A Bit of a Sea-Dandy

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Captain_Raphael_Semmes_and_First_Lieutenant_John_Kell_aboard_CSS_Alabama_1863

As I passed the wake of the steamer, I wheeled in pursuit, fired a blank cartridge, and hauling down the Federal, threw the Confederate flag to the breeze. It was amusing to witness the panic which ensued. If that old buccaneer, Blue Beard, himself, had appeared, the consternation could not have been greater. The ladies screamed one of those delightful, dramatic screams, half fear, half acting, which can only ascend from female voices — and scampered off the deck in a trice; the men running after them, and making quite as good, if not better time. The effect of my gun, and change of flags on the steamer herself, seemed to be scarcely less electric. She had no intention, whatever, of obeying my command to halt. On the contrary, I could see from the increased impetus with which she sprang forward, and the dense volumes of black smoke that now came rushing, and whirling from her smokestack, that she was making every possible effort to escape. She had gotten a little the start of me, as I was wheeling to pursue her, and might be now, some three or four hundred yards distant.

The reader has been on the race-course, and seen two fleet horses, with necks and tails straightened, and running about “neck and neck.” This will give him a pretty good idea of the race which is now going on. We had not stretched a mile, when it became quite evident that the stranger had the heels of me, and that, if I would capture her, I must resort to force. I ordered my “persuader,” as the sailors called my rifled bow-gun, to be cleared away, and sent orders to the officer, to take aim at the fugitive’s foremast, being careful to throw his shot high enough above the deck not to take life. When the gun was ready to be fired, I yawed the ship a little, though the effect of this was to lose ground, to enable the officer the better, to take his aim. A flash, a curl of white smoke, and a flying off of large pieces of timber from the steamer’s mast, were simultaneous occurrences. It was sufficient. The mast had not been cut quite away, but enough had been done to satisfy the master of the steamer that he was entirely within our power, and that prudence would be the better part of valor. In a moment after, we could see a perceptible diminution in the motion of the ” walking-beam,” and pretty soon the great wheels of the steamer ceased to revolve, and she lay motionless on the water.

We “slowed down” our own engine, and began to blow off steam at once, and ranging up alongside of the prize, sent a boat on board of her. It was thus we captured the steamer Ariel, instead of going to muster, on Sunday, the 7th of December, 1862. But Fortune, after all, had played us a scurvy trick. The Ariel was indeed a California steamer, but instead of being a homeward-bound steamer, with a million of dollars in gold, in her safe, I had captured an outward-bound steamer, with five hundred women and children on board! This was an elephant I had not bargained for, and I was seriously embarrassed to know what to do with it. I could not take her into any neutral port, even for landing the passengers, as this was forbidden, by those unfriendly orders in council I have more than once spoken of, and I had no room for the passengers on board the Alabama. The most that I could hope to do, was to capture some less valuable prize, within the next few days, turn the passengers of the Ariel on board of her, and destroy the steamer. Our capture, however, was not without useful results. The officers and soldiers mentioned as being on board of her, were a battalion of marines, going out to the Pacific, to supply the enemy’s ships of war on that station. There were also some naval officers on board, for the same purpose. These were all paroled, and deprived of their arms. The rank and file numbered 140.

When my boarding-officer returned, he reported to me that there was a great state of alarm among the passengers on board. They had been reading the accounts which a malicious, and mendacious Northern press had been giving of us, and took us to be no better than the “plunderers,” and “robbers” we had been represented to be. The women, in particular, he said, were, many of them, in hysterics, and apprehensive of the worst consequences. I had very little sympathy for the terrors of the males, but the tear of a woman has always unmanned me. And as I knew something of the weakness of the sex, as well as its fears, I resorted to the following stratagem to calm the dear creatures. I sent for my handsomest young lieutenant — and I had some very handsome young fellows on board the Alabama — and when he had come to me, I told him to go below, and array himself in his newest and handsomest uniform, buckle on the best sword there was in the ward room, ask of Bartelli the loan of my brightest sword-knot, and come up to me for his orders. Sailors are rapid dressers, and in a few minutes my lieutenant was again by my side, looking as bewitching as I could possibly desire. I gave him my own boat, a beautiful gig, that had been newly painted, and which my coxswain, who was a bit of a sea-dandy, had furnished with scarlet cushions, and fancy yoke and steering ropes, and directed him to go on board the Ariel, and coax the ladies out of their hysterics. “Oh! I ll be sure to do that, sir,” said he, with a charming air of coxcombry, “I never knew a fair creature who could resist me more than fifteen minutes.” As he shoved off from the side, in my beautiful little cockleshell of a boat, with its fine-looking, lithe and active oarsmen, bending with the strength of athletes to their ashen blades, I could but pause a moment, myself, in admiration of the picture.

A few strokes of his oars put him alongside of the steamer, and asking to be shown to the ladies cabin, he entered the scene of dismay and confusion. So many were the signs of distress, and so numerous the wailers, that he was abashed, for a moment, as he afterward told me, with all his assurance. But summoning courage, he spoke to them about as follows: — “Ladies! The Captain of the Alabama has heard of your distress, and sent me on board to calm your fears, by assuring you, that you have fallen into the hands of Southern gentlemen, under whose protection you are entirely safe. We are by no means the ruffians and outlaws, that we have been represented by your people, and you have nothing whatever to fear.” The sobs ceased as he proceeded, but they eyed him askance for the first few minutes. As he advanced in their midst, however, they took a second, and more favorable glance at him. A second glance begat a third, more favorable still, and when he entered into conversation with some of the ladies nearest him — picking out the youngest and prettiest, as the rogue admitted — he found no reluctance on their part to answer him. In short, he was fast becoming a favorite. The ice being once broken, a perfect avalanche of loveliness soon surrounded him; the eyes of the fair creatures looking all the brighter for the tears that had recently dimmed them.

Presently a young lady, stepping up to him, took hold of one of the bright buttons that were glittering on the breast of his coat, and asked him if he would not permit her to cut it off, as a memento of her adventure with the Alabama. He assented. A pair of scissors was produced, and away went the button! This emboldened another lady to make the same request, and away went another button; and so the process went on, until when I got my handsome lieutenant back, he was like a plucked peacock — he had scarcely a button to his coat! There were no more Hebes drowned in tears, on board the Ariel.

— Raphael Semmes

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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