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Sinking of CSS Alabama

DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

CSS Alabama: Lost and Found

by William S. Dudley

(Material contained herein is made available for the purpose of peer review and discussion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.)


Introduction

Tonight we will focus on the maritime history of the Civil War as it was influenced by one of the most famous Marylanders of that era. He is Captain Raphael Semmes, commander of the legendary Confederate cruiser Alabama, the scourge of the oceans, a ship which, with a handful of like-minded vessels, virtually swept the Union merchant fleet from the seas. Although successful in this amazing deed, Semmes and the Alabama were yet on the losing side of the war. To understand how just a few ships could have accomplished this we will have to project ourselves backward in time to the year 1861, about 130 years ago, when this country was riven by conflicting social, political, and economic ideologies to the point of war. It is not my part to discuss the causes of this conflict but rather to explain how it played out in the context of the naval and maritime world of the mid-nineteenth century.

I will portray the developing naval strategies of the Opposing sides, their disparity in resources, and the policies that each belligerent adopted to win the struggle as best it could. We will witness the emergence, from nothing, of the Confederacy's peculiar naval strengths and weaknesses. From this sprang Raphael Semmes and the Alabama, and their spectacular career. Thanks to the maturing of underwater archaeology and the fascination of the public with the revelations of the deep, we will also see some remains of Alabama and to imagine more readily the way the ship and her crew really looked and behave.

The Onset of War and the "Anaconda Plan"

The Union naval strategy, originally credited to General Winfield Scott, was the "Anaconda Plan" envisaged the placing of a tight blockade at all Confederate ports with a view to closing down all trade and ultimately throttling the Confederacy for lack of sustenance from abroad. A second component of the plan was the creation of a shallow draft river naval force capable of dominating these liquid highways that permitted transports to carry troops and supplies with much less time, effort, and expense than carrying them overland. Furthermore, river gunboats were, in effect, floating forts that could bring a concentrated amount of force to bear where needed to open choke points or to harry an enemy's flank to facilitate a troop advance or retreat. Scott's ideas were sound but were ridiculed at the time because they could only be realized gradually, too slowly for the public and political know-it-alls who insisted in an "on to Richmond" strategy before the Union army was anywhere near ready to carry it out.

Gideon Welles and the Union Navy

Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Union Navy, had some significant problems at the outset of the conflict. His department possessed only about 40 seagoing ships to put into the blockade but virtually none of the type that would be required for use on the western rivers and coastal rivers and sounds. Worse yet, during the early months of 1861, as southern states seceded and made bellicose moves, officers of southern origin or sympathy began to resign from the U.S. Navy. The Navy Department at first accepted these resignations, perhaps with the hope of not exacerbating a delicate situation. Then in April and May came a flood of resignations which continued for some time. Nearly all of these resignations were rejected and the officers were instead dismissed from the naval service. By the end of 1861, 373 officers had resigned from the U. S. Navy. This was a large and critical group of men, representing approximately 24% of the 1,554 officers serving in the Navy at the end of 1860. The number of officers resigning from the U.S. Army was comparable.

Mallory, Bulloch, and the Alabama

If Gideon Welles had difficulties, Stephen R. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, had an even bigger problem: an increasing number of naval officers, but no warships at all. The southern navy had to be created out of whole cloth. Where were these ships to be found?

Some could be converted merchant ships whose bulwarks could be pierced for deck guns and the decks themselves reinforced to accept the great weight of iron guns and their carriages. But it was early realized that to make the most effective use of its slender resources, the South could build only a few its own ships and would have to purchase its warships from abroad.

When Union forces captured Norfolk and Pensacola, the Confederate Navy Department found itself without shipyards, metal working shops, steam mills, and foundries. The Union blockade could be expected to prevent much of the heavy materials needed for such establishments from reaching southern ports.

CDR Raphael Semmes Joins the Confederacy

Raphael Semmes "went south" officially on February 15, 1861,when he wrote his letter of resignation to Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey. The letter read as follows "Sir: I respectfully tender through you to the President of the United States, this, the resignation of the commission which I have the honor to hold as a Commander in the Navy of the United States. In severing my connection with the Government of the United States, and with the Department over which you preside, I pray to you to accept my thanks for kindness which has characterized your official deportment towards me."

This letter was accepted the same day it was received. He immediately wrote to the secretary of the Lighthouse Board announcing his resignation from that body to which he had belonged for two years. He then entrained for Montgomery, Alabama, and he wrote, recalling that experience later, as the train passed through Alabama, "This night-ride through the burning pine woods of Alabama afterward stood as a great gulf in my memory, forming an impassable barrier, as it were between my past and my future life." Other well known officers who "went South" were Franklin Buchanan, Isaac Mayo, and Matthew Fontaine Maury.

One of the first ships obtained by the South for its Navy was the screw steamer Habana which had normally run between Havana, Cuba, and New Orleans. This small, 520 ton vessel was converted into a sloop of war with one 8" shell gun and four 32 pounders and given the name Sumter. She was ready for sea by mid-June 1861, when Raphael Semmes was appointed as her first Confederate commander.

On June 30, he took her through the Mississippi Delta's Pass a l'Outre to the Gulf of Mexico, just barely escaping from USS Brooklyn on blockade duty there. Following his instructions "to do the greatest injury to the enemy's commerce in the shortest time," he made 18 captures within a six months period, mostly in the Caribbean.

In this ship, Semmes set his pattern of approaching an enemy merchantmen by showing British colors, overhauling the ship, firing a shot, hoisting Confederate colors, removing a captured ship's crew, coal, provisions, sailing gear, chronometers, and any available food before burning the ship. A final part of the ritual was the taking of the U.S. flag by the Sumter's signal quartermaster who marked it with the day, latitude, and longitude of the capture. He retained all of these captured flags in bags.

Once in a while on a fine day, the quartermaster would request permission to "air flags" whereupon he would hoist them all, one after another, "with a glistening eye and a smile of grim satisfaction." The same practice was followed on the Alabama.

Burning beautiful ships was something Semmes did not enjoy, but the difficulty of disposing of captures was so great that he was obliged to do so, to prevent the ships falling back into Union hands. He could not afford the practice of sending his captures into a friendly port for condemnation as a prize because he could not spare the men to serve as prize crews. He eventually made his way to Cadiz, Spain, by January 1862, but was ordered out of port before he could make the needed repairs to his boilers. From there, Semmes went to Gibraltar where he was blockaded by three Union ships. Unable to obtain coal, he paid off his crew and sold his ship to the British (Confederate) firm of Frasier, Trenholm for $19,500; her later career was spent as a Confederate blockade runner.

To effect the acquisition of warships for the Confederacy, Mallory asked James Dunwoody Bulloch, a Georgian and former U.S. Navy officer who had resigned from the service in 1853, to become his department's purchasing agent in Europe. This gentleman, who incidentally was Theodore Roosevelt's uncle, traveled to England and set himself up in the Liverpool offices of the Charleston banking house of John Fraser & Co.

Beginning in March, 1862, George A. Trenholm, a majority stockholder, assumed direction of Fraser, Trenholm & Co. which served as the Confederacy's English depository, kept the government's bank accounts, converted currency, and received funds on behalf of the Confederate government. Caleb Huse, the purchasing agent for the Confederate Army also established his offices in this building. On its own behalf, Fraser, Trenholm & Co. ran a fleet of 50 blockade runners and received 0.5 percent commission for its banking services.

Construction at Birkenhead

Bulloch arrived in England in June 1861 to obtain six cruisers but not necessarily to sit out the war as a purchasing agent. As a former naval officer his desire was to go to sea for the Confederacy. Mallory, perhaps as an enticement, promised to give him command of the first ship he obtained. But this was not to be. The very first was CSS Florida which it happened went to Lieut. John N. Maffitt, CSN, because Bulloch had been called home when the ship was ready. Like Alabama, Florida had a brilliant career but she did not share her fame.

One of the many obstacles that Bulloch faced was the British Foreign Enlistment Act that prohibited Englishmen from enlisting in the naval service of a foreign power without special permission. It was also a misdemeanor for anyone to induce a person into such an arrangement. It was also a misdemeanor for anyone without a special license to equip, furnish, fit out, or arm any vessel for a belligerent or to endeavor to do so, or to knowingly assist in so doing under penalty of fine and imprisonment and forfeiture of the ship.

You will note that the law does not say you cannot build a ship. It is the equipping of her that was considered critical. Bulloch's method was to find a loophole within these narrow confines. No builder was ever informed of the purpose of construction. Nor were they supplied with warlike equipment within the confines of the British realm. The ship would be taken out of English waters by a British crew after her shakedown cruise to a rendezvous with another ship carrying the war material and Confederate naval officers. After the transfer of ship's papers and armaments and any additional work that would have to be done to accommodate these armaments, the Confederate commander would endeavor to recruit the crew for war service.

This method succeeded despite the furious objections of Charles Francis Adams, U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The American Liverpool consul, Thomas H. Dudley, had the waterfront covered with spies and assembled as much evidence as he could to convince British Foreign Office of the intended use of the ships. The "evidence" was usually not sufficient to obtain British cooperation. The atmosphere of those days must have been truly cloak and dagger and a great historical novel could be written with the Civil War and this clandestine shipbuilding as a backdrop.

The Ship's Characteristics

The future Alabama, when under construction, was simply called "290" as she was the 290th hull to be constructed in the John Laird Sons & Co. yard at Birkenhead on the Mersey opposite Liverpool. Her construction price was $47,500 ($230,000 U.S. 1862) The builder's model of the ship is held by today's Cammel-Laird yard.

Her technical type was "wooden screw corvette" though she was euphemistically given the civilian designation "steamer." In no way was "290" an ironclad vessel, she was wooden from truck to keel. Bulloch might well have wished she were iron but "290" was built to be maintained at sea by her own crew or in any number for foreign ports where iron-working was an unknown discipline. Her dimensions were length overall - 213 feet, 8 inches; extreme beam -32 feet; depth of hold - 18 feet; fully loaded draft - 15 feet. Her fully loaded draft displacement was 1,438 tons. At full complement, "290" carried 110 souls, 25 officers and 85 seamen.

"290"'s engines were of the direct-acting, horizontal condensing variety with twin horizontal cylinders. She had four boilers and her coal bunkers could carry 285 tons of coal, then considered adequate for about ten days "easy steaming." She was a fast ship under both steam and sail and was reported to have made her designed speed of 12 knots, although Captain Semmes admitted that she was ordinarily a 10 knot ship, but on one occasion did over 13 knots - her utmost speed.

One of this ship's more remarkable attributes was her lifting screw. It required only 15 minutes to hoist the screw from the water with a block and tackle rigged on an A-frame set up on the stern.

"290"'s rig was that of a three-masted barque. Her fore and aft sails hoisted on three long and well-raked pine masts, each of which carried a top-mast. Her standing rigging was of Swedish iron wire. she carried square sails on her fore- and mainmasts and could carry royals and stunsails. Her telescoping funnel was positioned distinctively ahead of her mainmast. Her best point of sailing was close-hauled, her poorest was downwind.

The armament of "290" was adequate for commerce raiding but decidedly weaker than what would be recommended in a sea-fight with another naval vessel. She carried eight guns: six 6" 32 pounders mounted on wheeled carriages. One 7" 100 pounder on a pivot on the foredeck and one 8" 68 pounder on the quarterdeck.

Escape from the Mersey

When launched on 14 May 1862 on Way No. 3 at Birkenhead, "290" was given the name Enrica (for no reason I know). Her engines were then installed and she made her first sea trial voyage on June 15. When virtually all was ready, Capt. Bulloch had her coaled and chartered the bark Agrippina to carry her battery of guns and ammunition. With S. F. Adams nipping at his heels, Bulloch knew he had to get Enrica out of Liverpool, lest she be held by the authorities. On July 28, Bulloch had the ship dressed with flags in a holiday mood and with the Tug Hercules as a tender steamed down river. Then he took off the visitors, told them Enrica was going to stay out that night and took the party back in the tug. In the meantime, he had received word that the USS Tuscarora had been sent to Patrol the St. George's channel in hopes of stopping the Enrica. It was too late - she was free and on her way to the rendezvous at Porto Praya on Terceira in the Azores Islands to await the rival of Agrippina, and a third vessel that would deliver Raphael Semmes and his cadre of Confederate naval officers.

As you will recall, Semmes, his First Lieutenant John Kell, and others had taken a passenger ship for England from Gibraltar. They spent a couple of months waiting in idleness for a ship to be provided, but none was then available. Semmes soon grew restless and contracted with Melita to take them to the Bahamas from where he hoped to find passage through the blockade into the Confederacy. After a voyage of 20 days, Semmes arrived at New Providence, in the Bahamas where he met other Confederate naval officers. One of them, CAPT Arthur Sinclair, provided him with a letter from Secretary Mallory dated May 2, 1862, ordering him to return to England and giving him command of the Enrica which, he was told, would be named "Alabama." After several weeks waiting for a ship to Europe, Semmes and his-officers arrived at a had sailed for there rendezvous. On August 13, 1862, he arranged passage in the steamer Bahama for Porto Praya in the Azores where they joined up with the Enrica and her supply ship Agrippina.

Captain Semmes and the Cruise of the Alabama

On August 24, Semmes put the new Confederate cruiser into commission. The ceremony consisted of lowering the British merchant colors, raising the Confederate ensign and commission pennant, and then Semmes read his commission and orders to command the Alabama to those assembled. At last, the ship could be called by her "real name" but the stern was not lettered as we do with modern ships. On her wheel and across her stern was emblazoned the French motto, Aide toi et Dieu t'aidera. In English, this means "God helps those who help themselves." However, Semmes had at that time, 24 officers and no seamen. He then mustered all the seamen of the Bahama and Agrippina and tried to enlist them with talk of Southern patriotism.

When this did not succeed, he shifted his ground and offered money, double wages, paid in gold, and in addition, prize money -that would be paid by the Confederate congress for ships they would be obliged to destroy. When the men began to shout "Hear, hear" Semmes knew it was time to close the deal. He obtained 83 seamen for the Confederate Navy and the rest returned with Bulloch to England. He still needed about 20 men for a full crew, but at least he had enough to handle the ship. The rest might be picked up from captured crews of other ships or from some ports of call. The 22-month cruise of Alabama thus began on an auspicious note.

Semmes commenced by attacking the U.S. flag whaling ships that were working off the Azores Islands. In the first month of cruising he captured taking out their crew and burning the sails and their cargo of Whale oil. The captured seamen, he sent in their ships' boats to the Azores still not more than twenty miles way. Alabama then headed west where she entered the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

From there to Newfoundland, in mid-October, he took ten prizes of ships carrying grain and flour. American wheat was highly valued in Europe and this may have caused an increase in the price of the commodity. One of the ships captured was the Brilliant, as large as the Alabama, and when she was burned, she made "a sight as grand as it was appalling" according to one English eye witness. Of this ship, Semmes wrote, "I was much moved by the entreaties of Captain Hagar, the master of the Brilliant to spare his ship. He was a hard-working seaman who had a one third interest in her. Had built her and was attached to her and represented all his worldly goods. But I was forced to steel my heart."

The news of Alabama's early depredations probably reached the United States first by way of Captain Hagar, whom Semmes sent away in the Emily Farnham and had transferred to another ship and arrived in Boston. There arose a great hue and cry, as the Boston Marine Society and the Chamber of Commerce petitioned Washington for the protection of their port. The U.S. Navy sent out vessels from Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, and Hampton Roads to search for Alabama, to no avail. Semmes claimed to have wanted to raid New York harbor at that time, but did not have enough coal on board to do the job. Semmes next headed for Martinique to rendezvous with his tender Agrippina, waiting there with a cargo of coal. When she made port, Semmes found Agrippina but he also learned that people there knew of her purpose so he quickly sent her on to Blanquilla, on the coast of Venezuela. Meanwhile the USS San Jacinto discovered Alabama and determined to blockade her until help arrived. Semmes, however, was not to be detained and managed to slip out by night with some local assistance.

Engagement with USS Hatteras

While at Martinique, Semmes learned about military operations on the Texas coast where the port of Galveston had been seized by a small Confederate force, and the U.S. Army under Brigadier General Banks was tempting to land and retake it. Hoping to surprise and frustrate the operation, Semmes headed west through the Yucatan Channel and up towards Galveston. On the way, he captured Ariel, a commercial steamer headed for Panama carrying many women and children en route to join their husbands and fathers in California, and as a special catch, a battalion of U.S. marines and some naval officers heading for duty on the Pacific Station. Although Semmes had hoped to capture a ship coming from the California gold fields, he had the bad luck this time to capture an embarrassingly large human cargo. The marines and naval officers, he disarmed and paroled. He ransomed Ariel on a bond and sent her to New York. Proceeding to Yucatan, Alabama rendezvoused again with Agrippina, took on coal, caulked deck, careened ship, cleaned her coppered bottom, painted ship, and soon proceeded to the Galveston coast where Semmes, at 2:00 p.m. on 11 January 1863, found the U.S.S. Brooklyn and the more lightly armed U.S.S. Hatteras, a sidewheel steamer, carrying 4 32-pounders and one 20-pounder rifle, stationed for blockade duty with three other vessels. While he was observing this scene from afar one of the blockading vessels detached from her station and headed out. Semmes ordered Alabama to seaward and raised the British ensign. He fled to a distance of nearly twenty miles, hoping to give his pursuer the impression that he was indeed a blockade runner. As it became evening the Alabama turned about and closed the remaining distance with the "chase" - at 100 yards distance they commenced the ceremonial "what ship is that?" exchange and Semmes instructed his officer to answer "His Majesty's Ship Petrel." As soon as he learned that his pursuer was the US Navy Ship Hatteras, Semmes prepared for action. Hatteras commander, LT H.C. Blake, requested permission to send a boat on board. Semmes asked his men if they were ready - they answered "we are," then he said "well, tell them who we are!" First Lieut. Kell then sang out, "This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama," turned to the crew and gave the order to fire. The two ships steamed on, firing into each other, with Semmes letting loose his starboard broadside and the enemy his port broadside, but in 13 minutes it was all over. The other side announced that they had struck their colors and that their ship was sinking.

From Galveston, Semmes made quick passage to Jamaica, sailed along the coast of Haiti, up through the Mona Passage between Haiti and Cuba, and as spring arrived in the northern hemisphere, thence to the southeast for Cape St. Roque the easternmost cape of Brazil. Semmes put into Fernando de Noronha for some days and then headed south for the port of Bahia., and ran down the main channel of commerce from South America, taking another batch of Yankee shipping.

There she met the Confederate cruiser Georgia and continued her passage, now determined to intercept U.S. ships running to the East Indies via the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived in these waters in July, 1863 at Saldanha Bay. From there he headed for Table Bay and enroute captured the Yankee ship Sea Bride outside the three-mile limit. Met Tuscaloosa and went down coast to Simon's Town and then back to Cape Town to discover that the USS Vanderbilt had put in there in search of Alabama about 11 September 1863. It was the persistance of Vanderbilt that prompted Semmes to haul anchor and head for the Indian ocean, for as he wrote: "Vanderbilt greatly had the speed of me and threw twice my weight of metal." (Memoirs, p. 672)

Six Months in Eastern Seas

One of the reasons that Semmes decided to cruise the Indian ocean and South China Sea was that things were getting hot for him in the Atlantic. Not only was USS Vanderbilt looking for him, as we have seen, but so were eighteen other steam warships. If you add the sailing ships, revenue cutters, and some chartered ships as well one can arrive at the total of about 50 pursuers.

Semmes shaped his course for the 40th degree south latitude in order to "run his easting down" as old salts put it, to make the best possible time toward the Orient. What would make such a voyage worthwhile for a Confederate raider? Every year about 100 whaling ships visited the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, about 22 ships made it to Singapore and about a dozen others went to Burma for a cargo of rice. At Hong Kong alone, there were 32 American merchant ships waiting for the right time to sail. While Semmes headed for the Sunda Strait, however, Vanderbilt, sailed northward in the Indian ocean toward Mauritius.

There were, however, other rocks and shoals awaiting Alabama. If, in fact, they made a threat, these ships were USS Wyoming. a screw sloop, and USS Jamestown, a sailing man of war. Wyoming had at least been bloodied. She had fought Japanese forts in the Shimonoseki incident of 1863. Jamestown was to prove no threat at all for Alabama. Captain McDougal of the USS Wyoming took up station in Sunda Strait to capture any confederate vessel that might be coming through. But along the extreme southern route he chose, Semmes found few American ships to burn. When Semmes boarded an English steamer Mona and asked the master to report that he had been boarded by the USS Decotah, a ship of the Atlantic blockading squadron. This report was duly made and soon appeared in the English press in various Indian Ocean ports. At the wrong moment, McDougal took his ship out of the straits about the time Semmes was approaching. Semmes soon captured and burned the New England bark Amanda on November 6, 1863. The problem was that she was carrying an English cargo, but the master could not produce a sworn oath by a British consul to that effect. Semmes was very much the sea lawyer and was usually punctilious about neutral rights, but on technical points he knew his rights even when exercising them would cause him trouble. The hostility would come from British companies owning and insuring such cargoes.

Then in rapid succession, Semmes captured and burned the 1,770 ton American clipper Winged Racer with a cargo of sugar and hemp. Soon after, he overhauled the clipper Contest bound from Yokohama to New York. The result was as could be expected, Alabama's exploits were spread throughout the commercial centers of southeast Asia, especially at Java. The Dutch were not particularly friendly to the Southern cause and Semmes did not bother to put in at Batavia but continued on toward the South China Sea along the north coast of Borneo.

Semmes put in at a small island of Candore on the coast of French Indochina to clean, paint ship, and scrape the ship's copper sheathing. This was Alabama's furthest penetration of East Asian seas. At Condore Island, Semmes confided to his diary that "a lengthened cruise would not be politic in these warm seas. The homeward bound trade of the enemy is now quite small, reduced probably to twenty or thirty ships per year, and these may evade us easily by taking the different passages to the Indian Ocean, of which there are so many and widely separated. So, I will try my luck around the Cape of Good Hope once more, thence to the coast of Brazil, and thence perhaps to Barbados for coal, and thence ... ?"

Alabama finally put in at Singapore on December 22, 1863. There Semmes's officers did not receive the generous hospitality they had expected, perhaps because of the declining fortunes of the South in the land war, perhaps because of his destruction of British cargoes in American ships. Some Yankee sea captains met the Alabama's officers in a famous Singapore bar and offered a toast to questioning Jefferson Davis's parentage, which immediately called forth a vigorous physical argument. Soon, Alabama departed for the Malacca Straits and made another questionable capture, the English bark Martaban bound from Burma to Singapore with a cargo of rice. The ship was American-built with an American captain Samuel B. Pike, though she had English papers. The troublesome part was that the ship, previously called Texas Star, had changed ownership only two weeks before. This seemed to Semmes a case of "flags of convenience" which it probably was. Many other American ships in Asian waters had done the same thing. Semmes demanded a sworn certificate that the papers were legal and when these could not be produced, burned the ship. The facts of the case bothered Semmes then and continued to do so for many years.

The Martaban case became a cause celebre and turned public opinion in British dominions against him, as can be seen the newspapers of Bombay and Calcutta. The news of Martaban's burning reached the British Isles only a month after it took place and was commented upon. One group of British merchants was reported to be outfitting a vessel to hunt down and destroy Alabama and the editor of the London Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle wrote: "Captain Semmes . . . will find out that he has committed a very serious mistake, which will shortly put an end to the Alabama's operations" (March, 1864). From then on, the British admiralty put Confederate warships on notice that the Royal Navy would capture any vessels found molesting British flag ships because of the burning of the Martaban.

In all, Semmes took only six Yankee vessels in six months' cruising in the Indian Ocean and three more upon once again entering the Atlantic. Just the same, Semmes' "eastern adventure" carried Confederate colors to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and further suppressed the Union merchant marine and hastened the famous "flight of the flag." On the other hand, British neutrality became several degrees cooler to the Confederate cause and more in line with what Union policy had requested.

The Battle off Cherbourg

The Alabama arrived off Cherbourg on Thursday, Saturday 18 June 1864, and requested permission to use the naval dockyard for a refit. Permission in this case could ultimately be granted only by Emperor Napoleon III who was at that moment on holiday in Biarritz. Thus, with more than the usual one day waiting period, Semmes allowed 38 men from his last two prizes to go ashore.

With his ship Kearsarge in Flushing, Captain John Ancrum Winslow heard of Alabama's arrival and immediately celebrated. He knew that Alabama had finally fallen into his hands. For over a year, he had been steaming in search of her and his guessing had proved correct, she needed repairs and only a friendly industrial nation could provide those repairs. On Tuesday June 14, Winslow steamed into Cherbourg circled the harbor, passed the Alabama and departed. Semmes managed to have a message passed to him through the U.S. consul, offering to meet him in battle after he had taken on coal.

Semmes was in a tight spot. He might be permitted to stay, but the longer he stayed, the more opposition he might have on trying to leave port. If he were to fight Kearsarge immediately and win, he might gain his freedom, for a while. If he should delay, other Union ships would undoubtedly join Kearsarge, making escape impossible. There were other factors, too. Union propaganda had hit the newspapers, impugning Semmes's fighting ability, for his ship had fought but one naval vessel and usually took unarmed merchantmen and burned them. He had heard of these slights and was not one to turn down what appeared as a fair fight. Thus, Semmes weighed his chances and decided to fight on the calculated risk that he could win without suffering severe battle damage.

When Semmes informed his superior officer in Europe, Commodore Samuel Barron, he was merely told to "use his discretion." Thus, Barron communicated his lack of enthusiasm for the fight, as well as his refusal to accept responsibility. On Saturday he told his men to make out their wills. The several days wait between the challenge and the fight allowed the news to spread and tourists from Paris began to appear in Cherbourg to crowd the cliffs in anticipation. Mr. John Lancaster, an English sympathizer of the Confederacy, who was on holiday with his family in Europe ordered his yacht Deerhound made ready to sail and to view the duel. He preceded Alabama's departure from Cherbourg.

The Challengers' Characteristics

Dimensions Kearsarge Alabama
Length of the Keel 198 210
Length over all 232 220
Beam 33 31
Depth 16 17
Tonnage 1031 1050
Engines (2 each) 400hp 300hp

 

Armament

Kearsarge Alabama
2 11" Dahlgren pivots 1 8" Blakely gun, 110 pdr
1 30 pdr rifle 1 8" Shell gun
4 32-pdrs 6 32-pdrs
Metal in broadside 430 lbs 360 lbs

Personnel

Kearsarge Alabama
163 nearly all American 149 mostly British

The Battle

On Sunday morning, June 19, at 0945, while Winslow was conducting church services, Semmes was getting under way. He had made his harangue to the crew. As Alabama passed the French flagship Napoleon, the French ship's band struck up a Confederate tune while her crew cheered. The French ironclad cruiser Couronne followed Alabama out to sea to guard the three mile limit and protect either ship should she seek sanctuary within this limit.

Winslow steamed well out, about 6 to 7 miles, turned about and steamed directly at Semmes. He might have rammed Alabama but Semmes turned to port and commenced steaming in a clockwise circle. The Kearsarge pursued, with the range commencing at about 1000 yards, gradually diminishing to about 400. Semmes started by firing his Blakely gun and followed it with three broadsides. The shooting was wild at first but soon settled down. A three knot current was running that pushed the ships to the southwest, down channel. The Kearsarge had two primary advantages, her powder was fresher, more potent, and her crew was highly trained in gunnery. Alabama's powder by contrast was old and weak, having not been remixed or replaced in 22 months. Nor had Semmes's crew been frequently drilled, he preferring to save his ammunition.

Winslow had taken the trouble to protect his ship's engine room spaces by hanging his anchor cable from the main deck, covered by a large wooden box. Semmes, after the battle, claimed not to have known this, but Lt. Arthur Sinclair, CSN, claims his captain was so informed by the French port captain days before the battle. Most of Alabama's shots missed, with only 14 out of 370 hitting. Kearsarge fired 174 with many hitting between wind and water. The largest damage was done by the shell gun, penetrating Alabama's engine room spaces. One of Alabama's shells hit Kearsarge, ricocheted along the hull and lodged in the sternpost but never exploded. Thus was lost Semmes' best chance for victory. On the 7th circuit, Semmes's engineer came on deck to report that the water was rising and the fires were out. Kell reported that he struck his colors, ran up a white flag, and shook out his sails to make for France. Winslow fired some additional shots, unsure as to whether the white flag was a ruse. Semmes sent Master's Mate Fullam to Kearsarge with a boatload of wounded men and to ask for assistance, but Winslow was unable to respond immediately because his boats had been damaged. He hailed the Deerhound and asked her assistance which she quickly gave but she soon made for England with Semmes and his officers and others on board. CSS Alabama went under the waves at 1224. Semmes's casualty list was 41-- 9 killed, 12 drowned and 20 wounded. Kearsarge rescued 70, Deerhound, 42 and the French pilot boats, 15.

Epilogue

Semmes returned to the U.S. via Southampton, Europe, and Mexico, lionized all the way. The Confederacy made him both a rear admiral and a brigadier general. He was imprisoned in Washington for four months, released, and went south to Alabama where he practiced law, lectured, and taught, dying in 1877.


25 May 2001