Find the Alabama: A Confederate Navy Cruiser’s Heroic Saga: Part 1 of 4

It was standard practice for Confederate commerce raiders to take the crews and passengers of captured Yankee ships aboard their own ship and transport them to a convenient port or another ship bound for port. Although the Alabama had so far captured eleven Yankee ships and sunk them in a fiery spectacle, there was not a single loss of life. Union commercial losses were, however, substantial.

After Captain George Hagar of the Brilliant arrived back in New York on the Emily Farnham on October 16 to tell his story, Northern newspapers were filled with indignant editorials expressing dismay that a single Confederate warship could disrupt the seaborne commerce of one of the greatest naval powers in the world. The Alabama had brought the war home to the Union. The Lincoln Administration was seriously concerned about both the economic impact of the merchant marine losses and their potential to weaken public support for the war. The Alabama’s exploits, of course, raised Southern morale and sent cargo insurance on U.S. merchant ships soaring. As the increased risks and costs of merchant shipping began to have a significant impact on Northern shipping companies, they began to sell their ships to British buyers who would not be affected by Confederate commerce raiders.

Although Britain was officially neutral, most of her middle and upper classes favored the Southern cause. Britain was probably the leading anti-slavery nation in the world at that time, but most of the British commercial, intellectual, and governing classes saw through the Union propaganda that the war was about slavery. In December 1861, English author Charles Dickens, who was a strong opponent of slavery, wrote:

“The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.”

Karl Marx, who favored the Union cause, summarized the opinion of the major British newspapers in 1861:

“The war between the North and the South is a tariff war. The war, is further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for power.”

In 1860, the U.S. did not have an income tax. Over 95 percent of Federal Revenue came from tariffs on imported goods. Although the tariffs protected and profited Northern industry, they resulted in higher costs to produce and export cotton and other agricultural products in the South, significantly lowering Southern income and living standards.

In 1860, Northern Republicans pushed through a tariff bill more than doubling the average tariff from an average of about 15 percent to 37 percent. This bill, called the Morrill Tariff for its sponsor, Vermont Representative and steel manufacturer Justin Morrill, also contained an escalation clause which would raise the tariff to 47 percent within three years. Under the existing tariff, the South was already paying 87 percent of all U.S. tax revenues but receiving the benefit of only 20 percent of Federal spending. The bill passed the U.S. House 105 to 64, but with only one of forty Southern Congressmen voting for it. The Senate passed the bill with no Southern votes two days before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, and it was immediately signed into law by outgoing President James Buchanan. Lincoln, who had campaigned hard for the tariff, endorsed its firm enforcement in his inaugural speech. A more blatant case of majoritarian tyranny and commercial partisan greed than the Morrill Tariff can hardly be found in history. It had calamitous results.

Facing this unjust and staggering increase in taxes imposed upon them by the Northern majority in Congress, South Carolina and the Gulf Cotton States had no economic choice but to leave the Union. Britain, whose vast textile industry was the primary export market for Southern cotton, also stood to suffer from the high American tariffs on its exports as well as from the resulting higher costs of Southern cotton. The Morrill Tariff thus helped to tilt British sympathies toward the Confederacy.

It should not be surprising then to find that the British were quietly violating their proclaimed neutrality by building the Alabama and two other cruisers destined for the Confederate Navy. The project was supervised by Confederate Navy Captain James D. Bulloch, a maternal uncle of future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Built by Henry Laird, the Alabama was 220 feet long and only 32 feet wide. She rode low in the water and had the sleek appearance of a yacht. She had three slightly swept-back masts of English yellow pine and a 300-horsepower steam engine with a two-blade propeller. Her funnel was low and black, making identification difficult. Her hull of copper-sheathed English oak was built for speed and easy repair rather than battle armor. Six stationary cannon firing 32-pound shells graced her side gun ports. On her forward deck was her most formidable weapon—a rifled Blakely pivot gun firing 100-pound projectiles. On the aft deck was an unrifled pivot gun firing a 68-pound shell. Capable of 13 knots by sail and more than 15 knots using sail and steam, the Alabama was one of the fastest ships in the world. She was built for speed, stealth, easy maintenance, and long voyages. Her Captain, already a Confederate Naval hero, would be the slight, scholarly, but fiercely determined and daring, Raphael Semmes.

By early 1863, the reputation of the Alabama was reaching mythical proportions in the Northern press. She appeared everywhere and anywhere, burning and sinking one Yankee merchant ship after another. Consequently, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had 18 of the Navy’s most formidable warships in pursuit of the Alabama. But where was she? The Alabama would appear out of nowhere, running up her Confederate ensign for the pursuit and capture of yet another Union prize.

When the Alabama captured the Ariel, carrying 140 U.S. Marines and gold from Panama to New York, such gold shipments fell 70 percent. The capture of 140 Marines was, of course, an extreme embarrassment for the Navy Department. Then the Alabama unexpectedly arrived off Galveston and easily sank the Union Navy gunboat Hatteras. In addition, a new Confederate cruiser, the Florida, began marauding in the Gulf.

Scores of U.S. merchant marine owners were now selling their ships to the British.

The Union Navy also began to lose its stranglehold on Southern ports. Its success rate at intercepting blockade-runners dropped from 27 percent in 1862 to 13 percent in 1863. Meanwhile 18 of the Navy’s best ships were kept busy chasing a phantom around the world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs

 Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

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