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Captain Wilson’s routine voyage ended in an Atlantic crossing with a crew of just two

Posted in Adventure, America, Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about the American Civil War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

Captain William Wilson, picture, image, illustration

Captain William Wilson, of the "Emilie St. Pierre"

Silently, the three men crept into the cabin. In an instant they had grabbed the hands of the man sleeping there. They clapped irons on his wrists and pushed a gag into his mouth.

The first part of a daring plan had been accomplished. Now came the most dangerous stage, the overpowering of the American lieutenant whose men had control of the ship. . . .

When the Emilie St. Pierre sailed from the Indian port of Calcutta on 27th November, 1861, it looked like being a routine voyage. Captain William Wilson had been asked to sail to the east coast of America and find out how the Civil War there was progressing. When news travelled slowly, this was one of the commonest means of keeping abreast of world events.

Anticipating a peaceful trip, Captain Wilson did not trouble to reinforce the armament carried on his ship. But within six months of leaving India he had centred in an extraordinary adventure which became the talk of all Britain.

The war in the United States between the southern Confederate forces and the northern Federal troops had been raging for almost a year when Captain Wilson neared the coast of South Carolina. He was some 12 miles from the port of Charleston when he noticed a Federal gunboat, the James Adger, steaming towards him. Ordered to heave to, he prepared to welcome what he believed would be a friendly boarding-party.

Two boats packed with officers and men rowed across to his vessel. But as soon as the Americans had clambered on to the deck of the Emilie St. Pierre, it was obvious that they regarded Captain Wilson and his crew with grave suspicion. Orders were given to search the ship from bow to stern, and the British seamen found themselves covered by the boarders’ guns.

It was discovered that the cargo hold contained saltpetre, which is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. When the officer in charge of the boarding-party learned this he at once placed Captain Wilson under arrest. He then informed him that the ship had fallen as a “lawful prize” to the Federal Government.

Despite protests that he had not come to interfere in the war, Wilson was instructed to steer his ship towards the Federal fleet, which was anchored nearby. There he was taken aboard the flagship, Florida, and put in solitary confinement.

Eventually he was released, only to be told that the Emilie St. Pierre was now an American prize, and that he was to sail her to Philadelphia. Then he was taken back to his ship, where he saw that his crew had been removed.

With the exception of the cook and the steward, the vessel was manned entirely by Americans – 15 of them in all, under the command of a Lieutenant Stone.

Wilson was furious at the way he had been treated, and before turning in that night he determined to dely the Americans and beat them at their own game. As far as he was concerned, his ship had been taken illegally, and he racked his brains as to how he could recapture the vessel with only two non-combatant seamen.

The Emilie St. Pierre was now heading north towards Philadelphia. At half-past four on the following morning – 21st March, 1862 – Wilson summoned the cook and the steward to his state-room. He told them that he had made up his mind to regain command of the ship or die in the attempt. He asked the two men if they were willing to help him.

When they both unhesitatingly said they would do anything he asked, Wilson outlined his plan. He gave each of them a strip of cloth and a pair of hand-irons, and told them to follow him into the mate’s cabin. . . .

They had captured the mate, Now they had to overcome Lieutenant Stone.

Having made sure the mate could not escape and sound the alarm, the three Britons entered Stone’s cabin. He was not in his berth, so Wilson left his companions below and went coolly up on deck. There he found the Lieutenant slowly pacing the poop, taking the night air.

For the next ten minutes Wilson joined Stone in his stroll. They discussed various aspects of the voyage and, unable to agree on a point of navigation, went below to consult a chart. The cook and the steward were already in hiding there.

As Stone bent over the chart, the two seamen jumped on him from behind. Before he could recover his wits, he had been gagged, handcuffed, and locked in the nearest after-cabin.

Wilson’s next task was to over-power the three men keeping watch on deck – and he accomplished this in the simplest possible manner. He went back up to the poop and called the men over to him. In name at least, he was still the commander of the ship, and the Americans obeyed the note of authority in his voice.

Wilson told them to go down to a store-room and fetch some coils of rope.

As soon as they were inside the storeroom, Wilson locked them in. He then took out his pistol, went to the quarters of the other American seamen, and marched them at gunpoint to one of the holds.

Within an hour the captain had regained control of his ship, and no lives had been lost.

But now he was faced by the daunting prospect of crossing the Atlantic with a crew consisting of two men who had never been aloft in their lives, and who were completely inexperienced in the art of steering and sailing!

Despite this seemingly impossible handicap, Wilson changed course for England.

Each time someone needed to go aloft and adjust the rigging, he had to do the job himself. On deck, the cook and steward did all they could to help, but most of the time they were kept busy feeding and guarding the resentful prisoners.

For the first few days, the sea was calm and the weather was fine. But as she reached mid-Atlantic, the Emilie St. Pierre was lashed by a violent gale. At the height of the storm the steering was badly damaged, and the Emilie was in real trouble.

For the next 12 hours, Wilson and his crew of two worked in the wind and rain to carry out repairs. They succeeded at last, and their remarkable voyage continued.

Thirty days and three thousand miles after her recapture, the Emilie St. Pierre reached Liverpool safely. There Captain Wilson and his gallant companions were greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm. The owners of the ship presented him with a sextant and a purse of two thousand guineas.

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