Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Alabama's Gulf Stream Raid, October 3-15, 1862

Alabama burning the ship Brilliante and her $93,000 worth of grain off the coast of Nova Scotia
When CSS Alabama and her captain Raphel Semmes could find no more whaling ships to burn in the Azores, the cruiser steamed northwest towards Nova Scotia.  On October 1, 1862, Alabama reached a point approximately two hundred miles southeast of the island in the middle of the Gulf Stream.  Semmes knew the Gulf Stream served as a major highway for eastbound trans-Atlantic traffic.  He also knew that he was taking a risk by being there.  Not because of the possibility of a U.S. Naval warship, but rather the frequent storms that were stirred up by the Stream. 
Alabama capturing the ship Towawanda near Nova Scotia

Semmes'  knowledge of the American merchant marine paid off. Between October 3rd and 15th, Semmes encountered a dozen ships within a 200 mile area.  Fortunately for Semmes, none of them were warships.  His boarding teams searched every one of them, releasing six.  As for the other six, Semmes judged them to be lawful prizes and seized them.  Among the cargo discovered by the boarding teams was large amounts of grain. On one ship alone, the ship Brilliante, the team discovered and burned $93,000 (1862 dollars) worth of wheat and flour.  

Northern merchant cargo was not the only thing the teams discovered.  A year before, several sailors from CSS Sumter (Semmes' first ship) had deserted.  It pleased Semmes mightily when a boarding team discovered one of them serving on the captured merchant ship Dunkirk.  He immediately convened a court-marital which found him guilty.  Semmes forced the sailor to serve on Alabama without pay for the rest of the cruise.  The sailor was lucky, as Semmes considered hanging him.

Another person impressed into Semmes' service was an African American steward on the ship Tonawanda.  Upon discovering the steward was still legally a slave (being from Delaware), Semmes made him a steward on his ship. 

The October 5, 1862 edition of the New York Herald-.
 Semmes obtained a copy from a merchant ship and
gathered intelligence on U.S. Navy  ship movements.
Papers and documents were also among the items seized.  This included boxes of Bible tracts written in Portuguese from the American Tract Society and the New York Bible Society, which were being sent to American missionaries operating secretly in Portugal.  Semmes spoke very angrily both in his daily journal and memoir of service of the two Societies claiming the organizations were run by men whose "business it is to prey upon the credulity of kind-hearted American women and make a pretense of converting the heathen!"  He felt he was doing Portugal a great national service by intercepting the Biblical materials.

The second group of papers were newspapers, which Semmes found to be the perfect intelligence source.  After reading recent copies of the New York Times and New York Herald, Semmes knew the exact location of every U.S. Navy ship.  How? The papers printed a complete list (click on image at right).  Even Semmes was stunned by the inability of the U.S. Navy to keep secrets.  He commented, "Perhaps this was the only war in which the newspapers ever explained, before hand, all the movements of armies and fleets, to the enemy."

By October 16, the storms Semmes feared came upon his ship.  Having had a productive raid in waters so close to Yankee shores, the Alabama headed south. 

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