Let’s talk history — hard not to nowadays — and revisit a parade.
There was a city holiday, so thousands packed sidewalks, balconies and “hung from windows” to watch soldiers, horses and the Excelsior Band. It was the June 27, 1900 gala to unveil the statue of former Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes near the foot of Government Street. Historic accounts say the bronze artwork was financed by the Ann T. Hunter Auxiliary of the Adm. Raphael Semmes Camp #11 of the United Confederate Veterans.
Those veterans joined Mobile Mayor J.C. Bush, Catholic Bishop Edward P. Allen and other officials on the big platform around the cloaked statue. Semmes’ daughter freed the canvas, “the band struck up ‘Dixie’ and the Alabama State Artillery fired an admiral’s salute — 17 guns,” according to the next day’s Mobile Daily Register. A Confederate veteran waved his old regiment’s banner.
Born in Maryland in 1809, Semmes bounced between naval service and law practice, and then moved to Mobile in the 1840s. Upon Alabama’s 1861 secession, Semmes commanded the CSS Alabama and spent years raiding American merchant ships.
When the Civil War’s tempest calmed, Semmes returned to Mobile. In 1871, locals presented him with the house that’s now a Government Street historic site. He died in 1877.
Semmes pushed “Lost Cause” revisionism in published memoirs with a dense and pedantic defense of the Confederacy. He portrayed “gay and dashing cavaliers” guarding their “intellectual and refined” Southern life against the “gloomy, saturnine and fanatical” Yankees from a “coarse and practical” civilization.
The defiant admiral denied slavery as secession’s cause, citing U.S. belligerence instead. Among his named aggressions were blockage of Southerners’ pursuit of runaway slaves and prevention of legal slavery’s expansion. Still, he admitted in 1861 ship’s logs, “We were fighting the first battle in favor of slavery,” that the war’s “true issue” was “abolition of our slave property.”
What I never saw from his pen was consideration of what slaves endured. They seemed immaterial. Semmes rented slaves to work his Baldwin County property and had slaves in his Mobile home. It’s clear in Semmes’ writings he believed blacks innately inferior.
Past slavery was erased in the statue’s dedication ceremony.
“These Confederate monuments, they celebrate a version of the past in which slavery is vanished and white slaveholders and soldiers of the Civil War fighting for the Confederacy are all glorified,” historian John Giggie, Ph.D., told me in 2018. Giggie is an associate professor at The University of Alabama and serves as the director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South.
In 1901, Alabama drafted a new state constitution. Anniston lawyer John B. Knox presided and told colleagues that African Americans were incapable of self-governance. Convention minutes spelled it out as “white supremacy by law.”
“It was part of an effort to culturally establish white supremacy as public ideology. With the 1901 Constitution, you have a visual landscape being erected that complements efforts to disenfranchise blacks and implement white supremacy across the state,” Giggie said of the statuary’s role.
So, when the band played “Dixie” and the statue was visible, so were the sentiments behind it. Coincidentally or not, lynching peppered Mobile in following years. Disrespect for the dignity of life became generational.
On June 25, 2000, Mobile replicated the dedication ceremony for the statue’s 100th anniversary. The commander of Adm. Raphael Semmes Camp #11, now of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), told a newspaper the statue is “the most important piece of historical outdoor art in the city.”
It was recently vandalized, and protests against its presence roiled. The same mayoral administration that protected it against rumored destruction in 2017 now elected to remove it from public view under darkness’s cloak.
Media said the mayor’s office called the move “temporary.” I’ve heard no clarification yet, but public passions rage for now.
Maybe it will get new context, be relocated to the Semmes house or another museum. The most intellectually honest move might be providing its background on an accompanying plaque. Maybe we finally learn from history and not just worship it.
My cynicism remembers 2003, when another local SCV group pressured city officials to admonish then-Museum of Mobile Director George Ewert for published criticisms of “Lost Cause” mythology. City Council President Reggie Copeland demanded Ewert apologize publicly and Mayor Mike Dow chastised the historian. That flap cost Mobile an extensive historical collection that would have perfectly complemented the rediscovered slave ship Clotilda.
Regardless of the statue’s fate, sore feelings will result. Guaranteed.
On the statue’s dedication day, the public ignored an “ugly, black squall” looming nearby. That could prove difficult this summer, in a season of gathering storms.
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