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Chapter 32:

  • The Alabama a ship of war, and not a privateer
  • -- sketch of the personnel of the ship -- putting the ship in order for service -- sail and steam -- the character of the sailor -- the first blow struck at the whale fishery -- the Habitat and habits of the whale -- the first capture.

The reader has seen in the last chapter, that the Alabama is at length upon the high seas, as a commissioned ship of war of the Confederate States, her commission having been signed by Mr. Jefferson Davis, who had all the de facto right, and much more of the de jure right, to sign such a commission than John Hancock, who signed Paul Jones' commission. The Alabama having been built by the Government of the Confederate States, and commissioned by these States, as a ship of war, was, in no sense of the word, a privateer, which is a private armed ship belonging to individuals, and fitted out for purposes of gain. And yet, throughout the whole war, and long after the war, when she was not called a ‘pirate’ by the Northern press, she was called a privateer. Even high Government officials of the enemy so characterized her. Many of the newspapers erred through ignorance, but this misnomer was sheer malice, and very petty malice, too, on the part of those of them who were better informed, and on the part of the Government officials, all of whom, of course, knew better. Long after they had acknowledged the war, as a war, which carried with it an acknowledgment of the right of the Confederate States to fit out cruisers, they stultified themselves by calling her ‘pirate,’ and ‘privateer.’ They were afraid to speak the truth, in conformity with the facts, lest the destruction [415] of their property, for which they hoped ultimately to be paid, should seem to be admitted to have been done under the sanction of the laws of nations. They could as logically have called General Robert E. Lee a bandit, as myself a pirate; but logic was not the forte of the enemy, either during or since the late war.

Before we commence operations, a glance at the personnel of the ship may not be uninteresting. If the reader is to embark on the cruise with us, he will very naturally desire to know something of his future shipmates. Having made the cruise in the Sumter, he is, of course, acquainted with the officers of that ship, and if, after the fashion of the sailor, he has formed a liking for any of them, he will naturally be inclined to know what became of such of them as did not follow me to the Alabama. Of the lieutenants, only one of my old set followed me. Accident separated the rest from me, very much to my regret, and we afterward played different roles in the war. The reader has not forgotten Chapman, the second officer of the Sumter, who made such a sensation in Cienfuegos, among the fair sex, and who slept in such a sweet pair of sheets at the house of his friend, that he dreamed of them for weeks afterward. Chapman finished the cruise in the Sumter, serving everybody else pretty much as he served the Cienfuegos people, whenever he chanced to get ashore. He was always as ready ‘to tread one measure—take one cup of wine,’ with a friend, as to hurl defiance at an enemy. He carried the garrison mess at Gibraltar by storm. There was no dinner-party without him. He talked war and strategy with the colonel, fox-hunted with the major, and thrum bed the light guitar, and sang delightful songs, in company with the young captains, and lieutenants, beneath the latticed windows of their lady-loves. It is astonishing, too, the progress he made in learning Spanish, which was attributable entirely to the lessons he took from some bright eyes, and musical tongues, in the neighboring village of San Roque, only a pleasant canter over into Spain, from Gibraltar. Chapman was, unfortunately, going from London to Nassau, in a blockade runner, while I was returning from the latter place to Liverpool, preparatory to joining the Alabama. It was thus [416] we missed each other; and the Alabama was on the wing so soon afterward, that it was impossible for him to catch her. He served in the Georgia, a while, under Captain William Lewis Maury, and, when that ship was laid up and sold, he returned to the Confederate States, and rendered gallant and efficient service, in the last days of the war, in doing what was possible for the defence of Wilmington, against the overwhelming fleet of Porter.

Stribling, the third of the Sumter, was assigned by me to Maffitt's command, as already related. He died of yellow fever in Mobile, deeply regretted by the whole service.

Evans, the fourth of the Sumter, missed me as Chapman had done, and like Chapman, he took service on board the Georgia, and afterward returned to the Confederate States. He served in the naval batteries on the James River, until the evacuation of Richmond.

I took with me to the Alabama, as the reader has seen, my old and well-tried First Lieutenant, Kell. He became the first lieutenant of the new ship.

Lieutenant Richard F. Armstrong, of Georgia, whom, as the reader will recollect, I had left at Gibraltar, in charge of the Sumter, took Chapman's place, and became second lieutenant. Armstrong was a young gentleman of intelligence and character, and had made good progress in his profession. He was a midshipman at the Naval School, at Annapolis, when the war broke out. Though still a mere boy, he resigned his appointment without hesitation, and came South. He had made the cruise with me in the Sumter, and been since promoted.

Midshipman Joseph D. Wilson, of Florida, also an éleve of Annapolis, and who, like Armstrong, had made the cruise with me in the Sumter, and been promoted, took Stribling's place, and became third lieutenant.

My fourth lieutenant in place of Evans was Mr. Arthur Sinclair, who, though not bred in the old service, belonged to one of the old naval families of Virginia, both his father and grandfather having been captains in the United States Navy. These two young gentlemen were also intelligent, and for the short time they had been at sea, well informed in their profession. [417]

My fifth lieutenant was Mr. John Low, of Georgia, a capital seaman, and excellent officer.

Gait, my old surgeon, had accompanied me, as the reader has seen, as did also First Lieutenant Howell, of the marines. Myers, the paymaster of the Sumter, was, unfortunately for me, in prison, in Fort Warren, when the Alabama was commissioned—the Federal authorities still gloating over the prize they had made, through the trickery of the Consul at Tangier, of one of the ‘pirate's’ officers. In his place I was forced to content myself with a man, as paymaster, who shall be nameless in these pages, since he afterward, upon being discharged by me, for his worthlessness, went over to the enemy, and became one of Mr. Adams' hangers-on, and paid witnesses and spies about Liverpool, and the legation in London. As a preparatory step to embracing the Yankee cause, he married a mulatto woman, in Kingston, Jamaica, (though he had a wife living,) whom he swindled out of what little property she had, and then abandoned. I was quite amused, when I saw afterward, in the Liverpool and London papers, that this man, who was devoid of every virtue, and steeped to the lips in every vice, was giving testimony in the English courts, in the interest of the nation of ‘grand moral ideas.’ This was the only recruit the enemy ever got from the ranks of my officers.

To complete the circle of the ward-room, I have only to mention Mr. Miles J. Freeman, the chief engineer of the Sumter, who was now filling the same place on board the Alabama, and with whom the reader is already acquainted; Dr. Llewellyn, an Englishman from Wiltshire, who having come out in the Alabama as surgeon when she was yet a merchant-ship, had been retained as assistant surgeon; and Acting Master Bullock, brother of the captain already named in these pages. My ‘steerage officers,’ who are too numerous to be named individually, were a capital set of young men, as were the ‘forward officers.’ Indeed, with the exception of the black sheep in the ward-room, with Federal propensities, to whom I have alluded, I had reason to be satisfied with my officers of all grades.

I must not forget to introduce to the reader one humble [418] individual of the Alabama's crew. He was my steward, and my household would not be complete without him. When I was making the passage from Nassau to Liverpool, in the Bahama, I noticed a pale, rather delicate, and soft-mannered young man, who was acting as steward on board. He was an obedient, respectful, and attentive major-domo, but, unfortunately, was rather too much addicted to the use of the wine which he set on the table, every day, for the guests. Poor Bartelli—I thus designate him, because of his subsequent sad fate, which the reader will learn in due time—did not seem to have the power of self-restraint, especially under the treatment he received, which was not gentle. The captain was rough toward him, and the poor fellow seemed very much cowed and humbled, trembling when spoken to harshly. His very forlornness drew me toward him. He was an Italian, evidently of gentle blood, and as, with the Italians, drinking to intoxication is not an ineradicable vice, I felt confident that he could be reformed under proper treatment. And so, when we arrived at Terceira, I asked Bartelli how he would like to go with me, as steward, on board the Alabama. He seemed to be delighted with the proposal. ‘There is one understanding, however,’ I said to him, ‘which you and I must have: you must never touch a drop of liquor, on board the ship, on duty. When you go on shore, “on liberty,” if you choose to have a little frolic, that is your affair, provided, always, you come off sober. Is it a bargain?’ ‘It is, Captain,’ said he; ‘I promise you I will behave myself like a man, if you will take me with you.’ The Captain of the Bahama had no objection, and Bartelli was duly installed as my steward. I found him, as I had expected, a capital servant. He was faithful, and became attached to me, and kept his promise, under strong temptation; for there was always in the cabin-lockers of the Alabama the best of wines and other liquors. He took care of my linen like a woman, washing it himself when we were at sea, and sending it to some careful laundress when in port. I shall, perhaps, astonish a great many husbands and heads of families, when I tell them, that every shirt-button was always in its place, and that I never had to call for needle and thread under difficulties! My mess affairs never gave me the least trouble. My table [419] was always well supplied, and when guests were expected, I could safely leave the arrangements to Bartelli; and then it was a pleasure to observe the air, and grace of manner and speech, with which he would receive my visitors and conduct them into the cabin. Poor Bartelli!

The day after the Bahama left us was cloudy, and cheerless in aspect, with a fresh wind and a rough sea. The ship was rolling and tumbling about, to the discomfort of every one, and confusion still reigned on board. Below decks everything was dirt and disorder. Nobody had as yet been berthed or messed, nor had any one been stationed at a gun or a rope. Spare shot-boxes and other heavy articles were fetching way, and the ship was leaking considerably through her upper works. She had been put together with rather green timber, and, having been caulked in England, in winter, her seams were beginning to gape beneath the ardent heats of a semi-tropical climate. I needed several days yet, to put things ‘to rights,’ and mould the crew into a little shape. I withdrew, therefore, under easy sail, from the beaten tracks of commerce; and my first lieutenant went to work berthing, and messing, and quartering, and stationing his men. The gun-equipments were completed, and such little alterations made as were found necessary for the easy and efficient working of the battery, and the guns were sealed with blank cartridges, and put in a proper condition for being loaded promptly. We now devoted several days to the exercise of the crew, as well at general, as division, quarters. Some few of the guns' crews had served in ships of war before, and proved capital drill-sergeants for the rest. The consequence was, that rapid progress was made, and the Alabama was soon in a condition to plume her wings for her flight. It only remained to caulk our upper works, and this occupied us but a day or two longer.

I was much gratified to find that my new ship proved to be a fine sailer, under canvas. This quality was of inestimable advantage to me, as it enabled me to do most of my work under sail. She carried but an eighteen days supply of fuel, and if I had been obliged, because of her dull sailing qualities, to chase every thing under steam, the reader can see how I should have been hampered in my movements. I should have [420] been half my time running into port for fuel. This would have disclosed my whereabouts so frequently to the enemy, that I should have been constantly in danger of capture, whereas I could now stretch into the most distant seas, and chase, capture, and destroy, perfectly independent of steam. I adopted the plan, therefore, of working under sail, in the very beginning of my cruise, and practised it unto the end. With the exception of half a dozen prizes, all my captures were made with my screw hoisted, and my ship under sail; and with but one exception, as the reader will see hereafter, I never had occasion to use steam to escape from an enemy.

This keeping of the sea, for three, and four months at a time, had another great advantage—it enabled me to keep my crew under better drill, and discipline, and, in every way, better in hand. Nothing demoralizes a crew so much as frequent visits to port. The sailor is as improvident, and incapable of self-government as a child. Indeed he is regarded by most nations as a ward of the state, and that sort of legislation is thrown around him, which is thrown around a ward in chancery. The moment a ship drops her anchor in a port, like the imprisoned bird, he begins to beat the bars of his cage, if he is not permitted to go on shore, and have his frolic; and when on shore, to carry our simile still further, he is like the bird let out of the cage. He gives a loose rein to his passions, and sometimes plunges so deeply into debauchery, that he renders himself unfit for duty, for days, and sometimes weeks, after he is hunted up and brought on board by the police, which is most frequently the manner in which his captain again gets possession of him. Such is the reckless intemperance into which some of the regular old salts plunge, that I have known them to go on shore, make their way straight to a sailor-boarding-house, which is frequently a dance-house, and always a grog-shop, give what money they have about them to the ‘landlord,’ and tell him to keep them drunk as long as it will last, and when they have had the worth of it in a good, long, big drunk, to pick them up, and send them off to their ship! The very d—l is to pay, too, when a lot of drunken sailors is brought on board, as every first lieutenant knows. Frequently they have to be knocked down, disarmed [421] of the dangerous sheath-knives which they wear, and confined in irons until they are sober. When that takes place, Jack comes out of the ‘Brig,’ his place of confinement, very much ashamed of himself; generally with a blackened eye or two, if not with a broken nose, and looking very seedy in the way of apparel, as the chances are that he has sold or exchanged the tidy suit in which he went on shore, for some long-shore toggery, the better to enable him to prolong that delightful drunk of his. It was quite enough to have such scenes as these repeated once in three or four months.

When I had put my ship in a tolerable state of defence, and given a little practice at the guns, to my crew, I turned her head toward her cruising ground. It so happened that this was not very far off. Following Porter's example in the Pacific,—I mean the first Porter, the father of the present Admiral in the Federal Navy,—I resolved to strike a blow at the enemy's whale-fishery, off the Azores. There is a curious and beautiful problem—that of Providence feeding the whale —connected with this fishery, which I doubt not will interest the reader, as it did the writer of these pages, when it first came under his notice. It is because of that problem, that the Azores are a whaling station. The food which attracts the whale to these islands is not produced in their vicinity, but is carried thither by the currents—the currents of the ocean performing the same functions for the finny tribe, that the atmosphere does for the plants. The fishes of the sea, in their kingdom beneath the waters, have thus their highways and byways, as well as the animals upon the land, and are always to be found congregated where their great food-bearers, the currents, make their deposits. Animalculae, infusoria, small fishes, minute crustacea, and shell-fish found on the algae, or floating sea-weed, sea-nettles, and other food, are produced in the more calm latitudes, where the waters are comparatively still, taken up by the currents, and transported to the more congenial feeding-grounds of the whales, and other fishes.

Much of this food is produced in the tepid waters of the sea, into which, it is well known, some descriptions of whales cannot [422] enter. The equatorial belt of waters surrounding the earth, between the tropics, whose temperature is generally 80° of Fahrenheit, is as a sea of fire to the ‘right’ whale. It would be as certain death for this species of whale to attempt to cross these waters, as for a human being to plunge into a burning lake. The proof of this is that the ‘right’ whale of the northern hemisphere is never found in the southern hemisphere, or e converse. It is a separate and distinct species of fish. See how beneficent, therefore, the arrangement is, by which the food for these monsters of the deep is transported from the tepid waters, into which they cannot enter in pursuit of it, to the cooler waters in which they delight to gambol. The Gulf Stream is the great food-carrier for the extra-tropical whales of the northern hemisphere. An intelligent sea-captain, writing to Superintendent Maury of the National Observatory, some years before the war, informed him, that in the Gulf Stream, off the coast of Florida, he fell in with ‘such a school of young sea-nettles, as had never before been heard of.’ The sea was literally covered with them for many square leagues. He likened them, in appearance, to acorns floating on the water, but they were so thick as completely to cover the sea. He was bound to England, and was five or six days in sailing through them. In about sixty days afterward, on his return voyage, he fell in with the same school off the Azores, and here he was three or four days in passing them again. He recognized them as the same, for he had never before seen any quite like them; and on both occasions he frequently hauled up buckets full, and examined them. In their adventurous voyage of sixty days, during which they must have been tossed about in several gales of wind, these little marine animals had grown considerably, and already the whales had begun to devour them; for the school was now so much diminished in size, that the captain was enabled to sail through it, in three or four days, instead of the five or six which it had formerly taken him. We see, thus, that the fishes of the sea have their seed-time and harvest; that the same beneficent hand that decks the lilies of the field in garments more superb than those of Solomon, and feeds the young raven, seeds down the great equatorial belt of waters for the fishes; and that [423] when the harvest-time has come, he sends in his reapers and gleaners, the currents, which bind up the sheaves, and bear them off three thousand miles, to those denizens of the great deep, which, perhaps, but for this beautiful and beneficent arrangement, would die of inanition.

The whaling season ends at the Azores about the first of October, when the first winter gales begin to blow, and the food becomes scarce. The whales then migrate to other feeding-grounds, and the adventurous whaler follows them. As we were now, in the first days of September, on board the Alabama, the reader will see, that we had but a few weeks left, in which to accomplish our purpose of striking a blow at the enemy's whale fishery. In the afternoon of September 4th, the weather being fine and clear, we made Pico and Fayal, and reducing sail to topsails, lay off and on during the night. The next day, the weather being cloudy, and the wind light from the eastward, we made our first prize, without the excitement of a chase. A ship having been discovered, lying to, with her foretopsail to the mast, we made sail for her, hoisting the United States colors, and approached her within boarding distance, that is to say, within a few hundred yards, without her moving tack or sheet. She had shown the United States colors in return, as we approached, and proved to be a whaler, with a huge whale, which she had recently struck, made fast alongside, and partially hoisted out of the water by her yard tackles. The surprise was perfect and complete, although eleven days had elapsed since the Alabama had been commissioned at a neighboring island, less than a hundred miles off.

The captured ship proved to be the Ocmulgee, of Edgartown, Massachusetts, whose master was a genuine specimen of the Yankee whaling skipper; long and lean, and as elastic, apparently, as the whalebone he dealt in. Nothing could exceed the blank stare of astonishment, that sat on his face, as the change of flags took place on board the Alabama. He had been engaged, up to the last moment, with his men, securing the rich spoil alongside. The whale was a fine ‘sperm,’ and was a ‘big strike,’ and had already been denuded of much of its blubber when we got alongside. He naturally concluded, he said, when he saw the United States colors at our peak, that [424] we were one of the new gunboats sent out by Mr. Welles to protect the whale fishery. It was indeed remarkable, that no protection should have been given to these men, by their Government. Unlike the ships of commerce, the whalers are obliged to congregate within small well-known spaces of ocean, and remain there for weeks at a time, whilst the whaling season lasts. It was the most obvious thing in the world, that these vessels, thus clustered together, should attract the attention of the Confederate cruisers, and be struck at. There are not more than half a dozen principal whaling stations on the entire globe, and a ship, of size and force, at each, would have been sufficient protection. But the whalers, like the commerce of the United States generally, were abandoned to their fate. Mr. Welles did not seem capable of learning by experience even; for the Shenandoah repeated the successes of the Alabama, in the North Pacific, toward the close of the war. There were Federal steam gunboats, and an old sailing hulk cruising about in the China seas, but no one seemed to think of the whalers, until Waddel carried dismay and consternation among them.

It took us some time to remove the crew of the Ocmulgee, consisting of thirty-seven persons, to the Alabama. We also got on board from her some beef and pork, and small stores, and by the time we had done this, it was nine o'clock at night; too late to think of burning her, as a bonfire, by night, would flush the remainder of the game, which I knew to be in the vicinity; and I had now become too old a hunter to commit such an indiscretion. With a little management and caution, I might hope to uncover the birds, no faster than I could bag them. And so, hoisting a light at the peak of the prize, I permitted her to remain anchored to the whale, and we lay by her until the next morning, when we burned her; the smoke of the conflagration being, no doubt, mistaken by vessels at a distance, for that of some passing steamer.

To those curious in such matters, I may state that a large sperm whale will yield twenty-five barrels of oil from the head alone. The oil is found in its liquid state, and is baled out with buckets, from a hole cut in the top of the head. What can be the uses in the animal economy to which this [425] immense quantity of oil in the head of the fish is applied? They are probably twofold. First, it may have some connection with the sustenance of the animal, in seasons of scarcity of food, and secondly, and more obviously, it appears to be a provision of nature, designed on the same principle on which birds are supplied with air-cells in their bones. The whale, though a very intelligent fish, and with an affection for its ‘calf,’ almost human, has but a small brain, the great cavity of its skull being filled as described. As the specific gravity of oil is considerably less than that of water, we can be at no loss to conjecture why the monster has so bountiful a supply, nor why it is that it carries the supply in its head. As is well known, the whale is a warm-blooded mammal, as much so as the cow that roams our pastures, and cannot live by breathing the water alone. Instead of the gill arrangement of other fishes, which enables them to extract from the water sufficient air to vitalize the blood, it has the lungs of the mammal, and needs to breathe the atmosphere. The oil in the head, acting on the principle of the cork, enables it to ascend very rapidly, from great depths in the ocean, when it requires to breathe, or ‘blow.’ See how beautiful this oil arrangement is, too, in another aspect. It enables the monster, when it requires rest, to lay its head on the softest kind of a pillow, an ocean wave, and sleep as unconcernedly as the child does upon the bosom of its mother.

On the day after the capture of the Ocmulgee, we chased and overhauled a French ship, bound to Marseilles. After speaking this ship, and telling her that we were a United States cruiser, we bore away north, half west, and in a couple of hours made the island of Flores, the westernmost of the Azores, and a favorite island to be sighted by the whalers, for the correction of their chronometers. Approaching it just at nightfall, we shortened sail, and lay off and on during the night. This island is an exceedingly picturesque object. It rises like a huge mountain from the depths of the sea, with the bluest and deepest of water all around it. It is rock-bound, and there is scarcely any part of it, where a ship might not haul alongside of the rocks, and make fast to the shore. It rises to the height of a thousand feet and more, and is covered with a luxuriant [426] vegetation, the substratum of rock being overlaid with a generous soil. The climate is genial for three-fourths of the year, but almost a perpetual gale howls over it in winter. At a distance, the island appeared like an unbroken mountain, but as we approached it, many beautiful valleys, and gaps in the mountain presented themselves, with the neat white farmhouses of the lonely dwellers peeping out from beneath the dense foliage. It was indeed a beautiful scene to look upon, and such was the air of perfect repose and peace that pervaded it, that a ship of war seemed out of place, approaching its quiet shores.

The next day, Sunday, dawned beautiful and bright, and the Alabama having approached this semi-tropical island, sufficiently near to inhale the fragrance of its shrubs and flowers, mustered her crew for the first time. The reader has now been sufficiently long with us to know, that when we speak of ‘muster’ on board a ship of war, we do not mean simply the calling of the roll, but a ceremony of dress and inspection. With clean, white decks, with the brass and iron work glittering like so many mirrors in the sun, and with the sails neatly trimmed, and the Confederate States flag at our peak, we spread our awnings and read the Articles of War to the crew. A great change had taken place in the appearance of the men, since I made that stump speech to them which has been described Their parti-colored garments had been cast aside, and they were all neatly arrayed in duck frocks and trousers, well-polished shoes, and straw hats. There was a visible improvement in their health, too. They had been long enough out of Liverpool to recover from the effects of their debauches, and regain their accustomed stamina. This was the first reading of the Articles of War to them, and it was curious to observe the attention with which they listened to the reading, occasionally eying each other, as they were struck by particular portions of them. These Articles, which were copied from similar Articles, for the ‘better government of the Navy of the United States,’ were quite severe in their denunciations of crime. The penalty of death frequently occurred in them, and they placed the power of executing this penalty in the hands of the captain and a court-martial. [427]

Jack had already had a little foretaste of discipline, in the two weeks he had been on board; the first lieutenant having brought several of them to the ‘mast,’ whence they had been sent into confinement by me, for longer or shorter intervals, according to the grade of their offences; and he now began more distinctly to perceive that he had gotten on board a ship of war, instead of the privateer he had supposed the Alabama to be, and that he would have to toe a pretty straight mark. It is with a disorderly crew, as with other things, the first blows are the most effective. I had around me a large staff of excellent officers, who always wore their side arms, and pistols, when on duty, and from this time onward we never had any trouble about keeping the most desperate and turbulent characters in subjection. My code was like that of the Medes and Persians—it was never relaxed. The moment a man offended, he was seized and confined in irons, and, if the offence was a grave one, a court-martial was sitting on his case in less than twenty-four hours. The willing and obedient were treated with humanity and kindness; the turbulent were jerked down, with a strong hand, and made submissive to discipline. I was as rigid with the officers as with the crew, though, of course, in a different way, and, both officers and men soon learning what was required of them, everything went on, on board the Alabama, after the first few weeks, as smoothly, and with as little jarring as if she had been a wellconstructed and well-oiled machine.

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