The Story of the CSS Alabama - Commerce Raider of the Confederate States Navy
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The Story of the CSS Alabama - Commerce Raider of the Confederate States Navy

CSS Alabama, commerce raiders, confederate states Navy, the history of the CSS Alabama, list of expeditionary raids of CSS Alabama, sea shanties written about the CSS Alabama, the original roll call of the CSS Alabama, original crew list of the CSS Alabama, Battle of Cherbourg,

The CSS Alabama was a steam and sail powered, screw propelled, Sloop of War, which was employed as a commerce raider for the Confederate States Navy.

During her short, but notorious two year history, she boarded no less than 450 Union merchant and naval ships, captured, burned or sank 65 others, and detained over 2000 prisoners, before being attacked and sunk by a Union States Navy vessel, the USS Kearsarge.

The CSS Alabama started life at the Laird and Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire ( now Wirral ), where she was constructed in secret ( she was known simply as Hull Number 290)  after a contract was offered to the shipyard to build a Sloop of War, by Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch *.

It's quite possible that shipbuilder John Laird was more than knowledgable of what the vessel he had been commissioned to build was intended to be, but even though he risked prosecution and the vessel risked being impounded if British Government officials ever knew about the contract -  due to Britain's neutrality in the American Civil War -  he went ahead with the build anyway, probably due to Liverpool's vast financial interest in the American deep south's cotton industry, at that time.

She was launched on the 29th of July 1862 flying the British Naval Ensign and sailing under the name ofEnrica. Her maiden voyage was to the Island of Terceira in the Azores, where she was boarded by her Confederate States Captain, Raphael Semmes and 24 other Confederate States officers.( Roll call listed below ).

For three months the ship lay at anchor off Terceira, whilst she was fitted with armamants and supplies and provisions were bought onboard. On the 24th of August 1862 the ship was commissioned into the Confederate States Navy on the command of President Jefferson Davis, renamed Alabama and, after having had the British pennant taken down, the Confederates States Naval Ensign was hauled aloft her main sail. 


                                              The CSS Alabama 1862 - 1864.

The CSS Alabama was built at a cost of £42,500 and made from solid English oak with iron fastenings and had a copper bottom. She was 220 feet long, weighed 1050 tons and was fitted with 2 x 300 horsepower steam engines, a single screw propellor and auxilliary sails, that enabled her to travel at speeds of 10 knots an hour by sail power or 13 knots an hour by steam power. She had been fitted with 1 x 68 pound cannon, 1 x 110 pound cannon and 6 x 32 pound cannons.

During her two year career, she had travelled all over the world and conducted seven expeditionary raids upon enemy vessels, boarding no less than 450 ships, capturing, burning or sinking 65 others and capturing over 2,000 prisoners of war, without spilling one drop of blood. Captured prisoners were detained and handed over to the first available, neutral ship that would take them off her hands. Alabama was not interested in harming men, just taking ships in order to weaken the Union fleet. 


                                                The Confederate Naval Ensign.

Her seven expeditionary raids were conducted at -

New England during October and November of 1862.

The Gulf of Mexico during December of 1862 and January of 1863.

The South Atlantic during August and September of 1863.

The Indian Ocean during September and November of 1863.

The South Pacific during December of 1863. 


A painting by Edouard Manet, of the Battle of Cherbourg between CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge.

She arrived in Cherbourg for repairs and refitting on the 11th of June 1864 without ever having laid anchor in a Southern State port.

As she had sailed along the English Channel towards Cherbourg she was, unknowingly, being followed by the Union States sloop of war the USS Kearsarge under the command of Captain John Winslow, who had been on the Alabama's trail since November of 1862. In June of 1863 the Kearsarge spied Alabama in port at Cherbourg, but because of France's neutrality in the American Civil War, had to lie in wait three miles off the coast of France to await the Alabama's next move.

Kearsarge did not have to wait long, as on the 19th of June, just eight days after arriving in the French port, CSS Alabama raised her anchor and went to meet the Kearsarge. Alabama, never one to shy away from another prize of war, opened fire first.

The Kearsarge was hit, but did not suffer badly, so did not respond at first, waiting instead for the Alabama to inch still further to her, so as she could take a good strike at her foe. One hour later, Kearsarge took her revenge, firing a volley of shots from her Dahlgren, smoothbore, pivot cannon, a much more superior type of fire power than anything Alabama had on board.

Within minutes the Alabama had been reduced to a sinking, wreck, with her captain left with no other option than to admit defeat and send a message to the Kearsarge offering surrender and asking for help in rescuing his crewmen.

The Kearsarge obliged and rescued the Alabama's survivors, but Captain Semmes was no where to be found. He had been picked up by the British yacht Deerhound, and had been quickly whisked away to safety in Great Britain.

The CSS Alabama had suffered the loss of nine crewmen, 20 had been injured and 13 had been drowned, during the conflict now known as the Battle of Cherbourg -  including the British, ship's surgeon, Dr David Herbert Llewellyn who was postumously awarded with the Southern Cross of Honour, for steadfastly remaining at his post in order to care for the wounded sailors -  Only four of Alabama's crewmen had been captured by the Union ship. 

This data had all been duly recorded in the log of 2nd Lieutenant Richard Fielder Armstrong, who also recorded that he owed his life to Llewellyn. Armstrong along with Captain Semmes and a number of other high ranking officers, had all escaped to England by way of the yacht, Deerhound.

Because of Britain's involvement in the building of the CSS Alabama and her neutrality towards the American Civil War, the U.S Government pursued a case against the British Government for damages due to the devastation that the CSS Alabama had caused during her two years at sea, and won several thousand pounds in damages. 

Curiously, in 1851, eleven years before becoming Captain of the CSS Alabama, Captain Raphael Semmes, had been quoted as saying this on the subject of using commerce raiders - commerce raiders are little more than licensed pirates and it behooves all civilised nations to suppress the practice forthwith ! 


The Confederate Navy Jack, flown from the CSS Alabama when she was sunk in the English Channel. 

The CSS Alabama laid at the bottom of the sea in the English Channel for 220 years before she was found in 1984 by the French Navy. In 1988 the Association of CSS Alabama was formed in order to conduct scientific research and exploration of her wreck. In 1995 the association gained permission to conduct an archaeological exploration of the wreck. In 2002 her bell and 300 other artefacts were brought up and taken to the Naval History and Heritage Commandat the Underwater Archaeological Branch at Washington Navy Yard, in Washington DC. 


A plaque situated at Simonstown, South Africa, commemorating a visit of the CSS Alabama in 1863. 

The CSS Alabama has had two sea shanties written in her honour, the first one is in English and the second translated from Afrikaans.

Roll Alabama Roll. 

When Alabama's keel was laid,

roll Alabama roll,

twas laid in the yard of Johnothan Laird, twas laid in the town of Birkenhead.

Roll Alabama roll.

Down the Mersey she rolled then, and Liverpool fitted her with guns and men.

From the western Isle she sailed forth, to destroy the commerce of the North.

To Cherbourg Port she sailed one day, for to take her count of prize money.

Many a sailor lad saw his doom, when the Kearsarge hove it in view.

When a ball from the forward pivot that day, shot the Alabama's stern away,

off the three mile limit in '64, the Alabama was seen no more.

Daar kom Alibama. 

There comes the Alabama,

The Alabama it comes oer the sea,

there comes the Alabama.

The Alabama it comes oer the sea,

Lass, lass the reedbed calls,

the reedbed it is made.

The reedbed it is made for me,

to sleep upon.

Oh Alabama, the Alabama,

oh Alabama it comes oer the sea. 


                     Captain Semmes and 1st lieutenant Kell aboard CSS Alabama. 


                                  ROLL CALL OF THE CSS ALABAMA' S ORIGINAL CREW LIST.

Raphael Semmes - Captain and Commander in Charge.

John McIntosh Kell - First Lieutenant and Executive Officer.

Richard Fielder Armstrong - Second Lieutenant.

Joseph. D. Wilson. - Third Lieutenant.

John Low - Fourth Lieutenant.

Arthur Sinclair - Fifth Lieutenant.

Francis. L. Galt - Assistant Ships Surgeon.

Miles. J. Freeman - Chief Engineer.

William . P. Brookes - Assistant Engineer.

Mathew O'Brien - Assistant Engineer.

Simeon. W. Cummings - Assistant Engineer.

John . M. Pundt - Assistant Engineer.

William Robertson - Assistant Engineer.

Becket . K. Howell - Lieutenant Marines.

Irvine . S. Bulloch * - Sailing Master.

David Herbert Llewellyn - Ship's Surgeon and Paymaster.

William. H. Sinclair - Midshipman.

E. Anderson Maffitt - Midshipman.

Benjamin . P. Mekaskey - Boatswain.

Henry Alcott - Sail Maker.

Thomas . C. Cuddy - Gunner.

William Robinson - Carpenter.

James Evans - Master's Mate.

George . T. Fullam - Master's Mate.

Julius Schroeder - Master's Mate.

Baron Max Von Meulnier - Master's Mate.

W. Breedlove - Smith - Captain's Secretary.

* Irvine.S. Bulloch was the youngest crew member on board the CSS Alabama and the younger brother of the confederate agent who commissioned the ship, James Dunwoody Bulloch, both of whom were the uncles of the future U.S President, Theodore Roosevelt.

Read about another shipping disaster in the English Channel -  


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Comments (4)
Ranked #1 in History

Brilliant historical insight, thank you.

Ranked #3 in History

This ship was built at an interesting time in maritine history. Ship builders hadn't yet switched completely to steam as sail was still considered more reliable. Nice to see you included the original crew list, that information is often hard to come by.

Ranked #13 in History

Amazing post!

Ranked #44 in History

Brilliant work here DeeBee. I'm a Civil War history buff and had heard of this ships involvement before but this is one of the most informative pieces that I have read about the CSS Alabama yet.