Posted January 30th, 2012
by Richard Savage
On the wall in the Bygones Room of the Blake Museum hangs the nameplate of the Confederate States Ship Alabama, one of the most successful warships of the Southern States during the American Civil War of 1861-1865.
Those not so well acquainted with American history may not have realized that the American Civil War was not only fought on land between the Northern and Southern States, but that naval battles played a significant role in the war, and also changed the face of naval warfare with the introduction of ironclads, submarines, more powerful artillery, naval mines, and torpedo boats with bombs attached to long spars in the bow of low-profile vessels. These innovations were mostly used by the Confederates to counter the superior naval fighting force of theUnion, possessing, in February 1861, 90 vessels against the Confederates 30, of which only half were seaworthy.
The final Confederate surrender, actually 5 months after war had ended, and the end of the Confederate navy took place on November 6, 1865 aboard the CSS Shenandoah in Liverpool, England. The reason for this was that the Shenandoah had been engaged with sinking merchant ships throughout the war, mostly whalers, and the captain and crew risked being treated and executed as pirates by a Union Court, so they disarmed the ship as a man-of-war and fled to England, surrendering to the British, whose ruling was that they had done nothing against the rules of war and had them all unconditionally released.
Unlike the Shenandoah, which had only engaged with and sunk merchant ships, the Alabama fought with Union warships as well, creating havoc among Union shipping and sinking some 67 sailing ships and one steamship.
A collage of pictures and paintings connected with the story of the CSS Alabama, with thanks to Wikipedia Commons for accessing the sources
So how did the nameplate of the Alabama come to Bridgwater? The ship had been built secretly for the Confederates by John Laird & Son of Birkenhead in 1862. James Dunwood Bulloch, the Confederate secret service agent in Europe arranged the contract through a Liverpoolcotton brokerage company that had ties with the Confederacy. Powered by both sail and horizontal steam engines driving a twin-bladed screw, the ship was launched quietly in July 1862 as the Enrica, and sailed to Terceira Island in the Azores. There she was joined by her new captain, Raphael Semmes, who supervised her transformation into a naval cruiser, a commercial raider, with six 32-pound smooth bore broadside cannons and two central more powerful pivotal long-range guns, fore and aft of the main mast. On the bronze of the great double ship’s wheel was engraved the ship’s motto: “Aide-toi et Dieu t’aidera” (God helps those who help themselves), which is actually not a Bible quotation, and can be misunderstood and thought by some to be a contradiction to the doctrine of salvation by faith and grace.
It actually comes from Ancient Greece to encourage initiative. Aeschylus in his play The Persians wrote, “Whenever a man makes haste, God too hastens with him.” Sophocles wrote, “No good e’er comes of leisure purposeless; and heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act.” Euripides wrote “Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God Himself lends aid.” When Paul writes to the Romans “it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy”, this is in the context of Jacob and Esau. When God says “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” and “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion” that is according to the laws which He Himself has established and lives by. God shows mercy to those who are merciful, and He gives grace to those who strive to do the good, and pray to Him to help them in their need (Romans 9: 13-16). There is no unrighteousness or partiality with God. Esau was disobedient to his parents, and went his own rebellious way, whereas Jacob was obedient. Esau despised his inheritance, whereas Jacob esteemed it highly. God does not approve of swindling, and in other areas He allowed Jacob to be swindled in order to chasten him for his dishonesty. Nevertheless, God loved his attitude, his perseverance, his respect for God, and his hard work, and blessed him, just as He has his descendants today – to the degree that He has been able.
“Trust in God but tie your camel is an Arab proverb with a similar meaning. There is an Arab story that one day Mohammed, noticing a Bedouin leaving his camel without tying it, asked him, “Why don’t you tie down your camel?” The Bedouin answered, “I placed my trust in Allah.” At that, Mohammed said, “Tie your camel and place your trust in Allah. Oliver Cromwell is reported to have said to his men when crossing a river during the invasion ofIreland: “Put your trust in God but mind to keep your powder dry.”
It was actually the Republican politician Algernon Sidney who stated the English rendering of the motto “God helps those who help themselves”. He supported the Republican cause and the execution of Charles I. In 1683, he was condemned to death by Charles II for treason, being implicated in the Rye House Plot to assassinate the king and his half-brother James. The actual sentence was passed by none other than Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys himself, on flimsy evidence which included taking Sidney’s own writings, his Discourses, out of context, saying that he had said it was permissible to take up arms against the King. Jeffreys ruled: “Scribere est agere” (“to write is to act”) and sentenced him to death. Sidney in defence said that was the same as saying that David said “There is no God” and that the apostles were drunk on the day of Pentecost! On the day of his death Sidney wrote that his life’s work had been to “uphold the Common rights of mankind, the lawes of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power and Popery… I doe now willingly lay down my life for the same; and having a sure witness within me, that God doth… uphold me… am very littell sollicitous, though man doth condemne me.” Just before being beheaded he declared “We live in an age that makes truth pass for treason.” It was after this that the Duke of Monmouth fled toHolland, returning to Bridgwater in 1685.
Algernon Sidney’s writings had an influence on Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of theUnited States, and he used the quotation in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac” of 1736, from which it received widespread popularity in theUnited States.
Returning to the deck of the Enrica on 24th August 1862, in international waters outside the island of Terceira, the British colours were hauled down and Captain Semmes commissioned the ship as CSS Alabama by order of President Jefferson Davis. An appeal to support the Confederate cause was of no avail, but upon the offer of signing up money, double wages paid in gold, and prize money for every Union ship destroyed, Semmes was able to enlist 83 seamen, many British, to serve under his 24 officers. In her voyage of destruction, which lasted under 2 years, captured ship’s crews and passengers were never harmed, only taken aboard and detained until they were placed ashore or transferred to a neutral ship.
Her successful career ended in June 1864 after sailing into Cherbourg Harbourwith permission to overhaul the ship in dry dock. After months of persistent pursuit, she was followed at a distance by the Union Mohican Class steam-driven sloop-of-war, the USS Kearsarge, which while in port at the Azores the year before had been converted into a partial ironclad, the midsections being reinforced with overlapping rows of chain armour. Arriving outside Cherbourg 3 days later, the captain of the Kearsarge, Captain John Winslow, a descendant of one of the Pilgrim Fathers on board the Mayflower, prepared to blockade the Alabama. During the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, which followed the annexation of Texas, the two officers served together on the USS Cumberland, Semmes as flag lieutenant and Winslow as a division officer.
On 19th June 1864 the CSS Alabama left the Port of Cherbourg, prepared to engage in battle with the USS Kearsarge. She was escorted by a French naval vessel to make sure that the battle occurred outside of the French harbour, but in any case the Kearsarge turned to take the battle out of French territorial waters. The two warships manoeuvered on seven opposite spiraling courses throughout the battle, aiming to inflict a raking broadside on the enemy’s bows. The gunnery of the Kearsarge was reportedly more accurate than of the Confederates, she fired slowly well-aimed shots while Alabama fired rapidly over 370 rounds, of which only 28 hit the enemy. After just an hour Alabama received shot-holes below the waterline from Kearsarge’s powerful 280 mm Dahlgren pivotal cannons. Captain Semmes struck the Confederate colours and threw his sword into the sea, to avoid the humiliation of the customary surrender, but firing from the Kearsarge only stopped when a white flag was hauled and Semmes sent his remaining dinghy to the Kearsarge to ask for aid.
During the battle, over 40 Confederate sailors were killed in action or drowned. Another 70 or so were picked up by Kearsarge. Semmes himself was wounded in the battle but rescued, along with 40 of his crewmen, including 14 officers, by the British yacht Deerhound. Instead of handing them over to the Kearsarge, the Deerhound sailed for Southampton. The angry crew of the Kearsarge wanted to open fire on the British yacht, but Captain Winslow refused, and so the Confederate Captain and his men were able to avoid imprisonment and possibly being sentenced to death for piracy. Semmes was taken to England where he recovered. While there, he and his surviving crew mates were hailed as naval heroes, despite the loss of Alabama .
Semmes returned to America, where he was promoted to Rear Admiral in February 1865, and commanded the James River Squadron from his flagship, the heavily armoured ironclad, CSS Virgina II. With the fall ofRichmond,Virginia, to theUnion in April 1865, he supervised the scuttling of all the squadron’s warships, and was then appointed Brigadier General in the Confederate army, and his sailors became an infantry unit, nicknamed the “Naval Brigade”. Some fought with General Lee’s rearguard at Sayler’s Creek, but most escaped to join Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina, finally surrendering to General William Sherman.
Semmes was briefly held as a prisoner after the war; he was tried for treason on December 15, 1865, but released on April 7, 1866, and returned to civilian life as a professor of philosophy and literature at Louisiana State Seminary (now Louisiana State University), a judge, and a newspaper editor.
Winslow was promoted to Commodore for his victory at the Battle of Cherbourg, and subsequently Rear-admiral in command of the Pacific Squadron from 1870-1872. He was always known as a solid, courageous, determined officer, and two ships of the US Navy have been named after him.
And what about the Deerhound? According to the description in the Blake Museum, the survivors and some of the wreckage of the Alabama were taken to Brixham in Devon. In the late 19th century a member of the Deerhound’s crew moved to Bridgwater, and one of his descendants presented the nameplate to the museum.
But what was the Deerhound and what was it doing at the scene of the battle? Deerhound RYS was a ship of the Royal Yacht Squadron which had been originally founded in 1815 as “The Yacht Club” by 42 gentlemen with an interest in yachting, owning a vessel not under 10 tons. The Prince Regent became a member in 1817, and when he became George IV in 1820 it was renamed the “Royal Yacht Club”. In 1833 William IV renamed it the “Royal Yacht Squadron” and it became associated with the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, Nelson’s Captain at the Battle of Trafalgar, being one of its members. Member yachts can add RYS after their name and are allowed to fly the White Ensign of the British navy.
So next time you visit the Blake Museum, and you see the nameplate of the CSS Alabama on the wall, I hope this will help you to know something of the colourful history behind it and to make it more interesting for you. What a story could lie behind the two captains who had once been shipmates and were now rivals at war? What moved Captain Winslow to allow his rival to escape to England?
If anyone can supply further information about the Deerhound, its owner and crew, and its capacity to carry 41 survivors of the battle back to England safely, I would be very interested to know. Does anyone also know whether the people of Brixham and Bridgwater had sympathies with the Confederate cause, which is why they received Captain Semmes and his crew so warmly?
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