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An English Romance - William Param Brooks, Confederate States Navy

By Maurice Rigby

(The original article appeared as 'William Param Brooks' in 'Crossfire', the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) no. 54 - August 1997)

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / William Param Brooks

, and it was here that the young Brooks spent much of his early childhood and education until the death of his mother in 1845, when his father shortly afterwards moved his family to Savannah, Georgia. There, Brooks would spend his teenage years serving his seaman's apprenticeship on his father's ship, taking mail and cargo from Augusta, Ga., to Charleston, S.C., and back again.

Brooks received his engineering apprenticeship in New Orleans. One of the first ships that he served on was as an engineer on the S.S. Habana, a passenger and freight steamer which cruised between Havana and New Orleans until the outbreak of hostilities between the States, when it was purchased by the Confederate Government in order to serve its growing navy.

After offering his services to the Confederacy, Brooks received his commission on May 11, 1861 from the State of Louisiana, and was immediately assigned as acting second assistant engineer on board the Habana, being one of the engineering officers, under her Chief Engineer Miles James Freeman, assisting in the fitting out of the Habana into the Confederate States Steamer Sumter. After running the blockade at New Orleans on June 30, Brooks served on board the Sumter until she became trapped at Gibraltar during February 1862 by three Federal cruisers, after having put in a month earlier to carry out repairs to her engines and boilers.

With Sumter laid up at Gibraltar, Brooks was ordered to London to await further orders, and on April 9 booked passage on board the English steamer Euphrosyne, bound for London. However, a few days into the voyage the Euphrosyne encountered strong headwinds and heavy seas, and during the next few hours she hardly made any progress at all. The captain decided to turn his ship around and head back towards Vigo Bay in Spain, in the hope of trying again when the weather abated.

On April 15, after taking on more coals, the Euphrosyne left Vigo Bay for the open sea

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / William Param Brooks

but again met with strong headwinds and heavy seas, and it was during this bad weather that the ship struck a submerged rock three times, fracturing her hull and leaving the captain with no other option but to order the release of the life boats. All 50 of the Euphrosyne's passengers and crew were later rescued from the lifeboats by two fishing boats out of Vigo, where they were safely landed just after midnight.

After a short convalescence at Vigo, Brooks boarded another vessel bound for London and finally arrived there on or about April 28 where he reported to the Confederate envoy, the Hon. John M. Mason. It was while in London that Brooks met and fell in love with the Wiltshire-born Emily Ann Bence, and within a fortnight of their meeting they were married at the parish church of St Mary, Newington, on July 16, 1862, despite the violent thunderstorm which burst over the capital that day. Their brief honeymoon was spent in Ireland, in company with his mother-in-law, and during their stay they called at Blarney Castle in Cork where Brooks held Emily by her heels, so that she could kiss the famous Blarney Stone.

On his return to England Brooks was ordered to Liverpool for assignment to the CSS Alabama, and on August 13 left that port aboard the S.S. Bahama for a rendezvous with the '290' in the Azores. He arrived there on August 20, and was one of the engineering officers who assisted in the fitting out of the '290' into the CSS Alabama.

Following her commissioning on August 24, Brooks served on board Alabama as one of the second assistant engineers, taking part in the engagement against the USS Kearsarge on June 19, 1864. He was among the survivors rescued from the Channel by the crew of a French pilot boat under the command of Monsieur Mauger, and in gratitude for his assistance that day the Confederate Government, through their Cherbourg agent Mr Bonfils, paid Mauger the sum of 500 francs received by him personally on July 15 from two of the officers he had saved, Lieutenant Armstrong and Engineer Brooks. He accepted the money on behalf of his men, sharing it amongst them.

Mauger also received from the French Minister of Marine a gold medal of the second class, with silver medals being awarded to the other pilots who had also assisted in the rescue of the Alabama's crew that day.

Brooks remained in France for some months after the sinking of the Alabama, along with his wife Emily who had come over especially to see him. It was while here that he received news of his promotion to the rank of chief engineer, with orders requesting his immediate return to England for assignment to the ironclad Stonewall.

On his arrival he was ordered to report to Captain Thomas J. Page on board the Stonewall, and on the Morning of January 10, 1865 boarded the Stonewall's tender, City of Richmond for a voyage to Quiberon, France and a rendezvous with the ironclad. The latter's armaments consisted of one 9 inch 300 pounder gun and two 70 pounder guns, and after receiving her officers and crew, steamed towards the port of Ferrol, Spain, weathering several violent storms before dropping anchor there in early February, in order to carry out necessary repairs.

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / William Param Brooks

It was also in February that Ferrol saw the arrival of the USS Sacramento and the USS Niagara, with both sloops of war staying just outside the harbour, keeping careful watch on the Stonewall.

By March the repairs to the Stonewall's engines were completed and despite her attempts to get the Federal ships to engage her over a course of three days, both remained at anchor. It was on the third day that the Ferrol authorities refused to allow the Stonewall back into harbour, so Captain Page steamed towards Santa Cruz, Tenerife, in the hope of taking on more coals, the two Federal ships following closely behind. At Santa Cruz Captain Page made the decision to attack Sherman's supply base at Port Royal, South Carolina, but during his cruise westward he had to alter his plans after encountering heavy storms, and changed course towards Nassau where he arrived on May 6, 1865. He then headed for Havana where he learned of Lee's surrender from Captain C. S. Boggs of the Connecticut. Captain Page refused to give up his ship and accept Captain Boggs' terms of surrender, and instead sold the Stonewall to the Spanish Captain-General of Cuba, using the proceeds from the sale to pay off his crew.

With the ending of hostilities Brooks decided to remain in Havana where Emily soon joined him. He enlisted in the Spanish Navy and served aboard one of their vessels as chief engineer, at one stage being highly decorated for his bravery in saving the ship from disaster during a storm. After 11 years working as an inspector of shipping for the Spanish Government, he resigned his post and returned home to Savannah, Georgia, where he was engaged as the chief engineer on board the Ocean Steamship Co's vessel Tallahassee, a post he held until his death on April 19, 1889 at his residence at 228 Anderson Street, Savannah. With his coffin draped in the colours of the Sumter and Stonewall, he was buried in a private grave at the Laurel Grove Cemetery, where his wife Emily joined him on April 7, 1927.

© Maurice Rigby 1997 & 2001

Picture Credits

1. First Assistant Engineer William P. Brooks, Charleston. Source: Photo Album of Edward M. Anderson, William Stanley Hoole Papers, William Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama

Images listed below, with grateful thanks to US Naval Historical Centre.

2. "Running the Blockade. (The Sumter and the Brooklyn)" (US NHC Photo #: NH 54479)

Lithograph by Netherclift, frontispiece of Volume 1 of "The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter, etc.", by Commander Raphael Semmes, CSN, et al, London, 1864. It depicts CSS Sumter escaping from the Mississippi River past the blockading USS Brooklyn, 30 June 1861.

3. USS Sacramento at Kingston, Ireland July 1865 (US NHC Photo #: NH48104)

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