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American Civil War: CSS Alabama

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American Civil War: CSS Alabama

CSS Alabama

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy History & Heritage Command

CSS Alabama - Overview:

  • Nation: Confederate States of America
  • Type: Screw Steamer
  • Shipyard: John Laird Sons, Birkenhead
  • Laid Down: 1862
  • Launched: July 29, 1862
  • Commissioned: August 24, 1862
  • Fate: Sunk, June 19, 1864

CSS Alabama - Specifications

  • Displacement: 1,050 tons
  • Length: 220 ft.
  • Beam: 31 ft., 8 ft.
  • Draft: 17 ft., 8 in.
  • Speed: 13 knots
  • Complement: 145 men

CSS Alabama - Armament

Guns

  • 6 x 32 lb. guns, 1 x 100 lb. Blakeley Rifle, 1 x 8 in. gun

  • CSS Alabama - Construction:

    Operating in England, Confederate agent James Bulloch was tasked with establishing contacts and finding vessels for the fledgling Confederate Navy. Establishing a relationship with Fraser, Trenholm & Company, a respected shipping company, to facilitate the sale of Southern cotton, he was later able to use the firm as a front for his naval activities. As the British government remained officially neutral in the American Civil War, Bulloch was unable to purchase ships outright for military use. Working through Fraser, Trenholm & Company, he was able to contract for the construction of a screw sloop at the yard of John Laird Sons & Company in Birkenhead. Laid down in 1862, the new hull was designated #290 and launched on July 29, 1862.

    Initially named Enrica, the new ship was powered by a direct-acting, horizontal condensing steam engine with twin horizontal cylinders which powered a retractable propeller. In addition, Enrica was rigged as a three-masted barque and was capable of employing a large spread of canvas. As Enrica completed fitting out, Bulloch hired a civilian crew to sail the new vessel to Terceira in the Azores. Reaching the island, the ship was soon met by its new commander, Captain Raphael Semmes, and the supply vessel Agrippina which was carrying guns for Enrica. After Semmes' arrival, work began to convert Enrica into a commerce raider. Over the next few days, sailors endeavored to mount the heavy guns which included six 32-pdr smoothbores as well as a 100-pdr Blakely Rifle and an 8-in. smoothbore. The latter two guns were placed on pivot mounts along the ship's centerline. With the conversion complete, the ships moved into international waters off Terceira where Semmes officially commissioned the ship into the Confederate Navy as CSS Alabama on August 24.

    CSS Alabama - Early Successes:

    Though Semmes had sufficient officers to oversee the running of Alabama, he had no sailors. Addressing the crews of the attending ships, he offered them signing money, lucrative bonuses, as well as prize money if they signed on for a cruise of unknown length. Semmes' efforts proved successful, and he was able to convince eighty-three sailors to join his ship. Electing to remain in the eastern Atlantic, Semmes departed Terceira and began stalking Union whaling ships in the area. On September 5, Alabama scored its first victim when it captured the whaler Ocumlgee in the western Azores. Burning the whaler the following morning, Alabama continued its operations with great success. Over the next two weeks, the raider destroyed a total of ten Union merchant ships, mostly whalers, and inflicted around $230,000 in damage.

    Turning west, Semmes sailed for the East Coast. After encountering poor weather en route, Alabama made its next captures on October 3 when it took the merchant ships Emily Farnum and Brilliant. While the former was released, the latter was burned. Over the next month, Semmes successfully took eleven more Union merchant ships as Alabama moved south along the coast. Of these, all were burned but two which were bonded and sent to port loaded with crewmen and civilians from Alabama's conquests. Though Semmes desired to raid New York Harbor, a lack of coal forced him to abandon this plan. Turning south, Semmes steamed for Martinique with the goal of meeting Agrippina and resupplying. Reaching the island, he learned that Union ships were aware of his presence. Sending the supply ship to Venezuela, Alabama was later forced slip past USS San Jacinto (6 guns) to escape. Re-coaling, Semmes sailed for Texas with the hope of frustrating Union operations off Galveston, TX.

    CSS Alabama - Defeat of USS Hatteras:

    After pausing at Yucatan to conduct maintenance on Alabama, Semmes reached the vicinity of Galveston on January 11, 1863. Spotting the Union blockading force, Alabama was seen and approached by USS Hatteras (5). Turning to flee like a blockade runner, Semmes lured Hatteras away from its consorts before turning to attack. Closing on the Union sidewheeler, Alabama opened fire with its starboard broadside and in a quick thirteen-minute battle forced Hatteras to surrender. With the Union ship sinking, Semmes' took the crew aboard and departed the area. Landing and paroling the Union prisoners, he turned south and made for Brazil. Operating along the coast of South America through late July, Alabama enjoyed a successful spell that saw it capture twenty-nine Union merchant ships.

    CSS Alabama - Indian & Pacific Oceans:

    In need of refit and with Union warships searching for him, Semmes sailed for Cape Town, South Africa. Arriving, Alabama spent part of August undergoing a badly-needed overhaul. While there, he commissioned one of his prizes, the bark Conrad, as CSS Tuscaloosa (2). While operating off South Africa, Semmes learned of the arrival of the powerful USS Vanderbilt (15) at Cape Town. After making two captures on September 17, Alabama turned east into the Indian Ocean. Passing through the Sunda Strait, the Confederate raider eluded USS Wyoming (6) before making three quick captures in early November. Finding hunting sparse, Semmes moved along the north coast of Borneo before overhauling his ship at Candore. Seeing little reason to remain in the area, Alabama turned west and arrived at Singapore on December 22.

    CSS Alabama - Difficult Circumstances:

    Receiving a cool reception from British authorities in Singapore, Semmes soon departed. Despite Semmes' best efforts, Alabama was in increasingly poor condition and badly needed dockyard refit. In addition, crew morale was low due to the poor hunting in eastern waters. Understanding that these issues could only be resolved in Europe, he moved through the Straits of Malacca with the intention of reaching Britain or France. While in the straits, Alabama made three captures. The first of these, Martaban (formerly Texas Star) possessed British papers but had changed from American ownership only two weeks earlier. When Martaban's captain failed to produce a sworn certificate stating that the papers were authentic, Semmes burned the ship. This action incensed the British and would ultimately force Semmes to sail for France.

    Re-crossing the Indian Ocean, Alabama departed Cape Town on March 25, 1864. Finding little in the way of Union shipping, Alabama made its final two captures in late April in the form of Rockingham and Tycoon. Though additional ships were sighted, the raider's fouled bottom and aging machinery allowed the potential prey to out-run the once-swift Alabama. Reaching Cherbourg on June 11, Semmes entered the harbor. This proved a poor choice as the only dry docks in the city belonged to the French Navy whereas La Havre possessed privately-owned facilities. Requesting use of the dry docks, Semmes was informed that it required the permission of Emperor Napoleon III who was on vacation. The situation was made worse by the fact that the Union ambassador in Paris immediately alerted all Union naval vessels in Europe as to Alabama's location.

    CSS Alabama - The Final Fight:

    Among those who received word was Captain John A. Winslow of USS Kearsarge (7). Having been banished to a European command by Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles for making critical comments after the 1862 Second Battle of Manassas, Winslow quickly got his ship underway from the Scheldt and steamed south. Reaching Cherbourg on June 14, he entered the harbor and circled the Confederate ship before departing. Careful to respect French territorial waters, Winslow began patrolling outside of the harbor to prevent the raider's escape as well as prepared Kearsarge for battle by tricing chain cable over the vital areas of the ship's sides.

    Unable to secure permission to use the dry docks, Semmes faced a difficult choice. The longer he remained in port, the greater the Union opposition would likely become and the chances increased that the French would prevent his departure. As a result, after issuing a challenge to Winslow, Semmes emerged with his ship on June 19. Escorted by the French ironclad frigate Couronne and the British yacht Deerhound, Semmes approached the limit of French territorial waters. Battered from its long cruise and with its store of powder in poor condition, Alabama entered the battle at a disadvantage. As the two vessels neared, Semmes opened fire first, while Winslow held Kearsarge's guns until the ships were only 1,000 yards apart. As the fight continued, both ships sailed on circular courses seeking to gain an advantage over the other.

    Though Alabama hit the Union vessel several times, the poor condition of its powder showed as several shells, including one that hit Kearsarge's sternpost, failed to detonate. Kearsarge faired better as its rounds hit with telling effect. An hour after the battle began, Kearsarge's guns had reduced the Confederacy's greatest raider to a burning wreck. With his ship sinking, Semmes struck his colors and requested help. Sending boats, Kearsarge managed to rescue much of Alabama's crew, though Semmes was able to escape aboard Deerhound.

    CSS Alabama - Aftermath

    The Confederacy's top performing commerce raider, Alabama claimed sixty-five prizes which were valued at a total of $6 million. Hugely successful in disrupting Union commerce and inflating insurance rates, Alabama's cruise led to the use of additional raiders such as CSS Shenandoah. As many Confederate raiders, such as Alabama, CSS Florida, and Shenandoah, had been built in Britain with the British government's knowledge that the ships were destined for the Confederacy, the US Government pursued monetary damages after the war. Known as the Alabama Claims, the issue caused a diplomatic crisis that was finally resolved by the formation of a twelve-man committee which ultimately awarded damages of $15.5 million in 1872.

    Selected Sources

  • NHHC: CSS Alabama
  • CSS Alabama Association
  • URI: CSS Alabama

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