South African Military History Society

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The meeting commenced with the usual monthly notices being read by the Chairman, Ivor Little, and by past Chairman Bob Smith. These mainly concerned tours and happenings which will have passed by the time this newsletter is read. However, attention is drawn to the unveiling of a monument to Pieter Bouwer and Adolf van Emenes. These were two "joiners" executed by Boer forces in 1901. To date they have no known memorial but, thanks to the research and sponsorship of our member, David Scholtz, a monument to their memory has been erected. This will be unveiled on Saturday, 27 August in Villiers. Further details will be made known as that date approaches.

Other dates worth diarising are the Durban Branch's Natal Battlefield tour, over the weekend of 13/14 August, and the Ladysmith Battlefield Festival on Saturday, 2 July. The Voortrekker Monument Erfenisstigting is also organising a conference on the Boer War concentration camp sites for later this year.

The notices completed, Ivor then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker. This was the well-known and popular former Chairman, Bob Smith, a regular speaker and author of the recently published novel. "A Legacy Unfulfilled". The subject of Bob's talk was "Bones from the Alabama", a story connected with the American Confederate warship CSS Alabama.

The commerce raider Alabama was built in the utmost secrecy by John Laird and Company at Birkenhead, on the River Mersey in the UK, to the order of the Confederate Navy, during the US Civil War. She was launched as the merchant ship Enrica and as such sailed in August 1862 from Birkenhead towards the Azores. Once well out into international waters, she was commissioned into the Confederate Navy as the CSS Alabama.

She was a typical warship of her time, built of wood, 67 metres long and powered by both sail and steam, which gave her a maximum speed of 13.25 knots. Her commander was Captain Raphael Semmes, formerly of the US Navy.

Born in Maryland, Semmes entered the US Navy as a young midshipman and in 1846 commanded the brig USS Somers during the Mexican-American War. He continued in the Navy, rising to the rank of Commander, before throwing in his lot with the Confederacy in 1861. After a short spell in the CSS Somers, with the rank of Captain, he was appointed to the new building in England. Semmes and his new ship made a formidable pair and from August 1862 until June 1864 Semmes raided US commercial shipping in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and into the East Indies. During the course of this wide-ranging commission, he sank the Federal warship USS Hatteras off Galveston in Texas and decimated the US whaling fleet in the Antarctic.

In 1863 he stopped and captured the American barque Sea Bride off Green Point in Table Bay, which event caused great excitement in Cape Town and made the Alabama a welcome visitor. Semmes visited Cape Town on two occasions where he entertained generously and entered his ship into South African folklore, i.e. the traditional song "Daar kom die Alabama".

The Alabama's raiding career netted her 65 prizes but she ultimately met her end in June 1864 when she was sunk by the USS Kearsage off Cherbourg in France. Semmes, together with 41 crewmen, was rescued by the British yacht Deerhound. Returning to the Confederacy he was promoted to Rear Admiral and served as Officer Commanding the James River Squadron. With the collapse of the Confederacy, Semmes supervised the destruction of his squadron to prevent it falling into Federal hands, and then went ashore as a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, in command of a naval brigade consisting of the sunken ships' companies.

To this day he is the only member of the US Armed Forces to have served as both a Rear Admiral and a Brigadier General. After the war he took up a civilian career, becoming, in turn, a university professor, a judge, a newspaper editor and, finally, a lawyer in Mobile, Alabama. He was a revered figure in Mobile and is today a member of the Alabama Hall of Fame.

The key point of Bob's talk, however, was a minor incident in South Africa, involving a junior officer, and cementing ties between South Africa and the USA.

The officer involved was Simeon W Cummings. He was born in Connecticut but for 12 years prior to the outbreak of the US Civil War worked in the US Merchant Marine and had his home in Louisiana. When the war broke out he joined the Confederate Navy as an engineer officer and, after serving in the US Sumter with Semmes, was also appointed to the Alabama, in his case as 3rd Assistant Engineer.

During a rest and recreation stop-over by the Alabama in Saldanha Bay in August 1863, Lieutenant Cummings and three other officers went duck shooting ashore. Later in the day, when returning aboard, Cummings accidentally shot himself when the hammer of his loaded gun hooked on the boat into which he was climbing. He was mortally wounded and died almost immediately. He was given a military funeral and his body buried on the farm "Kliprug" between Saldanha and Vredenburg. The grave was in a small cemetery which the Pienaar family kept in a good state of repair and was in fact a tourist attraction in the area. In May 1994 Lt Cummings' remains were exhumed and ceremonially returned to the USA. As the only Confederate serviceman to be buried outside his native country, Cummings remains were ceremonially re-interred in front of 5 000 spectators, in Columbia, Tennessee, thus ending a 131-year connection between the Confederacy and South Africa.

The next speaker, the main lecturer for the evening, was another well-known speaker to the Society, in the person of Mr Terry Leaver. The subject of his talk was "The Day Queen Victoria Wept" and the immediate question regarding this title was "why and when"?

Terry's story commenced with that period of the South African War when it was going slowly for the British, with consecutive defeats at Magersfontein, Stormberg, Colenso and Spioenkop. Lord Roberts arrived to take over the British command, to find a stalemate and a gloomy situation. Magersfontein had been a British disaster, during which the Highland Brigade had endured a night march and was then pinned down after sunrise by Boer fire. To try to relieve the pressure, Lord Methuen then sent the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders into action. One of the officers in this group was Captain Ernest Beechcroft Beckwith Towse. During the course of this advance the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, Lt. Col Downman, was hit by a bullet and fell, mortally wounded. Under heavy fire Towse, accompanied by a Sgt. Nelson and a L/Cpl Hodgson, ran forward to help him and managed to get back safely with Downman's body.

Towse' action was noted and a citation sent up the chain of command. Meanwhile, the Gordon Highlanders moved on towards Bloemfontein where, under Roberts' command, they awaited further events. These were not long in coming. The Boer General, Olivier, came up towards Bloemfontein and invested the city's waterworks. He had to be dislodged and this led to the battles of Sannas's Pass and Houtnek. A detachment of the Gordon Highlanders was present at this latter battle, among them Ernest Towse.

Towse and his company were ordered forward to clear a Boer force off a koppie known as Mt Tabo and, while leading the assault, Towse was shot in the face and permanently blinded. His bravery in this action, the assault on Mount Tabo, did not go un-noticed and this, plus his deed at Magersfontein, led to the awarding of the Victoria Cross.

As a result of a family connection, our speaker Terry met and got to know Ernest's grandson, Peter Towse, and visited the battlefields of Magersfontein and Houtnek in his company. Together they retraced the scene of the advance at Magersfontein and the assault on Mount Tabo at Houtnek, near Thaba N'Chu. It was while in the company of Peter Towse that Terry learned why Queen Victoria cried.

When the blinded Captain appeared before the Queen to receive his VC, he was led towards the throne on the arm of his wife. However, he stopped short three paces before the throne and, gently disengaging his arm, he declared that he was "not going to be led before his queen" and stepped forward bravely on his own. Seeing this, Queen Victoria bowed her head and wept silently into her handkerchief. The moment was captured for posterity by the court artist and was widely published as "The Day Queen Victoria Wept".

After the usual question time Hamish Paterson was asked by Ivor to thank both speakers, after which the meeting adjourned for refreshments.

Ivor Little
Chairman and Scribe.



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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
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