Sloop-of-War Sailing Warship
Despite serving just two years during the American Civil War, the CSS Alabama established herself as a successful commerce raider for the South.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
When war broke out between the States on April 12th, 1861, the South moved to send representatives throughout Europe in the hopes of procuring all manner of war-making goods. Commander James Dunwoody Bulloch was a Confederate agent based in England and guided to raise naval vessels for the burgeoning Confederate fleet. Funding was made possible through a local cotton broker - Fraser, Trenholm Company of Liverpool and, after securing the cruiser "Oreto" (to become the CSS Florida), Bulloch moved on a new design known under its hull number of "290". Payment for its construction was $250,000.
Hull 290 was built under the guise of a merchantman - the "Enrica" - at the shipyard of John Laird Songs & Company of Liverpool and put to water with a civilian crew on July 9th, 1862 so as to not raise notice. The crew set sail for the Azores to which the vessel changed hands to Captain Raphael Semmes and was formally armed, stocked with coal and took on food and supplies for the voyage ahead. Once at sea, Semmes commissioned the ship formally as the "CSS Alabama" on August 24th, 1862. She was granted the fighting motto of "Help Yourself and God Will Help You".
At her core, the CSS Alabama stood as a sloop-of-war designed around a steam engine and three full-sailed masts. She displaced at 1,050 tons with a running length of 220 feet, a beam of 31 feet, 8 inches and a draft of 17 feet, 8 inches. Her primary propulsion was 2 x HP horizontal coal-fed steam engines which provided up to 300 horsepower allowing for a maximum speed of 13 knots in ideal conditions. The sails were secondary in her design and utilized for propulsion when the engine was deemed unnecessary or low on coal. As a hybrid design of sail and steam, the CSS Alabama could utilize her sail arrangement in open seas in a conventional way while relying on her steam power for combat or during more precise maneuvering. Power was delivered to 1 x screw at the stern of the vessel and her crew complement included 145 personnel of which 24 were officers.
As a ship-of-war, the CSS Alabama was well-armed. Her primary battery were 6 x 32-pdr cannon set for broadside attacks. This was backed by a single 110-pdr Blakely gun and a single smoothbore 68-pdr cannon to which the former rested on the forecastle and the latter abaft of the mainmast. These were "pivot" installations which allowed each gun arcs-of-fire over the deck. However, the Blakely installation had the habit of overheating through prolonged use and would be utilized sparingly in combat. Her violent recoil was such that a lesser charge had to be used to protect the vessel and crew.
CSS Alabama immediately set out to patrol the whaling area around the Azores. From there, her primary role focused on control of the shipping routes across the Atlantic seaboard of the United States. The Confederate Navy understood, just as the Union Navy did, the importance of ocean access and control of vital waterways that would be key to ultimate victory. The CSS Alabama targeted incoming deliveries to the North and outbound grain deliveries headed for England in an effort to disrupt all manner of normalcy for the enemy. Ships were either captured or burned where they stood, making the CSS Alabama one of the more successful commerce raiders of the Confederate Navy. The Alabama successfully engaged the USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas and took her crew prisoner.
She then headed across the Atlantic via the Caribbean, Brazil and rounding the southern tip of Africa before entering the Indian Ocean. She spent six months near the East Indies in the hunt for Union vessels and claimed seven such targets. She managed 40 merchantmen throughout all of 1863 of which many were destroyed. She docked at Singapore in December before putting back out to sea. After this tour, she rounded the south of Africa once again and made her way back to Europe, arriving at the port of Cherbourg, France on June 11th, 1864. Throughout her voyage, the CSS Alabama did not lose one man to injury or disease - an amazing feat considering the living/fighting conditions and medicine practices of the time. In all, the CSS Alabama managed to capture 65 Union merchantmen and board a further 447 other ships during her escapades.
The stop at Cherbourg was purely business for the CSS Alabama was in need of a major refit and overhaul. On June 14th, however, fate found the vessel in port when the Union Navy's USS Kearsarge identified the target it had been tracking for some time. The Kearsarge was a Mohican-class sloop-of-war herself and similarly powered through steam and three main masts. She was ordered through the emergency shipbuilding program for the Union Navy and launched in 1861, commissioned in January of 1862 and well-armed with 2 x 11" (280mm) Dahlgren smoothbore guns, 4 x 32-pdr cannon and 1 x 30-pdr Parrott rifled cannon.
The challenge had been laid and the CSS Alabama, full of the confidence that previous victories bring, sallied forth to meet the Kearsarge in one-to-one battle on June 19th. The battleground was moved out to sea to conform to international maritime laws (France was a neutral party during the American Civil War). The CSS Alabama was outweighed, numerically out-crewed and outgunned against the might of the well-trained USS Kearsarge and crew.
Alabama opened her guns to the Kearsarge as both vessels rounded to meet one another. The Kearsarge's crew remained patient and held fire until within range of 1,000 yards and let loose her own cannon fire. Each vessel took on their own respective tactical circles in an effort to "cross the bow" of the other and deliver a hefty full broadside stroke. The battle would last for approximately one hour as the two sides exchanged shots. The CSS Alabama took the brunt of the offerings and she was further done in by poor quality cannon balls and gun powder. The Kearsarge, on the other hand, fared much better thanks to additional armor protection by way of iron-coated sides (only known to the Alabama crew after-the-fact). The crew of the CSS Alabama managed to let off 150 cannon balls against the Kearsarge's 100 and it was only when one shot pierced the hull of the Alabama at the waterline that the situation turn for the worse. With the critical hit, the Alabama began taking on water and sinking. This forced Captain Semmes to order a surrender and the Alabama struck her colors in response. A surrender party was sent towards the Kearsarge to which rescue boats were, in turn, dispatched to take on Confederate prisoners. However, the response was slow and nearby vessels pitched in. An English yacht - the Deerhound - took to rescuing as many persons as possible and she was aided by French pilot boats finding themselves near the scene.
Captain Semmes and 41 of the crew were saved by the Deerhound and managed to escape the scene to England to avoid facing Union courts and treason counts. Such ended the glorious tenure of the CSS Alabama - a true raider by all accounts, sinking millions of dollars in Union property over the course of her short career. The CSS Alabama saw 21 of her crew wounded in the fighting with the Kearsarge though 9 crew were killed (according to the official record by Captain Semmes sent on June 21st, 1864 from Southampton to Flag Officer Samuel Barron of the CSS Navy in Paris).
Interestingly, The CSS Alabama was destined not to dock at any North American shore during her active nearly-two year career. Amazingly, she spent 534 of her 657 operational days at sea (81%). The USS Kearsarge - destroyer of the Alabama - was awarded a Battle Star by the US Navy and 17 of her crew received the Medal of Honor for actions concerning the CSS Alabama. The Kearsarge eventually struck a reef in her post-war years and was abandoned off of Roncador Cay in the Caribbean on February 2nd, 1894. Attempts to raise her were deemed fruitless and several artifacts were later recovered for display, the ship being a total loss.
The wreck of the CSS Alabama was discovered in 1984 by the French Navy minehunter "Circe" in 200 feet of water off of Cherbourg prompting an initiative in 1988 to reclaim the vessel on behalf of a joint French-American effort as an archeological find. The CSS Alabama Association was set up in Mobile, Alabama to monitor the status of the find and is actively working with French authorities and archeologists to discover more of the wreck (the wreck lies within French territorial waters). Some of her artifacts have since been recovered and brought topside for formal examination into the daily life and fighting conditions of Confederate Navy sailors.
Below is the actual report from Captain Winslow of the USS Kearsarge to Gideon Wells, the then-acting Secretary of the US Navy - concerning the battle against the CSS Alabama:
U. S. S. KEARSARGE,
Cherbourg, France, June 19, 1864
SIR: I have the honor to inform the Department that the day subsequent to the arrival of the Kearsarge off this port, on the 14th instant, I received a note from Captain Semmes, begging that the Kearsarge would not depart, as he intended to fight her and would not delay her but a day or two.
According to this notice, the Alabama left the port of Cherbourg this morning at about 9:30 o'clock.
At 10:20 a. m. we discovered her steering toward us. Fearing the question of jurisdiction might arise, we steamed to sea until a distance of 6 or 7 miles was attained from the Cherbourg breakwater, when we rounded to and commenced steaming for the Alabama. As we approached her within about 1,200 yards she opened fire, we receiving two or three broadsides before a shot was returned. The action continued, the respective steamers making a circle round and round at a distance of about 900 yards from each other. At the expiration of an hour the Alabama struck, going down in about 20 minutes afterwards, and carrying many persons with her.
It affords me great gratification to announce to the Department that every officer and man did his duty, exhibiting a degree of coolness and fortitude which gave promise at the outset of certain victory.
I have the honor to be, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
JNO. A. WINSLOW,
Hon. GIDEON WELLES