By Peter Holman
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
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.
Cummings was born in New London, Connecticut in 1835 and moved with his family to New Orleans in 1849. 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.
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 ship.
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 century.
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 (MOSB), 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 repatriation.
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.