From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
What is perhaps one of the most important artifacts from CSS Alabama, which sank 150 years ago today off the coast of France, actually came from the ship that destroyed her – USS Kearsarge. It’s a shell from Alabama’s 110-pound rifle that smashed through USS Kearsarge’s transom frame shortly after 11 a.m. June 19, 1864, and lodged in her stern post – never exploding.
Fired early in the action as the two ships circled each other, the shell jammed against the rudder, forcing four Sailors to man the helm. But the shell didn’t cripple Kearsarge, as an exploded one most certainly would have. Instead, Kearsarge methodically fired upon the travel-weary commerce raider, accurately sending shot after shot onto her deck and into her hull. Just over an hour after she fired the first salvo, CSS Alabama sank beneath the waves.
After cruising thousands of miles for 22 months, the famed commerce raider traveled her final 270 feet (45 fathoms) to the bottom of the English Channel, just 400 feet from the neutral waters of France.
After the battle, Kearsarge would continue across the Atlantic, cruise the Caribbean and finally pull into Boston Harbor to have the shell removed. Preserved and still encased in the stern post, the artifact showcases Alabama’s outstanding range and firepower that made her such a feared raider. It is also a monument to the importance of keeping gunpowder replenished and uncontaminated.
For 120 years, CSS Alabama’s legend was all that remained. But in 1984, the ship was discovered. Under customary international law, the wreck remains property of the United States although she lies in French waters. A Franco-American scientific committee was formed to oversee the excavation and recovery of artifacts.
Robert Neyland, PhD, the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archeology Branch, has been part of the team overseeing Alabama site management and artifact conservation since he joined NHHC in 1994.
Neyland and his crew of conservators and researchers will get another helping of CSS Alabama artifacts next week from the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston, S.C., home of the submarine H.L. Hunley. The collection includes 15 artifacts from the 2001-2002 excavation, wood fragments, copper, alloys, buttons, rope and even coal, that took more time for treatment. Already there are more than 500 artifacts in the collection, with a number of them on loan and exhibited around the U.S. and France.
For conservators like NHHC’s Kate Morrand, one of the more exciting artifacts is a round shell with a brass percussion fuse that was found still encased in its original wood box, wrapped in fabric and tied with a rope.
“All very different material to treat, making it all the more difficult,” Morrand said. Each item needs its own type of treatment to mitigate the effects of 138 years in salt water.
The items taken off CSS Alabama have been an eclectic collection that give some insight into the life of a commerce raider as it cruised from South Africa to South America and as far east as Singapore and Vietnam.
“A lot of the artifacts we found with Alabama presumably were taken off other ships,” Neyland said.
As CSS Alabama made port visits, the crew was often treated like glamorous heroes, taken on exotic game hunts in South Africa, more typically attended by the ruling elite. Alabama’s third engineer was killed after his gun went off accidentally upon his return from such a hunt.
“One of the artifacts is the horn from a species of Asiatic or African deer, a souvenir from one of the hunts,” Neyland said. “There’s also a whale’s tooth in the collection, probably taken off an American whaling ship.”
There is a series of coins from Brazil, and a container of odds and ends, including buttons and a thimble.
“It’s like the stuff people throw into a drawer in their bedroom,” Neyland said.
Most of the artifacts so far seem to have come from the officer’s area of the ship, a beautiful ceramic chamber pot complete with flushing handle and a collection of white dinnerware accented in different colors, like blue and green. White plates with brown design were likely used by the crew, while green would be for mid-level officers, blue for upper-level officers, and a gold set for the captain, Neyland said.
“The plates, made by the Davenport firm in England, show the fouled anchor design,” Neyland said. “And the different color schemes probably had to do with rank and mess. You get a bit of the sense of the hierarchy, the social status differences between the senior and junior officers.”
The ship’s captain and officers claimed a Southern heritage, while the crew was decidedly European, including Russian, British, and French.
In 2002, a human jawbone was found lodged in the encrustation around a cannon after 138 years in the water. It is likely the remains of one of the nine Alabama crewmembers killed during the battle or one of the 12 who drowned when the ship sank.
“The remains were sent to the Joint POW/MIA Command where remains go to be identified,” Morrand said. “They were able to get DNA from dental analysis of the bone and it was determined to be European since they primarily ate wheat more typical of European cuisine compared to the corn of the United States.”
An exam of the teeth at the Smithsonian Institution revealed the jawbone’s owner was likely between 25-40 and in good health, other than an apparent habit of chomping on a pipe stem.
A ceremonial burial was held for the crewmember’s remains in Mobile, Ala., a bit far from the Confederate burial site located in Cherbourg for those who died during the battle.
“CSS Alabama is a pretty amazing story,” Neyland said. “The ship was built in secrecy by the British, while the French and British were on the fence whether to take sides in the Civil War. The Confederacy always had the expectation that foreign governments would side with them, but that really didn’t happen.”
With the return of more CSS Alabama artifacts next week, the commerce raider has once again captured our imaginations.