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'The Alabama Fraud'

By John Bennett

 

The text of this article originally appeared in 'Crossfire' (No. 54 - August 1997), the magazine of the ACWRT (UK)

 

Webmaster's note: John Bennett's original article appears here with original line drawings that appeared in the 'Cruise of the Alabama' by James Young, alias 'Philip Drayton Haywood'. I think readers will agree that, while we now know that 'Haywood's' illustrations are the product of imagination only, they are still very pleasing.

 

 


In April 1886 the Century Magazine published an article called 'Life on the Alabama, by One of the Crew'. It appeared with two other related items - 'Cruise and Combats of the Alabama by her Executive Officer,' and 'The Duel between the Alabama and the Kearsarge, by the Surgeon of the Kearsarge' - as part of the ambitious series, 'Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,' then running in the magazine. The series, to which former participants from both sides were contributing, had begun publication in November 1884, and was to continue till November 1887. (1)

 

'Life on the Alabama' was written and partly illustrated by Philip Drayton Haywood of Philadelphia, and was a lively, well-constructed and convincing piece, though it painted a far from flattering picture of life on the famous Confederate cruiser. The author had joined his ship at Liverpool in July 1862, and served on board till her fateful encounter with the USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg in June 1864. The crew, he found, were a very mixed bunch, and he soon decided that he 'had never been on a ship with such a bad lot ... They did not seem to care for the ship's officers, and were determined to stand no "man-o'-war dickey" from them. (2) Discipline, indeed, seems to have been a constant problem, exacerbated by monotony, overcrowded living conditions, and occasional bouts of drunkenness. When they seized a merchant vessel, "the conduct of the boarding-crews was shameful; the officer in charge of the boat had no control over them, and they rushed below like a gang of pirates, breaking open the sailors' chests and taking from the persons of the prisoners everything that took their fancy."

 

P.D. Haywood shared the crew's lack of admiration for the officers, of whom, he conceded, Lieutenant Kell was the best, while of Captain Semmes he admitted: "the fact that with such a company he cruised nearly two years and kept his ship, shows that he had both judgement and resolution." He ended his article on a singularly downbeat note, concluding that though "we had inflicted great loss on private owners ... I am sure we did not aid the cause we fought for, in the least ... The poor show we made with the Kearsarge ... disposed of the glory we achieved in burning defenceless merchantmen, and the 'meteor flag', that Captain Semmes was so proud of, came down with a run."

 

The articles published in 'Battles and Leaders' produced an overwhelming response from the public, and the editor of Century Magazine asked the author of 'Life on the Alabama' for further details of his experience as a sailor. Mr Haywood was only too happy to oblige, and his account of his remarkably eventful life appeared in the July issue of the magazine.

 

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1836, the son of a retired East India Company naval officer, he was brought up in England, and completed his education in France. In 1853 he obtained a commission as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, and the following year took part in the attack on the forts at Sevastopol in the Crimea. Wounded, he was sent home, and subsequently resigned his commission. He then travelled to India in a merchant ship, where he "saw the beginning and end of the Sepoy mutiny." In 1857, as a volunteer with the 75th Regiment, he was at the storming of Delhi, where "I saw such fighting as I had only read of in story", and in which 'I had my left hand nearly cut off by a sword stroke." The Mutiny over, he proceeded to China, where the Taiping Rebellion was just beginning. Here he had no difficulty getting a commission in the Chinese Navy, but he soon tired of this work, and resigned in 1860. While in China, he met the future General Gordon, whom he thought 'a very commonplace gentleman.' As the climate did not agree with him, he returned to England in the autumn of 1861, and the following year signed on as a member of the crew of the Alabama.

 

Her destruction, however, did not terminate his connection with the Civil War, as 'I went to blockade running and made a little fortune by lucky ventures, but this was soon ended by the downfall of the Confederacy.' After several voyages to the West Indies, he retired from the sea in 1866. (3)

 

Philip Haywood, meanwhile, had not been idle, and his original ten-page article was expanded into a 150-page book, which the well-known firm of Houghton Mifflin published that same year, under the title of 'The Cruise of the Alabama, by One of the Crew.'

 

Then in February 1887 the bubble suddenly burst. Clarence Clough Buel, editor of Century Magazine, discovered that P.D. Haywood and his colourful reminiscences were not what they seemed, and the March issue contained the following disclaimer.

 

"Since the February number of the magazine went to press we have learned, for the first time, from his own admission, that 'P.D. Haywood', the author of the article 'Life on the Alabama - by One of the Crew' ... was not a seamen on the Confederate cruiser, though at the time the article was accepted he assured us he was, and furnished references which seemed to be satisfactory. He now claims that he had the incidents of his paper from a member of the Alabama's crew, but we are unable to attach any importance to that statement ...(4)

 

What was not revealed was how the deception was uncovered. The disparaging tone of the original article would certainly have annoyed and embarrassed surviving officers of the Alabama, who may have questioned its authenticity, The fraud was, however, discovered by a reporter on the Philadelphia Weekly Times, which had published its own series on the Civil War some years previously.

 

'Philip Drayton Haywood', it turned out, was not a former seaman on the Alabama, but a forger and swindler called James Young, who had decided to take advantage of the reawakened interest in the Civil War by fabricating some historical reminiscences of his own. (5) Houghton Mifflin, like the Century Magazine also embarrassed by the deception, attempted to repair the damage by recalling unsold copies of 'The Cruise of the Alabama' from booksellers, and destroying their own stocks of the title.

 

 

 

 

ACWRT(UK) 1997 & 2001

 

 

 

Footnotes:

  • All Illustrations are from 'The Century Magazine' (N.Y.) Volume 31 Issue 6 (April 1886) and are reproduced here by kind permission, and courtesy of The Making of America Digital Collection, Cornell University Library. http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/
  • (1) The origins and progress of the series are described in Stephen Davis, '"A Matter of Sensational Interest": the Century "Battles and Leaders" Series', Civil War History, Vol. 27. 1981, p.338-49.
  • (2 )P.D.Haywood. 'Life on the Alabama'. Century Magazine, Vol. 31, No. 6, April 1886, p. 901-10. The quotations in this paragraph and the next are taken from this article. 'Dickey', as nautical slang, was a ship's officer or mate: here it is probably used to mean discipline or regulations.
  • (3) Memoranda on the Civil War', Century Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 3, July 1886. p.464-65.
  • (4) 'Life on the Alabama', Century Magazine, Vol. 33, No. 5, March 1887, p. 805. The article, needless to say, was not included in the four-volume collection of reminiscences, 'Battles and Leaders of the Civil War', already being planned, and published in 1888.
  • (5) John M. Taylor. Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama (1994), p. 279-80. Authentic reminiscences 'P.D. Haywood' might have consulted include 'The Cruise of the Alabama' and 'Our Cruise on the Confederate States War Steamer, Alabama' (both 1863), extracts from the journals of George Townley Fullam. The Cruise of the Alabama and Sumter, and 'The Log of the Alabama and Sumter (both 1864), extracts from the journals of Raphael Semmes, and Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States (1869) by Raphael Semmes.