The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pirates of the Ozarks

"Pirates of the Ozarks" was originally published in Fall 2012 issue of Science Fiction Trails.

To the President of the United States and the Members of Congress - Gentlemen:
As directed, I have prepared this report on the U.S. Naval campaign to quell the sea-faring brigands who had bedeviled our commerce and transport on the Great Inland Sea.  I report with great satisfaction we have been exceedingly successful.  Commerce between the United States and its Western territories, as well the northern Mexico province of Tejas, proceeds unimpaired.
The circumstances of the subsidence of the Lower Mississippi River Valley and the Great Inundation of 1812 are only recalled here for reference to the historical record into which this report is to be appended.
The first violent tremor struck in December 1811.  The initial refugees reported the subsidence began in the district of New Madrid in the Missouri Territory.  There followed a myriad of tremors that culminated in the last violent earthquake on February the 7th, 1812, that completed the subsidence of the great Mississippi River valley as far north along the former western bank at Hannibal in the Missouri Territory. Although devastated, Memphis, Tennessee, remained intact along the former eastern bank.
This calamity resulted in the loss of thousands of souls and the total destruction of the great cities of New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg and Saint Louis, as well as all intermediate settlements.
The new sea eventually extended westward over the Great Plains as far north as the Black Hills of the Lakota Indian Territory.  For two decades following the great calamity the sunken region remained a morass of dangerous backwash laden with debris.  As the sea and its coastlines stabilized, transport was re-established in the third and fourth decades of the century.  Memphis and Texarkana in Tejas became the major east and west ports of departure and debarkation, respectively, across the new sea.  These cities provided vital bases of transport for American commerce, along with the ports of Natchez and Vicksburg, which were re-established on the barrier islands that remained at their previous sites.  Although Texarkana is a Mexican city, it has been administered with a loose rein by the central national authority in distant Mexico City.  It has its own “Texian” society dominated by expatriate American settlers who were isolated on the far side of the Inland Sea by the great inundation.
Regular sea transport was in operation in time for the the California Territorial Gold Rush of 1849.  However, these trading routes also led to the unforeseen proliferation of pirates.
The collapse of the interior of the North American continent and the inflow of the Great Inland Sea left the Ozark Highlands of the furthermost Arkansan and Missouri Territories as an archipelago of islands approximately 140 nautical miles from both the Tennessee and Tejas coasts.  The situation of these islets led to their being used as a base for pirates and sea robbers of the basest sort.  These forces were made up of equal parts of settlers who had fled to the highlands during the winter of 1811-12 as well as outlaws and brigands who fled to the frontier.
The islands had become a “Noman’s Land” with an accumulation of the worst bandits, ruffians and cutthroats.  Few took note of these clusters of degraded people until--utilizing the forests which remained on the former mountaintops--they built crude sea craft and set upon the packet routes with their primitive but sturdy roughhewn craft.
What these pirates lacked in speed and maneuverability they made up in ferocity and marksmanship--always the prerogative of the frontiersman.  The few of these “seabillies”, as they termed themselves, who had been captured stated they had been driven by poverty to set sail--and found what seemed to be an abundance of riches on the slow ships that plied the Inland Sea routes.
The decision of President Cass and Secretary of the Navy Graham in the previous decade to expand the Southern Naval Command based in Mobile Bay and to build a new base in Vicksburg—and deploy forces from there to battle the pirates--proved an initial success, but the pirates shifted their operations in closer to the Tejas Coast where there is no effective Mexican naval presence.  The Mexican fleet based in Galvez Island occasionally made desultory forays along their coast, but their officers showed little interest in suppressing brigandage perpetrated by Americans upon their own kinsmen.
The continued intractability of the conflict came to a head with the pirate defeat of the screw frigate SS Stephen Decatur in April 1857, which was only preserved from being captured by being scuttled by Captain John Brown, who as tradition demands went down with his ship.
Upon the initiative of Secretary of the Navy Toucey, President Buchanan formally asked Emperor Santa Anna of Mexico for a conference to discuss the terms under which the United States would be allowed to send a flotilla to the Ozarks to eradicate the pirates.  The conference, held on Galvez Island March 6-8, 1858, resulted in the so-called “Sweeping Accord” which stipulated that American forces would be allowed to sweep the pirates from the sea, on the condition of the construction of a new naval base in Texarkana which would become an entrepot for the envisioned increased trade between Tejas and the United State upon the completion of the campaign.
For my part, I had enlisted in the new squadron based in Vicksburg in 1853 at the age of 18, and in 1857 I had become a personal aide to Flag Officer David Farragut, who was particularly well-bred to deal with the inter-national issue, being a Tennessee native born of a Spanish father.
I accompanied him to the Galvez Island Conference, and he subsequently asked me to represent him during the construction of the Texarkana naval base, which was completed shortly after President Douglas assumed office in March 1861.  I then returned to the United States and assisted Flag Officer Farragut in the process of assembling the 12-vessel expeditionary force in Mobile Bay.  By August 1861 six of the new model ironclad frigates--the Columbia, State of Georgia, Pawnee, Passaic, Kearsage and Missouri [the last of which serving as the flagship]--were joined by a half dozen older traditional gunships, to wit: The Wareham, Abington, New Boston, Piedmont, Cedar Hill and Malakov.  The gunships were dispatched from Vicksburg, while the new ironclad frigates arrived from Hampton Roads.  The ironclad craft all had the latest Dahlgren cannon, while the gunships were fitted with older-fashion marine howitzers ranging from twelve to twenty pounds.
I was honored and humbled to be promoted to Captain of the Flagship Missouri by Flag Officer Farragut.  The Expeditionary Force was gathered and prepared at Mobile Bay naval base, with the complement of sailors and marines drawn in equal part from Mobile and Vicksburg, as well as from the Coast Guard stations in Memphis and Natchez.
After many months of preparation and training, the Inland Sea Naval Expeditionary Force departed Mobile Bay at daybreak on May the 15th, 1862, with Flag Officer Farragut aboard the Missouri as Commander.
Early on the second day, after traveling 125 nautical miles, we traversed the site of the former Mississippi delta.  At approximately noonday we passed the buoy that marks the former site of New Orleans.  As is the custom of all who pass, we reduced speed and observed a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the tremendous catastrophe of 1812.  The Gulf of Mexico was possessed of large swells that day, and amidst the silence some of the crew said they heard the bells of the great city’s sunken cathedrals tolling under the waves.  Whether this is true, or whether the supposed sound of the bells is the result of romantic imagination, I cannot say, but I thought I heard, at the very threshold of audibility, the spectral tolling myself.
After another day’s northward voyage under full steam we arrived at the shoals that mark the former site of Baton Rouge, and Commander Farragut gave orders for us to swing northwestward towards the Tejas coast.  The flotilla weighed anchor at Texarkana harbor on the morning of May the 18th, 1862, after a voyage of approximately 500 nautical miles.
Texarkana was a propitious base for our flotilla.  It is the center of the American community of settlers who had begun to infiltrate northern Mexico before the Great Inundation, and who have been subsequently isolated by the Great Inland Sea.  Although many, such as Alcalde James Bowie, have intermarried into native Spanish families, strong affinities of blood and kinship to their American brethren remain.
The entire city came to the quay to greet our flotilla, with Alcalde Bowie at the fore.  The Alcalde explained that all were anxious to see the pirates quashed and the entire community would give every assistance possible to help us succeed in our endeavors.
The community imparted a magnificent banquet for the expeditionary force that evening, with great conviviality and refreshments.  Following a full day to rest from the voyage and torecover from the festivities, we met with the Alcalde and an aide of Gobernador Houston, who sent his regrets; at nearly 70 years of age the Gobernador was too infirm to make the trip from the provincial capital of Cuidad Santa Anna in the distant heart of the province.
The fact that such leaders such as Bowie and Houston were born in the United States--Bowie in Kentucky, Houston in Virginia--and they retain the most genial regards for the Stars and Stripes was a great aid to our cooperation from local citizens.  For their part, they were immensely relieved the Emperor in Mexico City had discarded his long-standing distrust and accepted the help of the United States in effecting a solution to the pirate matter.
During our fourth day in port, Alcalde Bowie introduced us to “Captain” Dick Dowling, a ruddy-faced son of Hibernia who was reputed to be the Texian the most familiar with the Pirates of the Ozarks.  A local merchant and tavern-keeper, Dowling led the local coast guard that protected the city and its immediate environs from the raiders.  His commercial interests provided him an ongoing source of information on their whereabouts and activities.
Although there were numerous pirates plying the waves of the Inland Sea, the most dangerous was indubitably “Captain Q”, whose base of operations was Wolverton Island.  Captain Q was a living legend among the pirates, having both escaped death many times and bestowed it most freely upon the unsuspecting, Dowling said.  All of the sea-faring fiends allowed some degree of nominal allegiance to The Dread Captain out of abject fear.
Dowling showed us one of the pirate craft that had been captured.  The large open boat could be propelled both by oars or a hand-sewn square sail, and was crude but exceedingly sturdy.  He said they used these craft exclusively; even when coming into possession of larger ships by conquest, they lacked the seamanship skills to helm them properly.  It somewhat resembled the ships used by Norse raiders that had once preyed upon the English.
After a full week of rest, the flotilla departed Texarkana.  Dowling was attached to the flagship as a special lieutenant.  We left the morning of May 26, 1862.
Along the way Dowling limned no sanguine picture of the task before us.  The pirates’ modus operandi was to lay in wait in hidden coves and set upon ships passing the archipelago.  The situation of the islands is such that it requires making a wide detour to avoid approaching them along the route between Tejas and the United States.  The pirates would lay in wait until a passing ship was espied, and swoop upon it.
Captain Q’s home of Wolverton Island was one of hundreds of small islets that dot the lawless sector of the sea.  Dowling said it was nondescript and well hidden.  Captain Q launched his raids into the open sea by “leap flogging” between  islands until he approached the shipping lanes.
The crafty pirate never laid in wait in the same place twice, said Dowling.  The key to victory, he said, would be to track the pirate captain to his hiding place for the current season and strike him unawares.  Destroying Captain Q would be like cutting the head off a serpent, Dowling stated; the rest of our sojourn in the Ozarks would subsequently be a “mopping up” operation.
Dowling had brought along a small skiff that he used as part of his personal trading fleet that plied the coastal route between Texarkana and Galvez Island.  We devised a ploy to use it as a forward decoy, and to hold back the task force as we approached the Ozark Islands.
We sent the skiff ahead as if it were on its way towards Memphis.  We selected a dozen of our most durable seamen to man the craft, and concealed a supply of the newest Winchester repeating rifles as well as a small brass cannon.
The morning of June 1st we heard the report of the cannon, and quickly joined the fight at full steam.  Upon our approach the pirates immediately broke off the engagement, but their craft were no match in speed with our steam-driven ships, and we quickly overcame them.
Despite their superior weapons and the speed with which we had relieved them, half of our men on the skiff were killed.  Their sacrifice brought us a great reward, though, as we took three dozen pirates prisoner.  It was a small tribe, which nominally owed its allegiance to Captain Q but operated independently.  Their leader was a “Captain” Lansdell. 
Commander Farragut absented himself below deck and allowed the Texian Dowling free rein with our “guests”.  Dowling began by summarily shooting three pirates who had remained unscathed from our engagement, and then turned his attention to the pirate captain himself.
The ruffian’s braggadocio discandied completely upon witnessing the brutal treatment of his colleagues, but Dowling was then confronted by a seemingly intractable dilemma.  Although Lansdell knew Captain Q’s forward base for the current season, he was terrified of retribution if he divulged its location.
“Q will surely kill me I tell you!” cried out the pirate.
“He may, if he finds you later,” said Dowling. “But if you do not tell me where he is, I will kill you now!”
Confronted by such logic, Lansdell divulged that Captain Q was ensconced at Branson Island in the northernmost Ozarks, and upon being freed of his fetters drew a map for us.  We then collected up the pirate captain and his remaining cohorts and bound them below decks.
Battle Plan:
Dowling advised that in view of the location of Branson Island, our best approach would be by way of a wide sweeping arc to the west, then bearing down southeasterly.  That bearing put the high plains and Indian Territories behind us, the least common origination for trade.  Commander Farragut, upon reviewing the map of the islands, decided to split his forces, sending the ironclads on the trajectory envisioned by Dowling, while concurrently sending the gun ships easterly towards Memphis.
Although the ironclad frigates were the much heavier craft, their steam engines were much more powerful.  They could traverse the longer distance around the western end of the islands and swing back towards Branson in the same time the gunships would feint towards Memphis and then make straight for the islands.  Our intent, of course, was to effect a pincers movement.
 Our plan was outlined with the goal of insuring the greatest possibility that the pirate leader would in no case elude our flotilla.  At the time we kept secret a “project” we intended to deploy to facilitate communication between the two fleets, in the eventuality that Captain Q was as clever as he was brutal and had somehow secured an agent in our midst.
The morning of June the 3rd, 1862, we divided the flotilla, with Commander Farragut leading the ironclad frigates west from aboard the Missouri while I assumed leadership of the gunships with the Piedmont as my task force flag ship, and steamed east.
I proceeded at a measured pace towards Memphis, and after two days and achieving its latitude, turned directly west.  We never allowed the outermost islands to leave our sight. One of our desires in drawing up our plan was to make the pirates think we were the main force.  Along our route we espied what may have been pirate craft, but none approached what seemed to them a considerable fleet.
The Texian sea robber Lansdell was aboard the Piedmont, and I took it upon myself to interrogate him at my leisure.  He was of good Anglo-Saxon stock, and like so many of the “seabillies” his antecedents had settled on the Louisiana Purchase frontier in the early years of the century.  He had spent his youth on the small Tejas coastal fishing village of Nacogdoches, whose origins went back to the 16th Century and the earliest Spanish missions.  The hamlet was greatly impoverished by the destruction caused by the Great Inundation, and Lansdell and his brothers were driven to sea by the grinding abject poverty of the region.  Weeks away from the provincial capital, the poor people--cut off by fate from their kith and kin in the United States--suffered severely from a lack of commerce and trade.
Lansdell told that his father, looking back on the years when Americans had begun to infiltrate the Mexican frontier, opined that fate would have surely incorporated Tejas effectively as part of the United States, so great was the movement of population.
Lansdell seemed to be possessed of a native cleverness and industry, indicative of his racial origins, and had he been reared in more propitious circumstances it is my opinion he might have made a prosperous merchant or manufacturer.
By June the 7th the ship’s navigator indicated we were only 30 nautical miles east of a point 40 miles due north of Branson Island.  I stationed a mate in the crow’s nest to keep watch for any heliographic communications from The Missouri.  He soon spied the signal, and we received the message that Captain Q’s main body had been sighted.  As Dowling had predicted, he was making with all due haste into the heart of the islands.  Commander Farragut’s communication indicated the course we should engage that would bring us to an intercept with the pirate chief’s small fleet.
At mid-afternoon we heard the cannonade, and as we approached the engagement we saw that the ironclads had caught up with the pirate craft, which were being quickly and brutally subdued.  I joined Commander Farragut aboard the Missouri for the conclusion of the engagement.  The hot air balloon and basket--the “secret project”--lay on the ship’s desk.  Sending the balloon into the stratosphere had enabled the Missouri to signal us from a distance that would have been otherwise impossible.  It was this special evice that Farragut had taken such pains to conceal until needed.
After the pirate fleet had been disabled, Dowling and a contingent of Texarkana citizens fell upon the pirates with a thirst for revenge with a purpose that would have reddened the cheeks of an Apache. Dowling and his men would take no captives.  Our own marines had to step in to prevent a general massacre. While many of the pirates begged for quarter, and were taken prisoner at Farragut’s direction, Captain Q’s “Old Guard” refused to surrender and the Captain and his hearties were last seen alive on a craft which burnt to the waterline. This grime finale was witnessed by the assembled flotilla as dusk descended across the waters, and I could not help but recall my previous observations how these sea robbers’s craft had harkened to the Norsemen of old, as Captain Q’s went up in flames much as a Viking funeral ship of yore.
Almost until the flames were quenched by the sea the infamous Captain and his last men hurled the most profane curses towards us and continued shooting while the our sailors watched impassively.  As the the ship disappeared behind a veil of smoke and steam, Captain Q was heard clearly to declaim “See you in H---! Farragut” followed by one last muffled shot.  It was obvious the vile man had dispatched himself from one sea of flames to another.
There were loud huzzahs from the sailors, marines and Texians aboard all ships, which was stifled as Commander Farragut called out loudly, “Our work has just begun, men!”  Silence swept across the ships.  We all recognized that--to return to another of Dowling’s analogies--although we had cut off the head of the serpent, the crippled length of the creature would continue to wriggle.
The “Mopping Up”:
Farragut offered amnesty to any brigand who agreed to join forces with us to reduce the pirates who remained.  Lansdell and a dozen men from both his and Captain Q’s ships agreed to accept his offer, and subsequently provided invaluable information on the whereabouts of other raiders.  The unrepentant pirates among us were collected aboard the gunship Wareham, which returned with them to the Texarkana naval base.
I subsequently learned that after the Wareham returned to Texarkana with its prisoners it dispatched a communication from Flag Officer Farragut to the Department of the Navy, the nature of which I was not acquainted with, and which would only be disclosed to me upon the flotilla’s return to Texarkana.
Lansdell’s better nature emerged with the demise of Captain Q.  We jointly took time to interview some of Q’s pirates who had survived to more fully understand the nature of that most feared Pirate of the Ozarks.
His full name was William Clark Quantrill.  He was--somewhat to our surprise--an Ohio native who had drifted down the river of the same name while a youth, and being possessed of a direct and forceful nature he quickly rose to the fore of the “seabilly” pirates.  Many of the amended pirates, Lansdell among them, seemed relieved at Quantrill’s demise and professed a desire for closer relations with fellow Americans.  They were unsure whether the Ozarks were truly American Territory, and when I told them it was indeed they seemed quite happy.  I told them that--if it was their desire--perhaps the federal government could be entreated to secure an administration there.  I saw at that time a furtive and knowing look from the Commander.
There were perhaps 300 pirates in a half dozen bands scattered across the islands, and the “clean sweep” took a six full months.  We embarked upon a methodical pursuit, which had a most salubrious effect on the safety of the sea.  Most of the pirates surrendered immediately when confronted by the flotilla.  Accustomed as they were to attacking isolated ships, they were thoroughly cowed by our fleet.
What settlements we found on the islands were spectacularly impoverished.  It was simple to discern the poverty that had driven the forgotten “hillbillys”--their original name for themselves--into the sea.  After seeing one hamlet where only the dogs seemed well fed, Farragut muttered “we must do something for these people so they can live as Christians.”  Many sailors and marines were so moved by what they saw they gave their own rations to the inhabitants.
We steered a course from the archipelago and towards Tejas December the 6th, 1862 and arrived at the Texarkana naval base a week later.  We were greeted with great jubilation, and Dowling was chaired through the city by the townspeople while our regular forces marched to the Alcalde’s mansion with flags flying.
I was rather perplexed to see the Wareham riding low at anchor and surrounded by a half dozen American warships.  As we marched through the streets, I asked the Flag Officer Farragut about them.  He shouted that--upon his request, which was telegraphically delivered to the federal government upon the arrival of the Wareham--President Douglas has signed a decree organizing the Ozarkia Territory.  The Wareham would lead the other ships to the islands with personnel and provisions for the establishment of a capital and territorial administration.
When I inquired who would be leading the organization of the new territory, he declaimed: “I would suggest you make Lansdell your chief executive, Your Excellency.”
Unbeknownst to myself, at Farragut’s recommendation, President Douglas named me the first Ozarkia territorial governor.
At the celebratory banquet that evening, as the claret flowed and cigars smoldered, Farragut confided to me, “There is no one as qualified for the post as you.  You are a Missouri native; had the great calamity not come upon the frontier, Ozarkia would surely have been incorporated into the state of Missouri.  And you have been most closely involved on the expedition just concluded.” 
I conceded his logic was unassailable, and the next morning, at the break of noon, I gathered my wits about me and sent a message via telegraph to the executive mansion in the District of Columbia gratefully accepting the appointment.
It has now been six months since the Wareham returned to the islands.  We established our capital on Wolverton Island--Quantrill’s old headquarters--and I designated a blacksmith who had never been part of the pirate raids, one Clifton Clowers, as the mayor.  The artisan had lived on the same location since before the Great Inundation. 
In honor of the leader of the original expedition, we named the newly established capital Farragut.  The same situation that had worked to the pirates’ advantage is presently working towards the prosperity of the indigenous inhabitants, as the islands become a profitable way station on the Inland Sea routes.
For my part, I am gratified that Flag Officer Farragut and Secretary of the Navy Graham have allowed me to retain my Naval rank as I fulfill my role as territorial governor, as I owe everything to my naval career and would hope that--as Ozarkia is established on a stable and permanent footing--that I might return to the sea that has meant so much in my life.
Who could have foreseen when I was a child, gazing across the blue inland waters from Cardiff Point--the foremost promontory of the former Mississippi left bank that overlooks the strand where Hannibal is situated--that boyish fantasies of adventure could be fulfilled in the most literal manner, and I would live to sail the wide open sea, fight and defeat pirates, and lead a city and territory? 
No Dickens or Cooper could write a story as much like the Arabian Nights.  For my part, while this report is meant as an official record, I flatter myself to think that I have some small innate measure of skill as a storyteller, and in these pages I hope you have not only found an accurate summation report on the expedition that subdued and suppressed the Pirates of the Ozarks, but also an engaging tale that is one chapter of the great unfolding story of the American Republic.
As my chief executive Lansdell said when shown the draft of this document, “It gives one pause to think you might have missed your true calling, Sam!”
But I am in most felicitous circumstances, and greatly doubt that.
Respectfully submitted,
Captain (U.S.N.) Samuel L. Clemens
Governor, Ozarkia Territory
June 1, 1863

1 comment:

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