Sunday, 8 January 2017

Captain Semmes of C.S.S. Alabama

U.S.S. Kearsarge (Union Ship) battles C.S.S. Alabama 1864

In England during the year of 1862 in the day and month of 29th July, a ship was launched with no pomp or ceremony from the shipyards of Birkenhead, Merseyside. The ship was called Enrica and she had been built by shipbuilders called John Laird Sons And Company. The vessel slipped discreetly out of Liverpool into the Irish Sea.

A Confederate Agent called James Dunwoody Bulloch had procured the ship for the new Confederate Navy – a collection of states that had decided on secession from the United States of America. The contract had been arranged through Fraser, Trenholm Company – a cotton broker in Liverpool with interests in the Confederate States.

Bulloch went with the ship and had carefully arranged for a civilian crew to take Enrica to Terceira Island in the Azores.

A few days later on August 5th, another ship left Liverpool bound for the same destination in the Azores. This vessel was a steamer called Bahama and one of its passengers was to become a figure that would burn his name in history. He was a thin-faced man with a small beard and moustache who came from Maryland, in today’s USA. However, in 1862 the state of Maryland had joined the Confederate cause and this particular man had left the US Navy and joined the Confederate Navy. His name was Captain Raphael Semmes.
  
When he reached Terceira Island in the Azores he was greeted by Agent Bulloch and both began to oversee Enrica’s refitting. Another ship called Agrippina docked bringing special supplies for the newly constructed ship. This included ship’s cannon, coal, food and other necessities for a long voyage. When all of the loadings had been completed, there was a small ceremony which took place about a mile off of the island in international waters. The men of all three ships Enrica, Bahama and Agripinna stood on Enrica’s quarter deck with 24 officers of the Rebel Southern States – all of them in full dress uniforms.

Captain Raphael Semmes read out his commission from President Jefferson Davis, which gave him the authority to take over the newly built ship. When he had finished his speech, musicians began to play “Dixie”. The British colours were lowered and the Confederate battle ensign was raised. As the new flag fluttered in the sea wind Captain Semmes proclaimed the vessel by a new name. Alabama – CSS Alabama.

The renamed C.S.S. Alabama and was converted into a Navy cruiser. The newly armed vessel would become a commerce raider and the world’s sea would have an abundance of Union shipping to attack in the name of the Confederacy.

There was one small dilemma that needed to be overcome. Captain Semmes had 24 officers but no crew. Confederate sailors were hard to come by in the Azores as none could be got out of the blockade. He looked to the mainly British crew that had brought the ship to the Azores as the civilian Enrica. He made a bold speech about the Southern cause and invited the Brits to sign up for an unspecified time. Unfortunately, the mainly British listeners were not too enthusiastic about a foreign civil war, so then he changed his tact, realising that Southern morality would not win Brit minds as opposed to the bulging wage packet. He, therefore, offered double wages, to be paid in gold, and additional prize money to be paid by Confederate congress for every destroyed Union ship. This induced a bold response as 83 excited Brits felt a sudden flurry of Rebel patriotism – in short Captain Semmes had acquired a crew of mercenaries that would prove to be well and truly up to the task at hand. He was still 20 men short but knew he could find more sailors in other ports. Many of the British mercenaries completed the full voyage – an extraordinary two-year high sea adventure with Captain Semmes who they came to admire greatly.

Captain Semmes began his rampage instantly in the Eastern Atlantic capturing and destroying all northern merchant ships that the Alabama came upon. These vessels were mostly whalers and the Confederate raider accounted for ten of them. Captain Semmes then ranged north and back to Bermuda, attacking 13 more Union ships and destroying ten of these vessels.

He then took his ship to new hunting grounds in the West Indies and attacked more enemy commerce, making Union shipping dread the sight or name of C.S.S. Alabama. Then in January of 1863, when sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama came up against her first military vessel – a Union side-wheeler called USS Hatteras. The Confederate ship quickly attacked and sank the ship, capturing the crew.

Next, she went south off of the coast of Brazil and took 29 prizes, reeking havoc before venturing back across the Atlantic to South West Africa where she worked with another Confederate vessel called C.S.S. Tuscaloosa. Next, she went into the Indian Ocean for six months and attacked and destroyed seven more Union vessels.

Altogether the C.S.S. Alabama was accountable for the destruction of 65 Union ships – mostly merchant vessels. Prisoners were never harmed and were handed to the nearest neutral ports or passing vessels. While roaming the seas and boarding vessels the C.S.S. Alabama never visited a Confederate port – she would have been incapable of breaking the blockade. She took over 2,000 prisoners without a single loss of life of her captured or crew.
  
In June of 1864, the C.S.S. Alabama docked at the port of Cherbourg in France to have repairs done. She had been at sea for a long time and was in need of an overhaul. A pursuing Union sloop-of-war U.S.S. Kearsarge arrived outside of Cherbourg three days later and waited for the Alabama to leave port and come out into international waters. Before he had arrived, the Union Captain John Ancrum Winslow had telegraphed for assistance from man-o-war U.S.S. St Louis with supplies for a long blockade of the Confederate ship if Semmes chose to stay in the French port.

Captain Semmes was a fighting man by nature and would not entertain the notion of being blockaded in the port of Cherbourg. He chose to sail out and engage the U.S.S. Kearsarge

On the 19th of June, the Alabama sailed out to confront the U.S.S. Kearsarge. Cannon fire was exchanged and soon the two ships were locked in a duel with Alabama outmatched against the Union sloop-of-war. The Confederate ships most poignant shot was fired from a seven-inch Blakely pivot rifle, which hit close to the Union vessel’s vulnerable stern post. The shell failed to explode. If it had done it would have crippled the ship’s steering.
  
The Union ship was armour clad and was more durable to shell fire. Eventually, the Alabama began to wane due to the pounding and after an hour she was badly broken up. One shell tore into her amidships below the waterline allowing water to gush in and drown her boilers. The Confederate ship began to sink.
  
As Alabama went down many of the survivors clambered into life boats and ship’s Doctor David Herbert Llewellyn managed to get many of his wounded patients aboard boats before going down with the ship. He was a Briton from Wiltshire and was awarded the Southern Cross of Honour. There is a memorial tablet and window commemorated to him in a church in Wiltshire and another tablet in Charing Cross Hospital where he once worked.

U.S.S. Kearsarge picked up most of the survivors, but a further 41 men were rescued by a British yacht called Deerhound. Captain Semmes was among these men and he escaped to Britain.
  
Captain Semmes held good on his promise to the crew who were all paid in full when they got back to Britain. He returned to the Southern American States and finished the Civil war fighting on land with his naval men as infantry in the dying months of the war. The Confederate cause was lost and he was interned for a few months after the South surrendered to the Union. After the war, he became a judge and a newspaper editor. He died in 1877 age 67.
  
In 1984, the French Navy found the sunken wreck of the C.S.S. Alabama and since then there have been joint French and US archaeological dives of the wreck.


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