Friday, March 25, 2011
The C.S.S. Alabama was the most successful Confederate commerce raider of the American Civil War. In a career that lasted for nearly two years, she sank or captured 66 Union ships, including the warship Hatteras.Her cruise began in the mid-Atlantic, before moving on to the West Indies and then into the Gulf of Mexico.
There she fought one of only two battles against fellow warships. From captured ships, Semmes had learnt that a Union expedition under General Banks was heading for Texas and decided to intervene.
However, when the Alabama arrived off Galveston they found no invasion fleet, but instead a small blockading squadron. One ship from the squadron, the U.S.S. Hatteras was lured from the fleet, and sunk after a short engagement (11 January 1863).
After that encounter, Semmes returned to the Atlantic, before heading east into the Indian Ocean (August 1863). This time he stayed put for six months, devastating the North’s China trade. However, at the start of 1864 the ship was begins to show the strain of continuous service. Semmes decided to head back to Europe to make repairs.
His chosen destination was Cherbourg, where the Alabama arrived on 11 June 1864. Although Cherbourg was a neutral port, international law did allow warships to stop in port to carry out repairs, as long as those repairs did not improve the ship’s firepower or replenish her crew. Unfortunately for Semmes, on 14 June a Union warship appeared at Cherbourg.
The U.S.S. Kearsarge was remarkably similar in size and capacity to the Alabama. She was nine tons lighter, but 12 feet longer. She had one less gun, but her two pivot guns were 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores. Unknown to Semmes, the Kearsarge was protected by improvised iron armour, concealed behind a thin layer of wood.
Just as important to the result of the upcoming battler were the different conditions of the two ships. The Kearsarge had just been refitted. Her crew had practised their gunnery. In contrast, the Alabama had not been able to replenish her ammunition since she set sail. Many of her explosive shells failed to explode. Gunnery practise had been severely limited by the shortage of powder.
While the Kearsarge cruised off Cherbourg, Semmes came under increasing pressure to act. Eventually, he decided to offer battle to the Union ship (although he would not have done so if he had known about the chain armour). On the morning of Sunday 19 June the Alabamasailed out of Cherbourg harbour, and straight towards the Kearsarge.
Once again, steam power altered the nature of the fight. In earlier wars, two ships determined to fight a duel would simply stand opposite each other until one or the other was forced to surrender. Here, with the aid of their steam engines, the two ships circled each other, firing broadsides across a 500 yard gap. The ships made seven complete circles and started an eighth before the fighting ended.
The Kearsarge soon proved her superiority. Early Confederate shells were seen to bounce off her side, where the hidden armour was now doing its job. In contrast, her 11 inch guns were inflicting serious damage on the Alabama. However, the biggest problem for the Confederates was that so many of their shells did not explode.
One 100-pounder shell lodged itself in the Kearsarge’s stern post. Officers from both ships later suggested that if that shell had exploded the result of the battle would probably have been different.
Having made her turn, it now became clear that the Alabama was sinking. Now Captain Semmes did lower his flags and surrender. However, Captain Winslow, unwilling to be fooled again, fired five more times into the sinking ship. Only now did the Alabamaraise a white flag, removing any doubt. Just in case there was any, Semmes also dispatched his one remaining boat to ask for help rescuing his crew.
This was not the end of the controversy. Only two of the Kearsarge’s small boats had survived. Winslow sent those boats to the aid of the Alabama’s crew, rescuing seventy of them. Another forty one were rescued by a British yacht that had come out to watch the battle, and more by two French pilot boats.
Only ten men drowned after the Alabama sank. Another nine had been killed and twenty one wounded during the battle. For such an intense action, fought over several hours, these were very low casualties. Union losses were even lower (1 dead and 2 wounded).
During her two-year career as a commerce raider, Alabama caused disorder and devastation across the globe for Union merchant shipping. The Confederate cruiser claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $6,000,000 (approximately $123,000,000 in today's dollars). In an important development in international law, the U. S. Government pursued the "Alabama Claims" against the British Government for the devastation caused, and following a court of arbitration, won heavy damages.