Friday, August 24, 2012

CSS Alabama is Commissioned

Before the cruiser CSS Alabama could begin her famous campaigns, she had to get out of England without being impounded by British authorities.  Once completed at Laird's shipyard, a ship known only as No. 290 left Liverpool, England on August 17, 1862 with a group English businessman, shipyard workers, custom officers, and well-dressed women for a "trial cruise."  After a few hours at sea, a tugboat came alongside and removed all the passengers except a skeleton crew needed to operate the ship.  The ruse was necessary to avoid British neutral laws and get the ship to sea as quickly as possible.  With this part of the ruse complete, the ship headed southwest for the Azores. 

Further cloaking, however, was necessary.  When No. 290 arrived in the Azores, she met up with the steamer Bahama and the sail barque AggripniaBahama left Liverpool about the same time as No. 290, carrying Captain Raphael Semmes and his staff (most of whom were previously on CSS Sumter) on board.  The sail barque carried several large naval weapons. 

Semmes' officers on board Alabama.
The transfer of guns and men began immediately. There were some tense moments during the weapons transfer.  Early one morning, Semmes was awoken by three guns being fired.  The watch believed it was a Portuguese sloop trying to persuade the ships to move out of their local waters.  Semmes convinced everyone on board that the ship would never find its mark and went back to sleep.  Semmes' judgement was correct, as the "warship" turned out to be a passenger steamer that used cannon fire as an alarm clock to notify sleepy passengers that the ship had arrived at port. 
The transfer was completed on August 24.  Semmes assembled twenty-four officers and 120 enlisted sailors (the vast majority being Englishmen) to announce his intentions. He said, "We are going to burn, sink, and destroy the commerce of the United States."  He then added, "There are only six ships that I am afraid of in the United States' Navy," without mentioning which ones. 

Once the speech was complete, most of the enlisted men accepted his leadership and signed on.  No. 290 was renamed CSS Alabama.  The English colors were pulled down and the Stars and Bars were risen aloft.   Semmes ordered Alabama west towards known whaling grounds off the coast of the Azores.  A week later, Alabama caught her first of many prizes, a Massachusetts-based whaling vessel named Ocumulegee.  The crew of the whaler was in the middle of gutting a large sperm whale when Alabama came upon her.  The whale ship captain later admitted to Semmes that he wished the U.S. Navy provided protection for whalers, since there was only a handful of known spots in the world to catch whales. 

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