Alexander Warley joined the U.S. Navy in 1839 as a 16-year-old acting midshipman and had a career so colorful that it would make a rainbow pale by comparison. The strong-willed officer managed to get himself court-martialed four times. In 1844, during liberty while serving in the frigate Constitution , in Stickney’s words, Warley’s alcohol “intake exceeded his tolerance.” Back on board his own ship, he shed his clothes and challenged a shipmate to a duel. The court-martial found him guilty.
In 1852 he wrote letters of complaint to his superiors about his skipper in the sloop Jamestown . Another court-martial, another conviction. In 1858 he got cross-threaded with his Mississippi commanding officer, who charged Warley with disobeying orders he thought were unfair. This time the conviction was remanded by the court. He continued to have problems with his commanding officer that year and also got into a wardroom fistfight with a fellow officer over whether the growth they had seen on the water was or was not kelp. That was conviction number four, which, unsurprisingly, led to his transfer.
The aggressive Warley, loyal to his home state, hit his operational stride once he joined the newly formed Confederate Navy. He was in so many places and so many actions that he reminds one of the title character in the movie Forrest Gump . In July 1861 he was in command of the defenses of Ship Island, near Biloxi, Mississippi. When the Union steamer Massachusetts bombarded the island, Warley had his men dig up incoming cannonballs after they landed and fire them back at the attacker—an early example of recycling.
Later he received orders to command the ironclad ram Manassas, which still belonged to a private shipyard in New Orleans. Longshoremen on board didn’t want to make the ship available without payment, so Warley went aboard with pistol in hand and chased away the occupiers before bringing his own crew aboard. It was an action more akin to a bank robbery than a naval commissioning ceremony. The new ship’s primary weapon was an iron ram. In October 1861, Warley was the first skipper of an ironclad in combat when he punched a hole in the steam sloop Richmond , a ship in which he had served while in the U.S. Navy. The epic battle between the ironclads Monitor and Virginia was still months in the future.
Though the April 1862 Battle of New Orleans was ultimately a defeat for the Confederates, it produced Warley’s finest hour. Still in command of the Manassas , he made attack after attack against Federal ships. As the war proceeded after that, Warley alternated frequently between ships and shore duty and was briefly a prisoner of war. He commanded two more ironclads, the Chicora and the Albemarle —the latter destroyed in a daring raid late in the war in Plymouth, North Carolina. During his Confederate service, he often went into harm’s way, but, unlike John Paul Jones, never had the advantage of a fast ship.
With the end of the war in April 1865, Lieutenant Warley was still a capable naval officer but without a job, for the Union Navy would not take him back. Until his death in 1895 at the age of 72, he eked out a living for his family by working for the city government of New Orleans. The glory had long since faded, but—thanks to John Stickney’s fine portrayal—the legacy remains.