Alabama was built in secrecy in 1862 by British shipbuilders John Laird Sons and Company, in north west England at their shipyards at Birkenhead, Wirral, opposite Liverpool. The construction was arranged by the Confederate agent Commander James Bulloch, who led the procurement of sorely needed ships for the fledgling Confederate States Navy. The contract was arranged through the Fraser Trenholm Company, a cotton broker in Liverpool with ties to the Confederacy. Under prevailing British neutrality law, it was possible to build a ship designed as an armed vessel, provided that it wasn't actually armed until after it sailed into international waters. In light of this loophole, Alabama was built with reinforced decks for cannon emplacements, ammunition magazines below water-level, etc., but the builder stopped short of fitting her out with armaments or any "warlike equipment".
Initially known as "hull number 290" to hide her identity, the ship was launched as Enrica on 15 May 1862 and secretly slipped out of Birkenhead on 29 July 1862. Union Captain Tunis A. M. Craven, commander of USS Tuscarora, was in Southampton and was tasked with intercepting the new ship, but was unsuccessful. Agent Bulloch arranged for a civilian crew and captain to sail Enrica to Terceira Island in the Azores. With Bulloch at his side, the new ship's captain, Raphael Semmes, left Liverpool on 13 August 1862 aboard the steamer Bahama to take command of the new cruiser. Semmes arrived at Terceira Island on 20 August 1862 and began overseeing the refitting of the new vessel with various provisions, including armaments, and 350 tons of coal, brought there by Agrippina, his new ship's supply vessel. After three days of back-breaking work by the three ship's crews, Enrica was equipped as a naval cruiser, designated a commerce raider, for the Confederate States of America. Following her commissioning as CSS Alabama, Bulloch then returned to Liverpool to continue his secret work for the Confederate Navy.
Alabama's British-made ordnance was composed of six muzzle-loading, broadside, 32-pounder naval smoothbores (three firing to port and three firing to starboard) and two larger and more powerful pivot cannons. The pivot cannons were placed fore and aft of the main mast and positioned roughly amidships along the deck's center line. From those positions, they could be rotated to fire across the port or starboard sides of the cruiser. The fore pivot cannon was a heavy, long-range 100-pounder, 7-inch bore (178 mm) Blakely rifled muzzle-loader; the aft pivot cannon a large, 8-inch (203 mm) smoothbore.
The new Confederate cruiser was powered by both sail and by two John Laird Sons and Company 300 horsepower (220 kW) horizontal steam engines, driving a single, Griffiths-type, twin-bladed brass screw. With the screw retracted using the stern's brass lifting gear mechanism, Alabama could make up to ten knots under sail alone and 13.25 knots (24.54 km/h) when her sail and steam power were used together.
Commissioning and voyage
The ship was purposely commissioned about a mile off Terceira Island in international waters on 24 August 1862. All the men from Agripinna and Bahama had been transferred to the quarter deck of Enrica, where her 24 officers, some of them Southerners, stood in full dress uniform. Captain Raphael Semmes mounted a gun-carriage and read his commission from President Jefferson Davis, authorizing him to take command of the new cruiser. Upon completion of the reading, musicians that assembled from among the three ships' crews began to play the tune "Dixie" just as the quartermaster finished hauling down Enrica's British colors. A signal cannon boomed and the stops to the halliards at the peaks of the mizzen gaff and mainmast were broken and the ship's new battle ensign and commissioning pennant floated free on the breeze. With that the cruiser became Confederate States Steamer Alabama. The ship's motto: Aide-toi et Dieu t'aidera (French for "God helps those who help themselves") was engraved in the bronze of the great double ship's wheel.
Captain Semmes then made a speech about the Southern cause to the assembled seamen (few of whom were American), asking them to sign on for a voyage of unknown length and destiny. Semmes had only his 24 officers and no crew to man his new command. When this did not succeed, Semmes changed his tack. He offered signing money and double wages, paid in gold, and additional prize money to be paid by the Confederate congress for all destroyed Union ships. When the men began to shout "Hear! Hear!" Semmes knew he had closed the deal: 83 seamen, many of them British, signed on for service in the Confederate Navy. Confederate agent Bulloch and the remaining seamen then returned to their respective ships for their return voyage to England. Semmes still needed another 20 or so men for a full crew complement, but enough had signed on to at least handle the new commerce raider. The rest would be recruited from among captured crews of raided ships or from friendly ports-of-call. Of the original 83 crewmen that signed on that day, many completed the full voyage.
Deck scene Cruiser Alabama
in August, 1863 - Lts Armstrong and Sinclair at Sinclair's 32 pounder station
Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama'
s commanding officer, standing aft of the mainsail by his ship's aft 8-inch smooth bore gun during her visit to Cape Town
in August 1863. His executive officer, First Lieutenant John M. Kell, is in the background, standing by the ship's wheel.
Under Captain Semmes, Alabama spent her first two months in the Eastern Atlantic, ranging southwest of the Azores and then redoubling east, capturing and burning northern merchant ships. After a difficult Atlantic crossing, she then continued her path of destruction and devastation in the greater New England region. She then sailed south, arriving in the West Indies where she raised more havoc before finally cruising west into the Gulf of Mexico. There, in January 1863, Alabama had her first military engagement. She came upon and quickly sank the Union side-wheeler USS Hatteras just off the Texas coast, near Galveston, capturing that warship's crew. She then continued further south, eventually crossing the Equator, where she took the most prizes of her raiding career while cruising off the coast of Brazil. After a second, easterly Atlantic crossing, Alabama sailed down the southwestern African coast where she continued her war against northern commerce. After stopping in Saldanha Bay on 29 July 1863 in order to verify that no enemy ships were in Table Bay, she finally made a much-needed refitting and reprovisioning visit to Cape Town, South Africa. Alabama is the subject of an Afrikaans folk song, "Daar kom die Alibama" still popular in South Africa today. She then sailed for the East Indies, where she spent six months destroying seven more ships before finally redoubling the Cape of Good Hope en route to France. Union warships hunted frequently for the elusive and by now famous Confederate raider, but the few times Alabama was spotted, she quickly outwitted her pursuers and vanished over the horizon.
All together, she burned 65 Union vessels of various types, most of them merchant ships. During all of Alabama's raiding ventures, captured ships' crews and passengers were never harmed, only detained until they could be placed aboard a neutral ship or placed ashore in a friendly or neutral port.
All together, Alabama conducted a total of seven expeditionary raids, spanning the globe, before heading to France for refit and repairs:
- 's Eastern Atlantic Expeditionary Raid (August–September 1862) commenced immediately after she was commissioned. She immediately set sail for the shipping lanes southwest and then east of the Azores, where she captured and burned ten prizes, mostly whalers.
- 's New England Expeditionary Raid (October–November 1862) began after Captain Semmes and his crew departed for the northeastern seaboard of North America, along Newfoundland and New England, where she ranged as far south as Bermuda and the coast of Virginia, burning ten prizes while capturing and releasing three others.
- 's Gulf of Mexico Expeditionary Raid (December 1862 – January 1863) was centered around a needed rendezvous with her supply vessel, CSS Agrippina. After that, she rendered aid to Texas during Major General Banks' invasion near Galveston, Texas. There, she quickly sank the Union side-wheeler USS Hatteras.
- 's South Atlantic Expeditionary Raid (February–July 1863) was her most successful raiding venture, taking 29 prizes while raiding off the coast of Brazil. Here she recommissioned the bark Conrad as CSS Tuscaloosa.
- 's South African Expeditionary Raid (August–September 1863) occurred primarily while ranging off the coast of South Africa, as she worked together with CSS Tuscaloosa.
- 's Indian Ocean Expeditionary Raid (September–November 1863) was composed of a nearly 4,500 mile journey across the Indian Ocean. Successfully evading the Union gunboat Wyoming she took three prizes near the Sunda Strait and the Java Sea.
- 's South Pacific Expeditionary Raid (December 1863) was her final raiding venture. She took a few prizes in the Strait of Malacca before finally turning back toward France for a much needed refit and long overdue repairs.
Upon the completion of her seven expeditionary raids, Alabama had been at sea for 534 days out of 657, never visiting a single Confederate port. She boarded nearly 450 vessels, captured or burned 65 Union merchant ships, and took more than 2,000 prisoners without a single loss of life from either prisoners or her own crew.
On 11 June 1864, Alabama arrived in port at Cherbourg, France. Captain Semmes soon requested permission to dry dock and overhaul his ship, much needed after so long a time at sea and so many naval actions. Pursuing the raider, the American sloop-of-war, USS Kearsarge, under the command of Captain John Ancrum Winslow, arrived three days later and took up station just outside the harbor. While at his previous port-of-call, Winslow had telegraphed Gibraltar to send the old sloop-of-war USS St. Louis with provisions and to provide blockading assistance. Kearsarge now had Alabama boxed in with no place left to run.
Having no desire to see his worn-out ship rot away at a French dock while quarantined by Union warships and given his instinctive aggressiveness and a long-held desire once again to engage his enemy, Captain Semmes chose to fight. After preparing his ship and drilling the crew for the coming battle during the next several days, Semmes issued, through diplomatic channels, a bold challenge (or hoped-for intimidation) to the Kearsarge's commander, "my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be Your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain."
On 19 June, Alabama sailed out to meet the Union cruiser. Jurist Tom Bingham later wrote, "The ensuing battle was witnessed by Manet, who went out to paint it, and the owner of an English yacht who had offered his children a choice between watching the battle and going to church."
As Kearsarge turned to meet her opponent, Alabama opened fire. Kearsarge waited patiently until the range had closed to less than 1,000 yards (900 m). According to survivors, the two ships steamed on opposite courses in seven spiraling circles, moving southwesterly with the 3-knot current, each commander trying to cross the bow of his opponent to deliver a heavy raking fire (to "cross the T"). The battle quickly turned against Alabama due to the superior gunnery displayed by Kearsarge and the deteriorated state of Alabama's contaminated powder and fuses. Her most telling shot, fired from the forward 7-inch (178 mm) Blakely pivot rifle, hit very near Kearsarge's vulnerable stern post, the impact binding the ship's rudder badly. That rifled shell, however, failed to explode. If it had done so, it would have seriously disabled Kearsarge's steering, possibly sinking the warship, and ending the contest. In addition, Alabama's too rapid rate-of-fire resulted in frequent poor gunnery, with many of her shots going too high, and as a result Kearsarge benefited little that day from the protection of her outboard chain armor. Semmes later said that the armor on Kearsarge was unknown to him at the time of his decision to issue the challenge to fight, and in the years that followed Semmes steadfastly claimed he would have never fought Kearsarge if he had known she was armor-clad.
Kearsarge's hull armor had been installed in just three days, more than a year before, while she was in port at the Azores. It was made using 120 fathoms (720 ft; 220 m) of 1.7-inch (43 mm) single link iron chain and covered hull spaces 49 feet 6 inches (15.09 m) long by 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) deep. It was stopped up and down to eye-bolts with marlines and secured by iron dogs. Her chain armor was concealed behind 1-inch deal-boards painted black to match the upper hull's color. This "chaincladding" was placed along Kearsarge's port and starboard midsection down to the waterline, for additional protection of her engine and boilers when the upper portion of her coal bunkers were empty (coal bunkers played an important part in the protection of early steam vessels, such as protected cruisers). A hit to her engine or boilers could easily leave Kearsarge dead in the water and vulnerable, or even cause a boiler explosion or fire that could destroy the cruiser. Her armor belt was hit twice during the fight: First in the starboard gangway by one of Alabama's 32-pounder shells that cut the chain armor, denting the hull planking underneath, then again by a second 32-pounder shell that exploded and broke a link of the chain armor, tearing away a portion of the deal-board covering. If those rounds had come from Alabama's more powerful 100-pounder Blakely pivot rifle, they would have easily penetrated, but the likely result would not have been very serious, as both shots struck the hull a little more than five feet above the waterline. Even if both shots had penetrated Kearsarge's side, they would have completely missed her vital machinery. However, a 100-pound shell could have done a great deal of damage to her interior and nearby crewmen; hot fragments could have easily set fire to the cruiser, one of the greatest risks aboard a wooden vessel.
A little more than an hour after the first shot was fired, Alabama was reduced to a sinking wreck by Kearsarge's powerful 11-inch (280 mm) Dahlgrens, forcing Captain Semmes to strike his colors and to send one of his two surviving boats to Kearsarge to ask for assistance.
According to witnesses, Alabama fired 370 rounds at her adversary, averaging one round per minute per gun, a very fast rate of fire, while Kearsarge's gun crews fired less than half that number, taking more careful aim. During the confusion of battle, five more rounds were fired at Alabama after her colors were struck. (Her gun ports had been left open and the broadside cannon were still run out, appearing to come to bear on Kearsarge.) Then a hand-held white flag came fluttering from Alabama's stern spanker boom, finally halting the engagement. Prior to this, she had her steering gear compromised by shell hits, but the fatal shot came later when one of Kearsarge's 11-inch (280 mm) shells tore open a midsection of Alabama's starboard waterline. Water quickly rushed through the defeated cruiser, eventually drowning her boilers and forcing her down by the stern to the bottom. As Alabama sank, the injured Semmes threw his sword into the sea, depriving Kearsarge's commander Captain John Ancrum Winslow of the traditional surrender ceremony of having it handed over to him as victor (an act which was seen as dishonorable by many at the time). Kearsarge rescued the majority of the survivors, but 41 of Alabama's officers and crew, including Semmes, were rescued by John Lancaster's private British steam yacht Deerhound, while Kearsarge stood off to recover her rescue boats as Alabama sank. Captain Winslow was forced to stand by helplessly and watch Deerhound spirit away to England his much sought-after adversary, Captain Semmes, and his surviving shipmates.
The sinking of Alabama by Kearsarge is honored by the United States Navy with a battle star on the Civil War campaign streamer.