Hon. Thomas J. Semmes. [from the New Orleans, La., Picayune, January 23, 1898.]
An evening with the venerable statesman and jurist.A charming Retrospect of a useful and eventful life.
[Perusal of this will justify its preservation in these pages.—Ed.] To every one at times there comes a moment of retrospection when the mind, leaving the currents of every day life, turns back to the past in loving memory, and thoughts now gay and happy, anon sad and tearful, sweep over the heart chords, and the echoes awakened in some dim twilight hour and heard by only a privileged few, make oft-times an important chapter in history of which the great outside world would gladly catch the lingering refrain. It was the privilege of the writer to share just such a moment as this a few evenings ago in the historic home of the distinguished advocate and jurist, Judge Thomas J. Semmes. For over half a century a conspicuous figure in the United States, for over forty years a leader of the Louisiana bar, and during that most important epoch of the nineteenth century a part and parcel of that great historic movement which, seemingly ending in defeat in war, still lives as the cardinal principle upon which this American republic is founded, Mr. Semmes stands to-day one of the most important connecting links between the old South and the new, one of the three surviving members of that great Confederate Congress which stood for all that the South held most dear, a living witness of the dear dead days which are forever wreathed in ivy and immortelle in the hearts of our people. It was one of those rare evenings on which the pencil of a poet or artist might love to dwell. We were seated at dinner in the beautiful old mansion on South Rampart street, which has been the scene of some of the most notable gatherings in the South. There were only five of us-Mr. Semmes, his amiable and accomplished wife, she who has stood by his side these many years, in clouds and sunshine, in triumph and defeat, fulfilling that beautiful picture of Tennyson's ‘Isabel’—‘a queen of women, a most perfect wife’— Father Alexander J. Semmes, who, as physician and surgeon, followed the fortunes of the 8th Louisiana Regiment from the hour that  the bugle called ‘To arms,’ till Lee laid down the most spotless sword that was ever surrendered; then turning from the fire and smoke of battle, Dr. Semmes entered another army—that of the Catholic priesthood—there to wage an undying war while life lasted in defense of the gospel of Christ; a young girl who listened with wonderlit eyes to the stories told of a day of which the children of this generation can catch only the lingering light and shadows, and the humble writer of this sketch. All around were memories of a beautiful past. The old mansion teems with legendary and historic relics, and suggestive pictures of the old, old life now passing away forever. In the library, filled with choicest thoughts of the master minds of every age, hangs the picture of Mrs. Semmes' old ‘mammy,’ a privileged character in the household, as she goes about still exerting that familiar maternal sway which, even in the after years of married life, tenderly bound the women of the South to their dear old ‘negro mammies.’ From room to room are tokens and souvenirs from the most distinguished men of the century; the cabinets are littered with autograph letters from men who gave the South a history and a name, and here and there are quaint souvenirs of travel in foreign lands—a statue from Rome, a piece of art from Florence, rare old pictures from the ancient masters and a trophy from the Holy Land. And over the whole house is that delightful atmosphere of culture and love of study so grateful to the student and historian. Indeed, the peculiar, old-time charm about all is enough to evoke reminiscences of the past, when the evening shadows fall and the candles are lit, and everything around and about seems to cry out: ‘A home with such souvenirs is a home of memories, and a home with memories is a home with a history.’ One turns from these pictures to the most conspicuous figures in the home itself—JudgeSemmes and Mrs. Semmes. Despite his—three score years and ten, the venerable and distinguished advocate still proudly holds his own as one of the most eminent members of the Louisiana bar, and the fire of his genius burns as brightly to-day as in the days when he first stood in the courts of our State, pleading great causes, or later, when his voice was heard in the congress at Richmond, in those dark days of 1861-‘65, faithfully legislating in behalf of his doomed but beloved Southland. As he sat there in the gathering evening talking of the past, and now and again turning with beautiful old-time courtesy to his wife, as he thought that she might relate some anecdote or occurrence better than he, the picture drawn of  him by a well-known writer of the day came to mind: ‘Mr. Semmes is of middle height; he has eyes that glow with Promethean fire; regular features in which assiduous labor and long nights of study have left no trace. He is not demonstrative in manner, yet he is a true and reliable friend. His expression is serious, but when excited in speech it grows articulate with the emotions that thrill his soul. His voice is musical and fits every intonation and cadence, his penetrative intellect is as quick as it is vivid, and does not wait upon labored induction; he darts at once upon the core of his subject, and starts where most reasoners end. He is familiar with the Latin and Greek classics; Tacitus is his favorite author. Disciplined by such an education, his tastes are always correct. In the subtle game of law he is as adroit as a general in the field; when he gets into his subject and is warmed with it, he utters words of fire that carry the listener along captive with him. If his argument is close to the point, it is at the same time full of his adversary's inconsistencies. He is renowned for his ability to sway courts by his logic, almost irresistible, and his juries by his fascinating eloquence. He is called by some of our lawyers the incarnation of logic. At home his manners are amiable and his spirit buoyant and playful; he is a loving and indulgent father and husband, and when he can lay aside the cares of his office he gives himself over to the enjoyment of domestic happiness.’ Both Mr. Semmes and his wife are charming, interesting conversationalists, and, listening to the two, one can understand the long and tender friendship and affection that has bound them as one; it is a union not only of heart and hand, but of mind and soul, and, knowing them well, one can better understand the great success that has attended his life when he meets with such congenial companionship and sympathy in the partner of his choice. Father Semmes, too, is a delightful addition to their household, and the tender deference paid to this venerable and beloved priest is a key-note to the character of his brother and sister. The conversation had drifted in that delightful way characteristic of informal home dinings from one topic to another, when Mr. Semmes began to tell stories of his boyhood at Georgetown and his college days at Harvard. The Semmes family is of French and English descent, and was among the first settlers of Maryland. A member of the family, Middleton Semmes, when a judge of the Court of Appeals in Maryland, discovered among some old colonial papers the record showing that ‘Joseph Semmes, of Normandy,  France,’ was, by order of the council, naturalized, to enable him to hold land. The date of the paper was 1640, and was the first paper of naturalization ever granted in America. There is in connection with this a singular coincidence. On the Virginia side of the Potomac river, opposite the Semmes property, are some high cliffs, which are called to this day the ‘Normandy Cliffs,’ and French Normandy, as every one knows is noted for its cliffs on the seashore. A peculiar fact, too, is that from the beginning of the settlement in Maryland the name of Joseph has gone through every generation of the family. Many years ago Father Vawhorseigh discovered in an old church in Charles county, Maryland, a strong bound Latin prayer book, with the Mass and Vespers, and all the prayers in Latin. The book had been printed in Belgium. It had in very pale writing the name of Joseph Semmes within, and, pasted in, a steel engraved coat of arms of George Neville, of England, with the motto, ‘Ne ville vellis’ on it. Mr. Semmes had married a Miss Neville, and beneath the marriage date was painted in black, ‘1640.’ Mr. T. J. Semmes' mother was a woman of remarkable intelligence. She was a member of a prominent and wealthy family of Maryland, who had come over with Lord Baltimore, and settled in St. Mary's county, Maryland. His father was Raphael Semmes, uncle of the world-renowned Confederate Admiral, and commander of the Alabama. On the maternal side, Mr. Semmes' family were Welsh-Catholic. His grandfathers were both extensive land owners in Charles county, Maryland. Speaking of his mother, Mr. Semmes said: ‘She was a woman of great variety of information and sweetest culture. Her strength of mind was remarkable, and this wonderful faculty she retained unimpaired up to the ripe age of eighty, when she died. That was seventeen years ago. She was largely instrumental in the formation of the character of her children, and to her careful training and watchful care they owe much of their success in life. My mother was on terms of personal intimacy with every President of the United States, from Monroe to Lincoln, and she had associated with all the distinguished men and women in Washington for the greater part of half a century. This naturally threw her children into the most pleasant surroundings and companionship. I personally remember and knew every President of the United States from the time of Martin Van Buren.’  And here Mr. Semmes smiled pleasantly as he recalled the first time that he had ever seen Mr. Van Buren. ‘It was at a children's party given in Washington at the residence of Mr. Forsythe, one of the cabinet officers. I was a little boy then, and was among the invited guests. We children were playing merry games, in which Mr. Forsythe led, when President Van Buren entered the room. I remember him well. He was dressed in a blue cutaway coat, with brass buttons, frilled shirt front, nankeen breeches and long silk hose and low-quarter shoes with silver buckles. He was a splendid-looking man, and we children soon got over our awe of the President when he entered so heartily into our games and dances.’ Then Mr. Semmes recalled many facts of Mr. Van Buren's administration and the gay times at the capitol in Washington. Mr. Van Buren had been minister to England, and while there saw the magnificent gold service which was used on state occasions. When he became President of the United States he introduced gold spoons into the White House. This was considered a terrible piece of extravagance for a democratic country. His administration was characterized by his enemies as the most extravagant of the Presidents. In the next campaign, when he was a candidate for re-election, the ‘gold spoons’ were used against him with telling vengeance. Everywhere the cry rang out in the North against Martin Van Buren's extravagance, and with this cry that of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,’ with the result that Harrison was elected. But succeeding years have shown that Mr. Van Buren's administration was the most economical of all the Presidents, notwithstanding the ‘gold spoons,’ as it was certainly one of the most brilliant. Then Mr. Semmes recalled personal experiences with all the Presidents of those succeeding days, and his reminiscences form a delightful history of themselves. After graduating at Georgetown College, in which he took first honors for three successive years, he began the study of law in the office of Clement Cox, of Georgetown. He was then about eighteen years of age. A few months afterward he entered Harvard College, whence he graduated in 1845. Harvard Law School was then presided over by Associate Justice Story, then of the United States bench, and Prof. Greenleaf, author of the well-known work on ‘Evidence.’ “Among my classmates,” said Mr. Semmes, ‘were Rutherford B. Hayes, afterwards President of the United States; Henry C. Semple, nephew of the then President, John Tyler, and Mr. Burlingame,  who afterwards became minister to China. While I was at Harvard I read the review of Judge Story's “Commentary on the United States Constitution,” written by Judge Upshur, of Virginia. This book was the turning point in my political thought. Reflecting seriously on its spirit and teachings, I became a Democrat, and never once during the long line of sixty years that have nearly passed since then, have I swerved from its sacred principles. My family were all Whigs. Indeed, almost all the people of education and standing were Whigs in those days. The Democrats as yet, were little regarded, and one may imagine the feelings in my old and staunch Whig family, when I announced to them that I intended to forsake the political creed of my ancestors and that I was an out and out Democrat. My mother and father were bitterly opposed, but my conversion rested upon firm conviction in the undying principles of true Democracy. It was a remarkable book, that of Judge Upshur's review. I have never seen the work since, though I have often tried to procure it. Judge Upshur was a very excellent scholar and a vigorous writer. He was killed during President Polk's administration, or Mr. Tyler's. The book was loaned to me while at Harvard by my fellow-student, Henry C. Semple, who, by the way, was the father of Rev. Father Semple, president of the Jesuit's College of this city. Henry C. Semple afterwards became a distinguished lawyer of Montgomery, Alabama.’ “I had the pleasure of seeing my whole family,” continued Mr. Semmes,
converted some years later to the Democracy. When the so-called “American party” was formed among the Whigs, and Catholic churches and schoolhouses were burned, my mother changed her political tenets, and said that she would never be identified with a party that was so ‘un-American,’ and which could so ruthlessly destroy the houses of God and education. She became an unswerving Democrat, and converted my father to her views. The family followed, and we have all been Democrats ever since. I made my first political speech in behalf of the Democratic cause, at Georgetown, when Mr. Polk was a candidate for president. I am happy to say that that maiden effort won many to my side, though at that time my parents were still firm Whigs, and were horrified at one of their blood espousing the cause of the Democrats. But no truer Democrat ever lived than my dear old mother, as her subsequent life proved.“When did you come to live in New Orleans?” asked the writer.  “In 1850, immediately after my marriage,” and here a pleasant light lit up his face, as he reverted to his meeting with the beautiful Miss Myra E. Knox, daughter of Mr. William Knox, a prominent ante-bellum planter, and president of the Central Bank, of Montgomery, Alabama. Mrs. Semmes' mother was Miss Anna O. Lewis, a member of the distinguished Lewis and Fairfax families, of Virginia, and relatives of the Washingtons. ‘I was married in January, 1850,’ said Mr. Semmes, ‘and came to live in New Orleans. The civil law of Louisiana was very different from the common law, and I was obliged to study for three months in order to qualify for admission to the bar of the State. Our jurisprudence was based upon the laws of Spain and on the Napoleon code, which had been adopted by the Louisiana Legislature with such modifications as had been thought advisable. But I was determined to master every branch of my profession, for I loved civil law, and wished to have a profound knowledge of it from the twelve tables of Rome and the institutions of Justinian, to the Napoleon code. Passing a satisfactory examination before a committee appointed by the Supreme Court, I was admitted to practice, and in 1853, I formed a partnership with Matthew Edwards, who had been my classmate at Harvard. In 1855, when the excitement of the Know-nothing party ran high, the partnership was severed. I was invited to deliver an address in defense of the Catholics at Armory Hall, and openly attacked the principles of the Know-nothing party.’ Mr. Semmes did not tell, however, how his vigorous utterances on that occasion brought him prominently into notice in political life, and he was at once elected a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, and afterwards to the House of Representatives of the State, by a large majority. Reverting to the bar in 1850 in Louisiana, Mr. Semmes told many delightful reminiscences. He enjoyed the intimate friendship of such distinguished men as Alfred Hennen, John R. Grymes, Slidell, Christian Roselius, S. S. Prentiss, Judah P. Benjamin, Mr. Bonford, Charles Gayarre, Judge Walker and other typical representatives of the old Louisiana bench and bar. He also knew, intimately, Dr. Warren Stone, Dr. W. Newton Mercer, Dr. Augustas Cenas, and others equally distinguished in scientific, political and commercial fields. And this led him to speak of the life and aristocracy of the old South. It seemed to be a theme upon which he loved to linger, for his face glowed with a softened light, and at times his voice grew  tremulous with emotion, as he recalled scene after scene in that drama which led up to the most portentous event of these modern times, the civil war in America. “No life,” said he,
can ever again be like the life of those olden days. The South had an element in its society—a landed gentry—which afforded ample opportunity for extraordinary culture, elevated the standard of scholarship in the South, enlarged and emancipated social intercourse, and established schools of individual refinement. We had a vast agricultural country, and the pursuit of agriculture in the South had its fixed features. No life was like the plantation life of those days, and many old negroes who survive gladly testify to its alluring charms. The kindness of an old master or mistress comes back through the vista of receding years, like a sunset glow from a distant land, and no one but the Southern child who has experienced the loving, thoughtful care of an old negro mammy, can appreciate the bond of sympathy which often united the races. The people of the North could not understand all this. But the colonies of Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas were from the first distinguished for their polite manners, their fine sentiment, their attachment to a sort of feudal life, their landed gentry, their love of field sports, and the prodigal aristocracy that dispensed its store in constant rounds of hospitality and gaiety. We had a rich population then, and, as I said before, dispensed a baronial hospitality. All was life and joy and affluence. The old tradition of colonial Southern manners was still followed out, for no traveler was allowed to go to a tavern after he had been the guest of one of these old families, but was handed over from family to family through entire States. The holidays were celebrated by master and slave with music and feasting, and petty litigation was at a low ebb. There was an old tradition, too, that gold was kept in chests among our early ancestors after the downfall of continental paper, and weighed in scales and loaned out to neighbors on terms of short payment, without note, interest or witness or security, so great was the proverbial honor of the South. It was hard, therefore, for the descendants of the Puritan exiles who established themselves upon the cold and rugged soil of New England to understand the manners and traditions of the descendents of the cavaliers who sought the brighter climate of the South, and told stories of their ancestors in their baronial halls in Virginia drinking confusion to roundheads and regicides. The South yielded to none in her love for the Union, but States'  Rights were the most marked peculiarity of the politics of the Southern people, and it was this doctrine that gave to the Union its moral dignity. The South, as a well-known writer said, bowed neither before an idol of gain nor the shadow of a name. She worshiped that picture of the Union which made it a peculiar association in which the State was sovereign, and these sovereign States were held by high considerations of good faith; by the exchanges of equity and comity, by the noble attractions of social order and the enthused sympathies of a common destiny of power, honor and patriotism and renown.And still, with the pleasant touch of a wizard hand, Mr. Semmes lingered upon his fascinating theme, dwelling with infinite charm upon days that seem in this practical, money-making age, like gleanings from the pages of knight errantry and romance. And then he spoke of the stirring events that came with the years, and finally of that great, sad struggle, that swept over the Southland, burying the old life forever in its course. Of the causes that led up to that struggle, he spoke freely. He went over the intervening years when he was appointed by President Buchanan, United States District Attorney for Louisiana, and how he resigned this office in 1859, to accept the Attorney Generalship of the State. In January, 1861, events were rushing forward, and he was elected a member of the convention which passed the secession ordinance, January 26, 1861. ‘I was a member of the committee of fifteen, which drafted this ordinance,’ said Mr. Semmes. “And somewhere carefully put away,” added Mrs. Semmes, ‘I have still the pen with which you signed that ordinance.’ “In September, 1861, I was called by President Davis to Montgomery, to consult with him as Attorney General of our State, as to the suspension of specie payment by the banks.” The first loan ever made to the Confederacy, as testified by Mr. Memminger in a letter to the Confederate Congress, was by Mr. Knox, father of Mrs. Semmes. Mr. Memminger justly praises the devotion ‘of that patriotic gentleman’ in this volunteer offer. In November, 1861, Mr. Semmes was elected a member of the Confederate Congress at Richmond, and took his seat in the Senate with his colleague from Louisiana, General Edward H. Sparrow. He passed through Montgomery on his way to Richmond, and here Mrs. Semmes met her parents, who were delighted that a son-in-law of theirs had this high honor conferred upon him, so dearly did they love the South. Mrs. Semmes referred laughingly to the beautiful  trousseau that her father presented her with to take to Richmond, as became the wife of a Confederate Senator. In Congress, Mr. Semmes was at once appointed a member of the Finance Committee, in connection with Honorable R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, and Honorable Robert Barnwell, of South Carolina, and a member of the Judiciary Committee, of which Honorable B. H. Hill was chairman. He was also chairman of the joint committee on the flag and seal of the Confederate States. As chairman of the joint committee on flag and seal, Mr. Semmes took an active part, and his efforts were of no little importance in the selection and adoption of an appropriate motto for the seal finally adopted. In conjunction with Mr. Hunter, he prepared the ‘tax in kind bill,’ which practically supported the Confederacy during the last two years of the war. He also wrote the report on retaliation, and the report of the Judiciary Committee on martial law. But all these facts are matters of history. It was of that inner life of the Confederacy that he spoke most freely, those days of social life in Richmond, gay and brilliant as some olden court, and then varying in the scale of merriness as the end of the gamut was reached and Richmond found itself a doomed city. ‘Yes, the social life in Richmond during the war was very beautiful, and characterized by that old-time grace and hospitality for which the South was famous. It was, indeed, the last chapter in the history of that olden life. We occupied a beautiful mansioh known as the Cruikshanks house. It was one of the finest houses in Richmond, and almost a fac simile of that occupied by Presidant Davis.’ “Indeed,” said Mrs. Semmes, ‘I liked our house much better than I did the presidential mansion.’ Mr. Semmes smiled and continued: ‘Our home was the center of a most brilliant coterie. Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, Vice-President of the Confederate States, was a bachelor, and asked to make his home with us. We also had Mr. Garland, afterwards a member of Mr. Cleveland's cabinet, and General Sparrow, my colleague. Of course, they did not want to accept my hospitality without paying board, and so we laughingly complied. My boarders during the last years of the war used to pay me about $900 a month, and we used to estimate the expenses of running our house at about $300,000 a year. Fancy this sum for household expenses, but you must remember that we were using Confederate money, and, as Mrs. Semmes used to say, we would send a whole basketful of money to market in exchange for provisions. Our boarders in reality paid us  about $100 a month, and towards the close of the war the money was not even valued at that. I was not a rich man, but my father-in-law was one of the wealthy men of the South, and he kept us liberally supplied with funds.’ “Yes, indeed,” said Mrs. Semmes, ‘we used to get all manner of nice provisions and hampers from Montgomery, and never knew how they reached us so safely, for everything came to us contraband. Our table was always well supplied, and many were the brilliant dinners we gave. We often invited the senators from the border States, for some of these fared very badly, indeed; they had to live in one room, and on corn and beans and bacon, and as their States were very much divided, supplies sent them by their constituents were cut off, and money, too. They had a hard time of it, but they stood nobly by the cause to the end. We had great times in the first years of the war, when our cause seemed so sure of success and our boys were fighting so bravely, but towards the end Mr. Stephens and Mr. Garland, General Sparrow and Mr. Semmes used to come home with weary hearts.’ “But you were always bright and cheerful to the end,” said Mr. Semmes.
It was wonderful, the courage of the Southern women during the war. In Richmond, where at all hours, day or night, you could hear the roaring of the cannons and the echo of shot and shell, where bullets were often flying in the streets, the women kept up their social life. Parties and receptions and dinners were given night after night; when our boys in gray passed through the capital, all the women went out to greet them, waving handkerchiefs and bidding them Godspeed. Receptions were given in their honor, and a perpetual round of gayety was kept up. The women did this to cheer on the soldier boys. Many a group of handsome officers danced the night away and went forth to fight on the morrow, and were buried in the evening shadows on the battle field. There was General J. E. B. Stuart, the dashing cavalry officer, who, the night before he was killed, played in the charades at the home of my sister, Mrs. Ives, wife of Colonel Ives, who was an officer on President Davis' staff. Mrs. Ives' home was a great centre for the young folks. That night all the prettiest girls in Richmond were taking part in the charades, and some of the most brilliant officers of the army. There were present Mr. Davis, Mr. Stephens, Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary Mallory, Mrs. Mallory—in fact, all the cabinet officers and their wives, the representatives in Congress, justices of the Supreme Court, etc., and General Stuart was the observed of all  observers, as he gaily led the charades. He was so brilliant, so handsome and daring, that he was called the Prince Rupert of the Confederacy, as he used to dash around Richmond on his noble charger, with his black plume flying in the breeze. That night he left the smiling throng with a flower that some pretty girl had just pinned in the lapel of his coat, and the next day news came that he who was always in the most advanced line of battle, he who was always ready for a fight or a frolic, had been killed, his bright blue eyes looking into the very face of death without a quiver, and ready for the worst. His remains were brought to Richmond, and every eye was dimmed with tears as the soldiers bearing the body of their dead general marched down the street, while the band played “Maryland, my Maryland.” Only a few hours before that stalwart soldier himself had been singing “Old Joe Hooker, will you come out of the Wilderness?” and now he was cold in death, and never would we look upon his like again.Mrs. Semmes related with tears in her eyes how the news of Stonewall Jackson's death had been received in Richmond. Many refused to believe that this bravest Roman of them all was dead. She herself went out on the street to ascertain the truth, and as she approached the capitol she met some soldiers carrying a covered corpse and marching with bowed heads to the beat of the muffled drums. ‘Who is it that they are carrying,’ she asked with white lips. And the simple answer came back. ‘Stonewall Jackson.’ “The death of General Jackson,” said Mrs. Semmes, ‘cast a shadow on the fortunes of the Confederacy that reached to the catastrophe of the war. His death was not only a loss to his country; it was a calamity to the world. As some one has nobly said: “ It was a subtraction from the living generation of genius; the extinction of a great light in the temple of christianity.” Thousands followed him to the grave and consecrated it with their tears.’ Then he spoke of Robert Lee, that grand old chieftain whose name is never mentioned to this day without throbbing heart by the old veterans of the South. ‘General Lee was a frequent visitor at our house in Richmond; he was then, as he is to-day, the great ideal of Southern chivalry and truth. Great in defeat as he was in victory, the annals of the world's history bears no purer or greater name than that of Robert Lee.’ Many reminiscences did Mr. Semmes recall of Mason and Slidell, Yancey and Breckenridge, and Mallory and Stephens, Beauregard  and Johnston. He remembered as though it were only yesterday, every incident of that war, and spoke of the death of Albert Sidney Johnston, the brave and peerless, whose loss, as Mr. Davis said in his message to Congress, was irreparable; whose last breath cheered his comrades on to victory, whose last thought was his country. ‘I never shall forget,’ continued Mr. Semmes, ‘how strong men wept when the special message of Mr. Davis was read on the floor of the Confederate Congress, and how sobs almost choked the voice of the reader as he concluded: “Among the shining hosts of the great and good, who now cluster around the banner of our country, there exists no purer spirit, no more heroic soul than that of the illustrious man whose death I join you in lamenting.” ’ “Tell about our visit to the battlefield of Manassas,” said Mr. Semmes to his wife, as he warmed with his subject, and with a sweet pathos, Mrs. Semmes told how, after the famous First Manassas, it was resolved to erect a marble shaft on the spot where General Bartow had fallen, shot through the heart. General Bartow was one of the bravest and most promising spirits in the South. He had led the Georgia regiment, which had fought with the 4th Alabama like tigers in the strife. General Berrien, a brother-in-law of Dr. Semmes; Mr.Semmes and Mrs. Semmes, the doctor, General Sam Jones and Staff, all went out to Manassas early in the morning to see the shaft erected. For some reason or other it was impossible for Mr. Davis, who had been expected to be the orator of the day, to be present. At the last moment the Georgia regiment and General Sam Jones called upon Mr. Semmes to be the orator of the occasion. “He was so totally taken by surprise,” said Mrs. Semmes, ‘that he came up to me and whispered, “ I really don't know what to say on such short notice.” ’ “Yes you do,” I replied, “just tell them about the bravery and heroism of our Southern boys; tell them how they are suffering and how they still cling to the cause which is so dear to us all.” ‘And he did,’ said Mrs. Semmes. ‘I think that it was the grandest speech he ever made in his life, even if he is my husband. Perhaps it was the time and place, but I know that we were all in tears as he spoke of our Southern boys and the brave man who had laid down his life for the cause. I shall never forget how Manassas looked that day; it seemed as though a hurricane had swept over the place. The battle had raged long and fiercely between two wooden houses known as the Henry and Robinson houses, at some distance from each other on the plateau. General Bartow had fallen  near the Henry house. It had been a great victory for our men. The house was just riddled with bullets. I went in to look at it; all along the route, too, for over three miles were the evidences of the indescribable rout; a shapeless, morbid mass of bones and sinews, wood and iron, powder blackened trees, charred bridges. Oh, it was dreadful, dreadful and one of the most terrible pictures of the war.’ ‘My old home of Warrenton saw much of the bloody battling,’ said Mrs. Semmes.
When General Stuart was defending Warrenton the women of the place showed their undaunted heroism. My own sister, Mrs. Payne, who was the wife of Major Rice W. Payne, turned her own home into a hospital for the Confederate wounded. The best rooms in the house were for the soldiers, and when sick and dying they were brought there, and she herself nursed them, making even the little children in the house play the nurse, too, by fanning the soldiers while they slept, and handing them water and so on. Several of her children contracted the fever. Four of the soldiers having died in my sister's home, they were buried with military honors. The children, happily, recovered, but my sister was taken ill and died, a victim to her love for the stricken South.Some amusing incidents occurred in Warrenton. When the Yankee soldiers would pass through and ask for food, the ladies growing tired and determined to save all sustenance for our boys in gray, determined to make the enemy pay for food. I had a cousin who was married to a Presbyterian minister by the name of Pollock. He was from Maine and was the tallest, thinest and most cadaverous looking man I ever saw. One day it was reported that my cousin had hidden some Yankee bones in her yard. The union soldiers were trying to gather up all the bones of those who were killed and bury them. A squad of union soldiers marched up to my cousin's house and said to her: “We hear Madam, that you have a bag of Yankee bones hidden in your house.” She looked at the captain a moment, and answered smartly: “Yes, I have a bag of Yankee bones here; come with me and I will show it to you.” She led the men into the chicken yard, where her tall, cadaverous husband was engaged in feeding the chickens, and pointing to him, she said: “There is my bag of Yankee bones.” This cousin's name was Elizabeth. One day when she heard that some Confederate soldiers had been wounded at a distance, she mounted her horse to go and aid them. On the way the horse took  fright at the sound of a gun and threw her against some rocks, badly injuring her in the face. Her husband, who was very pompous and slow in his language, hearing of the accident, hastened to her, and, entering the room, said: “Tell me, Elizabeth, are you defaced?” ‘She made her way, however to the soldiers, and she and my sister had the church in Warrenton turned into a hospital to receive them, and there they were tenderly nursed—but some got well and others went to their eternal reward.’ “Again events were hurrying forward, but not as at the beginning of the year 1861, when we all entered Richmond with such bright hopes. But the final catastrophy was delayed for a while yet. Colonel Dahlgren determined to make a raid upon Richmond, and when the news reached us, all there was to oppose him was a force of local soldiery and a battalion of department clerks. The members of Congress shouldered guns and mounted guard around Richmond. But the small force of department clerks and unskilled soldiers were a match for Dahlgren, and averted the plot he had formed to pour fire upon the devoted capital of the Confederacy. But we soldiers were hungry,” said Mr. Semmes. ‘I had had nothing to eat all day, and the heartiest meal I ever enjoyed was a piece of dry bread and a raw onion that I asked of an old market woman as she passed me where I was keeping guard. That was the best onion I ever ate in my life. Dark days were coming, however, for it had become apparent to all that the South must yield, not in bravery, but in superiority of numbers. In Virginia, the supply of bread even was exhausted, and little more could be expected until after the next wheat crop came in. Provisions of all kinds were enormously high.’ “For instance,” said Mrs. Semmes, ‘at our New Year's dinner in 1864, we had to pay $110 for the turkey to grace the feast. That was one of the last big dinners that we had at our house.’ “It was not such a big dinner in point of courses,” said Mr. Semmes, ‘for we were getting reduced now, and money was worth nothing and provisions were high. Nevertheless, it was a good substantial dinner; we had our expensive Confederate turkey, and vegatables and game, and good bread, made at home, and nice dessert. We had Mr. Stephens and General Sparrow, and Mr. Garland from our home, and Bishop McGill and dear old Father Hubert to dine with us. I shall never forget that New Year's dinner. We all tried to be gay, but our hearts were inwardly sad. There was the usual visiting, customary in those days on New Year's day, but the old brilliancy and fire were fast ebbing away.’  “Mr. Stephens never forgot that New year's dinner,” said Mrs. Semmes, and she took from an old scrap-book, carefully put away, an autograph letter from Mr. Stephens, dated ‘New Year's, 1866. My dear Mrs. Semmes: Two years ago to-day we were at your house, in Richmond, and had Bishop McGill at dinner. What changes have taken place since then, and what reminiscences crowd upon my mind in taking this short retrospect. A whole train of these mixed with many pleasant as well as sad memories was awakened by your letter, which lies on the table before me.’ And then he goes on to speak, does the great Confederate statesman, of many things already told in this sketch—incidents in which he was pleasantly interested and closed by wishing both her and Mr. Semmes long life and happiness. There were rumors and rumors that the war would have to be brought to a close, but Robert E. Lee, on whom all eyes were turned, still held out bravely. A small slip of paper, sent to President Davis, as he sat in his pew in St. Paul's church, contained the most momentous news of the war. It advised that everything should be in readiness to evacuate Richmond the coming night, unless before that time dispatches should be received to the contrary. The slip of paper was from General Lee. Many of the cabinet officers had sent their families from Richmond the previous week as also the congressmen. Mr. Semmes had sent Mrs. Semmes in a box-car, by the Richmond and Danville road, towards Montgomery. A week later he joined her in Georgia, and in Augusta heard of Lee's surrender. Thence the way was made by wagon and stage to Montgomery. Reaching here Mrs. Semmes heard that her husband would be pursued and she determined to save him. She drove to a farm-house, some miles distant from Montgomery, and asked the farmer to give her husband shelter. All this was without Mr. Semmes' knowledge. ‘Bring him to me,’ said the loyal old Southerner, ‘and he can stay at my farm and be known as the uncle of my children.’ But in a few days Mr. Knox sent word to his daughter that concealment was impossible; that it was known everywhere that Mr. Semmes was in Alabama and that he would join her in her father's house. This was already occupied by Yankee soldiers, but they were very courteous and kind to us, said Mrs. Semmes. Speaking of the surrender, Mr. Semmes said: ‘Though the sword was surrendered we did not surrender one jot or tittle of the principles for which we fought; they still live, and time is fully vindicating their truth. A few days later came the news  that Jefferson Davis had been taken prisoner and confined in Fortress Monroe; perhaps it was the most fortunate thing that could have happened to Mr. Davis. Immediately he became the scape-goat of the Southern people; their sorrows had to be borne by him and he stood for the cause for which they had fought, and perhaps he would suffer the death penalty for them. The trial never came off, but for all that, Jefferson Davis returned, the people's idol—the great chieftain of the South. And so he remains to this day.’ In October, 1865, Mr. Semmes went to Washington and saw President Johnson. The President asked him what he had done for the South? Mr. Semmes answered: ‘All that a man could do, by words and deeds, to promote the Confederate cause, and now he wanted to resume in peace the practice of his profession.’ “Well, go home and work,” said Mr. Johnson. He immediately returned to New Orleans, having borrowed $100 for that purpose, not being possessed of another cent in the world. His palatial home in this city, with its fine furniture and mirrors, and magnificent library, had been confiscated when the city fell into the hands of the Federal forces, under General Butler. He resumed the practice of his profession in partnership with Mr. Mott, and rapidly rose to the head of the Louisiana bar. The principal factors in those stirring scenes, of which he was such a part, have nearly all passed away. He and Mr. Garland and one other Senator, perhaps are all that remain of the Confederate Congress. The years have passed on and a new South has grown on the ruins of the old, and of this South Mr. Semmes is still a conspicuous figure and active worker. But as he himself said, the old life was full of grace and beauty, and has, for him, the peculiar charm of an autumn twilight's lingering adieu.