A Confederate sailor is laid to rest


As 20th century salvage divers removed a cannon from the Confederate States battleship, the "Alabama," they found a sailor’s skeletal remains. When his ship, was sunk off the coast of France on June 19, 1864, this sailor would never have imagined that his funeral would be held 143 years later in Mobile, Ala.

Since the "Alabama" was commanded by Captain (later Admiral) Raphael Seems of Mobile, it was decided that the sailor’s remains should be buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile along with six Confederate generals and several hundred Confederate soldiers and sailors who already rested there.

The Confederate States had commissioned John Laird and sons, a ship-building company in Birkenhead, England, to build the "Alabama" in 1862. Although the vessel had only been in service for three years when she was sunk by the United States battleship "Kearsarge," she had offered a decided threat to Atlantic shipping, and her destruction was a priority of the United States Navy. On June 11, 1864, the "Alabama," greatly in need of repair, had docked at Cherbourg, France. Several United States vessels, including the Kearsarge blocked her in the Cherbourg Harbor. On June 19, Admiral Semmes decided to fight rather than to surrender. The naval battle took place so near land that people gathered on the shore to watch the action.

The funeral service for this sailor who lost his life during that naval battled was conducted in the parlor of the home of Admiral Semmes, a structure which now belongs to the Mobile Baptist Church. The wooden handmade casket rested on two saw horses and was draped in the Confederate battle flag. On a nearby table a kerosene lamp burned while on another table a large vase of wildflowers were place at the side of a framed Great Seal of The Confederacy done in needlepoint. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Admiral Raphael Semmes , resting on easels, flanked the casket.

After the service, the casket was removed and placed on a caisson drawn by four horses. As the caisson moved away from the home, several companies (one from Meridian) of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, along with a group of ladies attired in black and carrying black umbrellas, followed the caisson down Government Street to Ann Street and thence to the cemetery.

As the funeral cortege entered the cemetery, a cannonade of five cannon fired a resounding salute to this unknown sailor. While the band played "Dixie" and as battle flags fluttered in the slight breeze, the horse drawn caisson moved to a position in front of a tent where tributes and speeches began with the placing of funeral wreaths. Wreaths were placed at the monument to the Confederate dead and also at the monument of the five-men from Mobile who lost their lives in the sinking of the Confederate submarine "Hunley."

Since it is not known whether this young sailor was white or black, Catholic or protestant, a protestant minister and a Catholic priest conducted the funeral. A company of black sailors were also present as a part of the ceremonies. One of the ministers said, as a part of his sermon, "This sailor’s mother spent the rest of her life wondering what happened to her son. Today, her son can say, ‘Mother, I’m home at last.’"

After the singing of "Amazing Grace" and the internment address, the transfer of the remains to the gravesite was made. As the casket bearers moved slowly down the cemetery street to the gravesite, a group of singers sang the Civil War song "Roll, Alabama, Roll." Before the casket was lowered, Captain Oliver Semmes, the great-great grandson of Admiral Semmes read the Admiral’s charge to his crew before the naval battle began. The charge states, "The flag that floats over you is that of a young republic, who bids defiance to her enemies, whenever and wherever found. Show the world that you know how to uphold this flag. Go to your quarters as brave men."

Anyone who doubts the courage and valor of those men from the South who gave their lives for the Confederacy should have been at the funeral for this unknown sailor. It was a moving experience to witness battle flags fluttering in the breeze, companies of re-enactors in uniform, hoop-skirted ladies, stirring speeches, and the hush that fell over the crowd. To conclude the service, a young man stepped forward and played taps while the sun reflected from the bell of his brightly-shining bugle.

Just across the city at the edge of Mobile Bay sits the United States Battleship "Alabama." This battleship which saw action in World War II is a symbol of a nation united by a great struggle known as the American Civil War, a war which proved that a house divided cannot stand.

Content © 2007 Neshoba Democrat Publishing Co. Inc.

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