The CSS Alabama was a screw sloop-of-war built in 1862 for the Confederate States Navy at Birkenhead, England by John Laird Sons and Company. Alabama served as a successful commerce raider, attacking Union merchant and naval ships over the course of her two-year career, during which she never anchored in a Southern port.
Built in Secrecy
The Alabama was built in secrecy in 1862 arranged by the Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch, who was leading the procurement of sorely needed ships for the fledgling Confederate States Navy. He arranged the contract through Fraser, Trenholm Company, a cotton broker in Liverpool with ties to the Confederacy. Initially known as hull number 290, the ship was launched as Enrica on 15 May 1862 and secretly slipped out of Liverpool on 29 July 1862. Instructions said: ” … provide as one of the conditions of payment for the delivery of the vessels under the British flag at one of our Southern ports, and, secondly, that the bonds of the Confederacy be taken in whole or in part payment. The class of vessel desired for immediate use is that which offers the greatest chances of success against the enemy’s commerce.
Queen Victoria issued Proclamation of Neutrality
Great Britain, as a neutral nation, came under much pressure from the United States Government to stop the building of ironclads and other men-of-war for the Confederacy. On 13 May 1861, Queen Victoria had issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” which prohibited the sale of ships of war. Vessels could, however, enter United Kingdom waters but could not alter or improve their equipment while there. In the case of this ship, the pressure was so great that court action almost kept her from sailing on her sea trials.
Mr. Charles Francis Adams, American Minister to London, delivered a formal note to the Foreign office on 23 June 1862, submitted as a statement by the United States Consul at Liverpool detailing the suspicious circumstances connected with the vessels being built by the Laird firm. The British authorities, however, found the evidence not sufficient to establish that a violation of the act was contemplated. Repeated efforts to delay or prevent the delivery of the ship were unsuccessful.
On 29 July 1862, without armament, she left Liverpool supposedly on a trial run. To allay any suspicions in that respect, a party of ladies and custom officials were taken on board for the trip. A short distance at sea, however, the passengers were transferred to a tug and returned to port while the ship itself, under the command of Captain Matthew S. Butcher, proceeded down the coast about 50 miles to Anglesey.
The ship spent two days there preparing for sea; and, on 31 July, headed into the Irish Sea where Bulloch and the pilot were landed at the Giant Causeway on the north coast of Ireland. The ship then sailed to her prearranged destination. Bulloch had already purchased the guns, gun mounts, ammunition, ordnance stores, clothing, provisions and coal to fit the ship out as a raider. They had been loaded into the supply bark, the Agrippina, and she sailed to rendezvous with the #290 at the eastern end of the island of Terceira in the Azores. The transfer of equipment began immediately upon her arrival there and actually before the raider’s captain had arrived.
The transfer of the equipment from the Agrippina to the #290 was completed in the short period of four days. Captain Raphael Semmes said: “I had arrived on Wednesday, and on Saturday night, we had, by dint of great labor and perseverance, drawn order out of chaos. The Alabama’s battery was on board, and in place, her stores had all been unpacked, and distributed to the different departments, and her coal-bunkers were again full.”
CSS Alabama put to sea
The ship put to sea on Sunday, 24 August 1862. On that date, Semmes was promoted to Captain, the ship was commissioned off Terceira, and Semmes assumed command. There is no better way to describe this ceremony than to quote the words of her distinguished skipper: “The ship having been properly prepared, we steamed out, on this bright Sunday morning, under a cloudless sky, with a gently breeze from the southeast, scarcely ruffling the surface of the placid sea, and under the shadow of the smiling and picturesque island of Terceira, which nature seemed to have decked specially for the occasion, so charming did it appear, in its checkered dress of a lighter and darker green, composed of cornfields and orange-groves, the flag of the new-born Confederate States was unfurled, for the first time, from the peak of the Alabama. The Bahama accompanied us.”
Admiral Semmes statue in Mobile, Alabama by Carol Highsmith 2010 (Library of Congress)
The ceremony was impressive
“The ceremony was short but impressive. The officers were all in full uniform, and the crew neatly dressed, and I caused ‘all hands’ to be summoned aft on the quarter-deck, and mounting a gun-carriage, I read the commission of Mr. Jefferson Davis, appointing me a captain in the Confederate States Navy, and the order of Mr. Stephen R. Mallory, the Secretary of the Navy, directing me to assume command of the Alabama.”
“Following my example, the officers and crew had all uncovered their heads, in deference to the sovereign authority, as is customary on such occasions; and as they stood in respectful silence and listened with rapt attention to the reading, and to the short explanation of my object and purposes, in putting the ship in commission which followed, I was deeply impressed with the spectacle. Virginia, the grand old mother of many of the States, who afterward died so nobly; South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana were all represented in the persons of my officers, and I had some of as fine specimens of the daring and adventurous seaman, as any ship of war could boast. While the reading was going on, two small balls might have been seen ascending slowly, one to the peak, and the other to the main-royal masthead. These were the ensign and pennant of the future man-of-war. These balls were so arranged, that by a sudden jerk of the halliards by which they had been sent aloft, the flag and pennant would unfurl themselves to the breeze.”
Auxiliary Flag of the C.S.S. Alabama. (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
The band played Dixie
“A curious observer would also have seen a quartermaster standing by the English colors, which we were still wearing, in readiness to strike them, a band of music on the quarterdeck, and a gunner (lock-string in hand) standing by the weather-bow gun. All these men had their eyes upon the reader; and when he had concluded, at a wave of his hand the gun was fired, the change of flags took place, and the air was rent by a deafening cheer from officers and men; the band, at the same time, playing ‘Dixie,’ — that soul-stirring national anthem of the new-born government. The Bahama also fired a gun and cheered the new flag. Thus, amid this peaceful scene of beauty, with all nature smiling upon the ceremony, was the Alabama christened; the name ‘290’ disappearing with the English flag. This had all been done upon the high seas …. ”
Captured and burned ships in North Atlantic
Under Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama spent the next two months capturing and burning ships in the North Atlantic and intercepting American grain ships bound for Europe. Continuing its path of destruction through the West Indies, Alabama sank USS Hatteras near Galveston, Texas and captured its crew. After visiting Cape Town, South Africa Alabama sailed for the East Indies where it spent the next six months cruising for enemy shipping. While there, the formidable commerce raider destroyed seven more ships before redoubling the Cape of Good Hope and returning to Europe.
On 11 June 1864 Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France and Captain Semmes requested the permission of city officials to dock and overhaul his ship.
Three days later, the sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, which had been pursuing the raider, arrived off Cherbourg and began patrolling just outside of the harbor. On June 19, Alabama sailed out of Cherbourg to engage Kearsarge. As Kearsarge turned to meet its opponent, Alabama opened fire. Kearsarge’s crew waited until the distance between both vessels closed to less than 1,000 yards before returning fire. According to survivors of the battle, the two ships steamed on opposite circular courses as each commander tried to cross the bow of his opponent to deliver a heavy raking fire. The battle quickly turned against Alabama due to the poor quality of its powder and shells; by contrast, Kearsarge benefited from additional protection provided by chain cables along its sides.
Approximately one hour after firing the first shot, Alabama had been reduced to a rapidly sinking hulk. According to witnesses, Alabama fired 150 rounds to the Kearsarge’s 100.
A shell tore open the hull
When a shell fired by Kearsarge tore open a section of Alabama’s hull at the waterline, seawater quickly rushed through the cruiser and forced it to the bottom. Semmes subsequently struck his colors and sent a boat to surrender to his opponent. Although Kearsarge’s crew rescued most of the raider’s survivors, the British yacht Deerhound picked up Semmes and 41 others who escaped to England. During its two-year career as a commerce raider, Alabama inflicted considerable disorder and devastation on United States merchant shipping throughout the globe. The Confederate cruiser claimed more than 60 prizes with a total value of approximately $6,000,000.
One hundred and twenty years after Alabama’s loss, the French Navy mine hunter Circe discovered a wreck in approximately 200 feet of water off Cherbourg, France. French Navy Commander Max Guerout later confirmed that the wreck represented Alabama’s remains.
In 1988, the non-profit organization Association CSS Alabama was founded to conduct scientific exploration of the shipwreck. Although Alabama is within French territorial waters, the United States government claims ownership of the wreck as a spoil of war. On October 3, 1989 the United States and France signed an agreement that recognized CSS Alabama as an important heritage resource of both nations and established a joint French-American Scientific Committee to oversee archaeological investigation of the wreck.
In 2002 a diving expedition raised the ship’s bell along with more than 300 other artifacts, including more cannons, structural samples, tableware, ornate commodes, and numerous other items that reveal much about life aboard the Confederate warship. Many of the artifacts are now housed in the Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History & Heritage Command conservation lab.