Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Timeline: CSS Alabama

Dates: May 15, 1862 to June 19, 1864.

Commander: Captain Raphael Semmes, Confederate States Navy

Prelude: When the Civil War broke out, the Confederacy had no navy to speak of. Upon its formation in February 1861, the Confederate States Navy had only ten vessels. Even with the addition of five additional ships, the CSN would be no match for even the pre-war United States Navy, who had 70 warships, 42 of which were in service. They were short of the hundreds needed to blockage Southern ports, but could draw on the merchant fleet. The North also enjoyed having eight of the ten Navy Yards in Northern waters.

Following the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, US President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. Two days later, CS President Jefferson Davis authorized applications for letters of marquee and reprisal. This allowed private vessels to serve the CSA in attacking Union shipping. Lincoln responded with the blockade and ordered that any Southern “privateers” will be treated as pirates.

The Southern plan was to engage in commerce raiding. Hit Union merchant vessels as they sailed between the US and Europe. This would have the effect of 1.) Curtailing trans-Atlantic trade, hitting the Yankee pocketbook, and 2.) Forcing the US Navy to spread its resources from the blockade to hunt down the raiders.

In order to get ships capable of making these raids, Confederate agents were sent to England to either buy ships or have then built. In June of 1861, James Bulloch, a former US Navy officer, arrived in Liverpool and made arrangements with shipbuilders W. C. Miller and Sons to have a ship called the Oreto built, presumably for the Italian government. The Oreto became CSS Florida.

August 1, 1861. Bulloch makes an order for another vessel at the firm of John Laird and Sons. This vessel is designated Hull No. 290.

May 15, 1862: Hull No. 290 was launched and christened Enrica. At the same time Bulloch purchases another ship and has it loaded with war material. Two Union agents, Thomas Haines Dudley, the US counsel in Liverpool, and Matthew Maguire, a former policeman, discovered the subterfuge concerning the Oreto and reported it to US Minister (Ambassador) Charles Francis Adams, who made a protest to British Prime Minister lord Russell. Officially, the UK was neutral and had a law prohibiting the fitting of vessels for use by a party engaged in a war. Bulloch was getting around this by not arming the vessels inside of British waters. Still, the British customs authorities were taking a hard look at Enrica.

Things began to move fast. Bulloch received a message that Captain Raphael Semmes was on his way from Gibraltar, where he had just abandoned CSS Sumter, to take command of the Enrica. Adams received a message that the Union vessel that blockaded Sumter, the USS Tuscarora, was also on its way. Adams instructed the Tuscarora’s commander, Captain Thomas Craven, to follow the Enrica if it left the port of Birkenhead.

Adams then received a report from Maguire that sailors were being sought for the Enrica and that the ship would soon be in Confederate service. Adams presented that evidence to Lord Russell and demanded the UK Government take action to stop Enrica.

July 25, 1862: What came next was a break for the South, Lord Russell sought legal opinion from the Queen’s Counsel, who suffered a seizure that same day. The matter was sent to the attorney general, but the opinion would not be ready until the 28th.

Bulloch receives a message that same morning (he claimed later that he had an informant in the UK Government, but that was never verified) that Customs agents may seize the Enrica.

July 28, 1862: Without waiting for Semmes to arrive, Bulloch placed Captain Matthew Butcher of the Royal Navy Reserve in command of the Enrica and planned to have a festive sailing up and down the Mersey River the next day. That afternoon, the attorney general found cause for the British Government to seize the Enrica.

July 29, 1862: The Enrica is sailed out of Birkenhead and down the Mersey. Another ship accompanied the Enrica in order to take Bullock and some guests back to Liverpool, while the Enrica was sailed to a secluded bay. There a party was held for the crew and their wives (who collected their husband’s first few months’ pay) then the women were sent back on another boat. That evening, the Enrica began sailing for the Azores.

August 9, 1862: After taking a course around Ireland, the Enrica arrived at Terceira, the Azores.

August 13, 1862: The steamship Bahama leaves Liverpool with Bulloch, Semmes (who arrived just after Enrica left), and other officers, and heads on a direct course for the Azores.

August 18, 1862: The vessel Agrippina arrives at Terceira with the ordinance, ammunition, supplies and coal for the Enrica.

August 20, 1862: The Bahama arrives with the command crew for the Enrica. Semmes steps aboard his new ship. All three vessels were places outside territorial waters before any transfer of personnel or stores could be made.

August 24, 1862: In a grand ceremony, Semmes officially rechristens the Enrica as the CSS Alabama. After a rousing speech by Semmes, 80 men join the crew.


Length: 230 feet
Width: 32 feet
Depth: 20 feet
Draft: 15 feet
Displacement: 900 tons
Three-masted sailing vessel with steam propulsion.
Top speed: 10 knots
Armament: six 32-pound cannons, three on each side. One pivot gun near the bow and one pivot gun at the stern.
Crew: 120men and 24 officers.

The Alabama was fitted with a propulsion screw that could be detached and brought up into a well. The smokestack could be raised and lowered to change the vessel’s profile.

After a brief shakedown cruise, Semmes declared the Alabama ready for war.

The concept of commerce raiding was this; a raider spotted a merchant ship. The raider is then sent after the merchant, sending calls for the merchant to stop. If the calls were not heeded, a few shots across the merchant’s bow usually got the message across. The merchant was boarded. If any of the cargo was of any use to the raider, it was taken. If they were near a port, a prize crew (one officer and several men) was put aboard and the merchant was sailed to a neutral port, where a prize court will hear the case and usually award a cash prize based on the value of the cargo. The cargo was sold to raise the money. The money would be distributed amongst the officers and crew. Even the lowest sailor on the raider could make a lot of money. If it was not convenient to do that, the merchant was destroyed and its crew held prisoner and released at a neutral port.

September 5, 1862: the whaler Ocmulgee was captured and destroyed northwest of the Azores.

September 5, 1862: the vessel Starlight was captured and destroyed northwest of the Azores.

September 8, 1862: the vessel Ocean Rover was captured and destroyed west of the Azores.

September 9, 1862: the vessel Alert was captured and destroyed southeast of the Azores. That same day the Weather Gauge was captured and destroyed south of the Azores.

September 13, 1862: the ship Altamaha was captured and destroyed southeast of the Azores.

September 14, 1862: the vessel Benjamin Tucker was captured and destroyed southeast of the Azores.

The Alabama was sailed past the Azores and then turned to the southwest.

September 16, 1862: the whaler Courser was captured and destroyed southwest of the Azores.

September 17, 1862: the whaler Virginia was captured and destroyed southwest of the Azores.

September 18, 1862: the whaler Elisha Dunbar was captured and destroyed southwest of the Azores.

The Alabama was then turned north.

October 3, 1862: The ships Brilliant and Emily Farnham were captured in the open sea due west of the Azores. The Brilliant was destroyed and the crew was put on board the Farnham, who was allowed to sail away after the captain gave his parole, or pledge, not to Semmes.

October 7, 1862: Sailing near Bermuda, the Alabama captures and destroys the ships Wave Crest and Dunkirk.

October 9, 1862: North of Bermuda, the vessel Tonawanda was captured, but after a bond was posted with Semmes, the ship was let go.

October 11, 1862; Still north of Bermuda, the vessel Manchester is captured and destroyed.

October 15, 1862: Northwest of Bermuda, the ship Lamplighter is captured and destroyed.

Semmes decides to head south.

October 23, 1862: Approaching the West Indies, the vessel Lafayette is captured and destroyed.

October 26, 1862: Approaching the West Indies, the vessel Crenshaw is captured and destroyed.

October 28, 1862: Approaching the West Indies, the vessel Lauraetta is captured and destroyed.

October 29, 1862: : Approaching the West Indies, the vessel Baron de Castile is captured and released after the captain posts a bond with Semmes.

November 2, 1862: Within the waters of the West Indies, the whaler Levi Starbuck is captured and destroyed.

November 8, 1862: Near Martinique, the vessel Thomas B. Whales is captured and destroyed.

November 18, 1862: Alabama meets the vessel Agrippina at Fort de France, Martinique for resupply and refueling. All prisoners are released.

November 19, 1862: That night, the Alabama leaves Fort de France, getting by the USS San Jacinto, this is the first indication that the Union is now alerted to their activity.

November 21, 1862: Near Martinique, the vessel Clara L. Sparks is captured and destroyed.

November 30, 1862: South of Martinique, the vessel Parker Cook is captured and destroyed.

The Alabama then stops at Blanquilla Island, off Venezuela, for additional coaling. Afterwards, they head towards Cuba.

December 5, 1862; the vessels Nina and Union were captured near Blanquilla, but were both bonded and released.

At this point Semmes hears about a steamer coming from Panama with California gold. That would help the Confederacy greatly.

December 7, 1862: the steamer Ariel was captured in the passage between Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico. The vessel was not carrying gold (it was headed for Panama) but Semmes took a bond from the captain, paroled the 150 Marines on board.

December 23, 1862: The Alabama enters the Gulf of Mexico and meets the Agrippina off the Yucatan Peninsula to resupply and recoaling. Semmes orders are to head for Galveston, Texas and hit the Union troop transports there.

January 5, 1863: The Alabama sails for Galveston, arriving that afternoon. Unknown to Semmes, the port was retaken by the Confederates and the Union troop transporters were diverted to New Orleans. Instead, Semmes sees five Federal warships. Upon seeing that they were spotted, Semmes orders the Alabama sailed to a point 12 miles offshore. This is the only time that the CSS Alabama was even in Confederate waters. The Union naval commander, Commodore Henry Bell, orders the USS Hatteras to check out the ship on their horizon. The Alabama began sailing further out until darkness fell. Then turned around and attacked Hatteras. After a few broadsides, the Hatteras was sunk and the crew taken prisoner. Semmes then sails for Jamaica, where the prisoners were paroled on arrival on January 20.

January 26, 1863; While heading towards Brazil, the vessel Golden Rule was captured and destroyed.

January 27, 1863: Still heading for Brazil, the ship Chastelaine was captured and destroyed.

February, 3, 1863: Near Santo Domingo, the vessel Palmetto was captured and destroyed.

February 21, 1863: Heading into the South Atlantic, the vessels Golden Eagle and Olive Jane were captured and destroyed.

February 27, 1863; In the South Atlantic, the vessel Washington was captured and destroyed.

March 1, 1863; In the South Atlantic, the vessel Bethia Thayer was captured and destroyed.

March 2, 1863; In the South Atlantic, the vessel John A. Parke was captured and destroyed.

March 15, 1863; In the South Atlantic, the vessel Punjab was captured and released after a bond was posted.

March 23, 1863: In the South Atlantic, the vessel Kingfisher was captured and destroyed while the vessel Morning Star was captured and released after a bond was posted.

March 25, 1863: In the South Atlantic, the vessel Nora was captured and destroyed while the vessel Charles Hill was captured and released after a bond was posted.

April 4, 1863: In the South Atlantic, the vessel Louisa Hatch was captured and destroyed.

April 9, 1863: The Alabama arrives at Fernando de Naronha Island, off Brazil and waits for the Agrippina for resupply.

April 15, 1863: Back in the South Atlantic, the vessels Kate Cory and Lafayette were captured and destroyed.

April 22, 1863: deciding that the Agrippina was not coming, Semmes orders the Alabama back to sea.

April 24, 1863: In the South Atlantic, the vessel Nye was captured and destroyed.

April 26, 1863: In the South Atlantic, the vessel Dorcas Prince was captured and destroyed.

May 3, 1863: In the South Atlantic, the vessels Sea Lark and Union Jack were captured and destroyed.

May 11, 1863: The Alabama puts into the port of Bahia, Brazil. There they meet the crew of CSS Georgia.

May 25, 1863: Back at sea, in the South Atlantic, the vessel Gildersleeve was captured and destroyed while the vessel Justina was captured and released after a bond was posted.

May 29, 1863; In the South Atlantic, the vessel Jabez Snow was captured and destroyed.

June 2, 1863; In the South Atlantic, the vessel Amazonian was captured and destroyed.

June 5, 1863; In the South Atlantic, the vessel Talisman was captured and destroyed.

Semmes decides to travel further south towards the Cape of Good Hope.

June 20, 1863: Nearing the Cape of Good Hope, the vessel Conrad was captured and recommissioned CSS Tuscaloosa.

July 2, 1863; Nearing the Cape of Good Hope, the ship Anna F. Schmidt was captured and destroyed.

July 6, 1863: Nearing the Cape of Good Hope, the ship Express was captured and destroyed.

In the latter part of July, 1863 the Alabama put into the port of Saldanha Bay on the west coast of South Africa.

August 5, 1863: While en route from Saldanha Bay to Capt Town, the vessel Sea Bride was captured.

At Cape Town, Semmes reads a few newspapers that tell him that the Federals have made the Alabama the Number One Target. He also finds out that the USS Vanderbilt is in the area.

August 15, 1863: The Alabama leaves Cape Town and heads into the Indian Ocean. They manage to avoid Vanderbilt.

In September the Alabama returned to Cape Town.

September 24, 1863: The Alabama leaves Cape Town and sets sail for the South China Sea.

November 6, 1863: The Alabama is now in the Sunda Strait and while avoiding the USS Wyoming, captures and destroys the vessel Amanda.

November 10, 1863; In the South China Sea, the vessel Winged Racer is captured and destroyed.

November 11, 1863: In the South China Sea, the vessel contest is captures and destroyed.

At this time, the long months at sea are taking a toll on the Alabama. The steam engine is encrusted with salt and the hull is deteriorating.

December 1863: The Alabama is in Singapore for repairs and provisioning.

December 24, 1863: After leaving Singapore, the vessel Martaban (otherwise known as the Texas Star) is captured and released after a bond is posted. Semmes decides to head back to the Atlantic and find a port where the Alabama can be overhauled.

December 26, 1863: Between Malaysia and Indonesia, the vessels highlander and Sonora are captured and destroyed.

January 14, 1864: South of India, the vessel Emma Jane is captured and destroyed.

March 20, 1864: Alabama arrives at Cape Town where Seems learns that British authorities seized the CSS Tuscaloosa.

March 25, 1864: CSS Alabama leaves Cape Town for the last time.

April 23, 1864: In the South Atlantic, the vessel Rockingham is captured and destroyed.

April 27, 1864: In the South Atlantic, the vessel Tycoon is captured and destroyed.

The Alabama was in very bad shape. Barnacles had encrusted the keel and had slowed the raider down considerably. Semmes decided to find a friendly port and make repairs.

June 10, 1864: The Alabama reached Cherbourg, France. Semmes requested a dry dock but the French authorities refused. The arrival is watched by the US counsel, who gets a telegraph message to Flushing, Holland, where the USS Kearsarge, under Captain John Winslow, was at. Winslow orders the Kearsarge sailed to Dover, England, where he receives orders on how to handle the Alabama.

June 14, 1864: USS Kearsarge arrive off Cherbourg. After being refused a request that prisoners be turned over to him, Winslow orders Kearsarge just outside French territorial waters. Semmes and his crew prepare for battle. On June 18, they are as ready as could be.

June 19, 1864: 9:30 a.m. (local) The Alabama, accompanied by the French warship St.Louis, leave Cherbourg Harbor. The French vessel is there to make sure French territory is not violated. Both Semmes and Winslow do not plan to any such thing. This battle will be in the middle of the English Channel.

10:20 a.m. lookout on the Kearsarge spots the Alabama. Winslow orders the distance closed.

10:57 a.m. The Alabama opens the fight with several broadsides. As the distance closed, one shell hit the Kearsarge’s stern post, but fails to explode. Another thing the Alabama found out was that Winslow had chain curtains over the sides to protect the hull. Another factor was that the Alabama’s powder had deteriorated, and so was not as powerful as should be.

As the distance closed, shells from the Kearsarge began to strike the Alabama, and they had no problems with their powder.

The two ships circled each other at 400 yards, trading broadsides. Soon there was too many holes in the hull and the Alabama began to sink. Semmes saw the writing on the wall and ordered the colors taken down. There was confusion as to whether the Alabama kept firing after a white flag went up, but Winslow kept his fire.

Ships and yachts had come from England and France to watch the fight and afterwards helped the Kearsarge pick up the surviving Alabama crewmembers.

At 12:24 p.m. the CSS Alabama went to the bottom, ending the career of the most successful commerce raider of the Confederate States Navy.

Semmes was picked up by the yacht Deerhound and taken to England. After a celebration, he paid off the rest of his crew and disbanded them. After a rest, he made his way to the CSA by way of the Bahamas and Mexico and into Texas.

In February 1865, he was promoted to Rear admiral and given command of the James River Squadron. As Richmond, VA fell to the Union he scuttled his fleet, reformed his men into infantry, and marched south. Semmes was commissioned a Brigadier General, the only known American to hold generalships in both the army and navy. He surrendered his command with General Joe Johnston’s at Greensboro, NC.

After a brief confinement, he became a lawyer in Alabama. He died on August 30, 1877 and is buried in Mobile, AL.


Prizes taken: 66

Total worth: about $7 million.

It was the early-20th Century before US merchant shipping recovered from the voyage of the Alabama

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