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Beautiful and Dangerous, CSS Alabama Ruled the Sea

June 19, 2014 | By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
Capt. Raphael Semmes, CSS Alabama's commanding officer, stands by his ship's 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863. His executive officer, 1st Lt. John M. Kell, is in the background, standing by the ship's wheel. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC), 1931. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Few ships during the Civil War carried the mystique of the infamous commerce raider CSS Alabama. The side-wheel steamer was the OO7 of ships, her sleek and elegant built belying her long-range armament, canons and rifles above and below deck. She could switch out her flags to trick unsuspecting merchant ships and whalers before taking them as prizes, politely depositing the prisoners in an accommodating nation while living off the largess they captured. For nearly two years, CSS Alabama roamed the world's seas. But even the ship's unparalleled success had its Waterloo, and for the Confederate commerce raider, that was Cherbourg, France, 150 years ago today. Christened on a Sunday, her demise also came on a Sunday, 22 months later on June 19, 1864.

But this isn't just a story on how a ship sank. It's about the ship and her captain, and like most war missions, the one for CSS Alabama was brought about by politics. The newly-minted Confederate states sought favor with Great Britain and France in order to continue getting merchandise sent to the United States. In May of 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis authorized secretly building commerce raiders in Great Britain, despite pronouncements by Queen Victoria to remain neutral. Built by the Laird Brothers of Birkenhead near Liverpool, the 220-foot-long side-wheel steamer was Hull #290, the 290th ship built by that yard. On July 28, 1862, #290 launched for a trial run, slipped up the coast and took on armament. Then she sailed for the Azores, where she would meet up with her only captain, Raphael Semmes, a Maryland-born U.S. naval officer who joined the Confederacy and embraced Mobile, Ala., as his new home.

A painting of CSS Alabama (1961), by J.W. Schmidt, Naval History and Heritage Command.

Semmes was pleased with the commerce raider at first sight as he sailed into the harbor Aug. 20, 1862. "I had surveyed my new ship with no little interest, as she was to be not only my home, but my bride, as it were, for the next few years, and I was quite satisfied with her external appearance. She was, indeed, a beautiful thing to look upon." And so it was on a serene Sunday morning, Aug. 24, the newly-christened Alabama began her journey to the tune of Dixie, while the Confederate flag unfurled to the deafening cheers from the Confederate officers from Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana, and the mostly European-born crew.

For nearly two years, Alabama was, indeed, a faithful "bride" to Semmes. The Confederate cruiser claimed more than 60 prizes, mostly American merchant and whaling ships, with a total value of approximately $6 million. The U.S. Navy Department offered a $500,000 reward (Congressional approval pending) for the capture and delivery of the Alabama, $300,000 if the ship was destroyed. The closest the ship got to its home nation was on Jan. 11, 1863 when the raider lured USS Hatteras out of the harbor at Galveston, Texas. Hatteras went to the bottom 13 minutes later. Alabama lived off its prizes, but nearly two years of cruising had weakened the copper plating on the ship and its armament needed repair.

It was also taking a toll on its captain. "Two years of almost constant excitement and anxiety, the usual excitement of battling with the sea and the weather and avoiding dangerous shoals and coasts, added to the excitement of the chase, the capture, the escape from the enemy, and the battle," he wrote. And the stress of governing his crew and officers hadn't always been pleasant with "senseless and unruly spirits" to manage. "All these things have produced a constant tension of the nervous system, and the wear and tear of body in these two years would, no doubt, be quite obvious to my friends at home, could they see me on this 30th day of June, 1863." Yet Semmes would sail for another year, ferreting out information about his enemies by reading newspaper reports, disheartened with news of Confederate defeats, like Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa. "We need no better evidence of the shock which had been given to public confidence in the South, by those two disasters, than the simple fact, that our currency depreciated almost immediately one thousand percent," he wrote.

After sailing the Indian Ocean to Singapore, the Comoro Islands, and then back to Cape Town, Semmes noted the ship's need to go into dock to have her copper replaced, boilers overhauled and repaired, which he felt could only be done in Europe. And replenish his gunpowder and other supplies. Target practice revealed gunpowder on the ship was so deteriorated only one in three shells exploded. Semmes wrote Feb. 15, 1864: "My ship is weary, too, as well as her commander, and will need a general overhauling by the time I can get her into dock. If my poor service shall be deemed of any importance in harassing and weakening the enemy, and thus contributing to the independence of my beloved South, I shall be amply rewarded."

After easily capturing what would be Alabama?s final prize, the aptly-named Tycoon, Semmes noted "The whole thing was done so quietly, that one would have thought it was two friends meeting." By May 1864, the once-beautiful "bride" had turned into a 'wearied fox-hound, limping back after a long chase." Semmes noted the constant excitement of chase and capture over the past years had added "a load of a dozen years on his shoulders. The shadows of a sorrowful future, too, began to rest upon his spirit."

Alabama sailed into Cherbourg's harbor June 11, 1864, calling upon the French Vice Admiral Prefect Maritime for permission to land his prisoners. His request for an overhaul was referred to Paris. The U.S. Minister to France protested the use of the port by a vessel with a character "so obnoxious and so notorious." He also notified Capt. John A. Winslow of USS Kearsarge, stationed off the coast of France near Flushing. Winslow and Semmes knew each other. Both had shared a stateroom on Raritan and fought together in the Mexican War. Both were energetic and zealous in their respective duties. Winslow left Flushing for Cherbourg June 13. A few days later, Semmes wrote his flag officer in Paris that an enemy ship in similar size and armament was in the harbor and he had "deemed it my duty to go out and engage her."

What Semmes didn't know was Kearsarge had up-armored her engine spaces with heavy chains, covered it with planking, and then painted it the same color as the hull. Alabama's captain sent a polite challenge to Winslow saying: "My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope they will not detain me more than until tomorrow evening, or after the morrow morning at furthest. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out."

Alabama prepared to meet her destiny by moving ashore the ship's chronometers, gold, payrolls and ransom bonds for captured prisoners. The guns and shell rooms were readied. Semmes addressed his crew before the battle: "You have destroyed and have driven for protection under neutral flags, one-half of the enemy's commerce, which at the beginning of the war, covered every sea."

Contemporary line engraving, depicting an early stage in the battle. Alabama is on the right, with Kearsarge in the left distance. Courtesy of F.S. Hicks. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

And so it was on another Sunday, this time June 19, when Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg harbor with a crew of 149. Kearsarge, with its crew of 163, was between six and seven miles off the coast, clear of French waters. At 10:57 a.m., after Alabama pulled to within 1.5 miles of Kearsarge, she wheeled to face her starboard side to Kearsage and fired three times. The advantage of having longer range was lost, however, when some of the shells failed to explode, including the shell that landed in Kearsarge's stern. Rather than crippling the ship, the "misfire" merely made the rudder harder to handle. Both ships circled each other while firing volleys, with Alabama firing nearly twice as much ammunition to little avail. One shot from Kearsarge was particularly deadly, hitting and killing nine members of a gun crew. Semmes noted his shots were not effective against the chain-protected hull of Kearsarge and ordered the shots aimed higher, but the hull shots by Kearsarge had taken its toll against Alabama.

With water rushing in after 70 minutes of fighting, the Confederate raider tried to limp into the neutral waters of France but Alabama began sinking stern-first. Semmes hauled down his colors and dispatched a boat to tell Kearsarge of his surrender. He ordered his men to save themselves, giving up his papers to a sailor with strong swimming skills. Semmes threw his sword into the sea, rather than surrendering it to Winslow, and then jumped into the water. Conveniently hovering nearby was Deerhound, owned by a pro-Southern British gentleman. The yacht picked up 40 survivors, including Semmes and 13 of his officers. Twenty-one wounded were sent to Kearsarge, but Alabama's surgeon refused to leave his sinking ship and drowned with more than a dozen other crewmembers. Those rescued by Deerhound were taken to Southampton, England, where Semmes was presented with "a magnificent sword, which had been manufactured to their order in London, with suitable naval and Southern devices."

Semmes' record as captain of Alabama reflects well of his leadership: Nearly all of his officers sailed into Cherbourg with him, with the exception of the paymaster left behind at another port and the third engineer who was killed accidentally in Saldanha Bay, and nearly all of the original crew. Of the more than 2,000 prisoners the ship held at times during 22 months, not one was lost by disease, and the ship had been self-supporting while cruising in all latitudes without ever docking in a home port. "My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly, and though they have lost their ship they have not lost honor," Semmes wrote the Confederate Flag Officer Samuel Barron in Paris. "I consider my career upon the high seas closed by the loss of my ship," he wrote Barron before leaving England.

The captain slipped back into the United States by way of Mexico and Texas, and then finally to his chosen home of Mobile, Ala., brought in like a hero with a special coach.

Capt. Semmes was promoted to the rank of rear admiral on Feb. 10, 1865 and given command of the Confederate Navy's James River Squadron near Hampton Roads, Va. In April 1865, when the fall of Richmond was imminent, he was ordered to destroy his ships to prevent their capture. He joined Jefferson Davis in Danville, where he was authorized to act in the capacity of a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. And so it was Brig. Gen. Semmes who fought in the South's final land battle and surrendered with Gen. Josh Johnson May 1, 1865.

With the Civil War over, Semmes was arrested in Mobile on Dec. 15, 1865 on charges of piracy. He was held without trial until April 7, 1866, when he was released. Semmes then taught at what is now Louisiana State University, edited a newspaper in Memphis and spent time writing, lecturing and teaching law. He died in Mobile Aug. 30, 1877.

His career of service at sea, both in the U.S. Navy before the Civil War and in the Confederate Navy, was backed by the words he addressed to President Davis: "Whatever else may be said of me, I have, at least, brought no discredit upon the American name and character."