The Semmes family was founded in America by Marmaduke Semme, who settled in southern Maryland before 1662. He was a carpenter by trade and had paid for his own passage to the New World. (Humphreys) The Semmeses who attended the University of Virginia were all descended from this man.
Thomas Semmes, Jr. (11 Nov. 1812-6 Jul. 1843) was born in Alexandria, VA, the son of Dr. Thomas Semmes (1778-1833) and his wife, Sophia Wilson Potts (1787-1839). Thomas Jr. attended the University of Virginia in sessions 8-9 (1831-1833). He married Eliza Frances Bernard (1815-1889) of Caroline Co., VA in 1839. (Bernard Family) Their only child was Col. Thomas Middleton Semmes. Thomas Semmes Jr. died in 1843, and is buried in the cemetery of Christ Church, Alexandria, VA. (McBride) Eliza Semmes and her son and daughter-in-law are buried in Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington, VA.
John Edward Semmes (1 Jul. 1851-17 May 1925) was born near Cumberland, MD, and was the son of Samuel Middleton Semmes (1811-1867), a judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, and his wife, Eleanor Nelson Guest (1820-1875). John E. Semmes attended the University of Virginia in sessions 46 and 48 (1869-1870 and 1871-1872), graduating with a degree in chemistry. During his time at U.Va., Semmes joined Kappa Sigma fraternity as one of the first seven members in the United States.
After graduation from U.Va. he became secretary for two years to his maternal uncle, Commodore John Guest, USN. One of his paternal uncles was Admiral Raphael Semmes, CSN, who by the end of the Civil War held both the ranks of rear admiral and brigadier general in the Confederate services simultaneously.
In 1874, John E. Semmes graduated from Maryland Law School. (Farr) His first position was in the law office of John H. B. Latrobe, with whom he maintained a close friendship even after forming his own firm. Late in his life, Semmes was the author of a biography of his former employer: John H. B. Latrobe and his times, 1803-1891 (Baltimore, MD, 1917). Semmes was a partner in the law firm of Steele, Semmes & Carey, and was a leading lawyer of the Maryland Bar, in addition to serving the city of Baltimore as city attorney and as a member of the Water Board and the School Board.
On 22 Jun. 1880, John married Frances Carnan Hayward (b. 1857); the couple had the following children: John Edward, Frances Carnan Hayward, Elizabeth North (d. young), and Raphael Semmes. John Edward Semmes died in Baltimore, MD, at the home of his son, John E. Semmes Jr., and according to the Baltimore Evening Sun was buried in the family cemetery in Cumberland, MD.
Paul Jones Semmes (4 Jun. 1815-10 Jul. 1863) was born in born at Montford’s Plantation in Wilkes Co., GA, the son of Andrew Green Simpson Semmes (1781-1833), originally of Charles County, Maryland, and his second wife, Mary Robertson (1788-1838). Paul attended the University of Virginia in session 10 (1833-1834). On 14 Jun. 1836, Paul married Emily J. Hemphill (d. 1884). The couple had the following children: Mary Jane, Pauline, Cleveland Porter (d. young), Thomas Hemphill (1) (d. young), Andrew Green (1) (d. infant), Andrew Green (2), and Thomas Hemphill Semmes (2).
Paul was a prominent banker and plantation owner in Columbus, GA. In 1861, Gov. J. E. Brown of Georgia appointed Paul Semmes Brigadier General of Georgia Volunteers. In May 1861, Semmes accepted the colonelcy of the 2nd Georgia Regiment, and in March 1862, he was again advanced to Brigadier General. He was a brigade commander of the Army of Northern Virginia at the battles of South Mountain, Sharpsburg, and Chancellorsville. He was mortally wounded on 2 Jul. 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and died 10 Jul. 1863 in Martinsburg, WV, where he was initially buried. After the war, Paul Semmes’s body was moved to Linwood Cemetery in Columbus, GA.
Joseph Green Semmes (12 Feb. 1822-9 Jul. 1847) was the younger brother of Paul Jones Semmes. He attended the University of Virginia in session 17 (1840-1841), and is notorious for firing the shot that killed Professor John A. G. Davis. On the evening of 12 Nov. 1840, Semmes (age 18) and a friend, William Kincaid (age 16) of South Carolina, both wearing masks and carrying pistols, set out to create some rowdiness near the professors’ pavilions. John A. G. Davis, the head of the Faculty, stepped out of his pavilion to see what was happening. According to a letter written by Davis’s nephew, Peter Carr, “Davis stepped up to him [e.g., Semmes] & caught hold of his disguise in order to detect him, as he was committing a high infringement of the laws of good order of the Institution. The person however jerked away from him, ran three or four yards, wheeled around, and fired his pistol at Mr. Davis–He then fled as fast as possible past Mr. Davis’ pavilion, jumped down a wall that bounds the southern side of the University & escaped.” (Carr)
Professor Davis was gut-shot and died three days later. Joseph Semmes was identified as the culprit and taken into custody. He was imprisoned in the county jail for several months, and several trial dates were postponed. Finally, in July 1841, upon a petition from his lawyers, the court granted his release from prison on account of ill health due to his incarceration. He was released on $25,000 bond, which was forfeited when he did not show up for trial in October 1841. According to the Rev. Edgar Woods, it was rumored that Semmes had fled to Texas, and that he committed suicide. (Woods)
Rev. Woods was partly correct. Several newspapers reported that Semmes had escaped to Texas, but I have found no proof of that. However, the last report I found on Joseph G. Semmes is in the Edgefield Advertiser (SC) of 11 Aug, 1847, which states,
“Young Semmes, who some years since shot Professor Davis at the Virginia University, brought his life to an end by his own hand, the morning of the 9th instant [9 July 1847], at the house of his brother in Washington, Georgia. He shot himself with a pistol, the ball entering the left eye and penetrating the brain and lingered in a state of total insensibility from about 7 o’clock, A. M., when his family was called to his room by the report of a pistol, until half past 1. P. M. of the same day.”
Note: Many thanks to Mitchell B. Wilson, Executive Director of Kappa Sigma, for his assistance in finding information on John Edward Semmes.
- Ancestry.com. 1850-1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc.
- Baltimore, its history and its people. V. 2, Biography. New York, 1912. Accessed via books.google.com.
- “Bernard Family.” The William and Mary Quarterly, v. 5, no. 1 (July 1896), p. 62-64; v. 5, no. 3 (Jan. 1897), p. 181-187.
- Carr, Peter. “Letter to Warrick Miller, 18 November 1840,” in All the Hoos in Hooville: Famous, infamous and fictitious. [website] http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/hoos/famous.html (Accessed 9/21/2011).
- Farr, Finis King. Kappa Sigma, a history, 1869-1929. Denver, CO, 1929.
- Humphreys, Anderson & Curt Guenther. Semmes America. Memphis, TN, 1989.
- “John E. Semmes dies at 74 at home of his son.” The Sun (Baltimore, MD), May 18, 1925.
- “John E. Semmes rites set for tomorrow.” The Evening Sun (Baltimore, MD), May 18, 1925.
- “John Semmes leaves estate worth $200,000.” Cumberland Evening Times (Cumberland, MD), 23 May 1925, p. 1.
- McBride, Louis, Christ Church, Arlington County, Virginia. [webpage] c1999. http://files.usgwarchives.net/va/cityofalexandria/cemeteries/christchurch.txt (Accessed 9/27/2011).
- “Melancholy end.” Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, SC), 11 Aug. 1847, p. 1.
- Newman, Harry Wright. The Maryland Semmes and kindred families. Baltimore, MD, c1956.
- O’Leary-Semmes-Pritchitt-Richardson Family Tree. [database online] http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/5880873/ (Accessed 9/21/2011).
- Riney, Lillie. Genealogy of Lillie Riney. http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=edswoman&id=I16609 (Accessed 9/27/2011).
- Tombstones of the Semmes family, Wilkes Co., GA; Baltimore County, MD; and Lexington, VA. Findagrave.com. Accessed 9/21/2011.
- Woods, Edgar. Albemarle County in Virginia. Charlottesville, VA, 1901.