Crossfire magazine

CSS Alabama Crewman John Williams

The ACWRTUK has a long tradition of providing unique and rewarding research on Britain and the ACW. This article by Maurice Rigby details the life of one of the Alabama crew - John Williams. Maurice is our "go-to"man on the Alabama.


John Williams was born in Ireland, and was the son of Michael Williams, and Mary Ann, nee Mooney. Very little is known of his early childhood, and adult life, though according to his later obituary account, he had an interest in going away to sea since far back as he could remember.

 

That same report went on to mention that he had been in Australia during the gold rush, at some point in time, where he made enough money out of this venture, that he managed to procure a schooner with the proceeds, and traded with it around the South Seas, until she was wrecked on a reef. The article suggested the first gold rush in Australia, but seeing as this was around, or after 1851, this would seem very unlikely due to his age.

 

In 1863 he had shipped aboard the Philadelphia registered barque 'Conrad', Buenos Ayres to New York, with a cargo of Argentinian wool, Captain William Salsbury commanding. However, during the voyage, the 'Conrad' was overhauled and taken as a prize by the 'Alabama', on the evening of June 20, and was eventually manned, and equipped, as a tender for the 'Alabama', under her new name 'Tuscaloosa'.

 

John Williams shipped aboard the 'Alabama' on June 21 as an ordinary seaman, being rated to that of seaman on August 22. He remained on board for the remainder of her cruise, and took part in the fight off Cherbourg, with the USS 'Kearsarge', on June 19 1864. After the engagement, Williams had been reported missing, presumed drowned, and was even listed in what appears to be a number of the casualties from the 'Alabama's crew, found in the Semmes family papers, part of a collection, that is held at the repository of the Alabama Archives and History, in Montgomery, Alabama. He also, by all accounts, appears to have been overlooked on the list of the wounded 'Alabama' sailors at the L'Hopital de la Marine, in Cherbourg, and at Southampton. In the same newspaper obituary article mentioned earlier, it had been reported that Williams had lost parts from both his hands during the exchange with the 'Kearsarge'.

 

This is not the first time that an 'Alabama' sailor would be missed, presumed drowned, after the fight. In all the confusion that was happening at that time, even William Bradford was also missed, yet turned up a few months later signing aboard a Nova Scotian merchant vessel bound for South America. (See Crossfire, August 2013, number 102)

 

Hardly anything is known of what became of Williams after the fight with the 'Kearsarge'. In the parish of Kingston, Glasgow, he surfaces to marry Helen Bain, on February 7 1878. Born at 101, Nelson Street, Tradeston, Glasgow, on August 26 1855, she was the daughter of seaman James Bain, and Helen, nee McKenzie. For a number of years they resided at 184, Blackburn Street, Glasgow, before deciding to immigrate to the United States.

 

Mrs Helen Williams, and her four young sons, took passage aboard the 2490 ton Glasgow registered steamer 'State of Georgia', official number 68047, Captain George Moodie commanding. They were given accommodation during the crossing, along with a number of other families, in the aft steerage room number 4, in late July 1886, and after leaving the port of Glasgow, it steamed towards New York, where they arrived to not only begin a new start in their lives, but in celebrating her arrival also on the very day of her 31st birthday too.

 

Settling in Manhattan, Williams would find work as a crewman on board the Manhattan ferry boat 'Ellis Island', eventually taking the position of pilot, on the same vessel, just before his death. In early October 1910, he was amongst a party of rescuers trying to save the American sailors from the battleship 'New Hampshire', whose over manned cutter had capsized in the Hudson River, while being towed from the shore to their ship, after a days shore leave. The cutter, with around seventy five bluejackets on board, was hit by a wave from a passing barge, throwing all the men into the darkness of the river during that evening, with some of them immediately being swept away by the strong currents of the flood tide. There were many heroes that night, amongst them were the strong swimmers from the capsized boat saving those that were struggling, and also the 21 year old Massachusetts Midshipman Godfrey De C Chevalier, who had been in charge of the sailors. Throwing off his jacket, he dove into the river from his launch, and managed to save around fifteen men, before he himself was dragged from the river in an exhausted, cold and unconscious state. He was taken to the 'New Hampshire's medical ward, where he had to be restrained when learning of the extant of the disaster, in case of causing bodily harm to himself. It was later reported that over two hundred and fifty men had been on shore leave that night.

 

A board of inquiry held on October 21 into the disaster, had found no one to actually blame, other that a wave from a barge had been responsible. That the cutter could hold up to about ninety men all told, but the weight of the men that night, and the river being a bit choppy due to the heavy winds, had pushed the water level just a few feet from her gunwales, and when towed by the seventy five foot hawser, caused the bow to be just above the water. It hadn't been helped when some of the men had moved forward to the bow to get a better look at the other battleships in the harbour, only to move back again when the river started to swamp the boat. At roll call it was ascertained that fourteen men had failed to answer their names, but this rose to twenty nine when all the men returned from liberty.

 

Less than six months later, John Williams would succumb to pneumonia on March 27 1911 at the age of 74, at his residence of 474, West 146th Street, Manhattan. Within a few short hours later, his fellow pilot on the 'Ellis Island' Christopher Reilly, would also suffer the same fate. It's assumed that John Williams was interred in the family plot, at Calvary Cemetery, on Wednesday the 29th. Though this needs to be confirmed at the time of writing.