- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

On a gray day in March 1863, nine Confederate naval officers who had been living in London received long-awaited orders. They were to gather their gear and proceed by rail to Glasgow, Scotland. There they would take over a new ship bearing the interim name Japan, soon to be the CSS Georgia, the latest addition to the Confederate navy’s modest fleet of commerce raiders.

Purchase of the Georgia reflected the efforts of two men who shared a venerable Virginia name. One, Matthew Fontaine Maury, was the most distinguished oceanographer of his day. His dual mission in London was to report on British attitudes toward the Confederacy and to purchase ships for the South’s fledgling navy if any became available. The latter task was a challenge, for ever since the famous Alabama had slipped away to avoid seizure, British authorities had been more attentive in enforcing Britain’s neutrality in the American Civil War.

• `• •

Matthew Maury was not deterred. In early 1863, he identified several potential commerce raiders, the most promising of which was the Japan. His need for funds with which to buy the vessel was solved by the arrival of a cousin, Lt. William L. Maury, with $1.5 million in cotton warrants — comparable to today’s bearer bonds. William Maury also brought orders from Richmond that he himself was to command the Japan.

The younger Maury was a veteran of the U.S. Navy; he had participated in Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1852. His health was not robust, but he must have been regarded highly in Richmond to have been awarded one of the few sea commands in the small Confederate navy.

While his officers made their way to Glasgow, Maury managed to recruit about 50 seamen from the Sailors’ Home in London, ostensibly for a two-year voyage to Singapore.

On April 1, 1863, the Japan weighed anchor for the Irish Sea, with William Maury in command and Confederate officers under him. Three days later, the now-CSS Georgia took on two Whitworth rifles, three other cannons and miscellaneous ordnance from a Confederate-leased supply ship off the French coast.

• • •

In contrast to the famous Alabama and the similarly destructive Florida, not a great deal is known about the 600-ton Georgia. It appears to have been clipper-built, rigged as a brig but powered by a 200-horsepower coal-fired engine. The Georgia carried considerably less armament than either the Alabama or the Florida and would be heavily outgunned by any Federal warship it might meet.

The Georgia made its first capture on April 25. Maury’s prize was the 1,300-ton Dictator, out of New York and bound for Hong Kong. The Confederates spent the better part of two days transferring the crew and some provisions to the raider, then put Dictator to the torch.

Confederate commerce raiders operated under an unusual handicap. Because of the Federal blockade of Southern harbors, they had no home port to which they could send their prizes for valuation and sale. Captured enemy vessels had to be burned or, in exceptional circumstances, bonded, a procedure under which a prize’s master agreed to make a stipulated payment to the Confederate government at the close of hostilities. The resulting bonds would, of course, be worthless in the event of a Northern victory.

En route to the sea lanes off Brazil, Maury made for the Azores, intending to land his prisoners there. When his lookout spotted a possible Federal cruiser in the harbor, however, Maury had no choice but to continue on to Brazil.

There, at Bahia (present-day Salvador), the Georgia chanced to rendezvous with Capt. Rapha-el Semmes and the famous Alabama. The officers of the two vessels mingled convivially for several days before returning to the Atlantic. After stopping and releasing several neutral vessels, Maury captured the George Griswold, with a cargo of coal. Because the cargo was British, Maury released the Griswold on $100,000 bond.

• • •

Veering farther into the gray Atlantic, the Georgia made June its busiest month, capturing four ships, including a 436-ton bark, the Good Hope. When a boarding party from the Georgia boarded the prize, the men found that the ship’s master had died at sea and was being returned home pickled in brine. Maury ordered the remains brought to the Georgia before he burned his prize. He was conducting a burial service for the luckless skipper when a lookout reported an approaching sail.

The ship was another American bark, the J.W. Seaver, which had spotted the burning Good Hope. The newcomer asked if it could be of assistance, then watched in horror as the raider ran up Confederate colors. Maury did not burn the Seaver, however. He later wrote that he would stand court-martial before he would “burn the ship of a man who had come to help fellow seamen in distress.” The chivalrous Maury bonded his latest prize for $30,000.

Meanwhile, the Georgia’s operations off Brazil had exposed its shortcomings as a commerce raider. The ship was not fast enough to give chase under sail alone. At the same time, its fuel consumption under steam was so prodigious that Maury was constantly in search of coal.

• • •

On July 8, he decided to try his luck elsewhere and set a course for South Africa. The Georgia arrived at St. Simon’s Bay on Aug. 26 with a couple more captures to its credit but in somewhat worn condition. Its bottom was so fouled with marine growth that its speed was sharply reduced.

Maury set a course north in hopes of finding a dockyard. Stopping in the Canary Islands, he landed his prisoners, took on coal and gave his crew a liberty. Continuing north, the Georgia stopped several vessels, but none were Yankee.

On Oct. 18, the Georgia dropped anchor at Cherbourg, but French authorities, under pressure from U.S. diplomats, initially denied it access to the dry dock. By the time permission was granted, four months later, the Confederates had lost interest in the Georgia. Maury was relieved as skipper, and first officer Bill Evans was placed in command.

In February 1864, the Georgia left Cherbourg for a secret rendezvous off Morocco, where it was to transfer its guns and supplies to a new Confederate cruiser, the Rappahannock. The new cruiser never reached Morocco, however; at the last moment, French authorities prevented it from leaving Calais.

• • •

Meanwhile, when some members of the Georgia’s crew were on shore leave, they were accosted by several hundred angry Moroccans armed with spears and rifles.

The Confederate sailors beat a hasty retreat to their ship, after which the Georgia let loose a broadside, firing its guns in anger for the first and only time. Aboard the raider, the incident became known as “the Confederacy’s only foreign war.”

In May 1864, the Georgia sailed to Liverpool, England, where its crew was discharged. In statistical terms, the raider had had an undistinguished career. Its nine captures pale by comparison to the 64 achieved by the Alabama under Semmes or the 24 ships seized by the Florida under Capt. John Newland Maffitt.

To a considerable extent, however, the Georgia’s small bag stemmed from the fact that a “flight from the flag” — the sale of American vessels to foreign owners — was under way before the ship’s cruise began. Given the defects of his vessel, William L. Maury appears to have accomplished all that reasonably could have been expected of him.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. His books on the Civil War period include “Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama.”

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