The Confederate raider CSS Alabama
put in at Saldanha Bay in the Cape Colony (Western Cape in present
day South Africa), 160 sea miles northwest of Cape Town on July 29th
1863. Captain Rafael Semmes’ vessel was desperately in need of
repairs and he seized the opportunity to recaulk and paint the
Alabama. Small parties of men and officers also made good use of
the time to go ashore to hunt birds and other small game, often
guided by local farmers.
On August 3rd, while returning from
such a hunt, the Third Assistant Engineer, Simeon W. Cummings earned
a dubious distinction, one that he would hold for 131 years.
Simeon Cummings was born in New
London, Connecticut in 1835 and moved with his family to New Orleans
He served a regular apprenticeship as a machinist for Leeds &
Company and was also employed by the Coastline Steamship Company.
Despite the protests of his family, when the Civil War began
Cummings sought and received a commission as Lieutenant in the
nascent Confederate Navy.
A friend of Cummings, Miles J.
Freeman, was Chief Engineer of the topically named CSS Sumter
and recommended the young man to Commander Raphael Semmes for
appointment as Third Assistant Engineer. Semmes approved the
appointment which dated from May 20th, 1861.
Cummings led a seemingly charmed
life. He served on the entire cruise of the Sumter until the
ship had to be abandoned in Gibraltar after being blockaded by
United States naval forces. He embarked for London on the Spanish
steamship Euphrosyne which was wrecked just off the coast of
Vigo, Spain. Surviving that experience, Cummings found his way to
England in time to rejoin Semmes and other fellow officers on the
newly launched “290” which was soon to be rechristened CSS
Alabama once safely away from British interference.
Lt. Cummings’ name would probably
be little noted nor long remembered if it were not for that fateful
hunting trip in the Cape Colony on August 3, 1863. Cummings, Arthur
Sinclair, Irvine Bulloch and one other officer determined to go
duck-hunting ashore. Late in the evening, while embarking the launch
to return to the Alabama, Lt. Cummings grabbed his gun by the
muzzle and pulled it toward himself. The hammer of the gun caught on
the thwart which effectively cocked it and then released it again as
Cummings tugged. He shot himself directly in and through the chest
at point-blank range.
Sinclair and Armstrong aboard the
One witness said there was no
outcry or moan but Arthur Sinclair’s letter home related that
Cummings exclaimed “Oh me!” and all agreed that on his face was a
look of appeal and despair never to be forgotten.
Sinclair related the sad tale to
Semmes who ordered the flag to half-staff and authorized a funeral
for the following day. On Tuesday August 4th, Lt. Simeon W.
Cummings, escorted by officers and men carried ashore in 6 boats,
was buried in the family cemetery of an Afrikaner family at Kliprug
Farm, Saldanha Bay. Three volleys were fired over the grave and
eventually an ornate memorial to the young sailor was placed on the
farm at the expense of some Royal Naval officers based in Cape Town.
Semmes’ journal recorded:
Weather very fine. In the
afternoon at 3 the funeral procession started for the shore with
the body of the deceased engineer. He was taken to a private
cemetery about a mile and a half distant and interred with the
honors due to his grade. The ship’s first lieutenant reading the
funeral service. This is the first burial we have had from the
And thus it was that for 131 years
Lt. Simeon W. Cummings quietly held a unique record – that of the
only known Confederate serviceman to be killed during the War of
Southern Independence and buried outside the United States.
In May of 1994, the remains of Lt.
Cummings were disinterred from the farm where descendants of Paul
Johannes Pienaar had tended the gravesite faithfully for over a
ceremonies for Simeon Cummings at Elm Springs Farm,
May 29th, 1994
Watched over by members of the
Pienaar family, an honor guard from the South African navy and a
representative from the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, Lt.
Cummings mortal remains and artifacts buried with him, including
some of the lead pellets that had killed him, were carefully placed
in a new pine coffin of period design and transported to Columbia,
Tennessee for reburial at Elm Springs, the general headquarters of
the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the MOSB which organized the
Concerning Lt. Cummings, his
shipmate, Lt. Arthur Sinclair wrote the following.
Cummings, though of northern
birth, was an enthusiastic and faithful follower of the case he
had espoused, and deserves more credit in that his determination
was taken and carried out in spite of the protest of his immediate
family, resulting in his having their sympathy and love withdrawn.
Cummings was a most capable engineer officer, cool and collected
in hours of danger, a true friend…He served the flag of his
adoption with all the ardor of his great soul, and our cause and
ship suffered a great loss in his sudden taking off.
A note from the author:
On a trip
to South Africa in early 2008, I purchased a book in the town of Hout Bay called Here Comes the Alabama by Edna and Frank
Bradlow. It was published in 1958 and revised in a second
edition by Edna in 2007. The copy I picked up was #5 of 10
copies signed by Edna and the publisher (wow!). This article
is drawn primarily from that book.
Editor's note: The
images of Simeon Cummings, his reburial ceremony and his two
gravestones come from the website of the
Elm Springs Farm
in Columbia, TN.