Off Cherbourg, France in 1864,
“The pirate ship Sumter, Capt. Semmes, entering the Bay of Gibraltar—her last voyage as a ‘Confederate’ steamer.”
s sails gave way to steam and paddle side-wheels to screw propellers, warfare at sea no longer depended on the whims of wind or current, but still on those of landlubber politicians. Even lying at anchor in a foreign harbor, Cdr. Raphael Semmes of the Confederate States Navy had been perfectly outmaneuvered. His bark-rigged screw steamer, CSS Sumter, had spent the latter half of 1861 as the first Confederate high-seas commerce raider, capturing or sinking 18 Union ships from Cuba to Brazil. But she had spent the first months of 1862 in the British port at Gibraltar, blockaded by Federal warships more securely than had she sheltered at Charleston or Mobile.
Semmes (known to his crew as “Old Beeswax” for his finely tipped moustaches) and the Sumter had twice before escaped Union blockades, beating the USS Brooklyn from New Orleans in June 1861 and the USS Iroquois from Martinique in November. At Gibraltar, however, he’d been checkmated.
“If a neutral merchant showed any inclination to supply the Sumter with anything she needed,” Semmes wrote in his memoirs, “...a runner was forthwith sent round to him by the [US] Federal Consul, to threaten him with the loss of his American—i.e. Yankee—trade, unless he desisted. Such was the game now being played in Gibraltar, to prevent the Sumter from coaling.... I resolved to lay her up, and proceed to London, and consult with my Government as to my future course.”
In England Semmes and his executive officer Lt. John Kell learned from Confederate Commissioner James Murray Mason of a new ship being built on the Mersey River, near Liverpool. Confederate foreign agent Cdr. James Bulloch had covertly financed her construction, through the sale of Southern cotton, as “Hull 290.” She was a wood-hulled, bark-rigged (foremasts rigged square, mizzenmast fore-and-aft), 220-foot sloop of 1,050 tons. With two 300hp steam engines driving a single two-bladed screw, she could make 13 knots. Her name was to be the CSS Alabama, and she would be the greatest high-seas raider ever to sail under the Confederate flag.
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The Laird shipyard on the Mersey River, across from Liverpool,
Plan of CSS Alabama, including pivot gun mounts
“It will, doubtless, be a matter of some delicacy, and tact, to get the Alabama safely out of British waters, without suspicion,” wrote Semmes, “as Mr. [Charles Francis] Adams, the Northern Envoy [US ambassador to England], and his numerous satellites in the shape of consuls and paid agents, are exceedingly vigilant in their espionage.”
The Enrica raises steam on the Mersey. By Edward D. Walker
British law forbade English citizens from equipping or manning warships for foreign belligerents; alleging that Hull 290 (launched on May 15th as the HMS Enrica) was to be a Confederate warship, Ambassador Adams convinced British Foreign Secretary Earl John Russell to impound her. Customs officials were on their way to Liverpool when Enrica, still unfinished and hosting a luncheon party of civilians, ladies, and friends of the builders, weighed anchor for what was claimed to be a brief river cruise. Had she returned to port she would have been embargoed. Instead she put her guests off on a harbor tug, raised steam, and took off—supposedly for Nassau, Bahamas, but actually to Terceira Island in the Azores, to receive her warload of heavy cannon.
Evolution of the Shipboard Gun
The Alabama in the North Atlantic
From late August to early November 1862 the Alabama raided the Atlantic unopposed, wreaking havoc among the US whaling fleet in the east and merchant vessels off the New England coast. She captured and sank no less than 20 ships, and released three others. In late November she headed for Martinique to rendezvous with her supply ship, the CSS Agrippina.
USS Benton off Natchez, Mississippi in July 1864
While Semmes and the Alabama were running amok through the Atlantic, Winslow was stuck in command of the ponderous, deep-draft ironclad Benton as flagship of the Mississippi Squadron. On his first venture downriver the ship grounded on a sandbar, so firmly that when he tried winching her off a link of 1½-inch chain parted with enough force to nearly tear off Winslow’s arm.
USS San Jacinto
In November 1862 Semmes and the Alabama were nearly bottled up in Fort Royal, Martinique, by the USS San Jacinto. Built to experiment with new propulsion concepts, the San Jacinto was plagued with prop trouble and mechanical failures throughout her service, but became infamous in November 1861 when her Capt. Charles Wilkes waylaid the British mail packet HMS Trent. Firing two shots across the bow to persuade the British to heave to, Wilkes sent a boarding party to illegally seize two Confederate diplomats and their secretaries before permitting the packet to be on her way. Little over a year later, the Federals hoped to bully the Alabama in the same manner.
The San Jacinto mounted eleven big guns, and could throw twice the Alabama’s weight of shot, but Semmes was unimpressed. “We paid no sort of attention to the arrival of this old wagon of a ship,” he wrote. “She was too heavy for me to think of engaging her...but we had the speed of her, and could, of course, go to sea whenever we pleased.” On the rainy night of Nov. 19th the Alabama made good on his brag, slipping past in the dark. Not until the 21st were the Federals even sure she was gone.
The Galveston Raid, January 1863
Dec. 7, 1862: The Alabama captures the U.S. Mail Steamship Ariel
The Ariel was carrying hundreds of passengers bound California via Panama and Cape Horn, including about 150 U.S. Marines, when the Alabama caught her in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola. The ship was ransomed, the passengers released and the soldiers paroled, but not before Ariel’s cache of New York newspapers, less than a week old, revealed that a 30,000-strong army under Gen. Nathaniel Banks had sailed to invade Texas, at Galveston.
The Alabama and the USS Hatteras off Galveston, Jan. 11, 1863.
Built in 1861, the sidewheel passenger steamer St. Mary was purchased by the U.S. Navy that September, renamed the Hatteras and converted into a gun boat carrying four 32-pounder cannon and a 20-pounder rifled cannon, under Commander George F. Emmons. No pushover, in January 1862 the Hatteras made a highly successful raid on the harbor at Cedar Keys, Fla, burned seven small blockade runners, destroyed the important Florida Railroad terminus, and captured 14 of the 22-man garrison, including the commanding officer. Over the course of the year the Hatteras captured seven more blockade runners, mostly off Vermilion Bay, Louisiana. Emmons even put four of his own men on board the prize 20-ton sloop Poody and rechristened her Hatteras Jr., an ex-blockade runner now enforcing the blockade.
The USS Kearsarge.
A Mohican-class sloop-of-war, the Kearsarge was among the Union warships that blockaded Semmes’ first raider, the Sumter, at Gibraltar in 1862. Winslow was to have taken command in December of that year, but Kearsarge was laid up in Cádiz for repairs and did not rendezvous with her new captain in the Azores until April 1863. It was in the Azores that Winslow took his executive officer’s advice and added chain armor to her sides.
Winslow’s executive officer, Lt. Cdr. James S. Thornton, knew how to turn their wood-hulled sloop into an ironclad. “We remained ten days...plating our vessel for some thirty feet each side, to protect our machinery,” Winslow wrote. “This plating consists of our heavy [spare anchor] chains, suspended close together, which are hung to the sides of the vessel, and makes a complete armor for protection against shot, etc.” Disguised with a wooden veneer, from any distance the chain cladding was nearly invisible.
Meanwhile the Alabama had ranged down the coast of South America on what would be her most lucrative raid. Preying on merchant traffic coming up from Cape Horn, Semmes had captured or burned 19 vessels, on several occasions two or even three a day. By mid-May, when Winslow was finishing up his armor in the Azores, the Alabama was carrying no less than four ships’ crews prisoner. She stopped off in Bahia, Brazil, to put them ashore and take on coal, and by complete coincidence met the CSS Georgia, fresh from Ushant on her maiden raid, and her own sister ship, CSS Florida, just up the coast at Pernambuco. The Confederates had formed an inadvertent South Atlantic Squadron.
Though all three raiders were on separate missions and soon parted company, the possibilities must have been plain to Semmes. Capturing seven more ships in the South Atlantic by the beginning of June, he transferred spare crewmen and a pair of captured cannon to the 350-ton bark USS Conrad and rechristened her as the raider CSS Tuscaloosa. “Never, perhaps, was a ship of war fitted out so promptly before,” he recounted proudly. “The Conrad was a commissioned ship, with armament, crew, and provisions on board, flying her pennant, and with sailing orders signed, sealed, and delivered, before sunset on the day of her capture.” The Confederate high-seas raiders were beginning to reproduce.
Confederate Raiders in the South Atlantic
By the time she reached Cape Town, South Africa, in August 1863, Alabama was an international sensation. “Three hearty cheers were given for Captain Semmes and his gallant privateer,” declared the Cape Town Argus. “This, upon the part of a neutral people, is, perchance, wrong.... It was not, perhaps, taking the view of either side, Federal or Confederate, but in admiration of the skill, pluck, and daring of the Alabama, her captain, and her crew, who afford a general theme of admiration for the world all over.”
Global Sensation: The Alabama in Cape Town
First Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell
Looking aft, Kell with his hand on the breech-rope of the aft eight-inch Blakely, notably pointed toward the stern. Left foreground is the engine-room skylight, with bars over the glass. Also of note is the laundry hanging in the rigging.
Crew of the Alabama
Taken a few steps to port and sternward of the above shot (the slide and pivot-track for the Blakely are still visible, lower left) and within the same few minutes judging by the shadows of the gun and gun-room skylight. The untidy lines on the deck by have been stowed and a barrel has moved in front of the chest behind the main figure. The subjects were long described as Semmes, foreground, and Second Lieutenant Richard Armstrong leaning on the hoist over the skylight, but the main figure is now thought to be the captain’s secretary, W. Breedlove Smith, with Sailing Master Irving Bulloch by the wheel. Crew further aft by the stern flag-locker are unknown.
Captain Semmes of the Alabama
Taken at the same point of the deck, but on the starboard side of the 8-inch Blakely. Lt. Kell leans near the ship’s wheel, with several crewmen visible in the background and one (near Kell’s right knee) poking his head out from below.
CSS Alabama, December, 1863.
One of the few actual photos of the Alabama, taken in Singapore just before Christmas 1863. Stainless Banner hangs from the gaffsail arm.
The Battle of Cherbourg: June 19, 1864
Word of the impending fight spread across France. A new rail line from Paris had just opened; Cherbourg’s hotels filled with tourists eager to witness history. (French Impressionist painter Edouard Manet, usually said to have watched the battle from a boat, likely did not arrive until afterward and rendered his famous depiction from spectator accounts.) Among as many as 19,000 spectators, picnickers and vacationing families watching from the high ground around Cherbourg, especially to the west around the famous Chapel of St. Germain on the point of Querqueville, the betting was running hot and heavy, with the odds favoring the Alabama. Peddlers were doing a brisk business in campstools, telescopes and cheap binoculars.
Alabama’s forward 7-inch rifle had the advantage of range over any other gun in the battle, including even the Kearsarge’s Dahlgrens, and Semmes was determined to strike the first blow.
The ships were still a mile apart when, at about 11:00 AM, he ordered Alabama over to port. As her bow swung away the cannoneers realized their captain, right out of the box, was going for the Holy Grail of a gunfight at sea. With the Kearsarge coming straight at them, he intended to “cross the T”: bring all guns to bear on the enemy’s bow and rake her, stem to stern.
“She opened her full broadside, the shot cutting some of our rigging and going over and alongside of us,” reported Winslow. “Immediately I ordered more speed; but in two minutes the Alabama had loaded and again fired another broadside, and following it with a third, without damaging us except in rigging.” The Confederates’ aim was surprisingly high, but so was their rate of fire. “I was apprehensive that another broadside—nearly raking as it was—would prove disastrous. Accordingly, I ordered the Kearsarge sheered, and opened on the Alabama.”
The Union sloop peeled away to port. The ships passed starboard to starboard, less than a thousand yards apart. Winslow ordered, “Fire at your pleasure!”
The two ships turned seven complete circles, firing continuously into each other.
Kell orders a 32-pounder crew to take over the 8-inch Blakely after half its crew is killed.
“My position was near the eight-inch gun,” recalled Kell. “An eleven-inch shell from the Kearsarge entered a port hole and killed eight of the sixteen men serving that gun.” When the smoke cleared he saw, “The men were cut all to pieces, and the deck was strewn with arms, legs, heads and shattered trunks. One of the mates nodded to me as if to say, ‘Shall I clear the deck?‘ I bowed my head and he picked up the mangled remains of the bodies and threw them into the sea.”
A Dahlgren gun crew aboard the Kearsarge.
Executive Officer Thornton remembered, “...Nothing could restrain the enthusiasm of our men. Cheer succeeded cheer; caps were thrown in the air or overboard; jackets were discarded; sanguine of victory, the men were shouting as each projectile took effect: ‘That is a good one!’ ‘Down, boys!’ ‘Give her another like the last!’ ‘Now we have her!’ and so on, cheering and shouting to the end.”
Winslow’s own 1864 map of the battle shows the Alabama’s course from Cherbourg and the ships’ maneuvers.
This 1891 painting notably shows the side bulkheads of both ships folded down to allow the pivot guns’ muzzles to swing outboard, though the arrangement of guns on the Alabama’s deck appears to be in error (the bow gun was mounted much closer to the mainmast) and the CSN ensign she’s flying was retired in 1863 in favor of the Stainless Banner.
On the aft deck of the Alabama as she sinks
Semmes ordered Kell below to assess the damage. The lieutenant remembered, “The holes in the side of the poor old Alabama were large enough to admit a wheelbarrow.” He rushed back on deck, reporting she had at most ten minutes left on the surface.
“Strike the colors, Mr. Kell,” Semmes told him, “it will not do in the nineteenth century to sacrifice every man we have on board.”
Shortly before 1:00 PM, about five miles off the Cherbourg breakwater, the CSS Alabama suddenly reared up out of the water, her bottom showing green with algae and copper patina and her damaged mainmast snapping from the strain. Then, swiftly, she slid stern-first below the surface of the Channel. 26 of her crew died with her, several sucked under after her. “After swimming off a few yards, I turned to see her go down,” remembered Kell. “As the gallant vessel, the most beautiful I ever beheld, plunged down to her grave, I had it on my tongue to call to the men who were struggling in the water to give three cheers for her, but the dead that were floating around me and the deep sadness I felt at parting with the noble ship that had been my home so long deterred me.”
The Deerhound controversy
The yacht Deerhound had been built in 1859, in the same Laird shipyard as the Alabama would be, for the Duke of Leeds, who later sold her to Lancashire businessman and Royal Mersey Yacht Club member John Lancaster. A steel-hulled three-master capable of 20 knots, she had dropped off the Lancaster family at St. Malo for a holiday and met them at Cherbourg prior to battle.
After the rescue, Winslow accused the Deerhound of acting as a Confederate auxiliary. The New York Times of July 7th, 1864, reported “We learn that the British yacht Deerhound, which happened to be so opportunely near the Alabama during her fight with the Kearsarge, and which rescued her commander, and at his urgent request took him into a British harbor of refuge, is owned by the firm of FRASER, TRENHOLM & CO., of Liverpool, who are the rebel agents for that port, and that she is thus almost as really rebel property as the Alabama herself. It probably was not wholly accidental that she happened to be on the spot at that particular time.” However, Captain Jones insisted that in the week preceding the battle, he had no communication with the Confederates except the usual niceties. The Alabama was girding for battle and refused the Lancasters so much as a courtesy visit. They held a family meeting and discussed whether to sail out into possible harm’s way to view the battle. It was put to a vote and Lancaster’s 9-year old daughter cast the deciding ballot to sail out.
The Alabama today
In late 1984 the French minesweeper Circé, clearing 40-year-old mines, located a sunken ship in the vicinity of the battle. Robot subs and scuba divers revealed it to be the Alabama, lying about 200 feet down and about 30 degrees to starboard, partly sheltered by undersea sand dunes. The US, France and England all laid claim, but what had been international waters in 1864 was, 120 years later, within France's 12-mile limit. Strong tides will prevent the wreck from ever being raised, but today Alabama artifacts can be found on both sides of the Atlantic, including the ship's bell, the 7-inch Blakely (found with a shell still in the barrel) and several of her 32-pounders. The dud shell embedded in the Kearsarge's sternpost, which was presented to Pres. Lincoln, now resides at the Washington Navy Yard.