The American Civil War – was Christmas Island a Rebel supply base?

In a large tome titled “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion” I found two short correspondences regarding Christmas Island. At first I thought they were referring to Kiritimati, the other Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean. But no. This was definitely the Indian Ocean Christmas Island as it was reported 200 miles from Anjer (now Anyer), a once thriving port facing the Sunda Straits that was destroyed during the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

The Union U.S.S. Steam Sloop Wyoming

Searching for background information so I could make better sense of the correspondences below, I found that Commander McDougal of the U.S.S. Steam Sloop, Wyoming had voyaged to Christmas Island to determine whether it was being used as a supply base for rebel cruisers; in particular the CSS Alabama. This was during the time of the American Civil war (1861-1865).

Finding the island uninhabited and the report of its use as a supply base unfounded, Wyoming returned to Anjer, Java, where McDougal found out, to his surprise, that Alabama had passed the Sunda Strait on 10 November — only a day after Wyoming had sailed for Christmas Island. At noon that day, Alabama and Wyoming had been only 25 miles apart.1

It would appear that there was a game of cat and mouse and that Christmas Island was, ever so briefly, a part of it. Once again, that little rock in the Indian Ocean is linked to a momentous event.

Report of Commander McDougal, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Wyoming, transmitting information from U.S. consuls in the East Indies relative to Confederate vessels.

U.S. Steam Sloop Wyoming,
Strait of Sunda, Anjer, November 9, 1863

… on the eve of leaving Batavia yesterday I received a letter from our consul at Hongkong, containing the copy of one received by him from our consul at Melbourne. I herewith enclose a copy.

From our consul at Singapore, dated November 3, he states:
We have no information of any privateer being to the east of the Cape of Good Hope since the Alabama was reported at Simon’s Bay about the 10th of August, and but a rumour of a Confederate privateer being spoken by an English vessel, the Hiawatha, from Ganjam to Colombo. (See Colombo Observer of October 5.)

The belief that these vessels are in these waters has considerably subsided. The (P)eninsular and (O)riental mail steamer Columbian arrives this day from Galle and brings no intelligence whatsoever of the privateers.

About a week since the English steamer S.S. Mona reported here that she had been boarded off Mauritius by the U.S.S. Dacotah, bound to that port.

I shall proceed immediately to Christmas Island and make an examination, and if the information is correct will destroy all supplies found there. Christmas Island is about 200 miles south of this, and uninhabited. I have the honor to be very respectfully, your obedient servant,
D. McDOUGAL,
Commander

Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington.

The second correspondence followed later that month.

Report of Commander McDougal, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Wyoming, of the cruise of that vessel in search of C.S.S. Alabama.
U. S. STEAM SLOOP WYOMING,
Batavia, November 22, 1863.

SIR: I have the honor to report my return to this place yesterday for coal and other supplies.

In my dispatch of the 9th instant I informed you of the information I had received in relation to coal being sent to Christmas Island for the use of the rebel cruisers.

On the 10th instant I left Anjer and proceeded to and made a critical examination of Christmas Island, but found no evidence of coal having been landed; in fact, it was impossible to find an anchorage for a vessel to discharge.

On my return to Anjer, on the afternoon of the 17th, much to my surprise, I learned that the Alabama passed the Strait of Sunda the day we left, and had destroyed the American ship Winged Racer within 30 miles of Anjer, within the Java Sea, then proceeded to the northward.

Capt. Raphael Semmes and First Lieutenant John Kell aboard the Confederate CSS Alabama in 1863 – Courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command NH 57256-KN

On the 6th, 120 miles S. S. W. from Java Head, she had fallen in with the American ship Amanda, which was also burned, after taking what ever suited them from both vessels. The Winged Racer was loaded with sugar and hemp, bound to New York; the Amanda with the same cargo, bound to England; both from Manila. The Amanda was chartered by an English house and the cargo English property. After destroying the Amanda, the Alabama steered to the northward and westward and made the island of Sumatra, under which she anchored on the 8th and remained until the morning of the 10th, when she got underway and proceeded through the straits, keeping close under the western shore. At noon of that day we were within 25 miles of her.

Since then I have visited every place in this neighborhood where she would likely lay in case she intended remaining in this region, but nothing has been heard of her since the 11th.

I shall get underway immediately and proceed up the Strait of Banka, thence north, if I hear she has gone in that direction.

Many reports are in circulation with regard to her movements; one is that after passing through the China Sea to proceed to California and capture one of the Panama steamers.

I shall make every effort in my power to find and capture him, having only to regret that the condition of our boilers is such as to prevent & heavy pressure of steam being carried. Officers and crew well. I have the honor to be very respectfully, your obedient servant,
D. McDOUGAL,
Commander.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington.