‘As Fine a Vessel as Ever Floated’
In July 1862, Maher would have been 20 years old and already an experienced seaman when he sailed from England to the Azores as a crewman in the vessel destined to become the legendary cruiser Alabama . Also on board, ostensibly as a passenger, was the Confederate Navy’s secret agent in England, Commander James Dunwoody Bulloch. Bulloch had personally designed and supervised the construction of the Enrica , also known as ship number 290, at John Laird and Sons shipyard, Birkenhead. When she was ready to sail, he arranged an elaborately staged “trial run” that got the ship safely to sea before she could be seized for violation of Great Britain’s neutrality laws. Although Bulloch’s greatest desire was to command “his” vessel, another officer—Captain Raphael Semmes—would do so, while Bulloch continued his valuable work securing ships for the Confederacy.
During the Enrica ’s voyage toward the Azores, her English and Irish seamen were approached by Clarence Yonge, a Southerner who had been instructed by Bulloch to “mix freely” with the warrant and petty officers and “show interest in their comfort and welfare.” After gaining their confidence, Yonge was to “talk to them of the Southern States, and how they are fighting against great odds for only what every Englishman enjoys— liberty !” 5 Meanwhile, Semmes was a passenger in another vessel headed for the Azores, the Bahama . With Semmes were 13 officers who had served under him in the Sumter , the Confederacy’s first commerce raider. No longer fit for service, that vessel had been left at Gibraltar.
On 10 August the Bahama reached the Portuguese island of Terceira, at Porto Prayer, and was joined ten days later by the Enrica . For several days, seamen busily loaded the Enrica with coal and transferred cannon, ammunition, and other supplies from the Bahama . Finally, on 24 August, the climactic moment arrived. Together the two ships moved outside territorial waters. As the British ensign was replaced by the Stars and Bars, a salute was fired, and the Enrica was christened the CSS Alabama . Semmes read to the men his commission and orders from the Confederate Navy Department, then addressed them directly. One sailor later recalled portions of his speech:
Now, my lads, there is the ship. She is as fine a vessel as ever floated; there is a chance which seldom offers itself to a British seaman—to make a little money. I am not going to put you alongside of a frigate at first, but after I have drilled you a little, I will give you a nice little fight. We are going to burn, sink, and destroy the commerce of the United States. Your prize money will be divided proportionately, according to each man’s rank, something similar to the English navy. 6
A question was raised. Some of the men, including Michael Maher, belonged to the Royal Naval Reserve and were required to regularly notify naval authorities as to their whereabouts. The Reserve consisted of experienced seamen from the British merchant and fishing fleets who could be called to active service in the Royal Navy during times of national emergency. Semmes assured them: “I will make that all right. I will put you in English ports where you can get your book signed every three months.” 7 It was an empty promise, as the raider would have no regular ports-of-call. Instead, the Alabama would become a ghost ship, constantly disappearing and reappearing where least expected to confound her pursuers. As for reservists like Michael Mars, once British authorities learned the identity of those serving in the Alabama (and other Confederate cruisers), their names were stricken from the official list.
Negotiations between Semmes and the men resulted in the captain agreeing to pay them twice what they would be paid in the Royal Navy, in gold, along with prize money. Grog was to be distributed twice a day, as was customary in the British Navy.
On that 24th day of August, caught up in the excitement and enticement of making “a little money,” young Maher, identifying himself as Michael Mars, along with 80 other men, placed his mark on a register and became a seaman in the Alabama . (Additional crew members would be recruited at various ports and from captured vessels.) Bulloch, along with ten men who refused to enlist, returned to England on board the Bahama .
Semmes—nicknamed “Old Beeswax” by his crew because of his elegantly styled and waxed moustache—viewed ordinary sailors as a breed apart from officers like himself. In his view they were “improvident and [as] incapable of self-government as a child.” When ashore, the sailor, he contended, “gives a loose rein to his passions, and sometimes plunges so deeply into debauchery, that he renders himself unfit for duty, for days, and sometimes weeks.” 8 The men on board his “little kingdom,” he believed, “consisted of 110 [sic] of the most reckless sailors from the groggeries and brothels of Liverpool.” 9 Once at sea, Semmes quickly asserted his prerogative as ruler over them:
The moment a man offended, he was seized and confined in irons, and, if the offense was a grave one, a court-martial was sitting on his case in less than twenty-four hours. The willing and obedient were treated with humanity and kindness; the turbulent were jerked down, with a strong hand, and made submissive to discipline. 10
It was Semmes’ executive officer, “luff” in sailor lingo, Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell, who had the responsibility of carrying out this discipline. Kell quickly realized that along “with some very fine, adventurous seamen, we had also about fifty picked up sailors from the streets of Liverpool that looked as if they would need some man-of-war discipline to make anything of them.” 11
A Sailor’s Antics and Heroism
But what about Michael Mars/Maher? Arthur Sinclair, the ship’s junior-ranking lieutenant, captured the essence of Coxswain Mars when he wrote of him, “He was in many ways the most remarkable figure among our crew, and trustworthy to the uttermost.” Sinclair added: “Still strange to say, he was constantly in the ‘brig’ for minor offences, such as playing practical jokes on his messmates, and even at times including the younger officers, if the field was clear for the exercise of his pranks. Nothing vicious or of serious moment happened among his offences, making it therefore a worry to Kell to report and Semmes to punish him.” 12
The occasion when Mars battled a shark appears to have been sheer showmanship. On Christmas 1862, the Alabama was anchored off the Arcas coral islands about a hundred miles west of Campeche, Mexico. Excused from their regular duties, crewmen were ashore fishing and collecting seagull eggs. While several sailors in a boat were spearfishing in the island’s lagoon, Chief Engineer Miles Freeman was enjoying a swim nearby. Suddenly an alarm was shouted: “Shark!” Freeman made a dash for shore, vigorously swimming and wading in his haste to reach the safety of the beach. Once there, he lay panting and exhausted, which the sailors, realizing that the shark had never actually attacked him, found hilarious. Mars quickly seized the opportunity to add to their entertainment. As Sinclair later recalled:
Pushing the boat near, he jumped into the water, and quickly plunged his sheath-knife in the belly of the fish, giving him a fearful rip. The shark raised a terrible commotion, slapping the water with his tail, and bringing his jaws together with a most uncomfortable snap. Mars was peremptorily ordered into the boat; but his Irish blood was up, and the fight was continued until the shark was vanquished. 13
The incident in which Mars playfully handled poisonous snakes took place a year later at Pulo Condore, a small island now known as Con Dao, off the coast of Vietnam. While exploring onshore, several officers and sailors were fascinated by monkeys, lizards, and other wildlife, but repelled by the numerous snakes encountered. Not Mars, however. Writing in the present tense about the incident years later, Sinclair noted, “Michael Mars, a very dare-devil, is amusing himself by seizing the snakes by the tail, and by a dexterous and swift jerk as of a whip-lash breaking the neck of the reptile; utterly indifferent to, and apparently ignorant of, the imminent danger and protest of the officer in charge.” 14 The species of snake Mars was handling is not identified, but dangerous adders are among those found on the island.
Mars was not grandstanding, however, when, on 27 February 1864, he rescued a shipmate, 18-year-old Henry Godson, from drowning. Years later, Sinclair recalled Lieutenant Joseph Wilson’s frantic shouts—“Hard down your helm! Cut away the life-buoy! Man the weather-braces! Light up the head-sheets! Brace aback! Lower away the lee life-boat!” Godson, who had been on deck recovering from illness, had lost his balance and fallen overboard. Mars immediately sprang into action. Seizing a wooden grating, he rushed to the lee gangway and threw it overboard. In response to Lieutenant Kell’s shouted order not to jump he replied, “Keep cool, Mr. Kell, I will save the poor fellow.”
Swimming to Godson, Mars shoved the grating beneath him and then waited for a lifeboat to pick them both up while the sailors on deck shouted their encouragement. 15 Acting Master’s Mate George Fullam’s journal entry that evening noted, “but for the gallant conduct and timely assistance of Mars, Godson must have become food for the fishes.” 16 During muster roll a week later, Semmes used the occasion to praise Mars for his heroic rescue, calling on “the rest of the officers and crew to endeavor to emulate his example in all hours of danger and trial.” While Semmes was addressing officers and crew, “Mars stood hat in hand, head down, and blushing like a schoolgirl.” As he hitched his trousers, he muttered, “The captain has made a bloody fuss over nothing.” 17
Semmes would have felt less well disposed toward Mars three months earlier when the coxswain had committed an offense more serious than the practical jokes alluded to by Sinclair. Fullam’s journal entry for 17 November 1863 reads: “Court Martial sentenced Michael Mars (sea.) to lose one month’s pay, to do police duty [cleaning the ship] 3 months, and to be triced up three hours daily for one week.” 18 Being “triced up,” a punishment known as the “Spread Eagle,” had a man fastened to the rigging by his hands and legs for an extended period.
Mars was being punished for an incident that had occurred four days earlier. In his journal entry for 13 November, Semmes noted: “I had another row with my rascals to-day. Having directed some cigars, which we had taken from the [clipper ship] Winged Racer , to be distributed among the officers and crew, the latter threw theirs overboard in a most contemptuous manner, whereupon I arrested the ringleaders for punishment, etc.” 19 Two of those ringleaders, Frank Townsend and Albert Hyer, were found guilty of “mutinous and seditious conduct” and reduced in grade to ordinary seamen, docked three months’ pay, and confined in double irons on bread and water for 30 days. Mars’ role in the incident appears to have been less serious, as he kept his position of coxswain.
Manning a Pivot Gun in Battle
When it came to the ultimate test of courage under fire, Semmes’ crew did not disappoint him. Months earlier off the coast of Texas, they had fought and sunk a U.S. warship, the Hatteras , in only minutes. Now, on 19 June 1864, a climactic duel between the Alabama and another Union warship, the Kearsarge , would take place off Cherbourg, France. As the Alabama was leaving Cherbourg Harbor to engage her adversary, Semmes delivered a stirring address to his sailors—“The name of your ship has become a household word wherever Civilization extends. Shall that name be tarnished by defeat?”—which was answered by shouts of “Never!” The men were reminded that they were in the English Channel, “the theatre of so much of the naval glory of our race, and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you.” 20 Following his defeat, Semmes would claim to have had no knowledge of the heavy chains that had been slung over the midsection of the Kearsarge , covered over by boards. Her captain, John Winslow, had had it done six weeks earlier to protect his ship’s engines and boilers in any future engagement.
At about noon, seven miles off the coast, the battle commenced as Semmes’ gunners began firing at 2,000 yards from their adversary. Semmes was counting on his two pivot guns to sink or cripple the Kearsarge before her powerful XI-inch guns opened up. Rapid and haphazard firing by his own gunners, however, caused most of the Alabama’s shot and shells to miss their target, while some shells that did hit failed to explode due to faulty powder and fuses dampened by months at sea.
Mars was a compressor man at the aft 8-inch smoothbore pivot gun assigned to Lieutenant Wilson’s division, its crew made up principally of coal heavers and firemen, chosen because they were “heavy, powerful men.” 21 A shell from the Alabama struck the Kearsarge ’s forward pivot gun, injuring three men, while yet another shell lodged in her sternpost but failed to explode. It was the Alabama , however, that became a virtual slaughterhouse. As Mars was bending over setting one of the gun’s compressors to retard the weapon’s recoil, an XI-inch shell struck nearby and exploded, killing or maiming most of the 17-man gun crew.
Wilson, covered with blood and gore, was in a state of shock from being hit by severed body parts. Mars nodded toward Kell, who, knowing what had to be done next, bowed his head in response. Mars then seized a shovel from the bulwarks, disposed of the “mass of flesh,” and re-sanded the deck. 22 As Sinclair later recalled, “To have observed the man, you would have supposed him engaged in the ordinary morning-watch cleaning of decks.” 23 Kell ordered Midshipman Edward Anderson, commanding an aft 32-pounder gun, to transfer his crew to the pivot gun and resume firing.
Did Mars actually seize an XI-inch shell that had landed on deck and throw it overboard? Kell referred to the episode consistently in his accounts of the battle:
The enemy’s 11-inch shells were doing severe execution upon our quarter-deck section. Three of them successively entered our 8-inch pivot-gun port: the first swept off the forward part of the gun’s crew; the second killed one man and wounded several others; and the third struck the breast of the gun-carriage, and spun around on the deck until one of the men picked it up and threw it overboard. 24
Although Kell provides the only reliable eyewitness account of the shell being picked up and disposed of, such a spontaneous act was definitely one of which Mars was capable. Although the shell turned out to be a dud, the fact remains that, if indeed Mars disposed of it as was reported in newspaper accounts, he was taking an enormous risk.
As the Alabama was sinking, Mars and other sailors gathered around their captain, eager to assist him. Semmes had retrieved documents from his cabin, and he entrusted these to Mars and another strong swimmer. They were to be delivered to “the first Confederate authority” encountered after saving themselves. Fearing that Semmes would be taken prisoner, Mars advised him to remove his coat and cap to avoid being recognized, and assisted him in fastening two lifebuoys.
With his captain’s papers secured between “small slats” under his shirt, Mars then jumped into the sea and swam toward the English yacht Deerhound , whose boats were picking up survivors. 25 Before he could reach that vessel, however, he was taken, unwillingly, into one of the boats sent from the Kearsarge . Determined not to become a prisoner and have Semmes’ papers taken from him, Mars casually remarked to the officer in charge that he preferred “another swim” and dove back into the ocean. 26
On board a nearby French pilot boat that was also picking up survivors, the Alabama ’s Lieutenant Richard Armstrong was astonished by what he saw. “As I got on board of the pilot boat, I saw Michael Mars plunge from the Kearsarge ’s boat and swim to the boat which I was in. The Federal officer said nothing, attempted nothing, apparently perfectly stupefied by the bold action of this brave man.” 27 After being brought ashore at Cherbourg, Mars delivered Semmes’ papers to Commander George Sinclair, Confederate naval agent in Europe. Semmes, meanwhile, was rescued by a boat from the Deerhound and taken aboard that vessel to England, as he requested.
What happened to Mars after he arrived at Cherbourg? He appears to have left there by the time Frederick Edge, an employee of the U.S. legation in England, arrived to conduct an in-depth investigation of the battle. The listing that Edge compiled of the Alabama ’s officers and crew does not include Mars or the other five men rescued by the pilot boat. 28 If Mars was in Southampton, England, several days later, he would have received an official certificate of discharge from the Naval Service of the Confederate States issued to surviving crew members and signed by both Semmes and Francis L. Galt, the Alabama ’s assistant surgeon, who was also acting paymaster.
Later Life on the Docks
No record has turned up of Mars/Maher having served in British vessels following his discharge. At some point—it is not known when—he decided to go to the United States. In June 1880, a census-taker found Michael Maher in New York City working as a longshoreman, or “dock walloper,” at the Hudson River waterfront. Then age 39 and single, he was living in a lodging house for working-class men at 57 Hudson Street in the city’s 8th Ward. 29
Dock wallopers led a haphazard existence, earning 40 or 45 cents an hour for backbreaking labor whenever work was available. 30 They were subject to a hiring system known as “the shake-up,” whereby a boss stevedore would select his working force several times daily from scores of longshoremen crowded before the dock gates. No doubt Mickey Maher the dock walloper was as personable as had been coxswain Mickey Mars. The camaraderie between shipmates had been replaced by a brotherhood among fellow longshoremen who were largely Irish immigrants and Catholic.
Sometime during the spring or summer of 1886, William Brooks, who had been first assistant engineer in the Alabama , happened to encounter Maher on the New York City docks, or possibly at Savannah, Georgia. Brooks was engineer officer on board the steamer SS City of Savannah , which plied between the two cities. They had much to reminisce about. Both men had been rescued by the crew of the French pilot boat after the Alabama ’s sinking. A topic of special interest was the April issue of Century Magazine , which included articles about the Alabama and her final battle, one written by their former luff, another by a Kearsarge officer, and still another by a writer claiming to have been a sailor in the Confederate cruiser. Noting glaring errors in the alleged sailor’s narrative, Brooks and Maher agreed that the writer was an imposter, which indeed he was. 31
The year Maher relocated from New York to Savannah has not been determined. No Michael Maher is listed in any of the Savannah directories from 1882 to 1891, despite Maher’s 1891 obituary noting his residence as 5 Lincoln Street, only a block from the Savannah River and the docks where he would have worked. Maher joined the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a union of laborers restricted to white men “of good moral character,” requiring a $10 initiation fee with 25 cents to be paid as monthly dues. 32
Early in 1891, Maher contracted pneumonia from exposure to the wintry chills on the Savannah docks. During his illness, flashes of memory carried him back almost three decades to the months he had served in the Alabama, and he repeatedly asked to see his former luff. 33 Without a doubt, Kell, who was then Georgia’s adjutant general, would have come immediately had he only known in time. Maher died on 5 February 1891.
The following day, a notice appeared in the Savannah Morning News addressed to Workingmen’s Benevolent Association members: “You are requested to meet at the corner of Bay and Lincoln streets, THIS (Friday) EVENING, at 2:30 o’clock for the purpose of paying our last tribute of respect to our deceased brother, Michael Maher.” 34 A horse-drawn cart would have conveyed the body to the Catholic Cemetery for burial in the longshoreman’s lot.
Two years after Maher’s death, the Morning News published a brief remembrance: “Maher was a member of the longshoreman’s union, and made his home on the wharves. He was a generous, improvident fellow, however, and died in poverty at the St. Joseph’s Infirmary [a charity hospital run by the Sisters of Mercy for sick seamen; Maher’s obituary indicates that he died at home]. He was buried by the longshoreman’s union. He never sought aid from any of the old officers of the Alabama or other prominent Confederates, though it would have been readily given him.” 35
A visitor to Savannah’s Catholic Cemetery searching for the grave of Michael Maher will leave disappointed. The former longshoreman’s section is now identified as the Sisters of Mercy lot, where the sisters’ grave markers are neatly arranged. There is nothing to indicate a burial site for longshoremen or any large vacant plot where they would have been buried. 36 It is possible their remains were at some time disinterred and reburied elsewhere.
While Arthur Sinclair was writing Two Years on the Alabama, he mused about the seaman whose exploits he had recalled, unaware that Mickey Mars was no longer living. “If toiling here [on Earth] yet, may God, as in the past, keep watch and ward over the jovial, generous, and brave Irishman!” 37
2. George De Whiting to John McIntosh Kell, 24 May 1894. Kell Papers, Duke University.
3. “Treaty of Washington. British Case and Papers” (1871), pp. 481, 483.
4. General Register Office (England).
5. James D. Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe (New York & London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959), vol. 1, pp. 249, 250.
6. [John Latham], Narrative of the Cruise of the Alabama by One of the Crew (London, 1864), p. 5.
8. Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States (New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1896), p. 420.
9. Journal entry, 29 December 1862. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894–1917) (hereafter cited as ORN) ser. 1, vol. 1, p. 116.
10. Semmes, Service Afloat, p. 427.
11. John McIntosh Kell, Recollections of a Naval Life (Washington, DC: Neale, 1900), p. 187.
12. Sinclair, Two Years, pp. 283, 284.
13. Ibid., pp. 65, 66.
14. Ibid., p. 199.
15. Ibid., pp. 238, 239.
16. Charles G. Summersell, ed., The Journal of George Townley Fullam (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1973), p. 177.
17. Sinclair, Two Years, pp. 239, 240.
18. Fullam, p. 160.
19. ORN, ser. 1, vol. 2, pp. 781, 782.
20. Semmes, Service Afloat, p. 756.
21. Sinclair, Two Years, p. 284.
22. Alfred Iverson Branham, The Cruise and Combats of the “Alabama,” “290”: Interview with John McIntosh Kell, Given Forty-Six Years Ago, June 1883 (Atlanta, 1930).
23. Sinclair, Two Years, p. 284.
24. John McIntosh Kell, “The Cruise and Combats of the ‘Alabama,’” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Robert U. Johnson & Clarence C. Buel, eds. (New York: Century, 1884–1888), vol. 4, pp. 600–614.
25. Semmes, Service Afloat, p. 764.
26. New York Herald, 9 July 1864.
27. ORN, ser. 1, vol. 3, p. 653.
28. Frederick Milnes Edge, An Englishman’s View of the Battle between the Alabama and the Kearsarge (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1864), p. 29.
29. Ninth United States Census (1880), New York City, National Archives and Records Administration.
30. Lumberman’s Gazette, Bay City, MI, 25 October 1879.
31. William P. Brooks to John Kell (1886), author’s collection. The writer was actually a convicted embezzler named James Young.
32. Constitution and By-laws of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, Savannah, Ga. (Savannah: Morning News Steam Printing House, 1880), p. 11.
33. Savannah Morning News, 6 February 1891.
35. Macon Telegraph, 30 January 1893 (taken from the Savannah Morning News).
36. Catholic Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia: General Index to Keeper’s Record Books, 1853–1938 (Savannah: WPA, 1938).
37. Sinclair, Two Years, p. 285.