The Confederate cruisers and the “Alabama” : the Confederate destroyers of commerce
Rear-Admiral Raphael Semmes: a photograph immediately after the Alabama's fight with the Kearsarge
Very few officers in the Civil War had the opportunity of serving in both the army and navy: Admiral Semmes of the Confederate service was one of the small number.
This fine likeness represents him at Southampton, England, whither he was taken by the Deerhound when the unlucky Alabama sank to her watery grave.
Upon his return to America he was appointed rear-admiral and put in charge of the James River Squadron.
This was February 10, 1865.
On April 2d came the order from Secretary Mallory to destroy the ships, for Richmond was to be evacuated.
His occupation gone, Semmes did not stand idly by and witness the ruin of his Government, but with a commission of brigadier-general undauntedly led a marine brigade in the last efforts of the expiring Confederacy.|
Commander John McIntosh Kell: the right-hand man of captain Semmes
As first-lieutenant, ell was Captain Semmes' executive officer on the Alabama. The captain gave him “great credit for the fine condition in which the ship went into action” and further stated that he rendered him “great assistance by his coolness and judgment as the fight proceeded.”
Kell, like his superior, was rescued by the Deerhound and taken to Southampton, where this photograph was made.
On his return to the Confederate States, he was appointed commander and given the ironclad Richmond, in the James River Squadron.
The fine features and resolute bearing of these naval officers go far to explain the daring and effective handling of the famous Alabama. With such sailors, an extensive Confederate Navy would have added even more dramatic chapters to history.|
For a year or more after the outbreak of the war, privateering under letters of marque issued by President Davis
was carried on with considerable success, but shipowners soon discovered that commerce destroying was not a lucrative business.
The Federal war-ships captured most of the early privateers or drove them from the seas, and their masters found a more congenial occupation in carrying contraband goods.
The Confederate navy now took entirely upon itself the work of commerce destroying.
In the middle of April, 1861, the Habana
, one of a line of steamers plying between Havana
and New Orleans, was lying at her wharf in the latter city.
She was taken by the Government
, renamed the Sumter
, and refitted and armed under the direction of Commander Semmes
She cruised in the Gulf
, the Caribbean Sea
, and the Atlantic
, and succeeded in burning six American vessels with their cargoes.
Seventeen captures in all were made, of which two were ransomed and seven were released in Cuban ports.
finally found herself blockaded, early in 1862, in the harbor of Algeciras, Spain
, by the Tuscarora, Kearsarge
, and Ino
. Her boilers were now worn out, and there was no opportunity to repair them.
So the vessel was sold, and was turned by her new owners into a blockade-runner.
This vessel, of all those available for the Confederate navy, alone seemed suited for commerce destroying, and consequently the authorities at Montgomery
, early in May, 1861, determined to send agents to Europe
to obtain there what the South
had not the means to provide.
One of the first of the confidential emissaries employed by Secretary of the Navy Mallory
was James D. Bulloch
Georgian by birth, and a lieutenant in the United States navy who had been detailed by the United States Government some years before to the mail service for the acquisition of experience in the new art of steam navigation.
arrived in England
, by way of Canada
, on the 4th of June, 1861.
With characteristic energy he began his delicate mission, and continued to work unceasingly during the whole course of the war, sometimes meeting with brilliant success, but often with disheartening failure.
, together with other European
powers, had not recognized the Confederate States
, only admitting a de facto
Moreover, a proclamation of neutrality had been issued, and the conditions under which the ships of both belligerents were allowed to enter and equip at British ports were clearly defined.
The terms of the Foreign Enlistment Act
had to be considered also.
The first foreign-built Confederate cruiser was the Oreto
, renamed the Florida
as soon as she flew the emblem of the new republic.
Her construction was carried on in great secrecy at a Liverpool shipyard in the fall
By the middle of March, 1862, the vessel was ready for sea. Before this, however, the new steamship had fallen under the suspicion of the American
minister, who pressed the British Government
to detain her, but so well had the secret of her ultimate use been kept that nothing definite could be learned.
had much ill-luck at first, and spent several months in the harbor of Mobile
Late in February, 1863, she left Barbadoes
for a cruise which proved to be one of the most brilliant in the history of the Confederate navy.
From the latitude of New York city to that of Bahia
, this gallant vessel roamed the Western Atlantic
In May, the big Clarence
was taken off the Brazilian
coast, and Lieutenant Charles W. Read
, a most daring officer, was put on board with a crew.
Read started north and within a month had captured five vessels.
Four of these were burned, and to the fifth, the schooner Tacony
, Read transferred himself and his crew.
The “Tuscarora” near Gibraltar, in chase of the Confederate cruisers
The U. S. S. “Tuscarora” with other vessels during the latter half of 1861 was scouring the seas in search of the “Sumter” --the first of the Confederate cruisers to get to sea, eluding the blockading squadron at the mouth of the Mississippi, June 30, 1861.
She was a 500-ton passenger steamer with a speed of but ten knots and had been declared unfit for naval service by a board of Confederate officers.
Captain Raphael Semmes, upon seeing the report, said: “Give me that ship; I think I can make her answer the purpose.”
Within a week after she got away, the “Sumter” had made eight prizes.
On Nov. 23d Semmes cleverly eluded the “Iroquois,” then lying outside the harbor of St. Pierre, Martinique, and cruised to Gibraltar.
There the “Sumter” was blockaded by the “Tuscarora,” the “Kearsarge” and the “Ino.”
Semmes, seeing that escape was impossible, sold his vessel and disbanded her crew.
Her prizes totalled fifteen, and Semmes was soon making another record for himself in the “Alabama.”
The “Florida” was the first cruiser built for the Confederacy abroad.
She was allowed to clear from Liverpool on March 22, 1862, under the name “Oreto.”
On August 7th she began her career under Captain John Newland Maffit, with a crew of but twenty-two men. She had an adventurous career till she ran into the harbor of Bahia, Oct. 5, 1864, where she encountered a vessel of Wilke's flying squadron, the “Wachusett.”
Commander Napoleon Collins, in violation of the neutrality laws, suddenly attacked the “Florida” and received her surrender.|
Within two weeks the Tacony
had ten prizes, and the coast between Chesapeake
and Casco bays
was in a state of terror.
The dauntless schooner shared the fate of the Clarence
when the better-suited Archer
fell into her clutches.
But the latter's career was short.
Dashing into the harbor of Portland, Maine
, Read cut out the revenue cutter Caleb Cushing
The next day he was attacked, captured, and sent as a prisoner to Fort Warren
, in Boston Harbor
had no less than fourteen prizes to her credit, when, late in August, 1863, she entered the harbor of Brest, France
, greatly in need of repairs.
Here she remained until February, 1864, and became in the mean time almost a new ship.
Back and forth across the Atlantic
she went, preying on the merchant vessels of the United States
until, on the 5th of October, Lieutenant Morris
brought her into the harbor of Bahia
Commander N. Collins
, of the United States
, then in that port, on October 7, 1864, broke the laws of neutrality and ran into and captured the Florida
, which got him a court martial (and in course of time, promotion). The Florida
was brought up to Chesapeake Bay
, and after much international confabulation her prisoners were released, and she was ordered to be turned over to the Brazilian Government
But a blundering ferryboat ran her down, and Brazil
received only an apology, for this time the Florida
went to the bottom.
While the Florida
was building, Captain Bulloch
visited the shipyard of John Laird
, at Birkenhead
, and arranged to build a wooden screw despatch-vessel.
This ship, when it finally went into commission on the 24th of August, 1862, was the famous Alabama
, and she was under the charge of Commander Semmes
of the dismantled Florida
. In a month's cruise in the North Atlantic
twenty American vessels were destroyed.
Then she went south, swept the Gulf
, and among her captures was the Federal
war vessel Hatteras
At Antwerp — U. S. S. “Niagara” and the fight that was not fought
No sooner did it become known that the “Stonewall” was a broad than the Federal vessels in foreign waters began an active search for her. At the very beginning of her cruise she was found to have sprung a leak, however, and put into Ferrol, Spain, for repairs.
There, during the first week in February, 1865, the frigate “Niagara” and the sloop-of-war “Sacramento” found her and attempted to blockade her. On March 24th the “Stonewall” steamed out of Ferrol and cleared for action.
Commander T. T. Craven, of the “Niagara,” had already notified his Government that in a smooth sea the “Stonweall” would be a match for three such ships as the “Niagara.”
Twice when the sea was rough he had stood out and offered battle to the Confederate ram, but Captain Page refused the offer, choosing his own time on a day when the water was as smooth as glass and no slight advantage could accrue to the Federals.
Commander Craven was equally determined not to give his antagonist an inexpensive victory and carefully avoided the encounter.
The “Stonewall” after flaunting her flag in his face, sailed jauntily off to Lisbon with the intention of crossing the Atlantic and striking a blow at Port Royal and at the cities of the North, hoping thus to revive the waning cause of the Confederacy.
Arriving at Havana early in May, Captain Page learned that the war was over, and surrendered his vessel to the captain-general of Cuba.|
successful cruiser now visited Jamaica
, landed her prisoners, and made necessary repairs.
then cruised off the coast of Brazil
, making ten prizes, and in company with one of them, taken into the Confederate
service and renamed the Tuscaloosa
, proceeded to the Cape of Good Hope
The vessel next spent six months in Eastern waters, even crossing the China Sea
On this cruise seven vessels were destroyed.
In March, 1864, she was back at the Cape, and before the end of the month sailed for Europe
On June 11th, the Alabama
entered the harbor of Cherbourg, France
, in order to coal and to refit.
What happened to her now will be told at the end of this chapter.
Among other Confederate cruisers was the Georgia
, bought in March, 1863, by one of the Confederate
agents, Commander Matthew F. Maury
, the distinguished hydrographer.
started from England
, but her sail power was found to be so small that she was constantly compelled to enter port to take on coal.
This circumstance made her useless for long cruises, and she was taken to Liverpool
and sold, after a year's activity in the Middle
and South Atlantic
, an old despatch-boat of the British
navy, was also bought by Commander Maury
and, as the Rappahannock
, was long detained in the harbor of Calais
With neither of these vessels was it possible to duplicate the Alabama
, and, as yet, the whaling industry in the Pacific
had been quite free from the unwelcome attentions of the Confederate cruisers.
The Sea King
was purchased by the Southern
agents in Europe
in the summer of 1864.
She was refitted and armed, and, as the Shenandoah
, was sent to the Pacific
under command of Lieutenant Waddell
In these far seas he destroyed a large number of whalers, keeping the work up until the end of June, 1865, in ignorance of the termination of the war. Lieutenant Waddell
then returned to Liverpool
and surrendered the Shenandoah
to the British Government
A ship of many names began her adventures as the blockade-runner Atlanta
, in the summer of 1864.
She made two
trips from Bermuda
, and was then fitted out as a commerce-destroyer, being renamed the Tallahassee
and put under the command of Commander John Taylor Wood
She set out from Wilmington
A successful three weeks cruise extended as far as Halifax
; nearly thirty coasting and fishing vessels were destroyed.
In October, she became the Olustee
and took seven prizes.
This ended her career as a cruiser, for there was now more pressing work for her to do. Once more she became a blockade-runner, and, as the Chameleon
, went to Bermuda
with a cargo of cotton.
Bringing back much needed supplies for Lee
's army, she was unable, in January, 1865, to enter either Wilmington
, the only ports then in the hands of the Confederacy
So her captain was compelled to take her to Liverpool
, where she was seized and delivered to the United States Government.
Beside the cruisers, the Confederate
agents attempted to procure in Europe
iron-clad vessels for the purpose of opening blockaded ports and navigating the shallow waters of the Mississippi
and the Gulf
This was a most difficult matter, inasmuch as their character could not be disguised.
Two ships were started in England
, but the British Government
seized the unfinished vessels and finally purchased them.
The Confederate Government suffered no financial loss, but the blow to its prospects was severe.
, the commissioner in France
, finally got six war vessels started in that country, but all but one had to be abandoned.
The latter, a light-draft iron-clad ram, after many strange adventures, including a purchase by the Danish Government
, finally sailed at the end of January, 1865, for the Confederacy
, under the name of the Stonewall
. Stopping at Coruña, Spain
, she was threatened by the United States
. But Commodore Thomas T. Craven
of the Niagara
decided that the Stonewall
in a fight “ought to be more than a match for three such ships as the Niagara
,” and let her get away.
When the ram reached
Havana the war was over.
The Cuban authorities took over the vessel and paid off the crew.
was declared guilty by court martial for his lack of effort to destroy the Stonewall
, but Secretary Welles
, finding fault with the decreed punishment of two years suspension from duty on leave pay, set the proceedings aside.
While the Confederate cruisers were busy at their work of destruction, the Federal Government
had a number of well-equipped and well-armed cruisers, mostly steam sloops-of-war, scouring the ocean in all directions in search of them.
Every captain of merchant-marine vessels was on the lookout for a full bark-rigged steamer with very lofty spars.
To almost all merchant ships that had touched in any port since 1862, there had been sent descriptions of each one of the seascourgers, but the swiftest and most formidable of them was the Alabama
Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama
Among the Federal
war vessels that were searching for this much-advertised craft was the U. S. S. Kearsarge
, whose sister ship, the Tuscarora
, was also in foreign waters bent on the same mission.
was built in 1861, was of fourteen hundred and sixty-one tons displacement, and in all respects varied but a few feet in her dimensions from her much-looked — for adversary.
carried two 11-inch smooth-bore guns, one 30-pounder rifle, and four 32-pounders, as compared with six 32-pounders, one rifled 100-pounder, and one 8-inch shell gun on the Alabama
. The personnel of the Confederate vessel numbered one hundred and forty-nine of various nationalities, while the ship's company of the Kearsarge
, one hundred and sixty-three all told, with the exception of eleven ordinary seamen and firemen, all were native-born citizens of the United States
. Captain Winslow
's ship and his crew were trained to the hour, and her engines and engine-room force were in excellent condition, an
advantage that was proved completely in the action between the two well-matched vessels when at last they met.
June 19, 1864, was the momentous day of the meeting.
had located the Alabama
in the harbor of Cherbourg, France
, and on the 14th of the month had steamed in and passed out again without anchoring.
This was both a challenge and a defiance, and Captain Semmes
decided that he could “hardly do less than go out and meet her.”
So he wrote the Alabama's
agent at Cherbourg
, expressing the hope that the Kearsarge
would not depart at once, as he intended to fight just as soon as the Alabama
could be gotten ready.
Through this channel, Winslow
was informed of Semmes
' intention by the United States consul.
It was a bright Sunday morning when the Alabama
steamed through the opening of the harbor, accompanied by the French man-of-war Couronne
, and steered straight for her waiting adversary.
Let us quote from a Confederate chronicle:
The late foul weather had given way to a gentle breeze, and the subsiding swell of the Atlantic wave under a clear sky made the day eminently favorable for the work in hand.
All Cherbourg was on the heights above the town and along the bastions and the mole.
Never did knightly tournament boast a more eager multitude of spectators.
It chanced, fortunately, that an English steam-yacht, the Deerhound, with its owner, Mr. John Lancaster, and his family on board, was in harbor at the time.
The Deerhound followed the Alabama at a respectful distance and was the closest witness of the fight.
Some French pilot-boats hung as near as they considered prudent.
At the limit of neutral waters the Alabama parted company with her escort, and the Couronne returned to within a league of the shore.
In three-quarters of an hour, at the distance of about a mile, the Alabama
It was some time before the Kearsarge
soon perceived that, despite the supposed superiority of the Alabama
in enginepower, he had the faster vessel, and the circling tactics which the two ships observed during the fight were made necessary
The gun that sunk the “Alabama” --on board U. S. S. “Kearsarge”
On the main deck, showing one of the two 11-inch pivot-guns that were handled with superb skill in the famous fight with the “Alabama.”
The engagement was in reality a contest in skill between American and British gunners, since the crew of the “Alabama” was composed almost entirely of British sailors.
Word was passed to the men in the “Kearsarge” to let every shot tell, and there followed an exhibition of that magnificent American gunnery that had characterized the War of 1812.
The “Kearsarge” fired only 173 missiles, almost all of which took effect.
The “Alabama” fired 370 missiles, of which but 28 struck her antagonist.
An 11-inch shell from the pivot-gun of the “Kearsarge” entered the “Alabama's” 8-inch gun-port, mowing down most of the gun crew.
It was quickly followed by another shell from the same gun, and then by another, all three striking in the same place.
Although the gunnery aboard the “Alabama” was inferior, one of her 68-pound shells lodged in the sternpost of the “Kearsarge” but failed to explode.
Had it done so, in all likelihood it would have been the “Kearsarge” and not the “Alabama” that went to the bottom of the English Channel.
Although the “Kearsarge” was wrecked on Roncador Reef in 1894, her sternpost with the shell still imbedded in it was recovered and became a historic relic.|
in order to keep the two vessels from passing each other too rapidly, and to keep their respective broadsides bearing upon each other.
, in his report, says that he determined to keep full speed on and run under the stern of the Alabama
and rake her. But Semmes
sheered and kept his broadside to the Kearsarge
. In consequence, the ships were forced into a circular track during the engagement.
For over an hour the two vessels fought, with their starboard sides constantly opposed.
had gone into the action with her fires raked perfectly clean and employing artificial draft; even the safety-valves were lashed down, and she kept at her utmost speed throughout the engagement.
The men on her deck fought with the deliberation and coolness that had characterized her daily drills, and the engineer's division, after the action, came in for its share of praise.
' crew fought with desperation and bravery, and the men stood bravely to their guns.
But very soon the well-placed shots from the heavy 11-inch guns began to have their effect; the Alabama
, stricken between wind and water, began to leak badly, and Captain Semmes
and his officers soon perceived that they had but a short time longer to continue fighting.
The chief engineer
had reported that the water had begun to enter the fire-room, and First Lieutenant Kell
, being sent below to ascertain the amount of the damage, came back on deck with the news that the ship was sinking.
At once, Captain Semmes
ordered his ship's head put toward the shore, but, the water rising, the Alabama's
furnaces were soon flooded; she was doomed.
Every thought was now directed toward saving the lives of the crew; the flag was hauled down, and Mr. Fullam
, the Alabama's
master's mate, was sent in a small boat to the Kearsarge
with a request for immediate assistance in saving the wounded men. Before the Kearsarge's
boats could reach the side of her adversary she settled and sank, leaving her officers and many of her crew struggling in the waves.
was soon among them; lines were thrown
After the most famous sea-fight of the war captain Winslow and his officers on the “Kearsarge”
Here on the deck of the “Kearsarge” stand Captain John A. Winslow (third from left) and his officers after their return from the victorious battle with the “Alabama.”
On Sunday morning, June 19, 1864, Captain Winslow, who had been lying off the harbor of Cherbourg waiting for the Confederate cruiser to come out, was conducting divine service.
Suddenly a cry--“She's coming, and heading straight for us” --rang out on the deck.
Laying down his prayer-book and seizing his speaking-trumpet, Winslow ordered his ship cleared for action.
He stood out to sea to make sure that the fight would occur beyond the neutrality limit.
Meanwhile, people were crowding to every vantage-point along the coast with spy-glasses and camp-chairs, eager to witness the only great fight on the high seas between a Federal and a Confederate cruiser.
The two ships were almost precisely matched in tonnage, number of men, and shot-weight of the guns brought into action on each side.
The battle was begun by the “Alabama” at a range of 1,200 yards. The “Kearsarge,” however, soon closed in to 900 yards, training her guns for more than an hour upon the “Alabama” with telling effect.
Precisely an hour and thirteen minutes after the “Alabama” fired her first broadside, her colors were hauled down from her masthead; the 11-inch shells of the pivot-guns of the “Kearsarge” had pierced her again and again below the water-line; twenty-six of her men were killed and drowned and twenty-one wounded, while aboard the “Kearsarge” only three men were injured.
Twenty minutes after the surrender the “Alabama” settled by the stern and sank.
Some survivors escaped on the British steam-yacht “Deerhound.”
from the yacht, and many exhausted men, including the Alabama's
commander, were picked up. This done, the yacht steamed away for England
During the action the Alabama
fired about three hundred and seventy times, but only twenty-eight of her shots struck the Federal
vessel, whose immunity from harm was due, perhaps, in a measure, to the fact that she had slung along her sides her spare chains sheathed with light planking, from which some of the shells and even the solid shot of her foe had bounded harmlessly.
fired one hundred and seventy-three projectiles, and the Alabama
was probably struck about as many times as was the Kearsarge
. The latter had a narrow escape from destruction, for after the action there was found lodged in her stern-post a 100-pound shell that was unexploded.
A close student of such matters and an authority on this special sea-fight, Passed Assistant Engineer Frank M. Bennett
, has written about this shell as follows,
“The truth is, however, that this shell struck the counter of the Kearsarge
at least twenty feet from the stern-post and would have exploded there, where the damage would have been slight, had it possessed any explosive power, for it was a percussion shell. . . .”
When she sank, the famous Confederate cruiser scarcely left a trace behind.
A broken whale-boat, a few floating oars and struggling swimmers alone were on the surface.
Her loss in killed and wounded was not far from forty, and one officer, Assistant Surgeon Llewellyn
, and nineteen men, including the carpenter and one assistant engineer
, were drowned.
On board the Kearsarge
there were but three casualties and no deaths, although a brave and gallant sailor, William Gowin
, died a few weeks later from his wounds.
When the news reached him that the Alabama's
colors had been lowered, he insisted that the surgeon who was attending him should go on deck and join in the ringing cheers of victory.