Belle of Savannah

Philo proved to be a worthy sea captain.
With a capable crew of twenty sailors recruited from New England fisheries, the Ora Nelle enjoyed a glorious career from the coast of the Carolinas to Mobile Bay.
Built in France and designed for speed, the fifty-tonner could turn on her center in ten minutes. She carried a swivel-mounted, hundred-pounder Parrott gun set up amidships. The Parrott had a range of four miles, but was most effective when fired at close range. Thus, the Ora Nelle found her best luck in the element of surprise. In this she was abetted by her elegant French-cut hempen sails, plus the subterfuge of a French ensign flying from the mast.
Many a Confederate privateer, deceived into thinking her a foreign friend, ran up the Stars and Bars in greeting. The welcome vanished in a moment of truth when the Ora Nelle hauled down the French flag and raised the Stars and Stripes. The quarry's hasty dash for safety constituted a rout that set Philo's blood aboil for the chase.
Philo's object was never to sink a ship, but to capture it with cargo and crew intact. He only fired when fired upon. In twenty-two months of embargo duty, he sank but two privateers and captured forty-three. The trick was to board the enemy ship with well-armed men within five minutes.
A vessel captured inward bound meant a prize of stores and arms for the use of Federal troops instead of the Rebels. A vessel ensnared outward bound often supplied a lucrative cargo of cotton bought in the Confederacy by foreign investors. Much of this cotton not requisitioned for Northern mills found its way to the markets of Europe where fortunes were made by profiteers.
On a December night in 1864, the Ora Nelle lurked in a small cove on the coast of Southeast Florida, waiting for some incautious privateer to pass with an eye to the open sea and not to the landward side. Philo took the watch himself to give his mate a rest.
From the poop deck, he observed the rising of the full moon, remembering the last time he saw Nelle: How wonderful to be with my dear one! Was it only three months ago? It seems an eternity since our rendezvous in the cabin at Winter's Run. She loved gudgeon fishing on Chesapeake Bay, but how frightened she was when the dinghy ran aground! How I comforted her while we waited for the midnight tide to carry us back to shore! Was any waiting ever sweeter? Did any man and woman ever share greater love than we gave to each other under the stars?
He snapped back to reality when a sailing ship, silhouetted against the moon, slid past the inlet tacking south, the Stars and Bars on the mast.
The instinct for battle crowded out his daydream. Arousing the crew with whispered commands for the privateer was so close that full voice would have given them away - Philo set the Ora Nelle in motion.
The enemy captain also stood on deck, but not enraptured by the moon. In its clear light, he had seen the vessel hiding in the cove and was already circling back to gain the advantage.
Ora Nelle raced out of the inlet with sails unfurled, hoisting the Stars and Stripes. Waiting in ambush, the privateer fired a volley from its array of guns. Struck broadside as she heeled to starboard, the Ora Nelle pitched violently to port, flinging Philo, stunned but uninjured, from the elevated poop deck into the sea. A second volley caught her amidships and split her in two. The sea became her grave.
The enemy captain and his crew broke out in triumphant Rebel yells.
Philo had heard no more than the startling din of the first shelling that had hurled him overboard. From then on, he was engaged in a mindless battle for his life against dark waters gathering him into the vortex created by the doomed Ora Nelle.
In the midst of this frantic contest, a small boat pulled alongside and strong hands lifted him free of the eddy. Still gripped by the hysteria of near-drowning, Philo fought his savior until a knockout punch to the jaw sent him reeling into oblivion. Not until scalding rum was forced through his lips half an hour later did he open his eyes.
"Where am I?" he blurted out, sitting upright.
"Aboard my ship the Belle of Savannah," replied a calm, strong voice, "and you're damned lucky I pulled you out of the drink! I might not have bothered had I not seen the name Ora Nelle just as she sank. It was then that I feared it might be my Yankee brother-in-law floundering around out there! What would my sister say if I hadn't saved you?"
Philo focused on the speaker's face. "Sam!" he cried, recognizing Nelle's red-bearded brother. "My God, man, you've sunk my ship!"
Philo tried to leap out of the bunk on which he lay, but Sam Ardmore pinned him down.
"I'm sorry, Philo," he apologized, "but this is war. You've lost your whole crew as well."
The realization he had lost his entire command - his beloved ship, the lives of his twenty men - struck Philo dumb. He relaxed under Sam's firm grip.
"This is my own bed," Sam soothed him. "Get some sleep. We'll talk about it in Nassau."
The burly Confederate blockade-runner left the cabin. Exhausted by his struggle in the water, guilt-ridden for not having gone down with his ship in keeping with the time-honored tradition of the sea, Philo faded away in sleep too deep for dreams.
He awoke in the Bahamas, way station for privateers en route to break the stranglehold on Southern ports. Some few privateers were of the dashing sort, and some were even patriotic about the Confederate cause, but most were ordinary men grubbing for a living from the sea. There were even Yankees among them; treacherous types, these were no longer welcome in their native North. These seamen sailed from around the globe, but the transient population of seafarers in Nassau, the capital, numbered more Europeans than any other race. Among them, of course, were a number of spies for both sides of the conflict.
Into Nassau then - this den of iniquity, from the Northern point of view, or this sanctuary, from the Southern perspective - Philo ventured with his brother-in-law.
Sam knew his way around the town. He was on a first-name basis with most of the English officials serving in the British administration of the scattered island chain.
"I don't usually sink my quarry," Sam explained as they walked. "There's a bounty paid by the Confederacy - sometimes twenty-five dollars a head - for everyone we bring in alive. The ship goes to increase our Navy, such as it is, and the booty, depending on what it may be, goes to the Army or the civilian population."
"Why, then, did you sink my Ora Nelle?"
Sam sighed. "A pity, that. Had I known it to be you, I'd have run up the white flag, and we'd have had a talk. Again, Philo, I apologize, but I got a good look in the moonlight at that Parrott gun you carried amidships, and I realized you were swift and light and could turn mighty fast. One false move from me would have put us in mortal danger. You can understand that, can't you?"
He looked at Philo with a questioning air.
Nelle's husband nodded his accord. "You were right to be concerned. I would have run you down and taken you, I'm sure. It's the cargo that interests me."
"There you have it!" exclaimed Sam. "I knew that nothing you had on board could compare with the value of the cotton bales I carry today. This load will make my fortune. I paid only three cents a pound - that's five cents below the Confederacy's standard price - and ought to get upwards of sixty cents a pound on the English market. No, Philo, it had to be done. You see, the inward run belongs to the people of the South, but the outward belongs to the privateer or his investors."
They came to a tidy little tea room with several spindly tables already set for tea.
Surprised, Philo looked sidewise at Sam. "This doesn't strike me as a sailor's place!"
"It ain't," grinned Sam, "and that's what I like about it. We can talk, and there'll be no sailors within earshot. It's too early for teatime, so few will be here."
They entered and sat down. Philo waved the black waiter away, but Sam insisted, "We'll have the tea, please, and a pot of honey, some warm milk, and buttered scones. Come, Brother, you need to eat. The scones are a substantial feast and the finest you'll ever eat."
He reached into his pocket for a flask, setting it on the table between them. "And if it's the sailor game you want to play, I've the rum right here for lacing the tea."
Philo sighed, crossed his hands on the table, and nodded his head. "Very well, Sam, but I'm a bit shaky still. My beauty of a ship, my fine young men..." His words stumbled to an end.
Sam reached across to lay his own hand atop Philo's. "My friend, I may not show it, but I'm still shaky, too, when I think of this damned war and that I nearly killed you in its unholy name!"
He withdrew his hand and leaned back to pour when the tea arrived.
They sat in silence for awhile. Thinking of the bereaved families of his seamen, Philo could not bring himself to eat, and only sipped some tea. Sam nibbled at a scone, then pushed it aside, and mixed his tea with rum.
"We ought to have a talk, Brother, about what is to happen next," Philo said at last. "We're in English territory. I cannot properly be considered your prisoner anymore."
"Aye, you cannot," Sam replied, "and to tell the truth, you never were. Since the moment I fished you out of the sea, you have been my honored guest. Both the South and the North be damned. We're better off in Nassau, Philo. If we had any sense we'd wait out the war right here. But that is impossible for me. I have something yet to do."
"What, then?" Philo asked.
"I suppose you've heard of William Tecumseh Sherman?" queried Sam. "He's the reason I got my cotton cheap. Everybody's selling out."
"Hasn't the whole world heard of General Sherman and what he's done to Georgia?" Philo exclaimed in disgust. "The pillaging, the murder...he's taken Atlanta and burned it to the ground, and now..." - Philo halted, a glimmer of realization flaring in his eyes - "...and now he's marching on Savannah! Your mother! Nelle's mother!"
Sam nodded. "Yes, Philo, God knows what horror is still to come. I've begged her to go with me to Nassau. But her grandfather rode in the American Revolution with the Pulaski Legion, when they drove the British out of Savannah in '79. He fell in love with a local girl, who became my great-grandmother, and built her a beautiful house on Oglethorpe Street. Mother says nothing will get her out of that house. If Sherman burns it, she says, she goes with it! She means it. We're a stubborn family."
Sam shifted in his chair, taking a pipe from his pocket and lighting up to smoke. "You and I know, Philo, that nothing in Georgia, or anywhere in the South, will ever be the same. The Confederacy is already dead. Sherman is just the burial detail."
Philo became reflective.
"Sam," he said after a time, "perhaps your mother would listen to me because of
Nelle and Ardie. Take me with you to Savannah. We'll work this out not only for your mother, but also for Nelle. I would never forgive myself if at least I didn't try."
Sam struck the table with his fist. "My sister would never forgive me if anything happened to you! You set one foot in Savannah, or anywhere on the Georgia shore, and they'll arrest you for a spy. You'll be hanged! No, Philo, never!"
Philo leaned back in his chair and struck a characteristic pose, his arms crossed defiantly on his chest. "You think your family is stubborn? You damned Georgia crackers have never known a Scot! Even my underdrawers boast the tartan of the Duncan clan!"
Sam chuckled. "All right, my friend. If you fall into cracker hands, just deny that you're a Yankee. Drop your pants and show them your proof that you're a Scot! Now, let's make a plan."
Aboard the Belle of Savannah, Sam asked Philo to join him on the quarterdeck while he spoke to his crew.
"Men," Sam addressed them, "first, you ought to know that Captain Duncan is married to a Savannah girl."
The seamen looked at Philo in surprise, then nodded their approval.
"Second, the lady is my sister," their captain went on. "And third, we're going back to Savannah to get my mother out of that murderous Sherman's path. Any of you with family in the city are welcome to bring them, too. We'll return with everyone to Nassau. I'll get them refugee status from the British authorities here, and they'll be safe till the end of the war."
The crewmen signaled their agreement.
"By way of thanking you," Sam added, "the bounty you would have collected on Captain Duncan and his crew, I'll pay to your families when we get back here, as well as a share of this cargo which I'm shipping to England today. It's a tidy sum and will take care of their expenses for quite a time to come."
The men cheered.
Philo raised his hands for silence. "In addition, gentlemen, I offer all of you work as merchant seamen on the Duncan Cargo Line when the war is done. You're the finest sailors in the world!"
They cheered again, throwing hats in the air.
"Enough of celebration!" Sam spoke firmly. "It will be a tremendous challenge getting through the Yankee cordon this time, going either way. The Union's feeling its oats with that devilish Sherman on the march. If, as Cap'n Duncan says, you're the best, you'll have to prove it now!"
By the end of the day, Sam had consigned his lading of cotton bales to a British merchant vessel making a run to London. His commissionaire there would sell it on the English market.
He and Philo dined alone that evening in Sam's cabin.
"We sail with the tide," he informed Philo over a glass of wine. "I have an idea."
"Let's hear it!" Philo said.
Sam took a sip of wine. "When we reach the coastal waters of Florida, you be the Yankee captain of the Belle of Savannah, a ship you captured awhile back from a Confederate privateer. We'll fly the Stars and Stripes, of which I have a few on hand for...," he grinned, "...emergencies. That should get us through the blockade if we chance upon a Federal ship."
Philo nodded enthusiastically. "Brilliant, Sam!"
"Then, at the mouth of the Savannah River, when we get to Fort Pulaski," Sam suggested further, "we'll hoist the Stars and Bars and make a run upriver. Once we reach Savannah, I'll be the captain again!"
"That's perfect!" Philo exclaimed with admiration. "I daresay we'll have no trouble at all."
Sam looked his brother-in-law in the eye. "The Yankees may not give us trouble, my friend, but my mother...well, that's another matter!"
A week later, his mother proved him right.  

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