaper coverage at the time. None of the speakers quoted in the Daily Register articles on the ceremony mentioned racial superiority or segregation laws.

Samford, the Confederate veteran, was the only speaker to mention race at all — and then in order to dispute the notion that slavery was the cause of the war. He allowed that it was “possibly one of the fuses to the magazine.” But the true causes, Samford insisted, centered on “the right of each state to manage its own domestic institutions.”

Said Samford, “It was in defense of these fundamental principles that she staked all on the result of the great conflict.”

Semmes the man was a good deal more complicated than Semmes the legend. Born in 1809 to a family that traced his roots to colonial times, he spent his early years on a tobacco plantation with slaves in southern Maryland. After his parents died, he went at a young age to live with an uncle in Washington’s Georgetown community.

There, Semmes developed a love of books and the sea. In 1826, he won appointment to the U.S. Navy and chaffed over the next two decades at the slow pace of promotion during times of peace. During long periods on land, with reduced pay from the Navy, sailors had to find other ways to supplement their income. Semmes did so as a lawyer, an occupation he would pursue off and on for decades.

Marrying an abolitionist’s daughter

Semmes later moved to Cincinnati and courted the 17-year-old daughter of the couple who owned the house where he boarded. It was an odd-couple pairing in many ways. He was a devout Catholic 10 years her senior, from a slave state. She was the daughter of a prominent Protestant preacher and abolitionist.

Yet, Semmes and Ann Elizabeth Spencer married in 1837, shortly after his promotion to lieutenant.

Four years later, the family moved to Alabama. Semmes bought property near modern-day Josephine on the western bank of the Perdido River in Baldwin County. The property, which he called Prospect Hill, offered him easy access to Pensacola, where he was stationed in the Navy. It also gave him a ready income source for the lengthy down times — harvesting trees with the help of rented slaves.

Semmes later moved to Mobile in order to find better educational opportunities for his children. He bought three slaves to help his wife maintain the house during his many months at sea.

Semmes’ service during the Mexican-American War brought him, coincidentally, in close contact with a young Army lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant. The two future Civil War combatants manned howitzers on opposite sides of a church roof as the U.S. military fought its way into Mexico City in 1847.

Semmes’ views on race and a host of other subjects were well-documented in meticulous ship logs he kept during his long Navy service, surviving letters that he wrote and two memoirs.

Those writings leave little doubt that he believed in the superiority of the white race. In addition to the slaves he rented and the ones he owned, Semmes defended the institution in his writings. In his autobiographies, he described slavery in paternalistic terms, arguing that the institution offered blacks the best life.

In “Service Afloat and Ashore During the Mexican War,” he argued the Mexican peasants lived worse than American salves. As he put it, “the master bestowing upon his slave the kindly feeling which is naturally inspired by those who are dependent upon us, and the slave, in return, regarding himself as a member of his master’s family, and more or less identified with his interests.”

In his second autobiography, “Service Afloat During the War Between the States,” Semmes downplayed the role of slavery in the conflict. “Such was not the fact,” he wrote. In the book, he recounted a conversation with a British captain during the war in which he supposedly told the seaman that the North used slavery as an excuse to justify robbery “by means of its tariffs” against the South.

“The slavery question was one of the implements employed, to help on the robbery of the South,” he wrote.

But Semmes contradicted not just the consensus of modern historians about what the war was about, but his own earlier writings. In logs he kept on the CSS Sumter in 1861, Semmes wrote that “we were fighting the first battle in favor of slavery.” He wrote that “the true issue of the war” was “an abolition crusade against our slavey property.”

@BrendanKKirby is a senior political reporter at LifeZette and author of “Wicked Mobile.”

2 mins ago

McCutcheon endorses Chris Lewis in AL-05 GOP primary — ‘Time to make a change’

Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) on Thursday announced his endorsement of Congressman Mo Brooks’ (AL-05) Republican primary challenger, Chris Lewis.

In a brief video filmed outside the State Capitol and released by Lewis’ campaign, McCutcheon explained his support.

“Many people and organizations across North Alabama have discussed with me that it is time to make a change in our congressional seat,” the speaker said. McCutcheon represents parts of Madison County and Limestone County.

He further spoke to Lewis’ service in the United States military.

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Lewis is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval War College. He retired as a commander from the Navy after 23 years of service. His extensive experience reportedly includes multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, service as a strategic analyst for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a decade of defense acquisition experience and Contract Transition Team Lead for Arnold Engineering Development Complex at Arnold Air Force Base.

“Chris has proven his commitment to our nation through his military service,” McCutcheon remarked.

The speaker also highlighted some of the groups who have endorsed Lewis’ bid, including the Alabama Farmers Federation’s political arm.

“I believe Chris has the heart of a servant leader and would be a fine congressman for North Alabama,” he concluded.

Brooks has been endorsed for reelection by President Donald Trump.

The primary will be held on Tuesday, March 3.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

7 Things: UAB battling the coronavirus, ‘Teachers Bill of Rights’, activists want Madison County to ignore marijuana laws and more …

7. Ban on an occupational tax passes

  • The City of Montgomery wanted to tax people who worked in the city but didn’t live in the city, which is essentially a tax on a job, but the Alabama legislature didn’t think this was a good idea and have killed it.
  • The tax on non-residents has been a problem for legislators for years, but the bill would not repeal any occupational taxes. It just stops city councils from implementing new ones without legislative approval.

6. Senate committee advances death penalty bill

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  • The bill by State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) that would shorten the appeals process for death penalty cases has been advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee and will now move to the full Senate.
  • The bill seeks to remove having to go through the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and just going straight to the Alabama Supreme Court, but will still provide the ability to appeal on the federal level.

5. Aniah’s Law passes

  • The bill that would allow judges more ability to deny bail for those who are accused of violent crimes has been passed by the Alabama House of Representatives.
  • State Representative Chris Brown (R-Mobile), the sponsor of the bill, said, “Too many of those who are accused of violent crimes are bonding out of jail and committing even more serious offenses, and it is time for law-abiding Alabamians to start fighting back.”

4. Bernie Sanders is in first and he can beat Trump

  • In new polling data released by Fox News, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is the frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary with 31% polling, while former Vice President Joe Biden slips to second with 18%, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in third with 16%, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has 12% in fourth place and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is down in fifth place with 10%.
  • Biden looks good in the most recent polling out of South Carolina which has him leading Sanders 36 to 16%. A big victory in the Palmetto State could give new life to Biden’s flailing campaign.

3. Decriminalizing marijuana in Madison County

  • A letter sent to Madison County leaders by the Madison County Democratic Executive Committee, League of Women Voters of the Tennessee Valley, UAH College Democrats and the NAACP of Huntsville requests that marijuana be decriminalized.
  • The letter states that “to improve the public safety, social equity, and overall well-being of our community” the county should stop arresting people for marijuana possession and also “drop all criminal charges related to cannabis possession,” claiming that this “will help ease racial disparities in community policing, allowing greater enforcement emphasis on crimes that have victims.”

2. Students need to start respecting their teachers

  • Legislation that’s been deemed the “Teacher Bill of Rights” is being considered, which would give teachers 10 rights, including being able to discipline students, remove students from the classroom and to “be treated with civility and respect.”
  • An attorney for the Alabama Education Association Clint Daughtry explained, “Teachers are … the only group of college-education professionals that I know of that run the risk on a daily basis of being hit, kicked, slapped, scratched, what have you.”

1. UAB helping solve the coronavirus crisis

  • With coronavirus wrecking the stock market, a panic is underway, but the University of Alabama at Birmingham has been researching and developing the drug remdesivir through the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center; that same drug is being used to treat coronavirus patients across the United States and in China.
  • The work to develop the drug was funded by a grant awarded by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee after U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) became the chairman. Shelby said that this research “could help save thousands around the world.”

3 hours ago

Sessions: Tuberville’s position on trade undermines Trump’s negotiating position

Trade has been at the forefront of public policy discussions in recent days, especially as President Donald Trump has taken a more hawkish approach to the issue in his first term.

That has especially been true with regards to U.S. trade policy regarding China, a nation in which Trump has used tariffs as bargaining tool.

During an interview with Huntsville radio’s WVNN, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in November, applauded Trump’s approach. However, he also took a dig at his opponent, former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, who Sessions said referred to himself as a “100% free trader.”

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“[China] has got to come to the table,” he said. “You have got to use tariffs to bring them to the table. And if we bring them to the table, we’ll be able to begin a real historic change in their behavior and help American manufacturing. That’s one of the reasons I’m running. Both the border and this need to be done within a year or two of taking office.”

Sessions argued Tuberville’s position on trade undermined Trump’s negotiating ability, given the contrast.

“And I’ve got to say — Tommy Tuberville said he is a 100% free trader,” Sessions added. “He said he opposes tariffs. And he even said he didn’t agree with Trump’s China policy. This is cutting his legs out from under him, making it harder for him to negotiate. The last thing we need to be doing is undermining President Trump’s negotiating position. We’re going to win that negotiation, I’m telling you. And we’re going to make this situation better with China, and we’re going to keep winning in the future.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.

3 hours ago

Tuberville vows to give salary to veterans’ causes if elected — Tells Bradley Byrne, Jeff Sessions ‘to have some manhood about you’

Former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville’s comments about the Trump administration’s handling of veterans’ issues last August 2019 at the Shoals Republican Club have been a focal point of the contest for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat up in November.

“I’m pissed off at Donald Trump that our vets can’t get health care,” Tuberville said, speaking to the group at the time. “And if I ever get to see him, I’m going to tell him that. You said you were going to fix it, and it ain’t fixed. And that’s who we ought to be taking care of — these young men and women.”

During an appearance on Birmingham talk radio’s 99.5 on Thursday, co-hosts Andrea Lindenberg and Matt Murphy asked Tuberville to address those remarks, which have been used by opponents in political advertising against his candidacy.

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Tuberville said he was upset not with just President Donald Trump but everyone, including himself. As a show of his concern, he pledged to donate his U.S. Senate salary to veterans’ causes.

“Everybody is responsible — the president, me, you, out Congress because they have done something nobody else will do, which is protect this country,” he said. “My salary — you know what I’m doing? I’m going to come on your show once every few months, and I’m going to give my salary, a check, to a veteran or a wife that has lost her husband, or their kids to go to school. I’m not taking one dime, and I’m giving it to the veterans. I stand and put up when I talk. I don’t just talk about it. I’m going to do it. So, yes — I’m mad at everybody.”

When asked if he had any regrets about his statement, he reiterated his support of the president but indicated those remarks were an indication of his willingness to “tell it like it is.”

“Listen, I’m 100% behind Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s the best thing to happen to this country since I’ve been on this earth in terms of getting things done. But he knows. He understands. And he is doing as much as he can. It’s kind of like me getting chewed out for losing a football game when our offensive line didn’t block anybody. He’s got people working for him. But who is going to get the blame? The president is going to get the blame. The head coach is going to get the blame. I’m going to tell it like it is, and if folks don’t like the way I tell it — don’t vote for me because I’m going to tell it. I’m not a politician. I’m not one of these career politicians who is just going to go up there and take a paycheck and hide when there’s a tough vote, or there is something tough that needs to be said about somebody. And I’m going to call it out. But I’m telling you right now: Our veterans need help. They need help now. Not next week, not next year.”

Tuberville also used the discussion about his comments as an opportunity to criticize his opponents former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope), who he called on to “have some manhood about you.”

“Listen, I’m not going to be a ‘yes man,'” he said. “The people in Alabama deserve somebody who is going to speak for them. And if I need to say something to the president or the leader of the Senate, or secretary of state, I’m going to speak my voice. I’m not going to go up there as a dang puppet. These guys, as you said — Sessions got fired. He has got no business running for this job because he is not going to be respected when he goes back. Bradley Byrne — he turned on the president before he was even elected. And they’re getting on the knees, crawling now to tell people they’re supporting President Trump. My gosh, have some manhood about you. Speak your piece. What did you do it for? Speak your piece.”

“Jeff Sessions did more to protect Hillary Clinton than he did Donald Trump,” Tuberville added. “You think about that — and it really tees me off.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.

4 hours ago

Rocket City Trash Panda’s Toyota Field receives certificate of occupancy

MADISON — On Thursday, Hoar Construction, the City of Madison and BallCorps, LLC announced that Toyota Field, the new home for the Rocket City Trash Pandas, was officially awarded its Certificate of Occupancy, marking the official end of construction of the ballpark and certifying that the facility conforms to local building code requirements.

Hoar Construction, the general contractor on the project, broke ground on the new stadium in November 2018, and have since completed the project on time and within budget according to a release issued by the Trash Pandas.

The Rocket City Trash Pandas, owned by BallCorps, LLC., will serve as the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels.

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(Rocket City Trash Pandas)

Even though the Trash Pandas will not play their inaugural home game against the Mississippi Braves until April 15, the park will see action before then. The University of Alabama-Huntsville and the University of Montevallo will face off in a three-game series that begins on March 20 and ends with a double-header on March 21 in Gulf South Conference play.

Ralph Nelson, managing partner of BallCorps, LLC and CEO of the Rocket City Trash Pandas, applauded Birmingham-based Hoar Construction.

(Rocket City Trash Pandas)

“This is a landmark moment that was made possible through the remarkable commitment and creativity displayed by all of the design and construction professionals who turned our vision into reality,” Nelson said in a statement. “Hoar Construction has been a trusted partner throughout this journey, and we’re pleased to have reached a successful conclusion together. Our fans can now see for themselves that baseball is officially back in North Alabama.”

(Rocket City Trash Pandas)

“The day our team has been waiting for has finally arrived, and it’s extremely gratifying to see the transformation from a dirt field to a top-shelf ballpark in just 14 months,” said Michael Raymond, Assistant Project Manager at Hoar Construction. “BallCorps and the City of Madison have been fantastic to work with and provided the flexibility Hoar and its trade partners needed to successfully execute a very complex construction job. Without question, this is now one of the finest minor league ballparks in America.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.