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Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia

CSS Alabama

(formerly Enrica) Auxiliary bark (1f/3m). L/B/D: 220 × 319 × 14 (67.1m × 9.7m × 4.3m). Tons: 1,050 tons. Hull: wood. Comp.: 148. Arm.: 6 × 32pdr, 1 × 110pdr, 1 × 68pdr. Mach.: direct-acting engine, 600 ihp, 1 screw; 13 kts. Built: Laird Bros., Ltd., Birkenhead, Eng.; 1862.

In the history of commerce warfare, CSS Alabama was the most successful raider in terms of numbers of vessels seized—capturing and burning 55 ships, seizing and bonding 10 more. James Dunwoody Bulloch, the Confederate naval agent in Europe responsible for creating a viable high-seas fleet from scratch, ordered Hull No. 290; she was christened Enrica and put down the Mersey River on July 29, 1862. Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. minister in London, insisted that the sale of the ship violated Britain's 1861 declaration of neutrality. In a manner of speaking, she did not, for it was not until after the ship had been armed from the supply ships Agrippina and Bahama off the Azores that Captain Raphael Semmes commissioned her as CSS Alabama on August 24, 1862.

Cruising from the Azores, to Newfoundland, and south to the Caribbean, Alabama sank 27 ships between September and December of 1862. On January 11, 1863, she sank the auxiliary schooner USS Hatteras of the Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron about 20 miles south of Galveston. After putting the captured Union crew ashore in Jamaica, Alabama continued on her way. On June 20, while cruising off Brazil, she overhauled the Philadelphia merchant bark Conrad, which Semmes armed and commissioned as CSS Tuscaloosa, Lieutenant John Low commanding. (Tuscaloosa cruised in the South Atlantic for six months before being seized by the British in Simon's Bay, South Africa, on December 26.) Visiting South Africa in the autumn of 1863, Alabama sailed into the Indian Ocean and as far east as Singapore. Semmes then returned to Europe for an extensive refit, anchoring at Cherbourg on June 11, 1864.

Semmes fully intended to remain at Cherbourg for several months, but the Union government had recently persuaded the French to impose a 24-hour limit on the stay of Confederate-flag ships in French ports. In the meantime, the screw sloop USS Kearsarge under Captain John A. Winslow arrived at Cherbourg from Flushing, Belgium, on June 14. Attempting to embark U.S. sailors landed from Alabama, Winslow was told he was violating French neutrality and left. Preferring that his ship suffer honorable defeat rather than an ignominious blockade, Semmes is reported to have told his Lieutenant John M. Kell, "Although the Confederate government has ordered me to avoid engagement with the enemy cruisers, I am tired of running from that flaunting rag!" On June 19, Alabama sailed out of Cherbourg and, still within sight of the spectators lining the shore, opened fire on Kearsarge at 1057. After so long at sea, Alabama was no match for Kearsarge and was reduced to a sinking condition in an hour. Semmes repeatedly struck his flag, but before Kearsarge could act, he and some 40 others were rescued by the British yacht Deerhound—a crime for which Semmes was arrested in December 1865 on orders from U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. While the sinking of the Alabama did not affect the outcome of the Civil War, her loss was a blow to Confederate morale.

The devastation caused by the Alabama and her sister raiders, especially Florida and Shenandoah, has frequently been cited as one cause of the decline of U.S. international shipping in the latter half of the nineteenth century. An immediate consequence of their efforts was the 900 percent rise in insurance rates for U.S.-flag ships, and the resulting transfer of some 900 ships to foreign registry. Following the war, the United States insisted that Britain be held liable for the destruction wrought by British-built commerce raiders. These proceedings came to be known as the Alabama claims, as Alabama alone accounted for as much as $5 million in losses. After several false starts, the claims were finally resolved under the Treaty of Washington (1871), by which the United States and Great Britain submitted to arbitration by an international tribunal composed of representatives from Britain, the United States, Italy, Switzerland, and Brazil. The tribunal found that Britain had not exercised "due diligence" and awarded the United States $15.5 million in damages.

Alabama's story did not end there. On November 7, 1984, French divers from the minesweeper Circé discovered the remains of the ship lying in about 195 feet of water six miles off Cherbourg. The site is under the protection of a joint French and American authority.

Guérout, "Engagement between the C.S.S. Alabama and the U.S.S. Kearsarge." Leary, "'Alabama' vs. 'Kearsarge.'" Robinson, Shark of the Confederacy. Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat. Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies.

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