While most of the Confederate Navy in the states was either penned up or quickly defeated during the Civil War, the Confederacy poured resources into blockade runners and commerce raiders that were successful, and few could even touch the CSS Alabama.
The Alabama was built in England, nominally as a merchant ship. British shipyards were allowed to build warships for the Confederacy early in the war as long as the ship buyers said they were for peaceful purposes and as long as no weapons were present when it was shipped.
But it was clear the Alabama was built for a fight. It had plenty of sails, like a warship or a merchant vessel would, but it also had a steam-powered paddle wheel. Merchant vessels had little use for these paddle wheels, but they allowed combatants to maneuver much better in a fight.
The Laird Brothers of Birkenhead launched the Alabama right as British forces cracked down on the illegal trade under threats of war from then President Abraham Lincoln. But as British troops rushed to seize the Alabama, it slipped up the coast in 1862, and the crew took on weapons before heading to the Azores to pick up Confederate Navy Capt. Raphael Semmes.
Capt. Raphael Semmes, in the foreground, poses on his ship’s 110-pound rifled gun, its most powerful cannon.
(U.S. Naval Historical Center)
Once it was armed and properly crewed, the ship was a modern and lethal cruiser with eight cannons including a 100-pounder and a 68-pounder on pivot carriages so they could fire to either side. It also had a copper-plated hull, but copper plating, unlike “iron sides,” is more about protecting the ship from fouling and corrosion than from enemy shells.
The crew was composed primarily of men from the Southern states and England, but it had members from other European countries and even a few from Northern states. And once it got into the water, it started racking up kills and captures.
It started in the North Atlantic where it attacked Union shipments of agricultural goods headed to Europe, and then it headed south to prey in the West Indies. But then it slipped up to the Gulf of Mexico and directly threatened the Texas coast. When the USS Hatteras came out of Galveston, the Alabama captured the ship and crew.
Over two years of raiding, it sank and captured around 68 ships. But two years of sailing and combat had taken its toll on the ship. While the copper plating helped prevent some corrosion and fouling of the hull, it didn’t prevent all damage. And the engine needed maintenance and the ship needed resupply.
So, on June 11, 1864, the Alabama sailed into Cherbourg, France, for docking and overhaul. But the Union had dispatched ships to hunt it, and other commerce raiders, and the USS Kearsarge got wind that the Alabama was in Cherbourg.
On June 19, when the Alabama sailed out, the Kearsarge was waiting. And the French people came out to watch this little battle of the American Civil War play out on their coasts. In order to ensure French neutrality and safety, that nation’s government sent out an ironclad to make sure the fight stayed in international waters.
A map shows the circular path of the Kearsarge and Alabama during their battle in 1864.
(Robert Knox Sneden via Picryl)
The Alabama fired the first shots, but the Kearsarge had chain armor, and the Alabama’s weapons and powder were degraded from seawater damage. The powder could not propel the shells as hard as it should have, and the shells were basically bouncing off the Kearsarge.
The two ships maneuvered on one another. The Kearsarge waited until the Alabama reached 1,000 yards before firing, and then the ships traded blows while trying to cross each other’s T in order to launch a broadside against the enemy’s bow.
This resulted in the ships basically sailing in a circle shooting at each other. The Alabama fired about 150 shots while the Kearsarge got off only about 100 shells. Still, with better powder and chain armor, the Kearsarge was able to quickly defeat the Confederate raider, sinking it in about an hour with a shot through the hull at the waterline.
The Kearsarge picked up most of the survivors, but Semmes and about 40 other sailors were picked up by a British ship and sat out the rest of the war.