Monday, October 15, 2012

150-Years-Ago -- Exploits of the C. S. S. Alabama

The C. S. S. Alabama was one of the most successful commerce raiders in military history.
(U. S. Naval Historical Center)
The Richmond Daily Dispatch
October 20, 1862.

Exploits of the Confederate steamer "290"--Fourteen vessels destroyed with, $1,000,000 in Goods--Yankee description of her Captain, and his "style" of taking vessels.
           The New York Herald publishes the statement of three matters of ships that have been burnt by the Confederate shipsteamer Alabama, ("290,") and says that Captain Sommes, of the "200," has captured and destroyed 14 vessels, with $1,000,000 of cargo, and paroled and sent to the Island of Flores 191 prisoners:
           It is very evident, from all we learn from Capt. Hagar, that the Alabama will, if not fallen in with, captured and destroyed, become the terror of the ocean. Her speed appears to be unequalled both under steam and sail. Her sailing qualities, as reported, are superior to the speed of nine-tenths of our steamers in the navy, and under steam and canvas combined it will take the Vanderbilt or vessels of a similar class, to do anything with her in a chase. Her battery is very formidable, equal to many of our screw sloop of war of the second class and variety superior to any of our smaller vessels — She is in all respects an ugly customer, and one that will destroy millions of property before she is caught, if she is caught at all.
           In all cases where Capt Semmes captures a vessel, he sends an armed boat on board and orders the unfortunate captain on board the Alabama, with his papers. On his arrival he is ushered into the presence of the pirate Semmes, who receives him to the most pompous and overbearing manner. He unquestioned as to the name of the ship, where from where hound and the character of his cargo. Capt. Hagar in reply to the latter question said that some of his cargo was on English account. On his giving this reply Semmes scowled at him and remarked. "Do you take me for a d — d fool? Where are the proofs that part of your cargo is on English account?"
           The papers, unfortunately, not having the Consular seal attached, were not considered proof, and the Brilliant and her cargo were in consequence seized by Semmes as a prize.

Admiral Raphael Seems is seen here in the foreground on
the deck of the Alabama. Lt. Kell is standing in the back-
ground. (U. S. Naval Historical Center)
Personal appearance of Semmes.
            Captain Hagar says that, however much Semmes may have had the appearance of a gentleman when an officer of the United States Navy, he has entirely changed now. He sports a huge moustache the ends of which are waxed in a manner to throw that of Victor Emanuel entirely in the shade, and it is evident that it occupies much of his attention. His steward wares it every day carefully, and so prominent is it that the sailors of the Alabama term him "Old Beeswar." His whole appearance is that of a corsair, and the transformation appear to be complete from Commander Raphael Semmes, United States Navy, to a combination of Lafitte, Kidd, and libbs, the three most notorious pirates the world has ever known.
             The officers of the Alabama are reported as very dainty gentlemen. In plundering a ship they take nothing but articles that suit them. If replenishing their stores, they invariably reject brown sugar, taking nothing but the best loaf. With kid gloves it is the same — they refuse colors, and will have nothing but pure white. And so it is with them all the way through. They appropriate everything they find worth having, and destroy the rest, and are pirates in every tense of the word, except that they do not take life — or rather, they have not yet done so.
           When Captain Hagar left the Alabama there were between forty and fifty of the crews of the different vessels she had destroyed still on board. They were confined below in irons, in the most miserable condition. They were where every drop of rain fell on them, and every sea that came aboard the vessel washed over them, and the poor fellows were in a terrible plight, having lost everything with the vessels they belonged to, the pirates permitting no-baggage, except the very smallest quantity, to be brought away from the prizes before they were destroyed. They had the satisfaction of knowing, however, that it could not be long before they would be released for Semmes could not afford to have his ship filled up with prisoners.
           The plan that Semmes has adopted to bring fish to his net is as follows: It will be seen at a glance that the position he was last reported in was in the track of many vessels bound to and from Europe. This is the position he has chosen to do the greatest possible amount of destruction, and he certainly has been most successful. Wherever he captures a ship, after taking from her all that he and his officers want, he lays by her until dark, and then sets her on fire. The light of the burning ship can be seen many miles, and every other ship within seeing distance stands towards the light, thinking to rescue a number of poor follows from destruction. The pirate keeps in the immediate vicinity, awaiting the pray that is sure to come, and the next morning the poor follows, who have, to serve the cause of humanity, gone many miles out of their course, find themselves under the guns of the Alabama, with the certainty that before another twenty-four hours they will share the fate of the ship they came to serve.
            This plan will enable him to destroy an immense amount of property without, much cruising. He can lay to our position and gather the ships around him during the night ready for operations on the coming day for weeks to come; for it will be along time before his depredations can be made known, so that our unsuspecting merchantmen will be on the lookout for him.
           Again, he will be enabled for cruise for an indefinite length of time; for he uses no coal, depending upon his canvas entirely, which, it seams, is all sufficient for his purpose. He carries stores for eight months, and can always replenish from the prizes he may take. He will be here to day, there to-morrow, and will be certain to be found where any one is looking for him. for him will be like "looking for a needle in a hay stack, " And wish the majority of vessels we have cruising at the present time, should one of them he fortunate enough to see him, all we shall benefit thereby will be a look and so it will continue to be until we have ships of greater speed than we now possess or expect soon to have.

C. S. S. Alabama (U. S. Navy Historical Center)

Description of the Alabama.
            The Alabama was built at Liverpool or Birkenhead, and left the latter port in August last; is about 1,200 tons burghen, draught about 14 feet; engines by Laird & Sons, of Birkenhead, 1861. She is a wooden vessel, propelled by a screw, copper bottom, about 210 feet long, rather narrow, painted blank outside, and drab inside; has a round stern, billet head, very little shear, flush deck fore and act; a bridge forward of the smoke stack, carries two large black boats on cranes amidships forward of the main rigging; two black quarter boats between the main and mizen masts, one small black boat over the stern on branes, the spare spars on a gallows between the bridge and foremast, show above the rail. She carries three long 32-pounders on a side, and is pierced for two more amidships; has a 100 pound rifled pivot gun forward of the bridge, and a 68-pound pivot on the main deck; has tracks laid forward for a pivot how gun, and tracks art for a pivot stern causer — all of which she will take on broad to complete her armament. Her guns are of the Blakely pattern, and manufactured by Wesley & Preston, Liverpool, 1862. She is bark rigged. She was built expressly for the business. She is engaged to destroy, fight or run, as the character of her opponent may be. She took her armament and crew and most of her officers on board near Terceira, Western Islands, from an English vessel. Her crew are principally English; the officers, chivalry of the South. All the water consumed on board is condensed. She has eight months provisions, besides what is being plundered, and has about four hundred tons of coal on board.
              The Herald, in commenting upon the daring feats of the "290, " says:
 A very unusual excitement prevailed in our commercial and financial circles yesterday, in consequence of the news of the terrible work of destruction commenced by the
rebel privateer, the Alabama, or "290." among our whaling and merchant vessels on the high seas. The intelligence of these depredations, however, so close behind the warning that the robber had taken to the road, was very naturally calculated to produce a sensation.

 It adds that the Vanderbilt, the latest U. S. ship afloat, is to be sent after the "290."

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