Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States Chapter I


The disruption of the American Union by the war of 1861 was not an unforeseen event. Patrick Henry, and other patriots who struggled against the adoption of the Federal Constitution by the Southern States, foretold it in burning words of prophecy; and when that instrument was adopted, when the great name and great eloquence of James Madison had borne down all opposition, Henry and his compatriots seemed particularly anxious that posterity should be informed of the manly struggle which they had made. Henry said, “The voice of tradition, I trust, will inform posterity of our struggles for freedom. If our descendants be worthy of the name of Americans, they will preserve, and hand down to the latest posterity, the transactions of the present times; and though I confess my explanations are not worth the hearing, they will see I have done my utmost to preserve their liberty.”

The wish of these patriotic men has been gratified. The The record of their noble deeds, and all but inspired eloquence, has come down to posterity, and some, at least, of their descendants, “worthy of the name of Americans,” will accord to them the foremost rank in the long list of patriots and sages who illustrated and adorned our early annals.

But posterity, too, has a history to record and hand down. We, too, have struggled to preserve our liberties, and the liberties of those who are to come after us; and the history of that struggle must not perish. The one struggle is but the complement of the other, and history would be incomplete if either were omitted. Events have vindicated the wisdom of Henry, and those who struggled with him against the adoption of the Federal Constitution. Events will equally vindicate the wisdom of Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate patriots, who endeavored to preserve that Constitution, and hand it down, unimpaired, to their posterity.

The wisdom of a movement is not always to be judged by its success. Principles are eternal, human events are transitory, and it sometimes takes more than one generation or one revolution to establish a principle. At first sight, it may appear that there is some discordance between Patrick Henry and Jefferson Davis, as the one struggled against the adoption of the Constitution, and the other to preserve it. But they were, in fact, both engaged in a similar struggle; the object of both being to preserve the sovereignty of their respective States. Henry did not object so much to the nature of the partnership, into which his State was about to enter, as to the the nature of the partners with whom she was about to contract. He saw that the two sections were dissimilar, and that they had different and antagonistic interests, and he was unwilling to trust to the bona fides of the other contracting party. “I am sure,” said he, “that the dangers of this system are real, when those who have no similar interests with the people of this country are to legislate for us—when our dearest interests are to be left in the hands of those whose advantage it will be to infringe them.”


“I am sure,” said he, “that the dangers of this system are real, when those who have no similar interests with the people of this country are to legislate for us—when our dearest interests are to be left in the hands of those whose advantage it will be to infringe them.”

The North, even at that early day, was in a majority in both houses of Congress; it would be for the advantage of that majority to infringe the rights of the South; and Henry, with much more knowledge of human nature than most of the Southern statesmen of his era, refused to trust that majority. This was substantially the case with Jefferson Davis and those of us who followed his lead. We had verified the distrust of Henry. What had been prophecy with him, had become history with us. We had had experience of the fact, that our partner-States of the North, who were in a majority, had trampled upon the rights of the Southern minority, and we desired, as the only remedy, to dissolve the partnership into which Henry had objected to entering—not so much because of any defect in the articles of copartnership, as for want ol faith in our copartners.

This was the wisdom of Jefferson Davis and his compatriots, which, I say, will be vindicated by events. A final separation of these States must come, or the South will be permanently enslaved. We endeavored to bring about the separation, and we sacrificed our fortunes, and risked our lives to accomplish it. Like Patrick Henry, we have done our “utmost to preserve our liberties;” like him, we have failed, and like him, we desire that our record shall go down to such of our posterity as may be “worthy of the name of Americans.”

The following memoirs are designed to commemorate a few of the less important events of our late struggle; but before I enter upon them, I deem it appropriate to give some “reason for the faith” that was in us, of the South, who undertook the struggle. The judgment which posterity will form upon our actions will depend, mainly, upon the answers which we may be able to give to two questions: First, Had the South the right to dissolve the compact of government under which it had lived with the North? and, secondly, Was there sufficient reason for such dissolution? I do not speak here of the right of revolution—this is inherent in all peoples, whatever may be their form of government. The very term “revolution” implies a forcible disruption of government, war, and all the evils that follow in the train of war. The thirteen original Colonies, the germ from which have sprung these States, exercised the right of revolution when they withdrew their allegiance from the parent country. Not so with the Southern States when they withdrew from their copartnership with the Northern States. They exercised a higher right. They did not form a part of a consolidated government, as the Colonies did of the British Government. They were sovereign, equally with the Northern States, from which they withdrew, and exercised, as they believed, a peaceful right, instead of a right of revolution.

A painting of George Washington presiding over the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787. This painting, by Howard Chandler Christy, hangs in the U.S. Capitol. (public domain) From May to September 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention hammered out the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia.

Had, then, the Southern States the peaceful right to dissolve the compact of government under which they had lived with the North? A volume might be written in reply to this question, but I shall merely glance at it in these memoirs, referring the student to the history of the formation of the old Confederacy, prior to the adoption of the Constitution of the United States; to the “Journal and Debates of the Convention of 1787,” that formed this latter instrument; to the debates of the several State Conventions which adopted it, to the “Madison Papers,” to the “Federalist,” and to the late very able work of Dr. Bledsoe, entitled “Is Davis a Traitor?” It will be sufficient for the purpose which I have in view—that of giving the reader a general outline of the course of reasoning, by which Southern men justify their conduct in the late war—to state the leading features of the compact of government which was dissolved, and a few of its historical surroundings, about which there can be no dispute.

The close of the War of Independence of 1776 found the thirteen original Colonies, which had waged that war, sovereign and independent States. They had, for the purpose of carrying on that war, formed a league, or confederation, and the articles of this league were still obligatory upon them. Under these articles, a Federal Government had been established, charged with a few specific powers, such as conducting the foreign affairs of the Confederacy, the regulation of commerce, &c. At the formation of this Government, it was intended that it should be perpetual, and was so declared. It lasted, notwithstanding, only a few years, for peace was declared in 1783, and the perpetual Government ceased to exist in 1789. How did it cease to exist? By the secession of the States.

Soon after the war, a convention of delegates met at Annapolis, in Maryland, sent thither by the several States, for the purpose of devising some more perfect means of regulating commerce. This was all the duty with which they were charged. Upon assembling, it was found that several of the States were not represented in this Convention, in consequence of which, the Convention adjourned without transacting any business, and recommended, in an address prepared by Alexander Hamilton, that a new convention should be called at Philadelphia, with enlarged powers. “The Convention,” says Hamilton, “are more naturally led to this conclusion, as in their reflections on the subject, they have been induced to think, that the power of regulating trade is of such comprehensive extent, and will enter so far into the great system of the Federal Government, that to give it efficacy, and to obviate  questions and doubts concerning its precise nature and limits, may require a corresponding adjustment in other parts of the Federal system. That these are important defects in the system of the Federal Government is acknowledged by the acts of those States, which have concurred in the present meeting. That the defects, upon closer examination, may be found greater and more numerous than even these acts imply, is at least, so far probable, from the embarrassments which characterize the present state of our national affairs, foreign and domestic, as may reasonably be supposed to merit a deliberate and candid discussion, in some mode which will unite the sentiments and counsels of all the States.”

The reader will observe that the Government of the States, under the Articles of Confederation, is called a “Federal Government,” and that the object proposed to be accomplished by the meeting of the new Convention at Philadelphia, was to amend the Constitution of that Government. Northern writers have sought to draw a distinction between the Government formed under the Articles of Confederation, and that formed by the Constitution of the United States, calling the one a league, and the other a government. Here we see Alexander Hamilton calling the Confederation a government — a Federal Government. It was, indeed, both a league and a government, as it was formed by sovereign States; just as the Government of the United States is both a league and a government, for the same reason.

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was an agreement among the 13 original states of the United States of America that served as its first constitution. It was approved, after much debate, by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, and sent to the states for ratification. The Articles of Confederation came into force on March 1, 1781, after being ratified by all 13 states. A guiding principle of the Articles was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states. The weak central government established by the Articles received only those powers which the former colonies had recognized as belonging to king and parliament.

The fact that the laws of the Confederation, passed in pursuance of its League, or Constitution, were to operate upon the States; and the laws of the United States were to operate upon the individual citizens of the States, without the intervention of State authority, could make no difference. This did not make the latter more a government than the former. The difference was a mere matter of detail, a mere matter of machinery— nothing more. It did not imply more or less absolute sovereignty in the one case, than in the other. Whatever of sovereignty had been granted, had been granted by the States, in both instances.

The new Convention met in Philadelphia, on the 14th of May, 1787, with instructions to devise and discuss “all such alterations, and further provisions as may be necessary to render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” We see, thus, that the very Convention which framed the Constitution of the United States, equally called the Articles of Confederation a Constitution. It was, then, from a Constitutional, Federal Government, that the States seceded when they adopted the present Constitution of the United States! A Convention of the States assembled with powers only to amend the Constitution; instead of doing which, it abolished the old form of government altogether, and recommended a new one, and no one complained. As each State formally and deliberately adopted the new government, it as formally and deliberately seceded from the old one; and yet no one heard any talk of a breach of faith, and still less of treason.

The new government was to go into operation when nine States should adopt it. But there were thirteen States, and if nine States only acceded to the new government, the old one would be broken up, as to the other four States, whether these would or not, and they would be left to provide for themselves. It was by no means the voluntary breaking up of a compact, by all the parties to it. It was broken up piece-meal, each State acting for itself, without asking the consent of the others; precisely as the Southern States acted, with a view to the formation of a new Southern Confederacy.

So far from the movement being unanimous, it was a long time before all the States came into the new government. Rhode Island, one of the Northern States, which hounded on the war against the Southern States, retained her separate sovereignty for two years before she joined the new government, not uttering one word of complaint, during all that time, that the old government, of which she had been a member, had been unduly broken up, and that she had been left to shift for herself. Why was this disruption of the old government regarded as a matter of course? Simply because it was a league, or treaty, between sovereign States, from which any one of the States had the right to withdraw at any time, with out consulting the interest or advantage of the others.

But, say the Northern States, the Constitution of the United States is a very different thing from the Articles of Confederation. It was formed, not by the States, but by the people of the United States in the aggregate, and made all the States one people, one government. It is not a compact, or league between the States, but an instrument under which they have surrendered irrevocably their sovereignty. Under it, the Federal Government has become the paramount authority, and the States are subordinate to it. We will examine this doctrine, briefly, in another chapter.