The visit of the Charles W. Morgan gives us a chance to explore the depths of our own whaling history here on Martha's Vineyard.
One ship with an interesting tale is the whaling ship Ocmulgee and her encounter with Confederate raiders during the Civil War. The Ocmulgee was the first ship sunk by the war vessel Alabama.
The Ocmulgee, a 458 ton ship, sailed out of Edgartown in 1862 on a hunt for whales. Her captain was Abraham Osborn Jr., a member of a prominent Edgartown whaling family. Before the Ocmulgee was owned by the Osborns, she had sailed from Holmes Hole (now Tisbury).
On Sept. 13, 1829, the Gazette wrote an account of the Ocmulgee's fated voyage. "It was three score and more years since north and south were at close grips in the Civil War," the story began. Captain Osborn apparently gave an account of the Ocmulgee's destruction in documents for marine insurance companies.
Capt. Raphael Semmes was at the helm of the Confederate raider Alabama. Captain Semmes had been a commander in the U.S. Navy and was superintendent of the second lighthouse district, which included Edgartown. Captain Semmes had been an honored dinner guest at Abraham Osborn's South Water street home.
When the war began, Captain Semmes "threw his fortune in with the southern cause," the Gazette wrote. Soon, "his name and that of his ship were to become words of dread to the people in many a town on the North Atlantic coast whose relatives were out upon the sea in ships."
One such ship was the Ocmulgee. On September 5, 1862, the Ocmulgee was sailing near the Azores when the Alabama came alongside her. "Your ship is a prize of the confederate war vessel Alabama, and I am ordered to burn your vessel at once," the crew was told. Captain Osborn and his crew of 36 men were transferred to the Alabama in boats. The Ocmulgee was burned and sunk, the first victim of the Alabama.
The Gazette reported that the ship had 300 barrels of oil on board and "was in a fair way to make a successful voyage." Captain Osborn was 29 years old "and his loss must have been a bitter one."
When Captain Osborn came aboard the Alabama, the Gazette reported, he realized that Captain Semmes, a familiar face, was in charge.
"The moment was tense," the Gazette reported. "'You have dined many times at my father's house and now you are burning his ship,'" thundered Osborn, and he is credited with still angrier words of protest, until [Captain] Semmes ordered his men to take the gallant young whaling skipper to the 'brig' below."
This was also the first time that Captain Semmes learned that the ship burning, the first prize of the Alabama, was the Ocmulgee of Edgartown.
Over the next 21 months, the Alabama would burn more than 60 ships with northern ownership, destroying property valued at more than $4 million. The Alabama herself was sunk on June 19, 1864.