The Capture of the California Steamer Ariel by the Alabama (1863 Report)

This report appeared in The Charleston Mercury on January 6, 1863. Accessible Archives The Civil War – Part 1: A Newspaper Perspective contains major articles gleaned from over 2,500 issues of The New York Herald, The Charleston Mercury and the Richmond Enquirer, published between November 1, 1860 and April 15, 1865. The event recounted here occurred off the East tip of Cuba on December 7,1862.

The following is the full account of the recent capture of the California steamer Ariel, as given in the Northern papers:

As the passengers of the Ariel were seated at their dinner on Sunday, December 7th, Captain Jones was informed that a war steamer was bearing down upon them, and although he made light of the fact, still he left the dinner table and ascended to the deck. The war vessel was descried about four miles off, sailing under the Stars and Stripes; but Captain Jones soon discovered that the build and rigging were English, and suspecting mischief, ordered the Ariel to be put under a full head of steam, intending, if possible, to leave the suspicious craft far behind. But his efforts were unavailing; for shortly after a blank cartridge was fired, closely followed by two shells, one of which, a common round shell, cut a fearful piece from out of the foremast. The other shell, which fortunately passed over the vessel, the passengers were informed, was a stell pointed one hundred pound projectile, so constructed as to cause a destructive explosion immediately as it strikes an object. Had this shell burst over or against the Ariel, there is no knowing what loss of life might have been caused. The marines, who were one hundred and forty strong, under Major Garland, were ordered on deck to resist any attempt to board the Ariel by the crew of the pursuing vessel; but when the character of the craft was fully ascertained, it was considered entirely useless to make any resistance, and the marines were ordered below. Captain Jones, whose bravery is well known, insisted that his flag should not be lowered under any circumstances, but that he would fight it out. The marines, however, being disarmed, he had to give way, very reluctantly, and the Ariel was surrendered to the Alabama. At this time the Ariel was going about eight and a half knots, and the Alabama eleven knots, under only eleven pounds of steam.

Part I of our Civil War collection, A Newspaper Perspective, contains articles gleaned from over 2,500 issues of The New York Herald, The Charleston Mercury and the Richmond Enquirer, published between November 1, 1860 and April 15, 1865.
A boat was then sent from the Alabama, manned by twelve well armed men, and under the charge of a Southern officer named Law, who ranked as a Lieutenant in the rebel navy. As they approached the Ariel the passengers began to show evident signs of uneasiness, as if they feared that a demand would be made upon them for their or their lives,’or perhaps both. The women were dreadfully frightened, and those who had any valuable personal property began to conceal it as rapidly as possible. Lieutenant Law, when he boarded the Ariel, stated that the passengers would be allowed to proceed unharmed, and their private property should be respected. This certainly quieted a few of them, although there were yet some skeptics. Captain Jones was next ordered to go aboard the Alabama, and on his return to the Ariel he stated that the Alabama deserved all her previous reputation for speed. She can steam fourteen knots with seventeen pounds of steam; and is allowed to carry twenty-five pounds of steam. She has two engines of fifty-two inch cylinder and seventeen inch stroke, and is, in all respects, a perfect model of beauty. Her armament is, he says, a one hundred pounder rifle and one sixty-eight pounder pivot gun, besides six medium thirty-two pounders. He can fight seven guns a side, having arrangements for transferring two of the broadside guns from side to side with great rapidity. Capt. Jones further says that the Alabama has a fine crew, and that they are well disciplined; that the ship is in fine order, and that the deck is arranged for two additional pivot guns, which he was informed were one hundred pounder rifles, and in the Alabamahold, ready to be mounted should they be required. He says that ‘Old Beeswax’treated him remarkably well, as well as if he had been a visitor. He was not confined, and had the privileges of the deck and messed in the ward room.

Captain Jones says the only ship that Semmes fears is the Vanderbilt. He made many inquiries regarding her speed and armament, but obtained no information whatever. He laughs at all the other ships we have, and remarked that cared nothing for the San Jacinto; that he went to sea by her when in Martinique, and paid no attention to her. What he cannot whip he can run away from.’

Lieutenant Law, having made inquiries of Captain Semmes about what he was to do with the United States officers and men on board the Ariel, on his return paroled them that they were not to serve the United States Government in any capacity, or at any place, during the present war, and prohibited them from performing even garrison duty at the forts of California, to which place they were bound. The officers were ordered to give up their side arms, and the men their muskets and equipments, which were all taken on board the Alabama. Lieutenant Law next called for the manifests, and, finding some money on them, took possession of $3000 in Treasury notes, belonging to Messrs. Well, Fargo & Co., and $1,500 in silver, for Nicaragua, belonging to Peyton Middleton, Esq. Being assured by the purser that the Ariel had not letter mail, he did not overhaul the sacks, and in fact nothing in that line was disturbed. Wells, Fargo & Cosacks, the private sacks of the Panama Railroad Company, the South and Central American and Panama mails, and even the State Department sacks for the United States Consul at Aspinwall, containing his own correspondence and that for other consuls, ministers and naval officers, were safely delivered to the proper authorities at Panama. The ship was, however, bonded for $125,000, and the cargo and freight for $135,000 more, making a total of $260,000, the whole to be paid to the Confederate authorities within thirty days after the establishment of the independence of the Confederate States.

Lieutenant Law, having destroyed all the sails of the Ariel, ordered her to keep in company with the Alabama, and both ships steamed towards Jamaica. At night he again visited the Ariel, and took away with him one of her steam valves, so as to temporarily disable the engine. Capt. Jones was informed by Captain Semmes that his passengers would be landed at a point on St. Domingo, which has only a few huts, and is at a great distance from supplies. To this Captain Jones earnestly remonstrated, stating that eight hundred and fifty persons, a third of them women and children, could find nothing to live on there. He then said he would land them in Jamaica; for he was determined to burn the ship in revenge for Vanderbilt having given one of the finest steamers in the world to the Government to run him down. While the Ariel was deprived of her steam valve, being without sails, she could do nothing but drift about, and certainly could not escape. Therefore the Alabama could go off in search of other victims. On the 9th inst. at 9 op.m., the vessels arrived off Point Morant, about forty miles from Kingston. Near this the Alabama gave chase and boarded a vessel, from which some information was received which induced Captain Semmes to again change his mind, and he permitted the Ariel to resume her voyage. The reason given was that this vessel had reported yellow fever raging in Kingston, and he would not subject the passengers to its ravages; but the passengers were afterwards informed that no yellow fever had prevailed there for some time. The conduct of the officers and crew of the Alabama while in charge of the Ariel was extremely courteous. They were in regular communication with the United States, both by letters and papers, and were fully cognizant of our days of sailing, and that there were no cruisers to intercept her in these waters. For this reason the specie to come by the Ariel was left at Aspinwall, as Captain Jones did not think it prudent to bring it.

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