Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CSS Alabama Migrates South For the Winter, November 1862

While raiding Gulf Stream merchant traffic near Nova Scotia, Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes was well aware that the weather could turn nasty quickly.  Well versed in oceanography and meteorology, much of Semmes' autobiography, Service Afloat, is devoted to the science behind weather his ships encountered.   A storm packing 50 knot winds in the middle of October prompted (shown above) him to exit the Grand Banks region and head south for warmer temperatures and calmer winds.  A search on NOAA's Historical Hurricane Tracks website shows that Alabama had been been caught up in a dying Category One hurricane. 

Raphael Semmes' diagram of the tropical storm
CSS Alabama went through in October 1862.
Just as Alabama was exiting the region, the U.S. Navy finally sent warships in.  New York and New England's businessmen were expressing their concern to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles about Alabama's presence.  The New York City Chamber of Commerce even inquired if Welles would be willing to empower the Chamber of Commerce to arm their own private ships to hunt Alabama!  As both a symbolic and real response to the merchants' concerns, Welles dispatched railroad tycoon's Cornelius Vanderbilt's donated steamer USS Vanderbilt to search for the Confederate cruiser in the Grand Banks. 

By the time Vanderbilt reached her patrol zone, Alabama had already burned three more merchant ships and was half way to the West Indies.  Having found friendly reception on the French colony of Martinique with CSS Sumter, Semmes decided to make port there in early November 1862.  The same French colonial governor was still in power.  He gave Semmes and his company another hearty welcome.  The only issue Semmes faced was a minor, liquor-induced munity.  About twenty drunk sailors threatened the officers.  Fortunately, Semmes and his officers were able to get them under control.  Semmes ordered the men to be dumped in cold water until they sobered up. 

USS San Jacinto
Much like the 1861 visit, a U.S. Navy cruiser spotted Semmes' ship.  In this case, it was USS San Jacinto under the command of Commander William Ronkendorff.  Knowing the 24-hour rule was in effect (San Jacinto could not leave Martinique until 24-hours after Alabama left), Ronkendorff enlisted the help of two New England-based whaling ships to watch the harbor exits. 

Semmes realized that San Jacinto out-gunned him two-to-one and did not seek out a fight.  Fortunately, French naval officers gave the Confederate captain accurate charts of Martinique's harbor and advice on the best escape route.  The French naval officers also warned Yankee whaling ships not fire off any signaling rockets while in harbor or face a stiff fine.The result was an easy escape for Alabama.  Early in morning of November 19, Alabama slipped her anchor and quietly steamed out.  When the sun came up, Ronkendorff and his staff saw no sign of the enemy cruiser.   While the U.S. commander wrote out his apology/defense of the Alabama's escape in a note to Welles, the Confederate cruiser headed south towards Venezuela. 

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