Confederate ships played major roll in war

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 24, 2011

During the Civil War, Confederate ships such as the Alabama, Shenandoah, and Florida, built in British ports, attacked northern commerce and warships with great success.

International law, at the time, permitted neutrals to build ships for belligerents, but restricted the ship being armed. The British builders bypassed this restraint by allowing the ships they built “to escape.”

Disruption of Union commerce was a central part of the Confederacy’s war aims. With the United States blockade reaching from upper Virginia to Texas, the Confederacy looked to Europe to assemble a fleet.

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While the British government turned its back, the future C.S.S. Alabama, the greatest Confederate commerce raider of them all, was being built and would be launched in secrecy.

The C.S.S. Alabama was constructed at the John Laird Sons shipyard, near Liverpool, England, and christened the Enrica before its launching on May 15, 1862. In Liverpool, it was known as the “290,” being the 290th vessel launched at the shipyards. It cost $250,000 and was built with the finest elm and oak. Its bottom was covered in copper and it possessed twin 300-horsepower, coal-fired steam engines. Under a British flag and British captain, the Enrica sailed down the Mersey River for a trial run.

The vessel went to Wales and afterwards to the Azores, where it was armed and outfitted with eight guns, a mostly English crew, and a Confederate captain, the colorful Raphael Semmes, known to history as “Old Bim,” “Marshall Pomp,” and “Old Beeswax,” because of his famous moustache. Semmes named the cruiser for his adopted home state. Never again the Enrica, but now the feared and hated C.S.S. Alabama. It was formally commissioned on August 24, 1862.

The Alabama spent 22 months under Captain Semmes attacking United States shipping in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Although its career was short, the C.S.S. Alabama was more than successful.

In 22 months, this famous raider cruised nearly 75,000 miles and took 64 prizes worth more than $6.5 million. This warship would approach other vessels while flying the “Stars and Stripes” or another decoy emblem. At the very last minute, the C.S.S. Alabama would run-up the Southern “Stars and Bars.”

The ship never entered a Confederate port. Of her captured vessels, the Alabama sank 53 of them and took over 2,000 prisoners. Needless to say, the United States and its officials were upset with England and furious over the Alabama’s string of successes.

The word went out: “. . . She ought to be wiped out of existence.” On Saturday, June 11, 1864, the Alabama entered the harbor at Cherbourg, France, in search of coal and badly-needed repairs. Union agents in France sent messages to John Winslow, captain of the U.S.S. Kearsarge, anchored in the Netherlands.

By June 14, 1864, the seven gun Kearsarge was staring at the mighty Alabama. The second-most-famous of Civil War single-ship duels was about to take place.

Semmes, 54 years of age, considered himself too old to endure the hardships at sea any longer. His ship was in as poor health as its captain. Naval officials selected another commander for the Alabama. It looked as if Semmes and his officers were about to be given well-earned leaves of absence. Raphael Semmes would not run from the Kearsarge. He would make this his last battle because it appeared both ships were equally matched in size, men, and battery.

Semmes chose Sunday, his lucky day, June 19, 1864, for the day of battle. He had received coal, but the French allowed him no fresh powder or fuses.

It was obvious that the Alabama’s need for repairs rendered it not fit to contest the Yankee warship. By 8 a.m., Sunday, June 19, 1864, people were coming to watch the announced spectacle. About 15,000 spectators and newspapermen secured spots for this battle in the English Channel. At 10:20 a.m., the Alabama left port. France’s three-mile boundary was not to be breached.

The battle of Cherbourg began at 10:57 a.m. and the C.S.S. Alabama slid beneath the waves at 12:24 p.m. How could this have possibly happened?

Both warships exchanged fire for just over one hour as they steamed in slowly reduced, clockwise circles outside the 3-mile limit, 5-7 miles from shore.

At the beginning of the 8th circle, when the ships were 400 yards apart, the C.S.S. Alabama sank. The Alabama’s powder was too old and damp. At target practice prior to battle, only one of three fuses was working and Semmes decided to gamble.

Winslow had draped chains over the sides of the U.S.S. Kearsarge to protect his engines. Then the chains were covered with planks, making the ship “iron-plated.” Lastly, Winslow’s gun crews were much better disciplined than those of the Alabama.

John Lancaster, captain of his British yacht, Deerhound, was on vacation with his family and came to see the battle. The Deerhound saved Semmes and Jefferson Davis’s brother-in-law.

The Alabama crew registered 43 casualties to the Kearsarge’s three. In 1984 a French minesweeper discovered the wreck of the Alabama. It took five years to reach agreement for underwater archaeological exploration.

Divers can only work two or three weeks a year, and only for a half-hour or so each day.

In September 2004 the Civil War Preservation Trust named Cherbourg an official site of the American Civil War—the only such site outside the United States! “Roll Tide.”

Bob Leith is a history professor at Ohio University Southern.