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The Career of the Alabama.

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1183, p. 55.

January 10, 1863


Mr. S. M. Underhill, writing from St. Thomas, West Indies, furnishes the Scotsman with a short history of the career of the Confederate war-steamer Alabama, obtained from the late boatswain of the "290":--

The "290" was built by Mr. Laird, the eminent shipbuilder of Rirkenhead [sic] , under contract with a Mr. Butcher. She was regularly contracted and paid for; and as nothing transpired during her construction to warrant the supposition that she was destined to hoist the ensign of the Southern Confederacy, no laws of neutrality were infringed. Indeed, it was hinted that the vessel was intended for the service of the Emperor of China. Her keel was laid in the beginning of this year (1862), and she was launched in April thereafter, though she was not ready for sea for the succeeding three months. The "290" is simply a large wooden screw gun-boat, such a vessel as is in European navies styled a corvette. She is very strongly built of the best materials, and is constructed to carry ten guns--viz., one rifled 100-pounder, one 68-pounder, and eight 32-pounders--i.e., four 32-pounders on each broadside, throwing collectively 128lb. solid shot at each discharge, and two pivot guns. She is barque-rigged, and is fitted with a pair of very powerful engines, by Penn, of London. She left Birkenhead towards the end of July, ostensibly on a trial-trip, having on board a large party of ladies and gentleman. On getting out of the Mersey, this party was sent back in a tug-boat, and the "290," as had been previously arranged, neglected to return to Birkenhead, but steamed direct for the island in the Atlantic where she was to take in her guns, ammunition, &c. On leaving England, the "290" had a crew of ninety-three men, for the most part belonging to the English Naval Reserve, all being trained gunners, and the majority old men-of-war's men. She was temporarily commanded by Captain Bullock, who had under him the proper complement of commissioned and petty officers. Captain Bullock, having learned that the Tuscarora lay in wait for him in St. George's Channel, took his departure by what is known as the North Channel, thus eluding his Federal enemy; though even had he been intercepted the Northener would have found himself in a dilemma, as the "290" had a set of English papers, and other presumptive proofs of her neutrality, in the face of which it might have been difficult for her captor to have acted. The "290" at this time carried no guns or other warlike stores, but consisted merely of the hull, spars, and engines, except, of coarse, coal and other requisites to enable her to reach her destination, which was Tarissa, one of the Azores or Western Islands, belonging to Portugal. This destination the "290" duly reached, after a fine run of eight days, and came to an anchor in Tarissa Roads, nothing of any moment having occurred to break the usual monotony of a sea voyage.

Some time before the departure of the "290" from the Mersey a large barque left the Thames (cleared for Demerara, West Indies) to meet the "290" at Tarissa, and there transfer to the latter vessel the guns and stores destined for her, and which formed the cargo of the barque. Some reason required to be assigned to the Portuguese authorities for the " 290" having anchored in their bay, and accordingly the excuse furnished to them was that her engines had broken down. This plea was accepted as a valid one, and during the week that intervened betwixt the arrival at Tarissa of the "290" and the barque the crew of the former vessel were engaged ostensibly in repairing her engines, but really in preparing her to receive her guns, &c. About the lapse of a week from the arrival of the "290" the barque above mentioned sailed in and anchored, her captain alleging as a reason to the Portuguese officials that his vessel had sprung a leak, which would require to be repaired ere she could resume her voyage; and on this understanding the Portuguese at once placed her in quarantine(which in the Azores lasts three days). On the day after the barque's arrival, Captain Bullock, of the "290," being anxious to get his guns on board, hauled alongside of the barque, and erected a pair of large shears to effect the transfer of her cargo from the barque's hold to the "290's" deck. This brought off the Portuguese in a fury that their rules should have been broken by the "290" having dared to communicate with a vessel which had still two days' quarantine to run, and they angrily demanded to know the reason why their regulations had been infringed. They were told that the barque was in a sinking state, and the erection of the shears was accounted for by urging the necessity for an immediate temporary transfer of her cargo, that the leak might be reached and stopped; and Captain Bullock finally succeeded in bearing down all opposition by feigning to get in passion, saying he was doing no more for the barque than any Englishman would do for a countryman in distress. The Portuguese left the vessel, and the transhipment proceeded without farther hindrance from those on shore.

About the afternoon of the second day, and when the transfer was nearly complete, the British screw-steamer Bahama came in, having on board Captain Semmes and the other late officers of the Sumter, besides the remainder of the "290's" armament, and an addition of twenty odd men to her crew. On the Bahama's arrival and anchorage on a somewhat similar pretext to those given to her two predecessors, the Portuguese fairly lost all patience, and peremptorily insisted on the instant departure of all three vessels. The Bahama at once communicated with the "290," and, having handed over to the latter vessel everything destined for her, got up steam and left, followed by the "290," towing the now empty barque. All three went, not to sea, as they had been ordered to do, but to Angra Bay (a bay in the same island, and only a few leagues distant from Tarissa Roads). Here they remained unmolested until noon the following day (a Sunday), when, for the second time, all three vessels were ordered out of the Portuguese waters. All the "290's," guns being now mounted, and the vessel otherwise ready for a cruise, the order was obeyed, and all took their departure, the barque, as before, in tow of the "290," which, having convoyed her well out to sea, cast her off, and with a favouring breeze she steered for Cardiff, to bring out a further supply of coal for the "290's" future use. The "290" and the Bahama now steamed round the island, and Captain Semmes, coming out of his cabin, ordered his First Lieutenant to muster the crew aft. This having been done, and all the officers assembled on the poop in their full uniform (i.e., Confederate grey frock-coat and trousers), Captain Semmes, enjoined silence, and read his commission as Post Captain in the Confederate Navy. It was a document duly attested at Richmond, and bore the signature of "Jeff. Davis, President Confederate States of America." He then opened and read his sealed orders from the President, directing him to assume command of the Confederate sloop of war Alabama, hitherto known as the "290," in which (having been duly commissioned) he was to hoist the Confederate ensign and pennant, and "sink, burn, and destroy everything which flew the ensign of the so-called United States of America." Captain Semmes then ordered the First Lieutenant to fire a gun and run up the Confederate flag and pennant. The gun was fired by the Second Lieutenant (Armstrong, a relation of the famous inventor), and ere its smoke had cleared away the stars and bars of the young Confederacy were floating on the breeze, and the ceremony was complete--Captain Semmes declaring the vessel henceforth to be known as the Alabama to have been duly commissioned. The next step was formally to engage the crew to serve and fight under the Southern flag, which having been done, the men were addressed by their captain in an eloquent and stirring speech, in the course of which he said there were only four vessels in the United States' Navy that were more than a match for the Alabama; but he said that in an English-built heart of oak as she was, and surrounded as he then saw himself by British hearts of oak, he wouldn't strike his newly-hoisted flag for any one of the four. Of course this elicited a hearty burst of cheering for President, States, and Captain, and, when it had subsided, Captain Semmes said the Bahama was on the point of leaving for England, and intimated that if any of his crew repented of the step they had taken, they were free to return in her. This alternative none would accept, and Captain Bullock and a few of the other officers who had taken the "290" from England to the Azores, finding their occupation gone, through the arrival of those who had held similar appointments in the Sumter, having gone on board the Bahama, that vessel and the Alabama, amidst hearty cheering from the crews of both, parted company, the former pursuing her course back to England, the latter in chase of a Yankee whaler, which she captured and burned. This was her first prize, and her subsequent career is now so famous as to render a single remark thereon superfluous. The Alabama's crew receive from the Confederate Government half the value of every American ship and cargo they destroy, and each of her crew is now worth several hundred pounds. All obligations to them have hitherto been faithfully discharged in gold. The Alabama is supplied with coal from Wales by three sailing-vessels thus constantly employed.

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