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Alabama I (Side Wheel Steamer)

(Ship-of-the-Line: 2,633 tons; length 203 feet 8 inches; beam 51 feet 4 inches)

The 22d state, admitted to the Union on 14 December 1819, whose name is derived from two Choctaw Indian words: "alba amo," meaning "thicket gatherers" or "vegetation gatherers."


Alabama —one of the "nine ships to rate not less than 74 guns each" authorized by Congress on 29 April 1816, was laid down in June 1819 at the Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard. In keeping with the policy of the 74-gun ships-of-the-line being maintained in a state of readiness for launch, Alabama remained on the stocks at Portsmouth for almost four decades, in a state of preservation, much like part of a "mothball fleet" of post-World War II years. Needed for service during the Civil War, the ship was completed, but her name was changed to New Hampshire (q.v.) on 28 October 1863.


(Side Wheel Steamer: 676 tons)

Alabama, a wooden-hull sidewheel steamer built in 1838 at Baltimore, Md., apparently operated under the aegis of the War Department during the War with Mexico (1846-1848), carrying troops that participated in the capture of Veracruz. After the close of hostilities, the War Department transferred Alabama to the Navy Department pursuant to the Act of Congress of 3 March 1849. The latter, however, found the ship "unsuitable for naval purposes" and sold her at public auction, at New Orleans, La., in October 1849. Records of her naval service (if any) have not been found. It does not appear that she did in fact serve in the United States Navy, since her name does not appear in any contemporary listings of naval vessels, nor do any deck logs exist. She ultimately foundered, stranding on Gun Key, in the Bahamas, on 12 July 1852. Fortunately, no lives were lost.


(Side Wheel Steamer: 1,261 tons; length 214 feet 4 inches; beam 35 feet 2 inches; draft 14 feet 6 inches; speed 13 knots; complement 175; armament 8 32-pounder smooth-bore; class Alabama)

The secession of Virginia from the Union on 17 April 1861 extended Confederate territory to the southern bank of the Potomac, greatly imperiling the capital of the United States and prompting immediate action to strengthen Washington's almost nonexistent defenses with Northern troops. Two days later, supporters of the South clashed with soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts as that regiment was passing through Baltimore en route to Washington. This prompted Baltimore officials to order the destruction of railroad bridges north of their city. This action severed all direct rail connection between Washington and the large cities of the North which were sending troops to its defense. To reopen the flow of the capital, the Army commandeered a number of steamships in Northern ports for service as transports. Alabama, which would become the first ship to serve the United States Navy under the name of that state, was one of these steamers.

Laid down in 1849 by William Henry Webb in his shipyard on New York City's East River, Alabama was launched sometime in 1850, probably on either 19 January or 10 June. In any case, the steamer was delivered to the New York and Savannah Steam Navigation Co. in January 1851. Before the month was out, she sailed for Savannah on her first run for her owner.

The urgent need to strengthen the defenses of Washington ended more than a decade of commercial service along the Atlantic coast for Alabama. Taken over by the Army shortly after the Baltimore riots, the steamer embarked troops at New York and got underway for the Virginia capes in company with two other transports. Escorted by the Navy's just recommissioned brig Perry, the little convoy rounded Cape Charles and proceeded up Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Severn River. Upon its arrival at Annapolis on 25 April, the Union soldiers disembarked and boarded trains which, bypassing Baltimore, took them to Washington.

However, paperwork seems to have been slow in catching up with the actions taken by the Federal Government during the opening weeks of the Civil War, and the earliest charter for its use of Alabama is not dated until 10 May 1862. Meanwhile, into the summer of 1861, the steamer had continued to carry troops, munitions, and supplies to Annapolis and to Fort Monroe, the Union's only remaining hold on the shores of Virginia's strategic waters in the Virginia capes-Hampton Roads area.

The Union Navy purchased Alabama, at New York on 1 August 1861 from the firm of S. L. Mitchell and Son and, after fitting the ship out for naval service, commissioned her at the navy yard there on 30 September 1861, Comdr. Edmund Lanier in command.

The ship was assigned to Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont's newly established South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which was charged with guarding the Confederate coast from the border between North and South Carolina to the tip of the Florida Peninsula. Du Pont's orders also called for him to capture some harbor within his sector as a base and a port of convenience for Union ships moving to and from the Gulf of Mexico.

While taking hold of the administrative reins of his new command, the flag officer assembled a group of warships at New York City for a joint Army-Navy expedition against Port Royal, S.C., which he had selected as the site of the new base. On 16 October, Alabama got underway in this task force and headed for the Virginia capes. Two days later, the Union men-of-war anchored in Hampton Roads, the staging point for the impending attack.

However, on the 25th, before the expedition could sortie for the South Carolina coast, word reached Du Pont that Susquehanna had suffered engine trouble which seriously impaired her efficiency. Responding to this crisis, the flag officer ordered Alabama to waters off Charleston to plug this new hole in the blockade of that strategically and symbolically important port. Thus, Alabama lost her role in the conquest of Port Royal.

When Alabama arrived on station outside Charleston bar on the 27th, she began performing more than her normal share of steaming since Flag, her companion there, was crippled by boiler trouble. On the morning of 5 November, she chased, boarded, and took possession of La Corbeta Providencia of Majorca which, four days earlier had been stopped by Monticello. While that Spanish bark's papers were on board that Union screw gunboat for examination, a storm arose and separated the two vessels. Thus, Providencia could show no papers to Comdr. Lanier, so he sent her to Hampton Roads as a prize. After the true facts were determined, the bark was turned over to the Spanish consul at New York for return to her owner.

On 12 December, while proceeding from the recently acquired Union base at Port Royal to St. Simon's Sound, Ga., Alabama sighted a large vessel some 12 to 14 miles south of Tybee Island. After a brief chase, she brought the stranger to and, on boarding, identified her as Admiral, a sailing ship which had left Liverpool two months before, bound for St. John, New Brunswick. However, the boarding party found among the ship's documents, a contract agreeing to deliver her cargo of salt, coal, and general merchandise to Savannah. Since this evidence destroyed the credibility of her clearance papers, Lanier sent Admiral to Philadelphia where she was condemned by the prize court.

During the remainder of the autumn and the ensuing winter, besides serving on blockade duty, Alabama performed widely varied duties for her squadron such as carrying dispatches and supplies to fellow warships in the area, searching for the missing schooner Peri, and towing granite-laden ships of the stone fleet to Charleston from Savannah where their use as obstructions to stop blockade runners had been obviated by hulks which the Southerners themselves had sunk in the channel leading to that port to bar the entry of Northern warships.

In late February and early March 1862, she was part of the task force which occupied Fernandia and Amelia Island, giving the Union virtual control of Florida's entire Atlantic coast. At the conclusion of this operation, Du Pont, on 6 March, ordered Alabama, to carry his chief of staff, Capt. Charles Henry Davis, who had been earmarked to head a squadron and soon would be given command of the Western Flotilla, north to deliver to the President a report of the Union's bloodless victory.

Since the Confederates had erected batteries along the Virginia bank of the Potomac making navigation of that river extremely dangerous for Union ships, the flag officer sent her to Baltimore rather than directly to Washington. His eagerness to have the good news reach the Union capital prompted Du Pont to have Alabama skip the customary stop at Hampton Roads.

This decision deprived the steamer of a front row seat at, and conceivably a role in, the most historic single naval action of the Civil War. On 9 March, as she passed between the Virginia capes and started up Chesapeake Bay, all on board could hear the guns of Monitor and Merrimack, the latter reborn as CSS Virginia, as they fought the first duel between ironclad warships. Davis later recalled the skirmish, upon his asking the master of a passing river steamer the meaning of the sound, he had been told" . . . that it was target practice . . . with the great guns on the Rip-Raps."

The ship reached Baltimore the next day, and Davis went on by train to Washington where he delivered Du Pont's report and visited the White House to give Lincoln a detailed personal account of the Florida operations. Meanwhile, Alabama began nine days in port undergoing replenishment and repairs. She stood down Chesapeake Bay on 19 March and, four days later, arrived off Port Royal and resumed duty with her squadron.

Early in April, she took station in St. Simon's Bay, Ga., and found on St. Simon's Island a recently established and growing colony of blacks who had escaped from their masters. The 26 men, 6 women, and 9 children in group were busy "... planting potatoes, corn, etc ..." but were short on food so Lanier visited a plantation on Jekyl Island and obtained a large supply of sweet potatoes to feed the former slaves until their labors bore fruit. By the time Alabama left St. Simons on the 18th, the size of the community of "contrabands" on St. Simons had increased to 89. Thus the rapid growth of this colony of former slaves illustrated the erosive effect of the war on the South's "peculiar institution" throughout the Confederacy and especially in areas controlled, or close to, Union forces.

Florida arrived in St. Simon's Bay on 18 April relieving Alabama who got underway the next morning. She joined the blockading forces off Charleston on the 20th. While on duty there on the night of 7 May, she sighted, chased, and fired at an incoming schooner which escaped in the darkness. At dawn, she sighted the elusive vessel aground off Light-House Inlet. She promptly stood in toward the stranded ship as far as the depth of water allowed and fired two rounds at the blockade runner. Both fell short. Later that morning, local people joined the schooner's crew in a race to unload this stranger's cargo before she bilged.

An even better day for Alabama began about three hours before dawn on 20 June when she assisted Keystone State in capturing Sarah as that British schooner was attempting to escape from Charleston harbor to carry 156 bales of cotton to Nassau. Alabama scored again at daybreak, when she caught Catalina after that Charleston schooner had slipped out of her home port laden with more cotton. Lanier sent that prize to Philadelphia where she was condemned by the admiralty court.

A frustrating action for Alabama, began about 90 minutes after midnight on the morning of 26 July when her sister blockader Crusader sighted, fired upon, and chased a steamer which was attempting to sneak into Charleston. The Union vessel's shells forced the blockade runner back out to sea, but Crusader's limited speed, slowed even more by ailing engines, made her no match for the fleet stranger. Alabama joined in the pursuit and followed in the stranger's wake for about 25 miles before her quarry disappeared over the horizon.

Four days later, Crusader's engines broke down completely, necessitating Alabama's towing her to Port Royal. That mission came at a fortuitous time since Comdr. Lanier had become sick several weeks before and his condition had steadily worsened. His illness prompted Du Pont to order Lt. Comdr. James H. Gillis to relieve Lanier in command of Alabama, freeing the stricken officer to return north to recuperate. However, the assignment was brief for Gillis for, on 12 August, Lt. Comdr. William T. Truxtun took command of the ship.

During ensuing weeks, Alabama operated primarily in the shallow waters of the bays and rivers along the coast of Georgia. The highlight of her duty during this period was her capture of "... the English schooner Nellie, from Nassau, purporting to be bound for Baltimore." Truxtun sent the prize to Philadelphia for adjudication.

However, her first year of service in the Navy had taken a heavy toll on Alabama, and she needed repairs which could not be made at Port Royal. On 26 September, to return her to fighting trim, Du Pont ordered her to Philadelphia. On the voyage north, she carried "... William H. Gladding, a pilot, taken in a schooner attempting to pass the blockade at Sapelo, and reported him to you as too dangerous a man to be allowed to be adrift." The ship sailed on the 29th, reached Philadelphia on 3 October, but headed further north three days later, and arrived at Boston on the 9th and was decommissioned there on the 15th.

The steamer underwent repairs in the navy yard there for about six weeks. The exact date of her recommissioning is unknown since no logs for her between 15 October 1862 and 17 May 1864 seem to have survived. In any case, from other records, we know that Alabama, then commanded by Comdr. Edward T. Nichols, departed Boston on New Year's Day 1863, bound for the Virgin Islands to stop, or at least to gather information about, the Confederate privateer Retribution. She reached St. Thomas on the 9th where Nichols found "... much excitement among the masters of American vessels in the harbor in consequence of the appearance off the port of a Confederate privateer schooner, and the chasing by her of two American vessels back into the harbor . . . ." The next morning, Alabama got underway and cruised in the waters between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico vainly seeking the Southern raider. This cruise typified most of her subsequent operations during ensuing months in the special squadron which was established to counter the commerce destroying action of Confederate raiders and privateers. Her efforts to protect Union shipping, which were primarily devoted to catching the Southern cruisers Alabama and Florida, were ended in the summer by an outbreak of yellow fever on board. On 27 July, she was ordered to Boston in the hope that cooler weather would help to restore her crew to good health. She departed Cape Haitien, Haiti, later that day; but the growing list of deaths which occurred after she got underway and the deteriorating condition of her chief engineer and one other member of her crew forced her to put into New York where she was apparently decommissioned before transferring her entire crew to the receiving ship Magnolia. She was then towed to Portsmouth, N.H., and placed in quarantine.

Recommissioned on 17 May 1864, Acting Vol. Lt. Frank Smith in command, she stood down the Piscataqua River and headed out to sea on the 30th. After stopping at New York for 10 days, she resumed her voyage south and joined the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Newport News, Va., on 11 June and served in its waters through the end of the war. Highlights of her remaining year in naval service were her participation in the capture of Annie off New Inlet, N.C., as that British steamer attempted to slip out of Wilmington with a cargo of cotton, tobacco, and turpentine; and her shelling of Fort Fisher during the two attacks on that Confederate stronghold which protected Wilmington, in late-December 1864 and in mid-January 1865.

On 26 March of the latter year, she ascended the James River to City Point, Va., and remained there during the final days of Grant's drive on Richmond. After the fall of Richmond and Lee's surrender, she headed downstream on 10 April and remained in the Newport News-Hampton Roads area during the first 10 days of uncertainty, fear, and anger following Lincoln's assassination.

Alabama stood out to sea on the 24th and, two days later, entered the New York Navy Yard for repairs. Somewhat refurbished, she headed south again on 22 May and operated between Atlantic ports from Hampton Roads to the Delaware River for almost two months. She was decommissioned at Philadelphia on 14 July 1865, sold at auction there to Samuel C. Cook on 10 August 1865, and redocumented under her original name on 3 October 1865. She operated along the Atlantic coast between New York and Florida under a series of owners. In 1872 her engines were removed and on 12 September of that year she was reregistered as a schooner. The veteran ship was destroyed by fire, probably sometime in 1878, but the details of her destruction are not known.

09 November 2004

Published: Tue Jan 19 19:54:40 EST 2016