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Chapter 46: the adventures of the Florida (Oreto) and Alabama. engagement between the Kearsarge and Alabama.

  • Destruction of the nation's commerce.
  • -- Semmes' career in the old Navy. -- Semmes in England. -- takes passage for Nassau. -- receives Captain's commission. -- ordered to command the Alabama. -- the Oreto seized by British authorities, afterwards released. -- receives her armament at Grand Key. -- the Oreto (Florida) sails for Mobile. -- runs through blockading squadron. -- runs blockade a second time. -- Maffitt lights up the sea. -- the Alabama. -- Semmes joins the Alabama at Terceira. -- in commission. -- capture of starlight, ocean Rover, alert, weather-gauge and Altamaha. -- exciting chase. -- capture of the Benjamin Tucker, courser, Virginia and Elisha Dunbar. -- rough sea and a picturesque conflagration. -- capture of the brilliant, Emily Farnum, Dunkirk, Wave crest, Tonawanda, Manchester, Lamplighter, Crenshaw and Levi Starbuck. -- exciting adventures. -- Landing prisoners at Port de France. -- blockaded. -- the Alabama escapes U. S. S. San Jacinto. -- capture of the Parker Cooke, Union and Ariel. -- incidents on board the Ariel. -- the Alabama in Gulf of Mexico. -- Sinks U. S. S. Hatteras. -- Landing prisoners and refitting at Jamaica. -- capture of Golden rule, Chastelaine, Palmetto, Olive Jane and Golden Eagle. -- the sea ablaze with burning vessels. -- the toll-gate upon the sea. -- capture of the Washington, John A. Parks, Bethiah Thayer, Punjaub, morning Star, Kingfisher, Charles Hill, Nora, Louisa Hatch, Lafayette and Kate Cory. -- capture of the whalers Nye, Dorcas Prince and Union Jack. -- the Alabama and Confederate steamer Georgia at Bahia. -- capture of the Gilderslieve, Justiana, Jaben Snow, Amazonian, Talisman and Conrad. -- the Conrad commissioned as a Confederate cruiser. -- capture of the Anna F. Schmidt. -- the Tuscaloosa. -- capture of the sea-bride. -- U. S. S. Vanderbilt and Wyoming. -- the Winged Racer and the contest in flames. -- the Alabama gives the Wyoming the slip. -- capture of the Martaban, Sonora and Highlander, -- burning of the Emma Jane. -- release of the Tuscaloosa. -- capture of the Rockingham and Tycoon. -- the Alabama anchors in harbor of Cherbourg. -- arrival of the Kearsarge. -- a challenge. -- preparations to fight. -- engagement between the Alabama and Kearsarge. -- incidents of battle. -- the Alabama sunk! -- Semmes escapes. -- Captain Winslow's report. -- officers and crew of the Kearsarge. -- officers of the Alabama.

There is no more interesting chapter in the history of the war than the account of the performances of those who commanded the cruisers that were sent forth by the Confederate Government to destroy the commerce of the Northern States.

This commerce had long been the pride of the nation, and its white sails covered nearly every sea; but that it was poorly protected by the Government was well known to all the world, and it was predicted by those who thought seriously upon the subject that the day would come when [622] the rude hands of some foreign power would be laid upon it, in some future war, when it would be swept from the seas; but who, in his wildest conjectures, would ever suppose that the blow would come from those whose greatest pride once was that they were born under the Stars and Stripes, and that they loved every stripe and star in the dear old flag that had borne itself so bravely in times past, on land and sea, in the defence of human rights, and in the vindication of its own honor?

Yet men change their creeds so rapidly with the circumstances of the times, that it would be impossible to predict their actions when revolution overwhelms a nation, and changes the most loyal hearts. Men, who with patriotic pride had looked upon our flag with a veneration almost as great as they owed their God, forsook it at a moment's warning — at a time when it most needed their support. And, strange to say, some of these not only placed themselves in opposition to the Government — to which they had been bound by the most sacred ties — but they did all in their power to drive its flag from the ocean, by destroying the noble ships that carried it.

There was a large corps of these officers, and among them some of the most gallant and fiery spirits of the old Navy, without whose intelligent aid the Confederates could have inflicted little or no injury upon American commerce. It is well known that all the attempts made by the merchant captains of the South to fit out privateers were failures. Their vessels were always captured, simply because their commanders lacked the training and intelligence of the regular naval officers who went South when their States seceded.

There can be no doubt that Commander Semmes was one of the most intelligent of these officers, and he not only willingly entered into Mr. Mallory's plan for the destruction of American commerce, but embarked in the career with so much energy that it amounted to vindictiveness; so that, although he performed many daring exploits, he is hardly entitled to be called a hero. We have seen what he accomplished with the Sumter, a small vessel which had been condemned by a Board of naval officers at New Orleans. Semmes, however, at once decided that she would suit his purpose, and, with an energy he had never been thought to possess, he got her to sea, eluded the blockaders, and after capturing fifteen merchantment, arrived at Cadiz. From this port he went to Gibraltar, where the career of the Sumter, as a commerce-destroyer, ended. She was in an unseaworthy condition, and, being closely blockaded. Semmes decided that she could be of no further use to the Confederacy. He sold her in such a way that his adopted country could benefit by the purchase-money, and then started in pursuit of some other field of action.

As we have said before. Commander Semmes had denounced the Mexican Government for proposing to do what he was doing in the Alabama, but no one can tell how a man may change his nature or his opinions when swayed by some passion that may have been dormant in him for years, and which only required to be called into action to make the inert, indifferent officer throw off the old man and take on the new; there are so many instances where such men have come to the surface in great revolutions, that it is not strange that Commander Semmes, from being the mildest-mannered gentleman in the Navy, should have assumed a character bordering on that of an ancient viking.

This officer would not perhaps have merited these remarks had he not throughout his career shown the most vindictive feelings towards anything that claimed to belong to the United States; he was so inhumane in his treatment of prisoners, and so indifferent to the rights of property, that he could scarcely have expected to be treated as mildly as his compatriots who inflicted great damage on American commerce, but were content after the war was over to remain quietly in their retirement without boasting of what they had done in a book that tended to keep alive the bad passions which it were better for both North and South to bury in oblivion.

We have seen Commander Semmes in the Sumter, we have yet to see him in the Alabama, which he made ten times more famous as a destroyer than the little vessel which first carried his fortunes. During his second command lie carried such terror into the hearts of peaceful merchantmen that many of them abandoned their flag and placed their ships under the protection of England, where they knew they would be safe from molestation.

When Semmes arrived in England he found that a commission of Confederate naval officers had been sent abroad to purchase or build cruisers for the Southern Navy, but that, owing to the difficulties thrown in their way by the protests of the American Minister and Secretary of State, little headway had been made in the desire direction; and, although he was offered the first command, he saw little prospect of immediate employment and determined to return to the Confederate States. An opportunity soon offered, and he took passage on the fast blockade-runner Melita, which landed him at Nassau, N. P., on the 13th of June, 1862. On the same evening Semmes was quartered at the Victoria Hotel with [623] his staff, where he was surrounded by many Confederates. who all consorted together after a manner, and at least with apparent harmony, for they were all. as a rule, engaged in the same errand (search for plunder); and the greedy look and hungry eyes of many of these parties, as they longingly gazed upon the thousands of bales of cotton which strewed the beach, showed that their hearts were wrapped up in that beautiful staple.

Nassau, originally an insignificant town, sought only as a place of resort for invalids, had now assumed the airs of a thriving city. The harbor was filled with shipping, and its warehouses, wharves and quays were overflowing with merchandise of all kinds, ready to be sent into Confederate ports. There was almost as much bustle and activity here as at the wharves of New York. Ships were constantly arriving from England with merchandise, great-guns, small-arms, ammunition, and everything else that could be wanted by the Confederates to enable them to carry on the war, and light-draft steamers, Confederate and English, were constantly reloading these articles and running them into Southern ports. So successful were some of these traders in running the blockade that they made their voyages as regularly as mail-packets, returning again and again to Nassau with heavy loads of cotton, which were there transferred to the vessels which had brought arms and munitions of war from England.

What was there to prevent the Confederates from maintaining and equipping their fast cruisers except the unwearying vigilance of the blockading fleet? This trying duty was well performed, however, and, al-thougli some escaped them, the Federal officers captured 1,156 blockade-runners during the war. This faithful work was attributed by Commander Semmes to the greed of the Old Navy. He complained that “this duty became a bone of contention among the Federal naval officers, which of them should be assigned to the lucrative command of the blockading squadron,” and that “the Admiral of one of their squadrons would frequently awake in the morning and find himself richer by twenty thousand dollars by reason of a capture made by some one of his subordinates the night before.” This, he said, was “the ‘mess of pottage’ for which so many unprincipled Southern men in the Federal Navy sold their birthright.” Is it any wonder that these loyal men refused to recognize Semmes when he was left by the war in indigent circumstances and could not make a living by the law?

Commander Semmes met several Confederate officers at Nassau, among them Commander J. N. Maffitt, who had arrived in the Oreto, a vessel that had been purchased in England by the Confederate commission and fitted out as a cruiser. At this moment she was detained at Nassau by the Attorney-General of the colony for a violation of the British “Foreign Enlistment Act.” Semmes passed his time in listening to the arguments in this case. and in the meanwhile received a commission as Captain in the Confederate Navy, with orders to return to England and take command of the steamer Alabama (then known as No. 290). She had been so far secured by the Confederate commissioners that they felt quite certain of getting her to sea.


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