Sep 20, 2009

Assault on New York City - Part Three

You can listen to a podcast of this posting here!
The new ship, The CSS Alabama, turned out to be a great investment for The South. Between September 5th and the end of that month, The CSS Alabama took and burned ten Yankee ships valued at more than the cost to build her! Some were whalers, their captains shocked to learn that they had become prisoners of war. While Semmes had to chase a few, two actually sailed towards the Alabama, believing her to be a U.S. ship sent to protect them from raiders, like the mysterious and dangerous Alabama they had been hearing about! In New York and Boston, the country‘s two major foreign shipping centers, the reaction to those first ship burnings was immediate. Indignant editorials in the city papers demanded the U.S. Navy do something to protect the merchant marine and catch The Alabama!

“Can one vessel do as she pleases on the high seas, as we with all our resources of ships, guns, men and money, be unable to prevent it? The people ask the question, How long is this to last? [The New York Herald. November 3, 1862, quoted in Wolf of The Deep, by Stephen Fox.] “What if some fine morning she should make her appearance off Boston Light? Have we anything with which to stop her?” [The Boston Post, October 11, 1862, quoted in Wolf of The Deep, by Stephen Fox]

The New York Chamber of Commerce spread the story that Semmes burned ships at night to attract other ships to plunder. The chamber warned:

“The sight of a burning ship could no longer be considered a call to aid but a signal to steer clear of potential pirates...in view of this atrocity, it is the duty of this chamber to announce, for the information of all who are interested in the safety of human life--the life of ship-wrecked passengers and crews--that henceforth the light of a burning ship at sea will become to the American sailor the signal that lures to destruction; and will not be, as in times past, the beacon to guide the generous and intrepid mariner to the rescue of the unfortunate."

The Chamber was especially indignant about the The Brilliant, the first New York City based ship to be taken and burned by Semmes, who later wrote
“...her destruction must have disappointed a good many holders of bills of exchange drawn against her cargo ... for the ship alone and the freight-moneys which they lost by her destruction [came] to the amount of $93,000. The cargo was probably even more valuable than the ship.”
[ABOVE: A newspaper clipping Semmes attached to his logbook in October of 1862. It tells of The New York City Chamber of Commerce demanding action against The "pirate" Semmes and his CSS Alabama. Semmes obtained valuable information from the newspapers he found on ships he seized. It was perhaps the first war in which mass media played a significant role. Semmes also read about the movement of northern ships from the papers.]
Did Semmes really burn one ship at night to lure others? He claims not, in fact he wrote that he avoided burning ships at night for the very reason that he did not want some Northern warship coming to investigate. It didn't matter. The Chamber’s complaints had the intended affect. There was a public uproar in the North, with calls for Semmes to be hanged from The CSS Alabama’s yardarm when (and if!) he was caught. But despite dozens of U.S. ships sent out to find the raider, she was nowhere to be found.
Semmes’ success was possible in part because he could move around almost undetected. Telegraphy was in its infancy, limited to land lines, so his location was mostly a mystery. Northern ships could only go by reports of sightings, and Semmes was a master at giving false clues. He would casually mention to a shipboard visitor that they would be headed towards Cuba, only to travel the opposite direction. In addition there were virtually no photographs of the ship, and her retracting smokestack added to her invisibility. Throughout her voyage there were frequent instances in which other ships failed to recognize her till it was too late.
This is one of the few photos of the CSS Alabama exterior, taken in Singapore. Photography was in its infancy as the war began.

[NOTE: A remote control model of the CSS Alabama can be seen in this YouTube video. The stack is not visible, so I will presume it is in the below-decks position.]

The South might not have had factories and armories to match the North, but Confederate Navy Secretary Mallory and Semmes believed ships like the Alabama and The Florida, traveling alone, could interfere with Northern shipping to the point that it could make a difference in the war itself by inflicting damage and by forcing the North to divert some ships assigned to blockade duty in Southern ports to go after the raiders. Within weeks of Semmes first Sumter raids, insurance companies were boosting rates, and ships were being sold to foreign firms to put them under a flag that would not likely to make them a target. In October of 1862, Semmes was 250 miles away from the U.S. East Coast. He pointed the Alabama toward New York City for his planned attack on Manhattan. Along the way he took some ships. On the 23rd it was the New York based Lafayette, headed to Belfast with grain. The Captain was brought before Semmes. He presented a British consular certificate, suggesting to Semmes it should protect him and his ship, but the sea lawyer would have none of it. He wrote in his journal: “New Yorkers are getting smart, but it won’t save it. It’s a damned hatched up mess.”

He burned The Lafayette. On the 28th The Alabama took the Lauretta, and on the 29th, The Baron De Castile, an old vessel not worth much of anything. Semmes put the prisoners from the burned ships onto it and sent it into New York Harbor with a sarcastic message for the New York Chamber of Commerce President: …thanking him for "the complementary resolutions he had passed in regard to The Alabama.”

In his book Service Afloat, he later wrote " There must have been a merry mess in the cabin of the Baron that night, as there were the masters and mates of three burned ships. New York was " all agog " when the Baron arrived, and there was other racing and chasing after the "pirate," as I afterward learned."

But that was as close to attacking New York City as Semmes would get. The ship had been damaged during a run-in with a hurricane some weeks before, and the chief engineer delivered even worse news: they were low on coal. Alabama Master’s mate George Fullam wrote in his log:

“We were considerably startled and annoyed. To astonish the enemy in New York harbor, to destroy their vessels in their own waters, had been the darling wish of all on board.”

It was not to be. Semmes couldn't risk depending on sail alone to make a quick escape from the inner New York Harbor. He headed off to find coal, always a problem because of the Northern blockage of Southern ports and the supposed neutrality of many other countries. At the same time, the hunt for The Alabama was heating up. On October 30th, an Assistant Secretary of The U.S. Navy wrote in his journal about a reward:

"The [Navy] Department has published that it will give $500,000 for the capture and delivery to it of that vessel (the Alabama), or $300,000 if she is destroyed.….”

But Semmes had just begun. The CSS Alabama would travel the seas for another eight months, taking 44 more prizes, including the warship The USS Hattaras just off Galveston Texas, the first yardarm fight between steamships at sea, and the only instance during the war of a Confederate vessel sinking a U.S. Navy ship. Near North Island in East India, on November 11th, 1863, he took The Contest, a beautiful clipper ship based in New York. Wrote one of the Alabama’s officers:

”...we had never taken so fine a vessel. She was a revelation of symmetry, a very racehorse. A sacrilege, almost a desecration to destroy so perfect a specimen of man’s handiwork…”
They burned her nonetheless.

[ADDENDUM: The CSS Alabama traveled as far as current day Vietnam. During her visits to South Africa, she created such a stir that a song was written in her honor, a song still sung today: '"Daar Kom die Alibama'". Also, the sea shanty Roll Alabama, Roll has been performed by numerous groups..one of them The Irish Breakdown, which you can hear on YouTube.

The original plans to the Ship are part of the Hoole Collection at the University of Alabama.] [NEXT: Semmes sails and steams and burns his way across the seas. The Alabama comes to a spectacular end off the coast of France! The conclusion of this series will be posted next Sunday, September 27th, the 200th anniversary of Raphael Semmes birth.]

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