Friday, December 7, 2012

CSS Alabama Searches for California Gold, December 1862

In late November 1862, Raphael Semmes ordered CSS Alabama to steam southwest toward Cuba.  He was purposely looking to intercept steamships collectively known as the "California line."  These American-flagged steamers traveled between the port of Aspinwall (now known as Colon)--on the Atlantic side of Panama--to New York, often loaded with gold mined in California. Thus, Semmes planned to capture both Yankee merchant ships and a pirate's bounty of treasure.  He later recalled, "A million or so of dollars in gold would materially aid me, in my operations upon the sea.  I could purchase several more Alabamas, to develop the 'nautical enterprise' of our people, and assist me to scourge the enemy's commerce."

The California line vessels took two routes: one went to the west of Cuba and one that went south of Haiti.  Semmes chose to monitor the latter route, which was more heavily traveled.  He parked Alabama about 100 miles southwest of the city of St. Domingo and waited.  Several ships came in Alabama's direction, but only one, a merchant ship called Parker Cooke, was a legal target, and it did not have gold.  Semmes ordered her burned and moved on.  He was about to give up when Alabama's officer of the deck informed his captain that watches spotted another ship. 

After seeing Semmes' Confederate flag, the American steamer, a Vanderbilt-owned vessel called Ariel, tried to make a break for it.  Semmes ordered the forward pivot weapon--which Semmes referred to as his "persuader"--to fire a blank round.  The steamer stopped and he heard women screaming from the other ship.  The screaming turned out to be a precursor to his disappointment.  Hoping for gold, Semmes instead found 500 women and children.  His boarding team also found 150 U.S. Marines bound for the Pacific Squadron.  The Marines' weapons were confiscated and they surrendered without a fight.  It was not one of the prouder moments in the Corps' history.

Normally, Semmes would take the civilians on board and burn the enemy vessel.  But Alabama had no room for 650 people.  Thus, forty-eight hours later, he released the ship.  Before he released Ariel, one of Semmes' junior officers asked to speak to the ladies as a group.  In his speech, he attempted to persuade the ladies that Alabama's sailors were not cutthroat pirates.  Apparently, one of the ladies was so moved by the speech that she asked the lieutenant if she could cut a button from his jacket.  The boarding officer agreed.

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