The C.S.S. Alabama was the most successful Confederate commerce raider of the American Civil War. In a career that lasted for nearly two years, she sank or captured 66 Union ships, including the warship Hatteras.
The Alabama had been built through the efforts of James D. Bulloch, one of the more successful Confederate agents in Europe. He had placed orders for two ships soon after his arrival in Britain in June 1861. The Alabamawas built in the Laird’s shipyard at Birkenhead, on the Wirral opposite Liverpool. She was a combined steam and sail ship, with a propeller that could be raised from the water to turn her into a pure sailing ship if needed. When everything was working well she could make 15 knots under a combination of steam and sail power. She also had a combination of types of gun, with six 32-pounder broadside guns as well as two pivot guns – one a 100 pounder rifled gun, the second an 8-inch solid shot gun. The Alabama demonstrates clearly how much naval warfare was in transition during the Civil War.
The building of the Alabama caused a great deal of friction between the United States and Great Britain. The British government was generally committed to her policy of neutrality, but early in the war did not always implement it well. The relevant official in Liverpool did nothing, despite being presented with plenty of evidence. Lord Russell, whose responsibility it was, delayed fatally, passing the evidence on to Sir John Harding, who was the chief law officer of the government, but sadly declining into insanity. Five days were lost, before on 29 July 1862 it was officially decided to detain the ship. Unfortunately, news of this reached the Confederate agents at Liverpool, and on the same day the ship was launched. Officially on a trial run, she actually headed out to sea, heading for the Azores.
There she met with her captain. Raphael Semmes had been one of the most intelligent officers in the United States Navy. He was an international lawyer, always useful when dealing with the intricacies of commerce raiding. Like many on both sides he had served in the Mexican War. At the outbreak of the civil war, he had joined the new Confederate Navy. His already had some invaluable experience as captain of the C.S.S. Sumter, an improvised raider in which he had taken eighteen prices before being trapped at Gibraltar in January 1862. Semmes joined his new ship on the Azores, and began his second, much more successful cruise.
The Alabama was well suited to her role. She was designed for speed, giving her a good chance of escaping from any superior Union forces she might encounter. She was able to stay at sea for long periods, reducing the periods she was vulnerable in port. Semmes worked out that he could stay in the same place for up to two months before sufficient Union ships could arrive to pose a serious risk.
Her cruise began in the mid-Atlantic, before moving on to the West Indies and then into the Gulf of Mexico. There she fought one of only two battles against fellow warships. From captured ships, Semmes had learnt that a Union expedition under General Banks was heading for Texas and decided to intervene. However, when the Alabama arrived off Galveston they found no invasion fleet, but instead a small blockading squadron. One ship from the squadron, the U.S.S. Hatteras was lured from the fleet, and sunk after a short engagement (11 January 1863).
After that encounter, Semmes returned to the Atlantic, before heading east into the Indian Ocean (August 1863). This time he stayed put for six months, devastating the North’s China trade. However, at the start of 1864 the ship was begins to show the strain of continuous service. Semmes decided to head back to Europe to make repairs.
His chosen destination was Cherbourg, where the Alabama arrived on 11 June 1864. Although Cherbourg was a neutral port, international law did allow warships to stop in port to carry out repairs, as long as those repairs did not improve the ship’s firepower or replenish her crew. Unfortunately for Semmes, on 14 June a Union warship appeared at Cherbourg. The U.S.S. Kearsarge was remarkably similar in size and capacity to the Alabama. She was nine tons lighter, but 12 feet longer. She had one less gun, but her two pivot guns were 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores. Unknown to Semmes, the Kearsarge was protected by improvised iron armour, concealed behind a thin layer of wood.
Just as important to the result of the upcoming battler were the different conditions of the two ships. The Kearsarge had just been refitted. Her crew had practised their gunnery. In contrast, the Alabama had not been able to replenish her ammunition since she set sail. Many of her explosive shells failed to explode. Gunnery practise had been severely limited by the shortage of powder.
While the Kearsarge cruised off Cherbourg, Semmes came under increasing pressure to act. Eventually, he decided to offer battle to the Union ship (although he would not have done so if he had known about the chain armour). On the morning of Sunday 19 June the Alabamasailed out of Cherbourg harbour, and straight towards the Kearsarge.
Once again, steam power altered the nature of the fight. In earlier wars, two ships determined to fight a duel would simply stand opposite each other until one or the other was forced to surrender. Here, with the aid of their steam engines, the two ships circled each other, firing broadsides across a 500 yard gap. The ships made seven complete circles and started an eighth before the fighting ended.
The Kearsarge soon proved her superiority. Early Confederate shells were seen to bounce off her side, where the hidden armour was now doing its job. In contrast, her 11 inch guns were inflicting serious damage on the Alabama. However, the biggest problem for the Confederates was that so many of their shells did not explode. One 100-pounder shell lodged itself in the Kearsarge’s stern post. Officers from both ships later suggested that if that shell had exploded the result of the battle would probably have been different.
The battle ended in controversy. With his ship listing to starboard, Captain Semmes decided to make a run for French waters. His plan was to pivot to port, fire from the port guns instead of the starboard ones, and then head for the coast. During this turn, there appears to have been a short period in which the Alabama could not fire. From the deck of the Kearsarge it looked like the Alabama had surrendered. Captain Winslow of the Kearsarge held his fire as the Alabamaturned, only to come under fire once the Confederate ship had completed her turn.
One ever present danger in naval warfare was that the signal indicating that a ship was surrendering was to lower a ship’s flag (known as ‘striking the colours’). However, in an intense gun fight the masts that flag could easily be shot away. Captain Winslow appears to believe that he had been tricked into missing a chance to rake the Alabamawhile she was turning.
Having made her turn, it now became clear that the Alabama was sinking. Now Captain Semmes did lower his flags and surrender. However, Captain Winslow, unwilling to be fooled again, fired five more times into the sinking ship. Only now did the Alabamaraise a white flag, removing any doubt. Just in case there was any, Semmes also dispatched his one remaining boat to ask for help rescuing his crew.
This was not the end of the controversy. Only two of the Kearsarge’s small boats had survived. Winslow sent those boats to the aid of the Alabama’s crew, rescuing seventy of them. Another forty one were rescued by a British yacht that had come out to watch the battle, and more by two French pilot boats. Only ten men drowned after the Alabama sank. Another nine had been killed and twenty one wounded during the battle. For such an intense action, fought over several hours, these were very low casualties. Union losses were even lower (1 dead and 2 wounded).
Captain Winslow was later criticized for not sailing directly to the rescue of the Confederate sailors. However, an examination of the ships tracks at the end of the battle shows the Kearsarge heading away from the sinking Alabama, as a result of that ship’s attempts to escape back to France. Meanwhile, the British yacht Deerhound was already heading directly for the survivors. By the time the Kearsarge could had turned and returned to the scene, the Deerhound and the six smaller boats would have finished the job.
A final controversy has hovered over Captain Semmes’s decision to fight. However, having lost one ship after being blockaded at Gibraltar, it is not too hard to understand his desire to put up a fight this time. On paper the two ships were actually very similar. The main material difference, the improvised armour on the Kearsarge was not known to him. Semmes’s decision might not have been entirely wise considering his mission, but it was not quite as suicidal as it is sometimes portrayed.
The Alabama and her fellow commerce raiders inflicting crippling damage on the United States merchant marine. Before the civil war it had been the biggest in the world, but the rising cost of insurance forced many ships to change registry, reducing the size of the fleet by 30%. The merchant fleet did not recover after the war, leaving the British merchant fleet as the world’s largest for another seventy years. Their impact on the war itself was fairly insignificant, but their dramatic exploits around the world helped Confederate morale while they survived.