Thursday, March 09, 2006

found when googling my dad

Above: John Winslow (3rd from left) on the deck of the USS Kearsage with officers. No, not my dad, although the picture has a curious resemblance. Another strange tale from my family history (like the one about the ruthless relation who instigated the Grand Derangement of the Cajuns):
In the 22 months it roved the seas, from Brazil to Singapore, the Alabama obliterated 65 Union merchant ships. The 220-foot-long vessel, fitted with eight cannons and a retractable smokestack, was built for Rafael "Old Beeswax" Semmes, an Alabama captain with a waxed handlebar mustache (hence his nickname) and a track record for burning enemy ships. The vessel was constructed in secrecy in Liverpool, England, under the name 290. On July 29, 1862, Semmes told customs officials he was taking the finished ship out for a test run. Packed with ladies and gentlemen who were treated to champagne and lunch, the 290 left Liverpool for a "short excursion."

At the mouth of the Mersey River, Semmes unloaded the surprised merrymakers into a tugboat and high-tailed it 2,000 miles southwest to the Azores, where guns, ammunition, and a crew were waiting. Within two months, the Alabama—renamed for its captain's home state—had burned 19 Union ships without firing a shot: Semmes's ploy was to raise a British flag, board the ship, seize its goods, take prisoners, and set it afire. The New York Times and Harper's Weekly dubbed Semmes a pirate, but the South celebrated him as a hero.

The Union, out millions of dollars, offered a $300,000 reward for sinking its nemesis and $500,000 for its capture. After almost two years at sea, Semmes paused in the Cherbourg harbor to repair the Alabama's hull and take on fresh ammunition. Hearing of the elusive vessel's landing, Capt. John Winslow of the 201-foot-long U.S.S. Kearsarge blocked its exit. Winslow, who had been Semmes's cabinmate in the U.S.-Mexican War, ordered his crew to fortify the side of the Union ship by stringing chains across a 50-foot section and covering them with inch-thick planks.

A few minutes before 11:00 a.m., the Alabama fired the first shot. One shell hit the Kearsarge's unprotected stern post—a potentially fatal wound—but didn't explode. The Alabama was less fortunate. "Nearly every shot from our guns was telling fearfully on the Alabama," Winslow reported. "I saw now that she was at our mercy, and a few more guns, well directed, brought down her flag." By noon, the Alabama had slipped beneath the waves, its captain and crew rescued by a British yacht and Kearsarge rowboats. (Nine sailors died on deck, and 10 drowned.) Of the 140 survivors, about 40 escaped with Semmes to England.

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