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Southern Naval Officer returns to Tennessee after 131 years

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Article received from: "The Cape Odyssey"

Simeon W. Cummings was born in Connecticut in 1827. For 12 years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, he lived in Louisiana and worked in the merchant marine. When the war broke out, he offered his services to his adopted state Louisiana. This caused a rift with members of his family who were loyal to the north and he never saw them again.

Cummings attracted the attention of a Captain Raphael Semmes and on Semmes’ suggestion, he was appointed as 3rd assistant Engineer in the Confederate State Navy in 1861. He first served on the CSS Sumner, but after it being shipwrecked, he was ordered to join the newly completed steam and sail corvette, CSS Alabama, a vessel of 900 tons and built at Birkenhead, England.

Captain Semmes said of the Alabama; “her model was of the most perfect symmetry and she sat on the water with the lightness and grace of a swan.” This Cruiser was to be the most successful Confederate raider of the war. Commanded by Captain Semmes, the Alabama first sailed to Newfoundland, then off the US coast, sinking the USS Hatteros near Galveston, Texas. Engineer Cummings joined the Alabama at the Western Islands and continued on to Jamaica and finally anchoring in Saldanha Bay. By this time, the Alabama had taken 55 prizes.

The weary crew, deserving a rest, provisioned, repaired and refitted the ship. The Captain allowed the Dutch settlers to come on board to view the ship and the crew spent time sightseeing and hunting ducks and ostriches in the surrounding area.

On 3rd August 1863 four officers, including Lt. Cummings, formed a party to go duck shooting. Later that day when the party was returning to the ship, Cummings accidentally shot himself through the heart while pulling his gun towards himself by the muzzle. The hammer of the gun caught the thwart. The entire charge of duck-shot entered his chest. He sprang up in the boat, and his only exclamation was, “Oh me!” Then silently, but with a look of despair and appeal never to be forgotten, he sank into the bottom of the boat, his body coming together limp as a rag. Utterly stunned the other occupants of the boat looked on helplessly. After a long, weary pull, they reached the gangway of the Alabama and the story of the tragedy was relayed to Capt. Semmes. He was visibly moved by the loss of his 3rd engineer, tears rolling down his cheeks.

The next morning the Confederate flag hung at half-mast on the ship for the first time – drooping in the light air as if in sympathy with the surroundings, also signalling to friends on shore that a tragedy had befallen the ship. Later that day the funeral procession started for the shore with the body of the deceased engineer. Six of the Alabama’s boats waving lowered flags formed a procession and made their way to the shore, pulling at the mournful funeral stroke.

The body was taken to a private cemetery on the farm ‘Kliprug’ which belonged to a Dutch farmer named Pienaar – and interred with the honours due to his rank. This was the first burial from the ship. Soon after the ceremony the CSS Alabama continued on her way to Cape Town.

A group of British naval officers stationed at Cape Town contributed funds to erect a permanent marker for their unknown naval comrade in arms. Mr Pienaar affectionately tended the grave over the years and passed this reverent concern on to his descendants. American tourists regularly visited the gravesite. One visitor tied a yellow ribbon around the base of the marker – a truly American symbol for a soldier far removed from his roots.

On its way to Cape Town the CSS Alabama rendezvoused with CSS Tuscaloosa to allow Captain Louw to report on raiding operations. During 1863 the Confederate cruisers, which included the Alabama, were instrumental in shifting 348 American ships to British registry. The Confederate commerce raiders had become effective in persuading shrewd Yankee capitalists that it was better to sell their ships to the British or other foreign registry and instead put their money into the burgeoning interior economy of the North.

At about 1pm on 5th August 1863, as thousands of locals gathered to witness her arrival, the Alabama met and captured a Federal barque, the Sea Bride, just off Green Point. This caused great excitement in a town, which at the time was described as being dull and dismal.

Admiral Semmes and the Alabama visited the Cape on two occasions. Each visit was characterised by a massive beach party – barbeques and all – where the captain disposed generously of provisions and equipment seized at sea.

When the Alabama reached Cherbourg, France, for refitting on 19th June 1864, the warship USS Kearsarger engaged it in battle outside the port and sank it.

In May 1994, 131 years later, Lt Simeon W Cummings’ remains were exhumed from the grave at Saldanha. In a solemn military tribute a SAS Saldanha naval detachment led by Master-at-arms, Nick Roodman, slow marched the custom made coffin to international departures en route to his final resting place.

Saldanha Bay had lost one of its more interesting ‘residents’. Lt Cummings was the only soldier of the former Confederate states to be buried outside his native country.

The team responsible for his return to the United States included a descendant of admiral Semmes – Robert W. Betterton Jnr. He was the Executive Director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He accompanied Lt Cummings’ remains back to the United States after it had been exhumed from his burial site at Saldanha.

Only a few people witnessed the burial in 1863 but more than 5,000 attended when he was re-interred in Columbia, Tennessee on 3rd June 1994. He now lies next to a plantation house in the rolling hills of the deep south – home at last.

Compiled by
L.R. Schoonraad
SAS Saldanha Public Relations Dept.

Webmaster's Note: My appreciation to Mr Gabriel Athiros, editor of "The Cape Odyssey", for permission to publish this article on "The Cape Odyssey" is a must for everyone who enjoys reading and learning about the colourful and fascinating history of the Cape.

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