- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, had a suspicious mind and maintained constant vigilance when ships were being built and bought. British government carelessness had enabled the Alabama to slip away in 1862, and it wreaked havoc on the high seas. In 1863, another British-built vessel was causing him some concern. Its name was Japan.

A new 600-tonner with a slim iron hull and a single, slightly raked stack, the Japan was screw-driven but also had two tall masts that enabled it to enlist the aid of the wind. It was intended to be a merchantman, but Matthew Fontaine Maury had other plans for it.

Maury, born near Fredericksburg, Va., had been a U.S. Navy officer until a serious injury ended his career. He became a distinguished hydrographer. When war began, he moved to Britain as a Confederate naval agent. He purchased the Japan in March 1863 at Dumbarton, Scotland, and on April 1, it left Greenock, on the opposite bank of the Clyde, loaded with ballast. A crew of 50 had been signed on, and the men were informed that its destination would be Singapore. No doubt to Adams’ intense irritation, it managed to make its escape from Scotland one jump ahead of a detention order.

The Japan rendezvoused with a ship called the Alar at Ushant, a little island off the coast of Brittany, where it received guns, ordnance stores and essential supplies. When the Confederate Navy flag went aloft, it became the cruiser Georgia, captained by Cmdr. W.L. Maury. Most of the duped sailors, replaced by men brought by the Alar, went home aboard that vessel, but 13 elected to stay with the Georgia.

A well-armed man-of-war with Confederate officers also supplied by the Alar, the Georgia was a fast vessel, as it had to be for the work it would be required to do. As its sharp bows cleaved the waves, it was not bound for Singapore. Instead, it would roam the Atlantic, although other raiders had taken their toll, and its pickings would be slim.

The Dictator was the first U.S. merchant vessel to learn that another sea wolf was on the loose. On April 25, it was taken and torched. Then the Georgia took the long sea road to Bahia, Brazil, where it coaled before setting off for the Cape of Good Hope. On the way, it seized the Constitution, the Griswold, the Good Hope and the J.W. Seaver, sparing the last of those vessels, which was bonded.

The Georgia dropped anchor in St. Simon’s Bay on Aug. 16, two weeks later turning back toward Europe and capturing four more ships as it went. Maury, having become ill, handed over his ship to its first lieutenant. It berthed at Cherbourg, France, on Oct. 28, outside which port in June 1864 the much more formidable raider Alabama would take on the USS Kearsarge and pay for its temerity by ceasing to be a menace.

For all its speed and weaponry, the Georgia was unsuitable as a raider. Its sail power was inadequate, compelling it to consume too much coal on long voyages, and the frequent halts for coaling were an inconvenience. When it arrived May 2, 1864, at Liverpool, all evidence of its previous activities was removed, and it was offered for sale. Edward Bates, a Liverpool merchant, acquired it for 15,000 pounds and at the time doubtless was delighted. He would regret his purchase.

The sale of the Georgia was unwelcome news for Adams, who wasted no time informing the British government that the ship would be arrested were it to leave harbor, even though it had become a genuine British-registered merchantman. Despite this warning, the Georgia was chartered to the Portuguese government.

On Aug. 8, flying the British flag, the Georgia departed Liverpool for Lisbon. On Adams’ instructions, the U.S. Navy frigate Niagara intercepted the Georgia off the mouth of the Tagus River. With a prize crew aboard, it was taken to Boston, and there it was sold by an American prize court.

Understandably upset, Bates protested to the British Foreign Office, which declined to get involved, advising him to take up the matter with the American court. No doubt sensibly, Bates felt that would be throwing good money after bad. He had lost a lot of money, but he did receive 6,000 pounds from his insurers.

The Georgia initially was included in the Alabama Claims after the war but was among the vessels discounted by the tribunal.

Peter Cliffe lives in Hertfordshire, England, and is a retired administrator for a multinational company who became interested in the Civil War while working in this country.

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