CSS Alabama Artifact Collection
Built in secret near Liverpool for the Confederate States of America in 1862, CSS Alabama, would become the Confederate States Navy’s (CSN) most notorious commerce raider. Commissioned on 24 August 1862 under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes, the 210 ft. side-wheeled steamer spent the next 22 months raiding and destroying enemy shipping from the Atlantic to the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean.
While waiting for permission to dry dock for repairs in Cherbourg, France, Captain Semmes got word that a Union warship, Kearsarge, had anchored in the English Channel to await an engagement with Alabama. Forgoing repair, Semmes sailed Alabama out to meet Kearsarge on 19 June. The ensuing battle lasted just over an hour before Alabama took a shell below the water line and sank.
In November 1984, French minesweeper Circe discovered a wreck in the English Channel about seven nautical miles off the coast of Cherbourg. Exposed to extreme tidal currents over the years, only the unexposed lower hull and portions of the starboard side of the wreck survived covered by sediment mainly consisting of an abrasive shell hash. In 1988, the first investigation of the wreck led to the retrieval of the ship’s wheel engraved with the motto, “Aide-toi et Dieu t’aidera (God helps those who help themselves),” identifying the ship as CSS Alabama. Subsequent American-French excavations in 1989-1995, 1999, 2000, and 2002 yielded over 500 artifacts including three cannons, ship components, and items of daily life such as flushing toilets, dishes, and bottles.
CSS Alabama was outfitted with eight cannon: a Blakely 7-inch 100-pounder rifled cannon, a 68-pounder smoothbore, and six 32-pounder broadside cannons. Four of the 32-pounders were produced by Fawcett, Preston, and Company in England and the other two were of British Royal Navy style. The 32-pounders were positioned on one side of the ship, while the 100 and 68-pounders were both on pivot carriages. Three of Alabama’s eight cannon were retrieved during excavations: the Blakely 100-pounder, along with its pivot carriage and portions of brass tracks; a 32-pounder of British Royal Navy style; and a Fawcett, Preston and Company 32-pounder. Archaeologists also found cannon balls, gun carriage wheels, and rifle parts.
Excavations revealed ship components such as hull fragments, metal fasteners, the ship’s wheel bell, and various rigging elements. Alabama was framed in oak and secured with brass bolts and fasteners. In addition, blocks made of brass or wood and belaying pins used to tighten ropes and rigging were recovered; as well as brass and glass deadlights that allowed light into the lower decks of the ship.
LIFE ABOARD SHIP
The Alabama collection includes items from the crew’s daily life such as ceramic dishes and jugs, glass bottles, tobacco pipes, and coins. Three almost complete flushing toilets were found close to the ship’s engineering space. The toilets are made of transfer-printed ceramic porcelain bowls portraying country scenes and set in lead bases with flushing mechanisms. Also, a ceramic chamber pot and a washbasin with a copper drain, both with a marble flow blue design and of British manufacture, were recovered.
Personal items include pieces of a bone or ivory comb, two wood toothbrush handles, a thimble, a leather shoe, and 18 buttons made of bone, brass, mother-of-pearl, and wood. Items from the crew reflected the different ports they visited, including a cache of Brazilian 40 Reis coins and an antler that could have been a prize from a hunting expedition in Africa.
Another component of the crew’s daily life represented in the artifact collection includes vessels used for eating, serving, and storage. Of the drinking vessels in the collection, six are ceramic cups or mugs and nine are glass. There are at least three examples of a glass stemware set with oval depressions around the base of the bowl and three horizontal lines that cross in four paned diamond patterns. Food, liquids, and medicines were stored in ceramic and glass vessels such as jugs, ointment jars, and bottles.
Of the ceramic dinnerware vessels, a majority had a nautical theme. There are three different design colors represented in the collection, which were all produced by Davenport in Staffordshire, England. The blue set includes 26 vessels with a blue fouled anchor in the center with a looped belt around it, and a twisted rope around the perimeter of the dish. Nine of those are dinner plates, 12 are side plates, and six are soup bowls. Of the 12 green vessels, six are dinner plates, three are soup bowls, one is a soup tureen, and two tureen lids. This set features two crossed anchors surrounded with a looped belt in the center of the vessels, with a twisted rope around the outside edge. The brown set is a single fouled anchor in the center with a twisted rope design around the outside edge. The 17 brown pieces include six dinner plates, 10 soup bowls, and one side plate. While unknown, perhaps the color indicated the hierarchy on board the ship; blue for officers, green for petty officers and engineers, and brown for the crew.
The collection also includes undecorated white ceramic dishes. One such dish, a white porcelain dinner plate with a wave pattern around the outer edge, bears a makers mark that dates to 1850-52, potentially indicating that the dish was seized from a captured ship. A few of the recovered ceramics were intrusive to the site, likely trash thrown overboard by passing ships, such as a bowl, egg cup, and pitcher with marks from the Royal Mail Lines and Cunard Steam Ship Company, which operated years after Alabama sank.
The collection of artifacts recovered from CSS Alabama provide insight into the workings of the Confederacy’s most famous and successful commerce raider, as well as a unique look into daily lives of the crew, from the dishes they used to the buttons sewn on their clothes, coins and mementos picked up form ports visits, objects taken from captured vessels, and pieces of the ship they called home.
CSS Alabama artifacts were conserved at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory, the Archeolyse International Underwater Conservation Lab in France, the Warren Lash Conservation Center in Charleston, and the Naval Hisotry and Heritage Command (NHHC) Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory (ACL). A majority of the collection is curated at the NHHC ACL, which conducts further analysis of the collection, monitors artifacts for stabilization, and provides access to the collection for research.
Currently, CSS Alabama artifacts are on display at La Cité de la Mer in France, the Museum of Mobile in Alabama, Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Laboratory in St. Lenord, Maryland, and the National Museum of the U.S. Navy on the Washington Navy Yard, DC.
- Bowcock, Andrew. CSS Alabama: Anatomy of a Confederate Raider. 2002. Naval Institute Press, Maryland.
- Grenchik, Maria. CSS Alabama Collection Catalog: Ceramics, Glassware, & Personal Effects DRAFT. March, 2012
- Watts, Jr., Gordon P. Archaeological Investigation and Remote Operated Vehicle Documentation: Confederate Commerce Raider CSS Alabama. 2002
- Watts, Jr., Gordon P. Investigation of the CSS Alabama. 2000