Paul Jones Semmes was born on June 4, 1815 at Montford’s Plantation in Wilkes County, Georgia. He attended the University of Virginia and became a plantation owner and businessman in Columbus, Georgia. He was active in the local militia, writing a book on infantry tactics and serving as captain of a company called the Columbus Guards. In 1860 he was appointed Georgia’s quartermaster general.
Semmes was one of the organizers and was elected colonel of the 2nd Georgia Infantry. The regiment was sent to Virginia, where it was assigned to Magruder’s force on the peninsula.
On March 11, 1862 Semmes was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to the division of General John B. Magruder. He led his brigade at Yorktown, Williamsburg and Seven Pines. His brigade was attached to McLaws’ Division, fighting at Savage Station and Malvern Hill during the Seven Days battles.
After missing the Second Battle of Manssas McLaws’ Division joined the Army of Northern Virginia and took part in the Maryland Campaign. Semmes led the brigade in a desperate rearguard action at Crampton’s Gap in the Battle of South Mountain. At Sharpsburg most of his regiments lost half their men, and three of the four regimental commanders suffered wounds.
In November the brigade’s roster was shuffled to include only Georgia regiments. The 15th and 32nd Virginia were transferred to Corse’s Brigade of Pickett’s Division and were replaced by the 50th and 51st Georgia Regiments from Drayton’s Brigade.
Semmes’ man were in reserve at Fredericksburg. In the Battle of Chancellorsville the brigade was heavily engaged at Salem Church.
Semmes’ last battle was at Gettysburg (see the Brigade monument at Gettysburg). He led his brigade in the attack on July 2nd that crushed Sickles’ Corps and was pushing toward the Wheatfield. As he was leading his men forward near the Rose Woods he was badly wounded in the thigh. He applied his own tourniquet and was helped from the field.
He was evacuated to Martinsburg, West Virginia. On July 10th he wrote his wife that “the main danger was over” and “the wound had done remarkably well” but within a few hours he died, sword at his side and bible in his hand.
A week before the battle he had written a friend to renew his life insurance policy, which was due to expire on July 3rd. He stated “I have no premonition of death-still the peril is so great I cannot hope to escape much longer. Death has no terror for me.” *
Semmes is buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus, Georgia. He was cousin to Raphael Semmes of the Confederate Navy.
*Jorgensen, Jay, Gettysburg’s Bloody Wheatfield, p. 11