SAM OF THE ALABAMA
It was as "Sam of the Alabama" that Samuel Roberts, a native of Caernarfon, was known locally. As a young man he had emigrated to Australia and spent 5 years in Melbourne. Then in 1862, when he was approaching his 30th birthday, he decided to sail to Boston in the U.S.A. It is not known what made him leave at a time when America was engaged in a bloody Civil War between North and South, and his reason would have been purely academic as he did not reach his intended destination.
The ship Sam was on was attacked by an armed Southern Confederate Steam Ship, the CSS Alabama, and he was taken prisoner and held for several weeks. There were 48 prisoners in all and amongst them 4 North Walians: John Roberts, Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey, Thomas Williams and Lieutenant Morris of Caernarfon, and a man named Hughes from Holyhead. Later they were released on condition that they became members of the crew. Sam and a friend remained on board for 13 months.
The Alabama was a comparatively new ship, built by Lairds of Birkenhead on the shores of the Mersey in 1861, shortly after the American Civil War broke out. The Confederate leaders were anxious to buy ships for their Navy, and had sent spies to Britain to purchase both old and new ships that could be converted to warships. It would not have been possible for them to buy armed vessels as there was an agreement between Britain and America forbidding the sale of arms to the Confederate States.
One of these spies was a man named James Bulloch, a former U.S.A. naval officer but who had sympathies with the Confederates. He succeeded, not only to buy ships but also arms for those ships and many thousands of rifles, pistols and swords for the Southern Army.
Both sides - supporters of the Union and of the Rebels - had their spies in Britain, and on the night of October 11. 1861, Bulloch was staying at a hotel in Holyhead, far from his enemies, when a 460 ton ship the "Fingal," which he had bought, sailed from Holyhead, and before reaching the Breakwater was in collision with an Austrian ship, which sank with all hands. Another spy named Low, of Scottish origin, hurried to inform Bulloch of the accident, and he gave orders for the "Fingal" to make for the open sea without delay,
before the authorities learned that there were 15000 rifles, 500 pistols and 3000 swords on board.
Bulloch did a good day's work for the Confederate cause, but his finest hour was yet to come. In August of 1862, one of the Union's largest warships, the "USS Tuscarora," was sent to patrol the area around the North Wales coast as it had become common knowledge that Bulloch had placed an order with Lairds of Birkenhead for a new ship known only as No. 290, but which was later named "Enrica," and was shortly to go on its first sea trials. The American Consul in Liverpool had received information from his spies that many of the city's influential residents had been invited on board the "Enrica" to celebrate the event and that there was no danger that the ship would travel far from the Mersey and the shores of North Wales.
The "Enrica" steamed out of Liverpool Bay, accompanied by the tugboat "Hercules," which had been engaged as a safety precaution to supervise the new ship whilst on sea trials. Later in the day the "Hercules" returned with all the guests and Bulloch on board. Just one day before the "USS Tuscarora" was due to arrive in North Wales waters, Bulloch had arranged for a crew of Confederate sailors to travel to Moelfre Bay to take charge of the "Enrica," which lay at anchor near Red Wharf. It appeared, also, that a local man, John Roberts, had suspected that something was amiss and his curiosity led to his being taken prisoner aboard the "Enrica," the first of many to suffer the same fate.
The "Enrica" weighed anchor and headed for the Western Isles of Scotland, where she awaited the arrival of a ship from London with both arms and supplies. Her name was changed to the "CSS Alabama," the Confederate flag was hoisted and then Captain Raphael Semmes took his ship out into the open sea to create havoc.
This is the ship Samuel Roberts was held prisoner on and later served as a member of the crew. The "Alabama" attacked, plundered, and set fire to 65 ships on all seven seas and it is said that she created damage to the value of at least $4,000,000, and was a thorn in the side of the Union States. The legal government of the U.S.A. never forgave Britain for allowing the "Alabama" to escape capture by the "Tuscarora," and in 1872, in an International Court the British Government was ordered to pay compensation plus interest amounting to $5,500,000.
The "Alabama" took less than 2 years to create such devastation and it was extremely difficult for the Union Navy to locate her. But that day came in June, 1864.
Some of the U.S. Navy's fastest ships had chased the "Alabama" for many months, and eventually she was sunk by the superior fire power of the "USS Kearsarge" off the shores of Cherbourg in Northern France.
This was the last chapter in the short and eventful history of the raiding ship, but not so in the case of the adventurous life of Samuel Roberts. Some months earlier, he and a friend went ashore in Capetown and did not return to the ship. Later, Sam worked his passage back home to Caernarfon and took up residence in a cottage adjacent to Twthill School.
As in the case of many other "old salts" he was a bit of a character. He assumed the title of, and insisted on being addressed as, "Captain" Roberts. He claimed that had he been paid what was due to him as a member of the crew, i.e. under the same terms as pirates were paid, then he would have earned between £2000 and £3000. Also, he was most critical of what he termed as "modern sailors," believing that Britain would be a far better place should Nelson and his contemporaries had still been alive.
During the period he spent in Caernarfon, he was employed by a stone mason, Hugh Jones of the Seiont Marble Works. He later went to work in Cilgwyn Quarry and resided at 4 Gosen Terrace, Groeslon. After retiring he found himself in financial difficulties, relying only on a meagre State Pension and the generosity of neighbours, one of whom was The Rev. R.R. Roberts, Vicar of Llandwrog Uchaf.
Sam died on April 12. 1916, aged 84, and was buried in St. Thomas' Cemetery, Groeslon, the Reverends R.R. Roberts and W. Wallis (Cong.) officiating. It was a war that brought him prominence, the American Civil War, and his death also occurred in wartime, during World War 1.
The headline announcing his demise in the Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald, April 21, 1916 reads:
"Last Alabama Survivor -
Death of 'Captain' Sam Roberts."
© T. M. Hughes 2010