Warship Wednesday June 3, 2015 Roll Tide, Roll
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 3, 2015 Roll Tide
Here we see “You Can Run” by naval artist Tom Freeman depicting the screw sloop-of-war Confederate States Ship Alabama chasing down the Yankee clipper Contest in November 1863. The Alabama, who captured an amazing 64 ships, of which she burned and sank 45 and paroled another ten, was the most successful surface raider in naval history.
In addition, perhaps no ship saw a greater number of ironies in her brief life (see how many you can spot).
Although the Confederate Navy picked up a few captured U.S. Naval ships (included the burned out frigate Merrimack) and Revenue Service Cutters, as well as a good number of naval officers of Southern heritage, they were short of legitimate combat ships. Further, most of the naval yards worth anything were in New England, which meant that they simply could not be built. With this, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory sent agents abroad looking for warships. In the end, the best bet turned out to be in Great Britain where Commander James Dunwoody Bulloch, CSN, arranged for at least three commerce raiders and a pair of ironclads to be completed.
Arguably, the most famous and successful of this handful of ships was the CSS Alabama.
Bulloch, whose primary job was turning raw Southern cotton smuggled past the Union blockade into cash for guns, munitions and other supplies for the Confederate government, which in turn would be ran back through the U.S. fleet, managed to contract with John Laird Sons & Company (today’s Cammell Laird) to construct a steamship with a sloop auxiliary rig (and weight and space reserved for naval guns) on August 1, 1861, just months after Bull Run. Constructed in Liverpool as hull number 290, and christened in 1862 with the bogus name Enrica, she ran her trials at sea in June 1862.
She was handy, at 220-feet overall and light with a 17-foot depth of hold and 1,050-ton displacement. On her twin steam engines pushing a single iron screw, she could make 13-ish knots, or hoist her extensive barkentine-rig and make close that amount in the right conditions.
Bulloch was originally to be the commander of the ship and assisted in her fitting out, acquiring stores and arms for the new cruiser but not mounting them as he was under watch by Union agents. As U.S. Ambassador Charles Adams (son and grandson respectively of 2 presidents of the same name) pressured the Brits to seize her, Bulloch weighed anchor just ahead of customs officials, claiming to just be taking her out on a brief sunset turn around. Slipping the brand new 9-gun sloop USS Tuscarora, he put to sea.
Instead of sailing under Bulloch, 52-year-old CDR Raphael Semmes (soon to be promoted to Capt.), late of the abandoned and broken-down commerce raider CSS Sumter, was dispatched from Bermuda to Porto Praya, Azores with the former officers of the Sumter, where they met Bulloch on the Enrica, which was crewed by mildly amused British merchantmen. After arming the ship and relieving the Brits, which Bulloch returned to England with, Semmes and his crew commissioned the CSS Alabama on 24 Aug, 1862.
Her armament, fitted above deck, was British. It consisted of a pair of “Royal Navy-style” smoothbore 6 inch 32-pounders, 4 6-inch 32-pound Blakely patent cannon cast specifically for the CSS Alabama by Fawcett, Preston & Company in Liverpool, one 7-inch 110-pounder Blakely rifle forward on a pivoting mount and a single 68-pounder (solid shot) 8-inch smoothbore pivot aft. In all, eight guns. Added to this was a stock of British and French musket rifles, revolvers, pistols, boarding hatchets, and cutlasses. However, as she only had a single gray-coated Marine, Lt Beckett K. Howell, one of only 58 appointed officers in the Confederate States Marine Corps, (and Brother in Law to President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis), these were to be used by the ship’s bluejackets.
Or should we say Jack Tars? You see, Semmes only arrived with a handful of officers and had to shop around among the Brits and other foreign sailors at hand to sign up, of which about 80 did. As her guns alone required that many men to crew them, she was shorthanded.
Although Alabama never saw a southern port, the British-built (and largely crewed) ship with her skipper from Maryland carved a name for herself in the hides of the U.S. Navy and merchant fleets for the next 22 months.
First, she sailed around the North Atlantic, sinking 20 Yankee ships, mainly whalers, and captured and released three others. Then, proceeding to Fort Royal, Martinique, she refueled, recruited more crew members in that colonial port, and gave the 12-gun screw frigate USS San Jacinto the slip and broke into the Gulf of Mexico. It was of note that her crew was often fleshed out by volunteers from ships she captured and sank and included men from Germany, Russia, and France.
Off Texas, on 11 January 1863, she engaged the 1,126-ton paddlewheel steamer USS Hatteras off Galveston. As the Hatteras got close enough to Alabama to be sucker punched before Semmes struck her British ensign (masquerading as HMS Petrel) and raised the Confederate Stars and Bars, and the fact that the Union gunboat had less than half the armament, Alabama sent her to the bottom within 20 minutes. Ever the gentleman pirate, Semmes picked up her crew and transported them to Jamaica.
From Semmes’s postwar account:
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.
With the Gulf too hot, she slipped into the South Atlantic and slaughtered 29 Yankee merchies in those waters, primarily off the coast of Brazil.
Next, she put in at Cape Town, South Africa, where most of the images of her decks were taken. It was there that she added more members to her crew to include naval adventurer and soldier of fortune Baron Maximilian von Meulnier, late of the Imperial Prussian Navy.
Crossing into the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific, she found her hunting grounds much reduced in those far-flung waters. In Singapore, she had her picture taken (one of just two of her profile known to be in existence) and Englishman Hugh Rowland Beaver of Cumming, Beaver, and Co. who helped whistle up enough supplies to keep Alabama in the war. After coaling and dispatching a letter to Malloy back in Virginia, Semmes was off again.
Heading back to European waters where Semmes thought the pickings would be better (and Alabama could get a much-needed refit) she arrived in Cherbourg on 11 June 1864. There Semmes noted, “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 deserved a rest; after all, she had captured no less than 64 vessels in over 500 days at sea and won a naval engagement against a (weaker) adversary while slipping dozens of stronger ones. In a sign of how dignified warfare was on the high seas in this age, Alabama paroled over 2,000 merchant sailors she captured– landing them in nearby ports rather than leaving them adrift on the waves– and not a single civilian was ever killed by the raider.
But everything has to come to an end…
Just three days after she made France, the Mohican-class screw sloop of war USS Kearsarge, steamed into the harbor, alerted to the wiley raider’s presence there by telegraph while in a Spanish port. Although shorter (201-feet) the Kearsarge was built from the keel-up with combat in mind, weighing half again as much as Alabama and mounting nine guns– including a pair of very dangerous 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore pivot cannons that fired 130-pounder shells.
Further, where Semmes had a scratch 140 man multinational crew and a ship that was falling apart, Kearsarge’s North Carolina-born Capt. John Ancrum Winslow had a pair of aces up his sleeve. These included the fact that his 160+ man crew was highly trained, and that he had secretly wrapped his ship’s critical engineering spaces in over 700-feet of anchor chain secured to the hull and bolted into place, in effect, giving him crude armor plating. His powder was fresh, his decks were clear, and he wanted to clean Semmes’s clock.
(Note: The two skippers had served together earlier in their career on the old three-master USS Raritan, Semmes as the ship’s flag lieutenant and Winslow as a division officer, even sharing a cabin).
Semmes slapped Winslow across the face with an open challenge, sending the message:
“My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope they will not detain me more than until tomorrow evening or after the morrow morning at furthest. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out.”
While the locals stirred about the coming scrap between the two ships, the French forced Kearsarge out to sea, where she waited for Alabama. One of the most powerful ships in the world, the 6,500-ton 30-gun French ironclad Couronne (“Crown”) stood by as her crew anxiously waited for the bloodletting. On the afternoon of June 19, the fight was on in front of a delighted host of European spectators who were thrilled to watch a pair of American vessels locked in a knife fight–and it was a barroom brawl of naval action.
Semmes fired first, trying to get the same type of fast kill as he had achieved on USS Hatteras the year before, but his shots were ineffective, likely due to poor quality powder and stale fuses as much to Kearsarge’s chainmail.
Winslow waited until the British-built cruiser was within 1,000 yards and clobbered her.
The ships locked horns in a series of seven circles, slowing trying to out-maneuver each other without success. After all, their skippers had read the same naval textbooks so why not? In all, reports estimate that while Alabama got off more than 300 shots, Kearsarge was barely damaged; suffering four casualties after just three rounds hit his vessel. Alabama, on the other hand, was a wreck after less than an hour of combat and was shipping water from the big Yankee’s 11-inchers.
The battle has been a favorite of painters and perhaps the most famous work, “Kearsarge and the Alabama” was created by one of no less skill than Édouard Manet.
Nine Alabama crewmembers were killed during the battle, 12 drowned when the ship sank and 70 picked up by Kearsarge from the sea, while Semmes and a handful of officers and men managed to make it to the British yacht Deerhound who sped them away to England. There, they were celebrated.
Semmes, who recovered the Stainless Banner of Alabama, ran back into Hugh Beaver (the Singapore connection) and presented the flag to the Englishman with the deep pockets in appreciation.
The 69×34 inch wool bunting ensign still exists and was sold at auction in 2011. As the rest of her flags were lost at sea, this one was unique. Semmes had been given a beautiful and much larger silk battle-flag by English society women after the battle which he took back to the C.S. with him.
Semmes made his way back to Virginia where he was made an admiral and given commanded first the James River Squadron then a unit of infantry (as a Brig. Gen) late in the war. He later moved to Mobile, Alabama where he died of eating bad shrimp in 1877. Nevertheless, he had outlived Winslow who retired in 1872 and died the next year in Boston, buried draped in the Kearsarge ‘s own Cherbourg battle flag.
The National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. has one of her wheels as well as other artifacts to include a very nice toilet bowl.
The City of Mobile has many Semmes artifacts in their museum, including the admiral’s sword presented to him after the war (he threw his own into the sea rather than let Winslow have it), his wartime 36 cal. Houllier & Blanchard Navy revolver, the silk flag given to him in England after the loss of his ship and Alabama‘s commissioning pennant.
Alabama’s wreck was discovered by the 152-foot French Navy mine hunter (chasseur de mines) Circé in November 1984 in 190-feet of water some 6 miles off the coast of Cherbourg. Between 1988 and 2008, with agreements of the U.S. government (who own the wreck as a war grave) and the French Republic (as its inside territorial waters) she has been extensively salvaged.
One of her RN-style 32 pounders, scrimshaw from ship’s Engineer William Param Brooks and other artifacts recovered from her wreck are in Mobile at the City Museum. The U.S. Navy has over 500 Alabama artifacts in its collection and many are spread over the world on loan, including her 7-inch gun, which is in France. In all, her wheel, seven out of eight guns, her bell, china, shells, small arms, and other items have been brought to the surface.
A statue to the Admiral, erected in 1900, stands in downtown Mobile on Government Street, within a block or so of the Federal Building, gazing towards the Bay that holds the battleship USS Alabama (BB-60), who was a much luckier lady than Semmes’s own warship.
In the artifacts recovered from Alabama were at least one set of human remains to include a jawbone. An exam of the teeth at the Smithsonian Institution revealed the jaw’s owner was likely between 25-40 and in good health, other than an apparent habit of chomping on a pipe stem. A ceremonial burial was held for the crewmember’s remains in Mobile, where the lost sailor was interred at Magnolia Cemetery accompanied by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of the Admiral Semmes Camp, who maintain a reference to the lost ship and the Admiral.
As for her adversary, 17 of Kearsarge ‘s crew received the Medal of Honor and the ship remained in hard service until wrecked on a reef off Roncador Cay on 2 February 1894 while her officers and crew made it safely ashore. A damaged section of her stern post, still with an intact 110-pound Blakely shell in it from Alabama, is also on display at the Navy Museum in Washington.
The only USN battleship not named for a state, USS Kearsarge (BB-5), was christened 24 March 1898 in her honor and went on to serve the Navy in one form or another for 57 years.
Currently, the Navy maintains both an Alabama (SSBN-731) and a Kearsarge (LHD-3) on the Naval List. In a twist of fate, the ‘Bama was built in the North (Electric Boat, Groton) and the Mighty Kay in the South (Ingalls, Pascagoula), but it’s not likely that they will ever get in a scrap moving forward.
We’re better than that these days.
Displacement 1,050 t.
Beam 31′ 8″
Depth of Hold 17′ 8″
Installed power: 2 × 300 HP horizontal steam engines, auxiliary sails, bark rig
Propulsion: Single screw propeller, retractable
Speed 13 knots
1 110-pdr rifle
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