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HISTORY CORNER: Sinking the CSS Alabama

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| October 4, 2020 1:00 AM

For 123 years, a cannonball lay imbedded unexploded in the woodwork of a Civil War Union sloop-of-war. Had it exploded, the last year of the war might have been different.

Today, that ball is on display at the U.S. Naval Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a relic of one of the most important naval battles in Civil War history.

Far from Bull Run, Appomattox and Gettysburg, two Union and Confederate warships battled each other off the coast of France at Cherbourg on June 19, 1864.

For two years, the steam and sail-powered Confederate ship CSS Alabama under Captain Raphael Semmes had prowled the high seas from England to the Americas and as far as the East Indies hunting ships supplying Union forces.

Sixty-seven merchant ships and one Union warship fell victim to the most successful sea raider in history — terrifying many Union sea captains who either refused to sail in dangerous waters or sold their ships to foreign merchants who wouldn’t be attacked by the Confederate raider.

President Lincoln ordered the Union warship USS Kearsarge, commanded by Captain John A. Winslow to capture or destroy it.

The captains of the two ships knew each other as cadets at West Point and served together in the Mexican American War.

But that friendship was set aside in a deadly battle in calm seas on a warm day some 65 miles west of the beaches of Normandy.

The big sea battle had been anticipated for days and thousands lined the shores to witness the spectacle. An English railroad tycoon and his family even sailed from England on their yacht Deerhound to watch — and unexpectedly played a role in the combat.

The children were given the choice of watching the battle or going to church.

Two American opposing forces dueling in the English Channel made both Britain and France nervous — fearing that they could be dragged into the Civil War raging across the Atlantic.

The historic drama began before the Civil War started when Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent an emissary to England and France to buy warships, guns, ammunition and supplies. It was a tough assignment because both countries claimed to be neutral in the conflict.

Both sides played cat-and-mouse, with spies wherever either side had an interest. Doing things quickly was difficult because of the slow communications of those times.

Like in all wars, those who saw an opportunity for making big money, found ways to circumvent the official neutrality.

One of them was John Laird & Sons with shipbuilding docks in Birkenhead on the Mersey River near Liverpool, who agreed to build a sail-steamer for the Confederacy that would later be the CSS Alabama.

To keep things appearing to be within the law and not violating Queen Victoria’s order for Britain to remain neutral regarding the Civil War, the ship under construction was simply labelled “Hull 290.”

No guns or armament were installed.

The Confederates had already arranged for that to be done elsewhere after the ship was launched.

Still tip-toeing around Britain’s neutrality, when Hull 290 slid into the water it was disguised as the “HMS Enrica.”

Even the sea trials were disguised by inviting women and customs officials to go along. However, shortly after leaving Liverpool, the passengers were transferred to pilot boats and returned to port.

Then the “Enrica” boldly sailed off to the Azores to meet their new captain — Raphael Semmes — who renamed the ship as the CSS Alabama and armed it with six 32-pound cannons, one 68-pound cannon in the aft pivot mount and a 100-pounder in the forward pivot.

Coal, weapons, provisions, equipment and crew were boarded and the Alabama was ready for war on the high seas.

Jefferson Davis had earlier named Semmes to captain the Confederate privateer CSS Sumter. He was a former Union Naval officer who switched to the Confederacy.

He did his new job well.

Within six months, the Sumter had eliminated 18 Union merchant ships while escaping from the Union warships chasing them.

That assignment ended in neutral Gibraltar with the Sumter’s boilers worn out and he being transferred to the Alabama.

The Union Navy meanwhile was also growing. At the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Maine, another ship similar to the Alabama was being built a year earlier that would be named the USS Kearsarge — after a mountain in New Hampshire.

The ship was slightly smaller than the 220-foot Alabama and required less crew.

But it had two monster Dahlgren guns — deadlier than any on the Alabama.

The Union Navy blockaded East Coast and Caribbean ports from receiving supplies shipped to the Confederacy, so the South went after Union shipping with the Alabama.

The Alabama would counter that tactic by pirating ships that were supplying the North, blunting Union military power.

For 657 days, the Alabama successfully evaded Union ships looking for them, while they hunted merchant ships from the Atlantic to Pacific — attacking only when the odds were favorable.

Most captured ships were burned; some added to the Confederate fleet.

They took some 2,000 prisoners, but released them unharmed to other ships or neutral ports.

During those two years of authorized piracy, the closest the Alabama came to a U.S. port was on Jan. 11, 1863, when the raider lured the USS Hatteras out of the harbor at Galveston and sank the blockading steel-hulled Union steamer in 13 minutes.

The Kearsarge had several advantages over the Alabama — the main one being the two pivot-mounted 11-inch smooth barreled Dahlgren guns that could fire port or starboard, sending a devastating 166-pound solid shot crunching through the wooden ships of the 1800s.

They were the most powerful guns of those times.

The ship also was armed with five smaller caliber guns with the advantage of faster reloading.

The Kearsarge had another advantage — an armor shield of iron chains secretly draped like a curtain over the hull to protect boilers and the engine, and then hidden by a thin wooden covering painted black like the hull.

For two years, the Alabama was able to evade the Kearsarge and other Union warships hunting it.

Then the drama of the greatest commercial raider in maritime history came to an end off the coast of France.

The Alabama sailed into Cherbourg for badly needed repairs, but received little cooperation from the French who were neutral and didn’t want to get dragged into America’s Civil War.

Three days later, the Kearsarge showed up and blockaded the port.

Through diplomatic channels, Semmes sent Captain Winslow a message not to leave but wait for a battle within a day or two.

The Kearsarge sailed outside territorial waters and waited.

With thousands watching, the two ships circled each other for more than an hour about 1,000 yards apart, maneuvering to deliver a fatal broadside. The Alabama fired first, with the shots too high.

Winslow waited until the distance between ships closed to about 500 yards and opened fire.

Two shots hit the Alabama below the waterline and water flooded in, extinguishing the boiler fires. (Neither ships used their sails).

The Alabama was doomed.

The colors were struck and a sailor waved a hand-made white flag.

It was all over, and the order was given to abandon ship.

The Alabama sank stern first in 240 feet of water with 26 of its 147-man crew, as the Kearsarge began rescuing survivors.

There would be no gentlemanly “Lee surrendering to Grant” moment between two old comrades. Semmes threw his sword into the sea rather than face the humiliation of handing it over to the victor. Then he jumped into the water.

The Kearsarge crew was enraged to see the British yacht Deerhound rescue Semmes and 41 crewmembers and then sail off to Southampton and freedom for the survivors.

Years later, there was still simmering displeasure that the Kearsarge allegedly fired four or five shots into the doomed Alabama after it had surrendered by lowering its colors. The question remains — if it really happened, was it intentional?

Years after the battle, Semmes continued to claim that had he known about the armor, he would not have engaged in the battle.

As it turned out, the armor didn’t matter. Only two shots from the Alabama hit the mark with little effect.

Both captains survived the Civil War.

So did the USS Kearsarge, returning to duty protecting American interests around the world, but like most ships ending ingloriously — on a reef in the Caribbean Sea.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Facts for sailing buffs…

The CSS Alabama was barkentine-rigged, with long lower masts to carry large fore-and-aft sails as jibs and topsails. The masts were yellow pine and rigging the best Swedish wire. An auxiliary steam engine of 300 h.p. augmented the sails. Bunker capacity was 285 tons of coal. A distiller provided the crew with ample fresh water. The propeller could be detached in about 15 minutes and hoisted out of the water. Under both sail and steam, top speed was 13 knots.

Alabama’s armament…

With a crew of about 120 men and 24 officers, the CSS Alabama’s armaments included eight guns, six 32-pounders mounted in broadside, two pivot guns amidship, one on the forecastle, the other behind the mainmast. The forecastle gun was a 100-pounder rifled Blakeley, and the after gun a smooth bore eight-pounder, specially designed for the ship.

After the battle comment…

“My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly, and though they have lost their ship, they have not lost honor… The enemy was heavier than myself, both in ship, battery, and crew; but I did not know until the action was over, that she was also ironclad.”

— Captain Raphael Semmes, CSS Alabama

End of the Kearsarge…

The USS Kearsarge served Navy duty protecting American interests around the world — as far away as Australia — and was decommissioned and recommissioned a number of times before it hit a reef in 1894 off Roncador Cay in the Caribbean east of Nicaragua. Authorized salvagers removed some artifacts — including the unexploded ball — but left the rest of the wreck as unsalvageable.

Meet the artist…

"The painting of The Last Battle of the CSS Alabama was the first one I was commissioned to create for the National Geographic Magazine, and I was quite nervous about impressing them. I really wanted to continue working with them as I’d been a lifelong fan since I was a kid. My father used to read the magazine from cover to cover every month. For me, I adored the imagery; photos and paintings alike. I was inspired by the work of the magazine to be as authentic as possible with my own work.

When I got the assignment for the article, I traveled to Washington, D.C., and spent some time with the art director, Chris Sloan, and a couple of ship experts that gave us answers to all of our ship questions. I spent a couple hours talking about how the rigging worked in the crow’s nest alone. We spoke nonstop for an entire day about the Alabama!

The main gun was operated by 10 men, and I was asked to depict the moments after a cannonball came through the gunport. The devastation was a turning point in the battle for the crew. I had to show some of the suffering and get across, in one moment, the exhaustion and hopeless feeling rising in the men.

When I got home, overfilled with information, I knew I had to coalesce and then simplify everything into one visual. The main work for any storytelling painter is to pick a moment that feels genuine and real, but also gets across a few ideas at once. That’s the work of a painting for the NGS, and the mission of the illustrator.

After several thumbnail sketches and much daydreaming, I designed the composition to take the point of view of a wounded sailor looking down the deck at the mayhem, knowing the battle was lost, allowing the viewer to become an eyewitness to the horrific event.

I’d initially been asked to paint only a one-page piece, but learning the details from the article I pushed for a double-page spread so I could show off a bit and excite the reader. They went for it.

Since it was my first assignment, I thought I’d give it my best painterly approach, fearing that they’d not like it. Since I hadn’t painted for them before, I figured, the risk was only that I’d at least had the chance to do one painting for them. But as it turned out, I worked with them for almost two decades.”

— Greg Manchess

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NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND

CSS Alabama, a Confederate steam sloop-of-war raider that attacked ships supplying the Union during the Civil War and was itself sunk off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in 1864.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Painting by Jean-Baptiste Henri Durand-Brager (1814-1879) of USS Kearsarge, on right, battling the CSS Alabama on June 19, 1864.

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Officers aboard USS Kearsarge after sinking the CSS Alabama (1864).

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UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA DIGITAL COLLECTION

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GOOGLE IMAGES

After the Confederate sloop-of-war Alabama sank, the victorious USS Kearsarge and two support vessels picked up the survivors (1864).

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PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

Painting by French impressionist Édouard Manet of American Civil War naval battle fought that he is said to have witnessed off the coast of Cherbourg, France, with Union warship USS Kearsarge sinking the Confederate CSS Alabama on June 19, 1864.

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PUBLIC DOMAIN

Confederate officer Raphael Semmes Sr. (1809-1877), captain of the warship CSS Alabama is the only person in the Civil War to serve both as an Admiral and a General.

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Engraving from The Illustrated London News of Captain Raphael Semmes, captain of the raider CSS Alabama, leaning on the ship’s rifled 110-pounder cannon while in Capetown, South Africa, in 1863, with executive officer, Lieutenant John M. Kell in the background.

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CLIPART

Civil War Rear Admiral John A. Winslow (1811-1873) captain of USS Kearsarge that sank the Confederate warship CSS Alabama in the naval Battle of Cherbourg (1864).

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Aboard USS Kearsarge battling the CSS Alabama by L. Prang & Co., Boston.

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U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE

Shell recovered from the wreck of the CSS Alabama during 2001-02 excavation still in original wooden case, held together with a rope, the ball fired from the USS Kearsarge never exploding but jammed the rudder and required four to man the helm.

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NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER

Aft 11-inch Dahlgren shell gun on the deck of the USS Kearsarge, the type of cannon that doomed the CSS Alabama.

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USS MONITOR CENTER

The Dahlgren cannon that sank the Confederate raider CSS Alabama in 1864 undergoing restoration.

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Courtesy photo

Greg Manchess