by J. R. W. Davies
The Confederate States Ship (CSS) Alabama, built at the Birkenhead Ironworks of John Laird was a predator. A commerce raider designed to seek out and take or burn the ships of the United States’ merchant fleet during the American Civil War. July 29th 2015 marks the 153rd anniversary of the Alabama’s departure from the Mersey.
The story of the ship, which went on to a spectacular career incurring millions of dollars in losses for US merchants, is emblematic of Merseyside’s important role in the War Between the States. Though no actual fighting took place, between 1861 and 1865 Merseyside was a battleground in a war which started on the other side of the Atlantic.
The American Civil War began in 1861, when Southerners opened fire on a stone and brick artillery fortification in Charleston, South Carolina called Fort Sumter. Over the preceding months a number of southern States had seceded from the United States following years of sectional tension, culminating in the election to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s party, the Republicans, were widely suspected in the South of being committed to the abolition of slavery. The ‘peculiar institution’ formed the bedrock of Southern society and was key to its economy, meaning that the South was unprepared to contemplate the possibility of its being abolished.
In launching a secessionist rebellion the South was at several disadvantages versus the Northern States (the US or Union.) The nascent Confederacy possessed less than half the population of the North, it lacked heavy industry or large scale manufacturing capacity and was, in the words of Confederate naval officer James Dunwoody Bulloch ‘distressingly deficient’ in almost everything necessary to wage a successful war.
It was for this reason that Bulloch was dispatched early in 1861 to Britain. Eventually settling in Liverpool, Bulloch’s first operation consisted of running a large consignment of guns and other war materials into the South. The Union had realised very quickly that if it could cut off the South from the outside world by blockading its seacoast, the Confederacy would be unable to effectively resist the North’s attempts to put down the rebellion. At this early stage of the war however, the blockade was ineffective and Bulloch’s vessel, the Fingal ran into Savannah safely.
On his return to Liverpool Bulloch began to work on more elaborate schemes. The South was ill-equipped to the task of constructing ships of war which might challenge the blockade or harm Northern commerce. The latter objective was of particular importance since the Northern merchant class was politically powerful and could influence decision making in Washington if put under financial pressure by roving Confederate cruisers. Trade was also of great importance to the Northern economy and if it was brought to a standstill, the economic impact would be harmful to the Union war effort. Bulloch began to investigate the possibility of constructing ships for this purpose in Britain, utilising the well developed and technologically advanced shipyards of Merseyside to produce high quality, purpose built warships to a standard far in advance of what was possible in the Southern States.
In doing this Bulloch knew he was potentially laying himself open to legal challenges. Britain had enacted a law in 1819 called the Foreign Enlistment Act, and it was again brought into force in 1861. Under the act it was illegal for British subjects to enlist in the armies of foreign belligerents or to ‘equip, furnish, fit out or arm’ vessels for use by one belligerent against another, unless officially sanctioned to do so by the Government. In order to keep on the right side of the law Bulloch employed a legal team, including eminent Liverpool lawyer, Mr F.S. Hull. A series of subterfuges were then devised which would not only prevent the violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act, but also help frustrate those parties who wished to see Confederate shipbuilding on Merseyside stopped.
The man most concerned with stopping Bulloch was Thomas Haines Dudley, US Consul at Liverpool. Dudley, a Quaker from New Jersey and a lawyer by profession, possessed an obsessive, almost fanatical determination to foil Bulloch’s schemes, and those of other Confederate agents operating in the North of Britain. From his office at the American Consulate on Paradise Street in Liverpool, Dudley wove a web of agents, lookouts, informers and spies, hoping to catch Bulloch’s ships before they could escape. He collected written testimonies, signed affidavits and descriptions of ships he thought suspicious. He hired private detectives to trail Bulloch and his associates so that their every movement was known to the US authorities. Dudley even went so far as to authorise the payment of retainers to individuals who offered him information, in order to secure their futures should they be dismissed from their shipyard work for leaking secret details. All of this feverish activity was designed to build convincing cases against suspected vessels which might then be presented to the British authorities.
Bulloch’s first foray into the construction of raiding cruisers was the Oreto, a steamship built by a Liverpool firm to the plans of a Royal Navy gunboat. In accordance with his legal advice, Bulloch kept the true purpose of the vessel a closely guarded secret. Ostensibly she was intended for a Sicilian client, and it was in this guise that she sailed from the Mersey in March 1862, unarmed and with a merchant crew to man her. Once she reached the Bahamas however, she took on a Confederate crew and captain, John Newland Maffitt. Despite an attempt by the authorities in the Bahamas to detain her, the vessel was able to run into Mobile, Alabama where she was fitted for war with arms and ammunition. Because the vessel had left the Mersey unarmed and ostensibly bound for Sicily, the CSS Florida as she was re-commissioned, had not technically violated the Foreign Enlistment Act.
Dudley was furious. Even though he had suspected that the Oreto/Florida was intended for the South he had not had time to stop her. Now he was coming to hear of another ship, known only by its yard number, 290, which was being built at Lairds’ yard in Birkenhead. It was almost certain that she too was a raider in embryo, and the Consul stepped up his efforts to unmask her before the British authorities.
The Lairds’ shipyard was founded by William Laird, a Scotsman in 1828. Initially a tiny concern making boilers, it had become a pioneer of iron steamship construction, growing into a major player in Mersey shipbuilding. Lairds’ were known in the United States, having constructed a number of advanced vessels for American clients. They were therefore a natural choice for Bulloch to achieve his aims.
No.290 was 220ft in length overall. She displaced 1050 tons and was powered by a single, retracting, twin-bladed screw propeller driven by a two-cylinder, direct-acting steam engine of 300hp, manufactured by Fawcett, Preston & Co. a Liverpool firm specialising in marine steam engines. She was capable of a top speed of some 15 knots, using sails and steam power together, fast enough to outrun almost any Union warship and overhaul even the swiftest merchantman. Her three-masted sailing rig gave her the option of cruising without the engine for long periods, saving coal, during which time the screw could be retracted into a well in the hull to reduce drag.
The 290 was laid down in June 1861. Construction of the vessel proceeded rapidly thereafter and by May 1862 she was ready for launch. Dudley had also been busy gathering incriminating evidence, but getting the British authorities to listen to him was proving a slow and tedious process. In part this was due simply to a strict interpretation of the law on the part of the British authorities. Technically, no actual breach of legislation was taking place even if, as it seemed to Dudley, it was blindingly obvious that the Confederates were just taking advantage of a loophole. On the other hand the tardiness in attempting to stop the nascent raider was symptomatic of the tacit sympathy felt by many on Merseyside for the South.
Liverpool’s trading links with the United States were long established, going back to the time of the transatlantic slave trade. Commodities such as cotton, sugar and tobacco, all of which came from the Southern states, had built much of the wealth of the port. Britain as a whole, though largely abolitionist in thought by the 1860s, was at best ambivalent about the democratic project inaugurated by the American Revolution, with the governing classes expressing a general condescension towards the representatives of what they termed a ‘mobocracy.’ Overall, in this early part of the War, with the Southern armies winning victory after victory against the Union, many in Britain saw Southern independence as inevitable. Anything which would help the South win, and win quickly, was desirable not only to cut the upstart Americans down to size, but also to restore the interrupted transatlantic trade. This would put an end to the instability caused by shortages of commodities such as cotton, whose scarcity was beginning to be felt in the textile districts of Northern England.
Eventually Dudley’s efforts prevailed, and a writ for the detention of the 290, now called Enrica was signed, but it was too late; Bulloch had won. Hearing from a spy in the foreign office that the Enrica was about to be detained he ordered her captain to proceed to sea, under the guise of a trial-run. Enrica anchored of Seacombe on the 28th and sailed on the 29th accompanied by the steam tug Hercules. To bolster the subterfuge a small number of guests were invited aboard, the vessel was partly dressed with flags and several dockyard workers were embarked. Enrica made several runs in Liverpool Bay between the Bell Beacon and the North West Lightship, playing up to the ruse of a sea-trial. In the middle of the afternoon Bulloch ushered the guests onto the tug, which took them to Woodside. He then asked the harbour pilot, Mr George Bond, if he knew a certain bay in Anglesey. When the pilot answered in the affirmative, Bulloch ordered Bond and the Enrica’s captain, Matthew Butcher, a Liverpool master, to take the vessel there and await his return the following day on the Hercules.
Early the following morning the tug, with Bulloch aboard, as well as a quantity of stores and a large number of the female dependants of the Enrica’s crew, proceeded to Anglesey. After a meal was eaten it was explained to the men that the ship would not be returning to Liverpool, and they were asked if they wished to sign on for a voyage ‘say to Havana.’ All but a handful agreed, their wives and sweethearts returning aboard the tug with a month’s advance wages and a promise that their menfolk would be returned to them free of charge when the Enrica reached her destination.
This was the island of Terciera in the Azores, where the Enrica completed her stores and took on her armament and her captain, Raphael Semmes. Semmes commissioned the ship Alabama and signed on the bulk of the crew, consisting mostly of Liverpool hands, to serve under him and his Confederate officers. Though the Alabama would later take crew members from prizes and from the ports she visited, the core of her lower-deck was always made up of Liverpool sailors.
Raphael Semmes was a career naval officer who had already done duty for the Confederacy in command of the commerce raider Sumter. When that ship eventually became too decrepit to continue its successful cruise, he paid her off at Gibraltar and was eventually ordered to assume command of the Alabama. This appointment was without doubt a disappointment to Bulloch, as he had believed he was to command the raider, going so far as to promise a place as First Lieutenant to one of his Fingal acquaintances. The Confederate Navy Department, ably headed by Stephen Mallory, had however recognised Bulloch’s skill as a procurer of warships, and did not want this valuable officer transferred.
Semmes, a Marylander with waxed, pointed moustaches which gave him the air either of a dashing cavalier or a pantomime villain, depending on whether his observer was a Yankee or a Rebel, was ruthless as a commerce raiding captain. Knowing that because the Confederacy was not a recognised state there were no ports to send his captures into as prizes, he burned the majority of them. Only those ships he needed to dispose of captured crews did he spare, apart from one, the Conrad which he commissioned into Confederate service as an auxiliary raider, the CSS Tuscaloosa. Semmes ran many aspects of his ship’s daily life on Royal Navy lines to suit his largely British crew. All hands received a rum ration twice daily and a share in prize money, and were paid in line with current arrangements in the British fleet.
Alabama’s first victim was the New England whaler Ocmulgee. She would go on to sink several more valuable whalers off the Azores before sailing north to target Federal shipping off Newfoundland. In January 1863 Semmes arrived off Galveston Texas, which had been attacked by Union forces. Arriving to find Federal warships bombarding the port he lured the USS Hatteras, a sidewheel gunboat of 1100 tons out into the Gulf in darkness, before allowing her to close to within 75 yards of his ship. He then hauled down the British ensign he had been flying, replacing it with the Confederate flag and opened fire on Hatteras at point blank range. The Union vessel sank inside 15 minutes and the Alabama disappeared into the night.
In the course of her almost two years cruise the Alabama captured 71 prizes, incurring millions of dollars in losses to the North. So effective was the Alabama, that Northern merchants became increasingly wary of consigning their cargoes in US shipping. The ‘flight from the flag’ this brought about made the American ensign a much rarer sight on the world’s oceans, where previously it had been ubiquitous.
The Union government was not heedless of the impact the Southern cruisers were having on their trade. But the unfortunate truth was that there was not a great deal that could be done to stop the raiders. The area of ocean in which the Confederate raiders operated was vast, and the Union Navy though it had undergone substantial expansion, simply did not have the ships to mount an all-out hunt. The all-important blockade diverted the bulk of Union naval strength away from the open seas, and only the USN’s fastest and most capable ships were worth sending after the Confederate raiders. Though not intended to fight ship-to-ship duels the Alabama was heavily armed, with a mixture of both pivot and carriage mounted rifled and smoothbore guns. Against a lesser or unwary opponent such as the ill-fated Hatteras, Alabama’s battery was more then sufficient to inflict fatal damage.
One of the vessels used to hunt for the Confederate raiders was the USS Kearsarge commanded by Captain John Winslow. Kearsarge was a Mohican class sloop of war ordered in 1861 under a war emergency program. Her particulars were very much similar to those of the Alabama, with Kearsage being almost exactly equal to the Confederate ship in length, breadth, displacement, secondary armament, motive power and complement. Crucially she possessed the speed to hunt down the Alabama, while also mounting sufficient ordnance, including 11 Dahlgren pivot guns, to deal with the raider and her 7 and 8-inch pivot pieces.
In June 1864 Semmes took his increasingly weary Alabama into port in Cherbourg. A year earlier the Confederate would have received a more or less cordial welcome. But by mid-1864 the tide of war had turned against the South. Foreign intervention in the conflict, long the dream of Southern leaders, had been all but ruled out and the presence of a warship from the unrecognised Confederate States in a neutral French port was now a serious embarrassment to the local authorities. News that the Southern raider was at Cherbourg was reported to the American minister in Paris by a spy, and quickly transmitted to Captain Winslow who was with the Kearsarge at Flushing in the Netherlands. He arrived of Cherbourg on June 14th.
Semmes had a decision to make. Whatever his course of action the inescapable fact remained that, after so long at sea the Alabama would not be able to continue her cruising for much longer without a full overhaul. Her hull was foul with marine growth which slowed her down, her planks let water and her engines were giving trouble. The port authorities at Cherbourg were refusing to grant dockyard facilities to Captain Semmes and even so, an overhaul of the Alabama sufficient to put her back in prime shape would allow more US warships to arrive.
The situation left Semmes with three realistic options. First, he could stay where he was. But to do so meant blockade, probably for the rest of the war; if not eventual internment by the French authorities. Alternatively, Semmes could run. With only one enemy vessel outside the harbour, and with his engines still capable of offering a burst of speed, he might evade Kearsarge and reach the open sea. But this would do nothing about the Alabama’s condition, and would only postpone the date at which he might have to take on a Union warship. Next time around his ship, still just a match for Kearsarge would have deteriorated even further. His third option, and his most drastic, was to make a fight of it.
After conferring with his executive officer Joseph Kell, Semmes resolved to fight Kearsarge. In a theatrical flourish he then sent a note to Winslow, an old shipmate, effectively challenging him to a duel. The odds were long, but Raphael Semmes was a man of supreme self-confidence, his men’s morale was still high and he was sure his ship was up to the task.
On Sunday June 19th Kearsarge had rigged church, and Captain Winslow was in the middle of reading the weekly service when the Alabama emerged from the harbour. She was followed by a British-owned steam-yacht the Deerhound, whose owner wanted to watch the action, and a French ironclad sent out to ensure there were no violations of neutrality.
At about 10:50AM Semmes opened fire on Kearsarge at a range of some 1200 yards. The battle quickly settled into a circling combat as both vessels steamed around each other seeking an advantage. Alabama’s gunnery was wild. Though she managed to fire almost twice as many rounds as her opponent, a great many of her shots went high. Those which did hit were limited in their impact because a large proportion of Alabama’s supply of shells proved to be duds. Also, unbeknownst to Semmes, Winslow’s ship had been fitted with improvised armour in the form of chains bolted to her side and covered over with light boards. This made it almost impossible for the Alabama’s guns to penetrate the Kearsarge’s side. The Union ship’s gunfire, in contrast to Alabama’s was accurate and decisive. The 11-inch Dahlgren pivot guns scored several hits on the Alabama on or below the waterline. Though the Confederate’s engines remained undamaged, the hits caused severe flooding which soon became critical. Semmes ordered solid shot to be loaded but his ship’s fire remained erratic, finally he ordered a return to shells but it was too late. Holed at least twice by large calibre hits below the waterline Alabama was sinking. After about 70 minutes of action Semmes ordered his ensign hauled down in surrender. The battle did not stop immediately however, Kearsarge firing several more shots after her opponent had struck. Likely this was due to the fact that early in the battle Alabama’s ensign had been shot away and replaced, it is probable that Winslow thought this had happened again, and continued to fire thinking a third flag was on its way to the masthead.
Alabama foundered rapidly, leaving a number of men in the water. About 40 of these, including most of the ships officers, were picked up by Deerhound, which then immediately set course for Southampton. There were soon allegations that Deerhound’s presence was not incidental, and was in fact part of a conspiracy to stop an experienced commander like Semmes falling into enemy hands. Those Alabamas who had not been rescued by the British steam-yacht were picked up either by Kearsarge herself, or by French pilot boats which were nearby.
In all Alabama had lost 25 men killed, nine of whom died in the actual battle, and 22 wounded. The prisoners aboard the Union ship and the French vessels were taken into Cherbourg and released on parole. This meant that they were free to go, but could not again take up arms against the North unless exchanged for Union prisoners. Since so many of the sailors were foreigners, with nothing invested in the war now their ship was gone, the measure was largely superfluous.
The Alabama was the most successful of the South’s raiding cruisers, and her depredations would have a lasting impact on Anglo-American relations. So great had been the cost of her career to American merchants, that after the war was over the US would demand reparations be paid by Britain in recognition of the country’s role in producing the raider. After a lengthy arbitration in Geneva, in which evidence gathered by Dudley was of crucial importance to the Americans’ case, the British government agreed to pay the sum of $15,500,000. This was a massive amount, though rather less than either the $2billion or the ceding of part, or all of Canada to the US that the Americans had initially considered demanding.
The loss of the Alabama, combined with the capture of the Florida by a Union gunboat in a Brazilian port five months later, were serious blows to the South’s commerce raiding efforts. The Confederates did have other ships, the CSS Rappahannock was in port at Calais while the Alabama was at Cherbourg. But the career of this vessel was indicative of the straits Confederate warship procurement had reached by the later part of the war.
She had started life as the British despatch vessel Victor, and externally resembled the Florida, which had been built to plans for a vessel of a similar type. Unable to build new raiders from scratch due to the changing attitude of the British and French authorities, and the increasingly successful efforts of Dudley, the American minister in London, Charles Francis Adams, and the US consul there, Freeman Morse, Bulloch was reduced to looking for existing vessels he might purchase and convert into cruisers. He now had an assistant in this task, the noted oceanographer and scientist Matthew Fontaine Maury. Yet Maury’s scientific skill probably exceeded his ability in procuring warships, as he bought the Victor even though she had been decommissioned from the Royal Navy due to various defects. Externally impressive, she was in poor condition and her engines were faulty and unreliable. Unfit for service, her commerce raiding career was over before it had begun. She was impounded by the French authorities in at Calais, never having taken a prize. For good measure the French also impounded two ironclads the Confederates had been constructing in French yards, one of which, after a bizarre series of coincidences, would have an abbreviated career for the Confederacy as the CSS Stonewall.
Also impounded was the Alexandra, a raider building on Merseyside and, more disastrously for the South, two ironclad steam-rams recently launched at Lairds’ yard. These vessels were not mere commerce raiders, but heavily armed and armoured warships equipped with heavy guns in state-of-the-art revolving turrets as well as their rams. Bulloch had dreamed of unleashing them on the North’s blockading fleet, and even holding Northern port cities under their guns and demanding Southern independence.
The Confederate agent would have one final success before the war was over. In late 1864 he bought the Sea King, a large merchantman built for the China trade which had just completed a maiden trooping voyage to India. Commissioned CSS Shenandoah she went on to a successful career, taking 28 prizes and becoming the only Southern vessel to circumnavigate the globe; and visiting Australia to much interest in 1865. In August of that year she laid waste the New England whaling fleet in the Barents Sea, her captain James Waddell, dismissing as lies the protestations of the whaling captains that the war was over. It was not until his ship was intercepted by the British gunboat Barracouta and he was shown copies of the latest newspapers, that Waddell accepted that the conflict was at an end.
It was in many ways appropriate that the last of the Confederate raiders should end her career on Merseyside. The area, which had been so near the heart of the story of Confederate commerce warfare, witnessed the last act not only in that particular saga but of the Civil War itself, when Waddell hauled down the Confederate ensign for the last time.
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Hollett, D Men of Iron, the Story of Cammell Laird Shibuilders 1828 -1991 (Countyvise, Birkenhead (UK) 1992)
Hussey, John Liverpool: The Confederate Years (Countyvise, Birkenhead (UK) 2010)
Konstam, Angus Confederate Raider 1861-65 (Oxford, Osprey 2003)
Lardas, Mark CSS Alabama vs USS Kearsarge, Cherbourg 1864 (Oxford, Osprey 2011)
Williams K.J. Ghost Ships of the Mersey, A Brief History of Confederate Cruisers with Mersey Connections (Countyvise, Birkenhead (UK))