Find the Alabama: Fascinating Diplomatic and Naval History: Part 5 of 5

Bulloch’s younger brother, Irvine, was an officer on the Alabama and after her sinking at Cherbourg became the navigator on the Shenandoah. These two brothers were much revered uncles of a future President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had both Union and Confederate family connections and was proud of them both.

In recent years, the spinal disorder of political correctness and its distorting influence on history have significantly affected many American politicians and caused them to distance themselves from any connection to the Confederacy. Teddy Roosevelt’s unabashed pride in his Confederate ancestry puts this modern trend to shame. Speaking to a crowd of well-wishers in the Bulloch home town of Roswell, Georgia, in 1905, Roosevelt beamed with Southern patriotic pride:

“It has been my very great good fortune to have the right to claim my blood is half Southern and half Northern, and I would deny the right of any man here to feel a greater pride in the deeds of every Southerner than I feel. Of all the children, the brothers and sisters of my mother who were born and brought up in that house on the hill there, my two uncles afterward entered the Confederate service and served with the Confederate Navy.”

Roosevelt went on to reveal a little known fact about the last minutes of the Alabama.

“…when at the very end the Alabama was sinking and the Kearsarge passed under her stern and came up along the side that had not been engaged hitherto, my uncle, Irvine Bulloch, shifted his gun from one side to the other and fired the two last shots fired from the Alabama.”

(Irvine Bulloch had not received word that Semmes had just ordered the Confederate colors struck. This confusion caused the Kearsarge to pound the Alabama with another five shots after she had struck her colors.)

Another fascinating aspect of the story of the Alabama and her sister commerce raiders is the appreciable sympathy of the British for the Southern cause. There are several cultural, political, and economic reasons for this, but among the foremost was the considerable British displeasure with the Morrill Tariff and Northern protectionism versus the free trade policies favored by both Britain and the South. The very anti-slavery British dismissed Northern pretensions that the war was about slavery. “The contest is really for empire on the side of the North and for independence on that of the South,” wrote the London Times in 1861.

British distaste for Union economic and political policies was further exacerbated by the “Trent Affair” in late 1861. This was a major diplomatic clash between the U.S. and Britain over an incident in which a U.S. Navy ship intercepted and boarded the British steamer RMS Trent at sea and forcibly removed two important Confederate diplomats bound for England. This nearly provoked British naval and military intervention against the United States.

In October 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had appointed James Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana as envoys to Britain and France respectively with the mission of securing their recognition of the Confederate States government. Official British and French recognition of the Confederate States was strongly contrary to the interests of the United States. Consequently, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered interception of the diplomats should they attempt to leave Charleston. A Confederate blockade-runner, however, was able to slip them out of Charleston and take them to Cuba to await a British steamer—the RMS Trent— bound for England.

Learning that Mason and Slidell had left Havana on the British Trent, Captain John Wilkes of the U.S. Navy’s 11-gun warship San Jacinto, nevertheless, made plans to intercept them. On November 8, the San Jacinto forced the Trent to heave to and allow a boarding party to search for the two diplomats. Despite strong protest from the British ship’s captain, the San Jacinto’s executive officer and a contingent of Marines forcibly removed Mason, Slidell, and two associates from British protection. The Confederate envoys were then carried to Boston, where they were incarcerated at Fort Warren. The news of this arrest at sea was joyously received by the Northern public and the U.S. Congress. Secretary Welles accordingly presented Wilkes with a gold medal.

British newspapers and public opinion were, however, thoroughly outraged that an American ship had arrogantly violated international maritime law, British sovereignty, and British honor. Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government considered the incident to be a provocation to war. Presiding at an emergency cabinet meeting, British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, threw his hat on the table declaring:

“I don’t know whether you are going to stand for this, but I’ll be damned if I do.”

The British government did not want war but immediately sent 11,000 troops to Canada and began to make other naval and military preparations. Although war fever was running high in the public, press, and Parliament, Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, managed to soften the seven-day British ultimatum for an apology. Lincoln’s cabinet immediately realized that they could ill afford a war with Britain while trying to subdue the Southern Confederacy. U.S. Secretary of State Seward managed to persuade the Lincoln cabinet that Mason and Slidell should be released immediately and that the U.S should admit that Captain Wilkes acted without authorization.

This was done but without a formal U.S. apology. Nevertheless, after the release of Mason and Slidell in January, the heat of the “Trent Affair” subsided and war was averted. But British feeling toward the Lincoln government remained strained, and public sympathy for the Southern cause thrived.

The Alabama’s record as the most successful commerce raider in naval history still stands notwithstanding German submarine warfare in two world wars. During the Battle of the Atlantic from 1939 to 1945, 863 operational German submarines sank 2,827 allied merchant ships. Allied shipping losses totaled about 3,500 from all enemy causes resulting in a loss of over 30,000 men. The German U-Boat Captain who sank the most allied ships was Otto Kretschmer with 47. Nine other German submarine commanders sank 26 or more allied ships. The Alabama, in contrast, destroyed 53 Union ships and spared 12 more for various reasons, bringing her total prizes to 65. Except for sinking the Union warship Hatteras, there was no loss of life. (Such chivalry is not a practical option in submarine warfare.)

The last line of a well known sea shanty, Roll Alabama Roll, is

“Off the three mile limit in ’64, the Alabama was seen no more.”

But in November 1984, the French Navy minesweeper Circe, while on a training mission, discovered a wreck at a depth of about 200 feet, about 7 miles from Cherbourg. It was the Alabama—found again after more than 120 years! About 300 artifacts have been removed from the ship.

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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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