Cruise and combats of the “Alabama.”
The Confederate cruiser Alabama
was built by the Lairds, of Birkenhead, England
, for the Confederate States
In the House of Commons the senior partner of the constructors stated “that she left Liverpool
a perfectly legitimate transaction.”
Captain James D. Bulloch
, as agent for the Confederacy
, superintended her construction.
As a “ruse” she was sent on a trial trip, with a large party of ladies and gentlemen.
A tug met the ship in the channel and took off the guests, while the two hundred and ninetieth ship built in the Laird yard
proceeded on her voyage to the island of Terceira
, one of the Azores
, whither a transport had preceded her with war material.
Captain Raphael Semmes
, with his officers, carried by the Bahama
, met her there.
Under the lee of the island, outside the marine league, we lashed our ships together, and made the transfer of armament and stores.
Arriving on Wednesday, August 20th, 1862, by Saturday night we had completed the transfer, and on Sunday morning, under a cloudless sky, upon the broad Atlantic
, a common heritage, we put the Alabama
in commission, by authority of the Confederate States
Thus empowered, we proceeded to ship such men from the crews of the several ships as were willing to sign the articles.
Eighty men signed, and these formed the nucleus of our crew, the full complement being soon made up from the crews of our prizes.
We then commenced our cruise of twenty-two months, during which she more successfully accomplished the work for which she was constructed than had any single ship of any nation in any age.
was built for speed rather than battle.
Her lines were symmetrical and fine; her material of the best.
In fifteen minutes her propeller could be hoisted, and she could go through every evolution under sail without any impediment.
In less time her propeller could be lowered; with sails furled, and yards braced within two points of a head-wind, she was a perfect steamer.
Her speed, independent, was from ten to twelve knots; combined, and under favorable circumstances, she could make fifteen knots.
When ready for sea she drew fifteen feet of water.
She was barkentine-rigged, with long lower masts, which enabled her to carry an immense spread of lower canvas, and to lay close to the wind.
Her engines were of three hundred horse-power, with a condensing apparatus that was indispensable.
Since we lived principally upon provisions taken from our prizes, their water-supply was never sufficient.
Our condenser enabled us to keep the sea for long periods, as we had to seek a port only for coals.
The Confederate cruiser “Alabama.”
This sketch was made from a photograph (of a drawing) which Captain Semmes gave to a friend, with the remark that it was a correct picture of his ship.
On the stocks, and until she went into commission, the Alabama was known as “No. 290,” that being her number on the list of ships built by the Lairds.
According to the volume, “Our Cruise in the Confederate States' War Stealer Alabama,” she was a bark-rigged wooden propeller, of 1040 tons register; length of keel, 210 feet; length over all, 220; beam, 32; depth, 17.
She carried two horizontal engines, each of 300 horse-power; she had stowage for 350 tons of coal.
All her standing rigging was of wire.
She had a double wheel placed just before the mizzen-mast, and on it was inscribed the motto, “Aide toi et Dieu t'aidera.”
The bridge was in the center, just before the funnel.
She carried five boats: cutter and launch amidships, gig and whale-boat between the main and mizzen mast, and dingey astern.
The main deck was pierced for twelve guns.
She had an elliptic stern, billet head, and high bulwarks.
Her cabin accommodations were first-class; and her ward-room was furnished with a handsome suite of state-rooms.
The starboard steerage was for midshipmen, the port for engineers.
Next came the engine-room, coal-bunkers, etc.; then the berth-deck, accommodating 120 men. Under the ward-room were store-rooms and under the steerage were shell-rooms.
Just forward of the fire-room came the hold, next the magazines, and, forward of all, the boatswain's and sailmaker's store-rooms.
The hold was all under the berth-deck.--editors. |
Our armament consisted of eight guns: one Blakely
100-pounder rifled gun, pivoted forward; one 8-inch solid-shot gun, pivoted abaft the mainmast; and six 32-pounders in broadside.
Our crew numbered about 120 men and 24 officers.
The commander, Captain Semmes
, had been an officer of high standing in the old navy, had studied law, paying particular attention to the international branch, and had been admitted to the bar in Alabama
, of which State he was a citizen.
Thus he was eminently qualified for the position he was now called upon to assume.
During the Mexican
war he commanded the brig Somers
in the blockade of Vera Cruz
, and lost that unfortunate vessel in chase, during a norther, and narrowly escaped drowning.
He afterward accompanied the army to the city of Mexico
The writer, his executive officer, had served twenty years in the old navy, and had accompanied every expedition of a warlike nature fitted out by the United States
during that period.
In the Mexican
war, on the coast of California
, I served ashore and afloat; then with the gallant Commodore Perry
, in his expedition to Japan
, and again in the Paraguay expedition
Our second lieutenant
, R. F. Armstrong
, from Georgia
, and third lieutenant, J. D. Wilson
, from Florida
, came out with us in the Sumter
They were just from Annapolis
, having resigned on the secession of their respective States.
Both the father and the grandfather of our fourth lieutenant, Arthur Sinclair, Jr.
, of Virginia
, had been captains in the United States navy.
Our fifth lieutenant, John Lowe
, of Georgia
, had seen some service, and was a most efficient officer;
our Acting Master
, I. D. Bulloch
, of Georgia
, was a younger brother of Captain James D. Bulloch
A few months' active service gave confidence to the watch-officers of the ward-room, and it may safely be affirmed that older heads could not have filled their places with greater efficiency.
The remainder of our ward-room mess was made up of our surgeon, Dr. F. L. Galt
, of Virginia
, also of the old service; Dr. D. H. Llewellyn
, of Wiltshire, England
, who, as surgeon, came out in the ship when under English colors, and joined us as assistant surgeon.
First Lieutenant B. K. Howell
, of the Marine Corps, brother-in-law of President Davis
, was from Mississippi
and Mr. Miles J. Freeman
, our chief engineer, had been with us in the Sumter
The steerage mess was made up of three midshipmen — E. M. Anderson
, of Georgia
; E. A. Maffitt
, of North Carolina
, son of the captain of the Confederate States
; and George T. Sinclair
, of Virginia
The latter was afterward detached from the Alabama
and made executive officer to Lieutenant Lowe
on the Tuscaloosa
, a tender that we captured and commissioned.
Upon our arrival at Cherbourg
came at once to join his old ship, having heard of the contemplated engagement.
Accompanying him came also Lieutenant William C. Whittle, Jr.
, of Virginia
, a gallant young son of Commodore W. C. Whittle
of the old navy, and Lieutenant John Grimball
, a South Carolinian, offering their services for any position during the engagement.
They were not permitted to join us, on the ground that it would be a violation of French neutrality.
The remainder of the steerage mess was made up of young master's mates and engineers, most of whom had come out with us in the Sumter
The eleventh day after going into commission we captured our first prize, not one hundred miles from where we hoisted our flag.
After working round the Azores
for some weeks, with fine breezes, we shaped our course for Sandy Hook
; but we encountered frequent gales off the Newfoundland banks, and on the 16th of October lost our main-yard in a cyclone.
Being considerably shaken up, we decided to seek a milder latitude.
Running down to the Windward Islands
, we entered the Caribbean Sea
Our prizes gave us regularly the mails from the United States
, from which we learned of the fitting out of the army under General Banks
for the attack on Galveston
and the invasion of Texas
, and the day on which the fleet would sail; whereupon Captain Semmes
calculated about the time they would arrive, and shaped his course accordingly, coaling and refitting ship at the Areas Keys
He informed me of his plan of attack, which was to sight the shipping off Galveston
about the time that General Banks
was due with his large fleet of transports, under the convoy perhaps of a few vessels of war. The entire fleet would anchor in the outer roadstead, as there is only sufficient water on the bar for light-draughts.
All attention at such a time would be given to the disembarkation of the army, as there were no enemy's cruisers to molest them, our presence in the Gulf
not being known.
We were to take the bearing of the fleet, and, after the mid-watch was set and all was quiet, silently approach, steam among them with both batteries in action, slowly steam through the midst of them, pouring in a continuous discharge
Chart of the cruise of the Alabama.|
of shell to fire and sink them as we went; thus we expected to accomplish our work and be off on another cruise before the convoys could move.
But instead of sighting General Banks
's fleet of transports we sighted five vessels of war at anchor, and soon after our lookout reported a steamer standing out for us. We were then under topsails only, with a light breeze, heading off shore, and gradually drawing our pursuer from the squadron.
It was the Hatteras
, and about dark she came up with us, and in an action of thirteen minutes we sank her. The action closed about twilight, when Captain Semmes
, who always took his position on the weather horse-block, above the rail of the ship, to enable him to see all the surroundings, and to note the effect of our shot in action, or at exercise at general quarters, called to me and said, “Mr. Kell
, the enemy have fired a gun to leeward; cease firing.”
We were then about seventy-five yards from the enemy, and could hear distinctly their hail, saying they “were fast sinking and on fire in three places, and for God's sake to save them.”
We immediately sent boats, and in the darkness took every living soul from her. These events occurred in the presence of the enemy's fleet, bearing the pennant of Commodore Bell
went down in a few minutes.
She carried a larger crew than our own. Knowing that the Federal squadron would soon be upon us, every light on board ship was put under cover and we shaped our course for broader waters.
During the night a fearful norther came sweeping after us, but under the circumstances it was a welcome gale.
Hoisting our propeller, we crowded all the sail we could bear, and soon were out of harm's way. As Captain Blake
of the Hatteras
(whom I had known in the old service) came on deck, he remarked upon the speed we were making, and gracefully saluted me with, “Fortune favors the brave, sir!”
I wished him a pleasant voyage with us; and I am sure he, with his officers and men, received every attention while on board the Alabama
We paroled the officers and crew of the Hatteras
at Kingston, Jamaica
, and after repairing a few shot-holes and coaling ship, we passed on to our work in the South Atlantic
, taking our position at the cross-roads of the homeward-bound East India
and Pacific trade.
After a few weeks of good work in that locality and along the coast of Brazil
, we crossed over to the Cape of Good Hope
, where we played “hide and seek” with the United States
, whose commander, Charles H. Baldwin
, had explained to Sir Baldwin Walker
, the English Admiral
of the station at Simon's Town, “that he did not intend to fire a gun at the Alabama
, but to run her down and sink her.”
We were not disposed to try issues with the Vanderbilt;
so one night about 11 o'clock, while it blew a gale of wind from the south-east, we hove anchor and steamed out of Simon's Bay.
By morning we had made a good offing, and, setting what sail we could carry, hoisted our propeller and made a due south course.
We ran down to the fortieth degree
south latitude, where we fell in with westerly gales and bowled along nearly due east, until we shaped our course for the Straits of Java
Our long stretch across the Indian Ocean
placed us in the China Sea
, where we were least expected, and where we soon fell in with the China
In a few weeks we had so paralyzed the enemy's commerce that their ships were absolutely locked up in port, and neutrals were doing all the carrying trade.
Having thus virtually cleared the sea of the United States
flag, we ran down to Singapore
, coaled ship, and then turned westward through the Straits of Malacca
, across to India
, thence to the east coast of Africa
Passing through the Mozambique Channel
, we again touched at the Cape of Good Hope
, and thence crossed to the coast of Brazil
Our little ship was now showing signs of the active work she had been doing.
Her boilers were burned out, and her machinery was sadly in want of repairs.
She was loose at every joint, her seams were open, and the copper on her bottom was in rolls.
We therefore set our course for Europe
, and on the 11th of June, 1864, entered the port of Cherbourg
, and applied for permission to go into dock.
There being none but national docks, the Emperor
had first to be communicated with before permission could be granted, and he was absent from Paris
It was during this interval of waiting, on the third day after our arrival, that the Kearsarge
steamed into the harbor, for the purpose, as we learned, of taking on board the prisoners we had landed from our last two prizes.
, however, objected to this on the ground that the Kearsarge
was adding to her crew in a neutral port.
The authorities conceding this objection valid, the Kearsarge
steamed out of the harbor, without anchoring.
During her stay we examined her closely with our glasses, but she was keeping on the opposite side of the harbor, out of the reach of a very close scrutiny, which accounts for our not detecting the boxing to her chain armor.
After she left the harbor Captain Semmes
sent for me to his cabin, and said: “I am going out to fight the Kearsarge
; what do you think of it?”
We discussed the battery, and especially the advantage the Kearsarge
had over us in her 11-inch guns.
She was built for a vessel of war, and we for speed, and though she carried one gun less, her battery was more effective at point-blank range.
While the Alabama
carried one more gun, the Kearsarge
threw more metal at a broadside; and while our heavy guns were more effective at long range, her 11-inch guns gave her greatly the advantage at close range.
She also had a slight advantage in her crew, she carrying 163, all told, while we carried 149.
Considering well these advantages, Captain Semmes
communicated through our agent to the United States consul that if Captain Winslow
would wait outside the harbor he would fight him as soon as we could coal ship.
Accordingly, on Sunday morning, June 19th, between 9 and 10 o'clock, we weighed anchor and stood out of the western entrance of the harbor, the French iron-clad frigate Couronne
following us. The day was bright and beautiful, with a light breeze blowing.
Our men were neatly dressed, and our officers in full uniform.
The report of our going out to fight the Kearsarge
had been circulated, and many persons from Paris
and the surrounding country had come down to witness the engagement.
With a large number of the inhabitants of Cherbourg
they collected on every prominent point on the shore that would afford a view seaward.
As we rounded the breakwater we discovered the Kearsarge
about seven miles to the northward and eastward.
We immediately shaped our course for her, called all hands to quarters, and cast loose the starboard battery.
Upon reporting to the captain that the ship was ready for action, he directed me to send all hands aft,
and mounting a gun-carriage, he made the following address:
officers and seamen of the “Alabama” : You have at length another opportunity of meeting the enemy — the first that has been presented to you since you sank the Hatteras! In the meantime you have been all over the world, and it is not too much to say that you have destroyed, and driven for protection under neutral flags, one-half of the enemy's commerce, which at the beginning of the war covered every sea. This is an achievement of which you may well be proud, and a grateful country will not be unmindful of it. The name of your ship has become a household word wherever civilization extends!
Shall that name be tarnished by defeat?
The thing is impossible!
Remember that you are in the English Channel, the theater of so much of the naval glory of our race, and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you. The flag that floats over you is that of a young Republic, which bids defiance to her enemy's whenever and wherever found!
Show the world that you know how to uphold it!
Go to your quarters.
In about forty-five minutes we were somewhat over a mile from the Kearsarge
, when she headed for us, presenting her starboard bow. At a distance of a mile we commenced the action with our 100-pounder pivot-gun from our starboard bow. Both ships were now approaching each other at high speed, and soon the action became general with broadside batteries at a distance of about five hundred yards. To prevent passing, each ship used a strong port helm.
Thus the action was fought around a common center, gradually drawing in the circle.
At this range we used shell upon the enemy.
, standing on the horse-block abreast the mizzen-mast with his glass in hand, observed the effect of our shell.
He called to me and said: “Mr. Kell
, use solid shot; our shell strike the enemy's side and fall into the water.”
We were not at this time aware of the chain armor of the enemy, and attributed the failure of our shell to our defective ammunition.5
After using solid shot
Fighting in A circle. |
for some time, we alternated shell and shot.
The enemy's 11-inch shells were now doing severe execution upon our quarter-deck section.
Three of them successively entered our 8-inch pivot-gun port: the first swept off the forward part of the gun's crew; the second killed one man and wounded several others; and the third struck the breast of the gun-carriage, and spun around on the deck till one of the men picked it up and threw it overboard.
Our decks were now covered with the dead and the wounded, and the ship was careening heavily to starboard from the effects of the shot-holes on her water-line.
ordered me to be ready to make all sail possible when the circuit of fight should put our head to the coast of France
; then he would notify me at the same time to pivot to port and continue the action with the port battery, hoping thus to right the ship and enable us to reach the coast of France
The evolution was performed beautifully, righting the helm, hoisting the head-sails, hauling aft the fore try-sail sheet, and pivoting to port, the action continuing almost without cessation.
This evolution exposed us to a raking fire, but, strange to say, the Kearsarge
did not take advantage of it. The port side of the quarter-deck was so encumbered with the mangled trunks of the dead that I had to have them thrown overboard, in order to fight the after pivot-gun.
I abandoned the after 32-pounder, and transferred.
the men to fill up the vacancies at the
pivot-gun under the charge of young Midshipman Anderson
, who in the midst of the carnage filled his place like a veteran.
At this moment the chief engineer came on deck and reported the fires put out, and that he could no longer work the engines.
said to me, “Go below, sir, and see how long the ship can float.”
As I entered the ward-room the sight was indeed appalling.
There stood Assistant-Surgeon Llewellyn
at his post, but the table and the patient upon it had been swept away from him by an 11-inch shell, which opened in the side of the ship an aperture that was fast filling the ship with water.
It took me but a moment to return to the deck and report to the captain that we could not float ten minutes. He replied to me, “Then, sir, cease firing, shorten sail, and haul down the colors; it will never do in this nineteenth century for us to go down, and the decks covered with our gallant wounded.”
The order was promptly executed, after which the Kearsarge
deliberately fired into us five shot.6
I ordered the men to stand to their quarters and not flinch from the shot of the enemy; they stood every man to his post most heroically.
With the first shot fired upon us after our colors were down, the quartermaster was ordered to show a white flag over the stern, which order was executed in my presence.
When the firing ceased Captain Semmes
ordered me to dispatch an officer to the Kearsarge
to say that our ship was sinking, and to ask that they send boats to save our wounded, as our boats were disabled.
The dingey, our smallest boat, had escaped damage.
I dispatched Masters-mate Fullam
with the request.
No boats appearing, I had one of our quarter-boats lowered, which was slightly injured, and I ordered the wounded placed in her. Dr. Galt
, the surgeon who was in charge of the magazine and shell-room division, came on deck at this moment and was at once put in charge of the boat, with orders to “take
the wounded to the Kearsarge
They shoved off just in time to save the poor fellows from going down in the ship.
I now gave the order for every man to jump overboard with a spar and save himself from the sinking ship.
To enforce the order, I walked forward and urged the men overboard.
As soon as the decks were cleared, save of the bodies of the dead, I returned to the stern-port, where stood Captain Semmes
with one or two of the men and his faithful steward, who, poor fellow!
was doomed to a watery grave, as he could not swim.
's stern-port was now almost at the water's edge.
Partly undressing, we plunged into the sea, and made an offing from the sinking ship, Captain Semmes
with a life-preserver and I on a grating.
settled stern foremost, launching her bows high in the air. Graceful even in her death-struggle, she in a moment disappeared from the face of the waters.
The sea now presented a mass of living heads, striving for their lives.
Many poor fellows sank for the want of timely aid. Near me I saw a float of empty shell-boxes, and called to one of the men, a good swimmer, to examine it; he did so and replied, “It is the doctor, sir
! he perished almost in sight of his home.
The young midshipman, Maffitt
, swam to me and offered his life-preserver.
My grating was not proving a very buoyant float, and the white-caps breaking over my head were distressingly uncomfortable, to say the least.
said: “Mr. Kell
, take my life-preserver, sir; you are almost exhausted.”
The gallant boy did not consider his own condition,
but his pallid face told me that his heroism was superior to his bodily suffering, and I refused it. After twenty minutes or more I heard near me some one call out, “There is our first lieutenant,” and the next moment I was pulled into a boat, in which was Captain Semmes
, stretched out in the stern-sheets, as pallid as death.
He had received during the action a slight contusion on the hand, and the struggle in the water had almost exhausted him. There were also several of our crew in the boat, and in a few moments we were alongside a little steam-yacht, which had come among our floating men, and by throwing them ropes had saved many lives.
Upon reaching her deck, I ascertained for the first time that she was the yacht Deerhound
, owned by Mr. John Lancaster
, of England
In looking about I saw two French pilot-boats engaged in saving our crew, and finally two boats from the Kearsarge
To my surprise I found on the yacht Mr. Fullam
, whom I had dispatched in the dingey to ask that boats be sent to save our wounded.
He reported to me that our shot had literally torn
the casing from the chain armor of the Kearsarge
, indenting the chain in many places, which explained Captain Semmes
's observation of the effect of our shell upon the enemy, “that they struck the sides and fell into the water.”
, in his report, states that his ship was struck twenty-five or thirty times, and I doubt if the Alabama
was struck a greater number
Returning for the wounded. |
I may not, therefore, be bold in asserting that had not the Kearsarge
been protected by her iron cables, the result of the fight would have been different.
felt the more keenly the delusion to which he fell a victim (not knowing that the Kearsarge
was chain-clad) from the fact that he was exceeding his instructions in seeking an action with the enemy; but to seek a fight with an iron-clad he conceived to be an unpardonable error.
However, he had the satisfaction of knowing she was classed as a wooden gun-boat by the Federal Government
; also that he had inspected her with most excellent glasses, and so far as outward appearances showed she displayed no chain armor.
At the same time it must be admitted that Captain Winslow
had the right unquestionably to protect his ship and crew.
In justice to Captain Semmes
I will state that the battle would never have been fought had he known that the Kearsarge
wore an armor of chain beneath her outer covering.7
Thus was the Alabama
lost by an error, if you please, but, it must be admitted, a most pardonable
one, and not until “Father Neptune
” claimed her as his own did she lower her colors.
The 11-inch shells of the Kearsarge
did fearful work, and her guns were served beautifully, being aimed with precision, and deliberate in fire.
She came into action magnificently.
Having the speed of us, she took her own position and fought gallantly.
But she tarnished her glory when she fired upon a fallen foe. It was high noon of a bright, beautiful day, with a moderate breeze blowing to waft the smoke of battle clear, and nothing to obstruct the view at five hundred yards. The very fact of the Alabama
ceasing to fire, shortening sail, and hauling down her colors simultaneously, must have attracted the attention of the officer in command of the Kearsarge
Again, there is no reason given why the Kearsarge
did not steam immediately into the midst of the crew of the Alabama
, after their ship had been sunk, and, like a brave and generous foe, save the lives of her enemies, who had fought
nobly as long as they had a plank to stand upon.
Were it not for the timely presence of the kind-hearted Englishman and the two French pilot-boats, who can tell the number of us that would have rested with our gallant little ship beneath the waters of the English Channel
I quote the following from Mr. John Lancaster
's letter to the London
Daily news : “I presume it was because he [Captain Winslow
not or could not save them himself.
The fact is that if the captain and crew of the Alabama
had depended for safety altogether upon Captain Winslow
, not one-half of them would have been saved.”
When Mr. Lancaster
approached Captain Semmes
, and said, “I think every man has been picked up; where shall I land you?”
replied, “I am now under the English
colors, and the sooner you put me with my officers and men on English soil, the better.”
The little yacht moved rapidly
away at once, under a press of steam, for Southampton
, our second lieutenant, and some of our men who were saved by the French
pilot-boats, were taken into Cherbourg
Our loss was 9 killed, 21 wounded. and 10 drowned.
It has been charged that an arrangement had been entered into between Mr. Lancaster
and Captain Semmes
, previous to our leaving Cherbourg
, that in the event of the Alabama
being sunk the Deerhound
would come to our rescue.
and myself met Mr. Lancaster
for the first time when rescued by him, and he related to us the circumstance that was the occasion of his coming out to see the fight.
Having his family on board, his intention was to attend church with his wife and children, when the gathering of the spectators on the shore attracted their attention, the report having been widely circulated that the Alabama
was to go out that morning and give battle to the Kearsarge
The boys were clamorous to see the fight, and after a family discussion as to the propriety of going out on the Sabbath to witness a naval combat, Mr. Lancaster
agreed to put the question to vote at the break-fast-table, where the youngsters carried their point by a majority.
Thus many of us were indebted for our lives to that inherent trait in the English
character, the desire to witness a “passage at arms.”
That evening we landed in Southampton
, and were received by the people with every demonstration of sympathy and kindly feeling.
Thrown upon their shores by the chances of war, we were taken to their hearts and homes with that generous hospitality which brought to mind with tenderest feeling our own dear Southern homes in ante-bellum
To the Rev. F. W. Tremlett
, of Belsize Park
, and his household, I am indebted for a picture of English home life that time cannot efface, and the memory of which will be a lasting pleasure till life's end.
The United States screw-sloop Kearsarge at the time of the encounter with the Alabama. |
when the Kearsarge was at the Azores, a few months before the fight with the Alabama, Midshipman Edward E. Preble made a mathematically correct drawing of the ship, and from a photograph of that drawing the above picture was made.
After the fight alterations were made in the Kearsarge which considerably changed her appearance.--editors.