Boy Meets Ship: A Pirate Love Story

I am an unabashed fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean – the movies, the ride, the gift shop, all of it. Before you accuse me of being a mere boy in men’s clothing, I’ll go ahead and own up to it.

Recently, I caught the latest installment of the film series at the multiplex. Yes, as cinema it rightly deserves the harsh reviews it is receiving. Though it still contained the necessary elements of any good swashbuckling epic – sword fights, enchanted treasure, a touch of the supernatural, liberal doses of Jack Sparrow’s witty madness – they forgot one very crucial rule: a captain needs his ship. There simply wasn’t enough of the Black Pearl in the film.

In great stories of brave captains, his ship is more than merely a means of conveyance. It is his home, office, sanctuary, best friend, confidant, his one true love and the physical manifestation of his own masculinity all rolled into one. Take that ship away, and you’ve taken away, if not his raison d’etre, at least his means of pursuing that existence. And in most men of action, it is the means and not the ends that truly do the justifying.

Imagine Han Solo without the Millennium Falcon. I can. It’s called the weak half of Return of the Jedi. (Thank goodness for Luke and his daddy issues, or Lucas would’ve gotten a head start on the ruination of the saga.) Imagine Kirk without the Enterprise. I can. Do you remember Star Trek III: The Search for Spock? Me either.

The examples in film and literature go on and on: Nemo and the Nautilus, Ahab and the Pequod, Malcolm Reynolds and Serenity, Horatio Hornblower and the Lydia, Jack Aubrey and the Surprise, Roy Rogers and Trigger. Okay, the last one was a horse. But you get the idea.

This rule isn’t limited to the realm of fiction, either. History is rife with tales of legendary men and their ships. To wit, one such story:

The year was 1862. British shipbuilders John Laird Sons and Company put the finishing touches on hull #290, a screw-sloop cruiser ordered by cotton broker Fraser, Trenholm & Company. Dedicated as the Enrica, she set sail July 29 on a pleasure cruise with some of Liverpool’s finest young society ladies and customs officials aboard as invited guests. Champagne flowed and the band played. The guests would soon find themselves returning to port via towboat. The Enrica sailed on toward the Azores. There she would receive a new crew and a new name.

Such subterfuge was necessary, given the climate of world politics of the time … and the intended purpose of the new ship. Fraser, Trenholm were no more than agents in purchasing the ship. Its real owner was the fledgling Confederate States Navy. With Great Britain publicly maintaining a policy of neutrality, the ship could not be commissioned for war in British waters without incurring the ire of the United States. The pleasure cruise and the temporary name were part of an elaborate plan to get the ship out of England and in the hands of the Confederacy.

Two other ships soon joined Enrica at Terceira Island. Sailing from Liverpool, the Bahama brought the new ship’s captain. The Agrippa, the supply ship assigned to the new cruiser, brought provisions and hardware for equipping the Erica for war. Crews from all three ships set about converting the Erica into a naval cruiser, a commerce raider intended to interrupt Union supply lines. The conversion was not without anxiety, as Portuguese customs officers, accompanied by the British Consul, kept a wary eye upon the supposed merchant vessel.

Erica’s new look included six 32-pound cannon and two large pivot cannon mounted along the centerline of her deck. She could make 10 knots with the screw retracted and 13.5 under steam and sail combined. To quote her captain,

“She was a perfect steamer and a perfect sailing-ship, at the same time, neither of her two modes being at all dependent upon the other.”

Capt. Raphael Semmes aboard his beloved Alabama

August 24, 1862, the Erica sailed a mile out into international waters. Her twenty-four officers stood in full dress uniform on the quarter-deck. Onto the deck strode her new captain, a decorated captain of the USS Somers during the Mexican-American War, a successful attorney in Mobile, Alabama and, most recently, captain of the CSS Sumter which, in six short months of service, had captured 18 enemy ships. Despite his many accomplishments, Captain Raphael Semmes would, from that moment forward, be inextricably linked with his new command, his new love, now renamed CSS Alabama.

A brief, but impressive christening ceremony took place, beginning with Semmes’ reading of his official commission from CSA President Jefferson Davis. Semmes described the scene in his Memoirs of Service Afloat:

“All these men had their eyes upon the reader; and when he had concluded, at a wave of his hand, the gun was fired, the change of flags took place, and the air was rent by a deafening cheer from officers and men; the band, at the same time, playing ‘Dixie’ … Who could look into the horoscope of this ship – who anticipate her career? Many of these brave fellows followed me unto the close.”

Such allegiance from his new crew did not come immediately. He released them from the contracts which had bound them to this point and began to challenge them to join the “battles of the oppressed against the oppressor.” Few were moved. However, when he spoke “like a skillful Secretary of the Treasury” of “good pay, and payment in gold,” he was met with a hearty “Hear! Hear!”

Reading Semmes’ words, one suspects that neither gold nor states’ rights served as his primary motivations. Among his inducements, he promised,

“The cruise would be one of excitement and adventure. We had a fine ship under us; one that they might fall in love with…”

Whether the men fell in love with the Alabama or not, Semmes most certainly did. He writes rapturously of her being “not only my home, but my bride, as it were.” The marriage lasted but two years, but what a two years! In that short period, the Alabama’s crew boarded more than 450 ships, captured or burned 65 Union ships, took more than 2,000 prisoners … and all without loss of life among her or her enemy’s men. She never docked in a single Confederate port.

Her success would not go unnoticed in the North. The combined effect of her raiding merchant ships to break Union supply lines, the manner in which she was commissioned and her crew of mostly foreign sailors was to conjure up but one word to describe her captain: pirate. A skilled writer, attorney and noted Southern apologist, Semmes dedicates no small amount of ink in his memoirs to refuting this charge. Though one quickly discerns he deemed this effort futile:

“They could as logically have called General Robert E. Lee a bandit, as myself a pirate; but logic was not the forte of the enemy, either during or since the late war.”

Regarding him a pirate or, at best, a privateer, the Union Navy set about dispatching him as such. While the Alabama was docked at Cherbourg, France for rest and refueling, the Union ship Kearsarge awaited her at sea. The captain of Kearsarge, John Winslow, was not unknown to Semmes as the two men had fought together in the Mexican-American War, at points being shipmates and even roommates. Now, on the morning of June 19, 1864, Semmes set sail to meet his old friend in battle. Unknown to Semmes, Winslow had the victory before the first shot was fired.

Edouard Manet's "Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama"

In a move the Northern press hailed as clever and Semmes described as “a cheat,” Winslow had draped the hull of his ship in anchor chain and then disguised the armor with planks of wood. Through the telescope, the Kearsarge appeared every bit Alabama’s equal. After eighty minutes awash in smoke, sea spray and the concussive blows of the Kearsarge’s shot, Alabama sank beneath the surface of the sea. About his ship Semmes would later write,

“We fought her until she would swim no more, and then we gave her to the waves.”

The battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama would become the stuff of legend, immortalized in both ink and paint. Even noted French impressionist Edouard Manet would offer a take on the battle. But only Semmes could properly eulogize his beloved Alabama:

“No one who is not a seaman can realize the blow which falls upon the heart of a commander, upon the sinking of his ship … The Alabama had not only been my battlefield, but my home … in which I had experienced many vicissitudes of pain and pleasure, sickness and health … We had buried her as we had christened her, and she was safe from the polluting touch of the hated Yankee!”

5 Responses to “Boy Meets Ship: A Pirate Love Story”

  1. Nice piece! … I’m ready to see the feature film!

    • I think a film about him would be amazing, but would Hollywood fund or distribute a film with a Confederate as the hero?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Real Southern Quote: On the Nature of Sailors | Real Southern Men - June 3, 2011

    […] Today’s Real Southern Quote comes to us from the pages of Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States, the war memoirs of Admiral Raphael Semmes, captain of the CSS Alabama. […]

  2. It’s Pirate Week on Real Southern Men! | Real Southern Men - June 3, 2011

    […] Though he was known in the South as a war hero, Confederate raider Admiral Raphael Semmes was often branded a pirate or privateer by the Northern press. We take a look at Semmes’ relationship with his beloved ship, the CSS Alabama – a sort of pirate love story. […]

  3. Get Your Civil War On | Real Southern Men - June 13, 2011

    […] Originally posted during our Pirate Week, this story about Confederate naval Capt. Raphael Semmes explores the unbreakable bond between a captain and his ship: “Boy Meets Ship: A Pirate Love Story.” […]

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