chain armor

CSS Alabama

For other ships named Alabama, see USS Alabama.

CSS Alabama was a screw sloop-of-war built for the Confederate States Navy at Birkenhead, United Kingdom, in 1862 by John Laird Sons and Company. Alabama served as a commerce raider, attacking Union merchant and naval ships over the course of her two-year career, during which she never laid anchor in a Southern port.



Alabama was built in secrecy by British shipbuilders John Laird Sons and Company in Liverpool, Merseyside in North West England in 1862. This was arranged by the Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch, who was leading the procurment of sorely needed ships for the fledgling Confederate States Navy. He arranged the contract through Fraser, Trenholm Company, a cotton broker in Liverpool with ties to the Confederacy. Initially known as hull number 290, the ship was launched on 29 July 1862 as Enrica. Agent Bulloch arranged for a civilian crew and captain to sail Enrica to the Azores. There, Captain Raphael Semmes met the ship and oversaw the refitting of the vessel with armaments and coal. With a compliment of a 120 man crew and 24 officers the ship became a fast naval cruiser, designated a commerce raider, for the Confederate States of America. Her broadside gunnery was composed of six smoothbore 32-pounders and two large pivot cannon placed amidships along the deck's centerline, one a heavy 100-pounder, seven-inch Blakely rifle, the other an eight-inch smoothbore. The new Confederate cruiser was powered by both sail and a 300 horsepower, twin-boiler steam engine, driving a twin-bladed brass screw. With the screw retracted using her stern lifting gear mechanism, Alabama could make up to ten knots under sail alone and 13.25 knots when her sail and steam power were used together.

Commissioning and Maiden Voyage

The ship was commissioned in the Azores with little ceremony on 24 August 1862 as Confederate States Steamer Alabama. Engraved in the bronze of the great double ship's wheel was Alabama 's motto, Aide-toi et Dieu t'aidera" (God helps those who help themselves).

Under Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama spent the next two months capturing and burning ships in the North Atlantic and intercepting grain ships bound for Europe. Continuing her path of destruction through the West Indies, Alabama sank USS Hatteras along the Texas coast and captured her crew. After a visit to Cape Town, South Africa, she sailed for the East Indies where the ship spent six months, destroying seven more ships before redoubling the Cape en route to Europe. Union warships attempted a capture, but the Alabama always seemed to vanish into the horizon. All told, she sank 62 vessels of various types, mostly merchant ships. During all of Alabama 's raiding ventures, captured ships' crews and passengers were never harmed, only detained until they could be placed aboard a neutral ship or placed ashore in a friendly or neutral port.

Expeditionary Raids of the CSS Alabama

All together, the CSS Alabama conducted a total of seven expeditionary raids, spanning the globe, before heading back to France for refit and repairs:

Upon the completion of her seven expeditionary raids, the CSS Alabama had been at sea for 534 days out of 657, never having pulled into a single Confederate port. She boarded almost 450 vessels, captured or burned 65 Union merchant vessels, and took more than 2,000 prisoners without a single loss of life from either prisoners or her own crew.

Final Cruise

On 11 June, 1864, Alabama arrived in port at Cherbourg, France. Captain Semmes soon requested permission to dry dock and overhaul his ship, much needed after so long a time at sea and so many naval actions. Pursuing the raider, the American sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, under the command of Captain John Winslow, arrived three days later and took up station just outside the harbor. While at his previous port-of-call, Winslow had telegraphed Gibraltar to send the man-o-war USS St. Louis with provisions and to provide blockading assistance. Kearsarge now had Alabama boxed-in with no place left to run. The Confederate raider seemed to have finally run out of luck.

Having no desire to see his worn-out ship rot away at a French dock while quarantined by Union warships, and given his instinctive aggressiveness and his long-held desire to once again engage the enemy, Captain Semmes options narrowed to just one. As a distinguished Confederate naval officer with his personal and ship's honor to uphold, he and his crew could not slip away across the horizon this time, as they had so many times in the past. No, Alabama 's time to stand and fight had arrived. She would do so, not as a pirate or outlaw raider, as both Semmes and his ship had been branded by the Northern press and the South's enemies, but as a proud and feared capital ship of the Confederate Navy.

After preparing his ship for the coming battle during the next several days, Semmes issued, through diplomatic channels, a bold challenge to the Kearsarge's commander, "my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be Your obedient servant, R. SEMMES, Captain."

On 19 June, Alabama sailed out to meet the enemy cruiser. As Kearsarge turned to meet her opponent, Alabama opened fire. Kearsarge waited patiently until the range had closed to less than 1,000 yards (900 m). According to survivors, the two ships steamed on opposite courses in seven spiraling circles, moving southwesterly with the three-knot current, each commander trying to cross the bow of his opponent to deliver a heavy raking fire. The battle quickly turned against Alabama due to the superior gunnery displayed by Kearsarge and the deteriorated state of Alabama 's contaminated powder and fuses. Her most important shot, fired from the forward seven-inch Blakely pivot rifle, hit very near the Kearsarge 's vulnerable stern post, binding her rudder badly. The rifled shell failed to explode. If it had done so, it would have disabled Kearsarge 's steering ability and very likely ended the contest in Alabama 's favor. In addition, Alabama 's too rapid rate-of-fire resulted in frequent poor gunnery, with many of her shots going too high, thus sealing the fate of the Confederate raider. As a result, Kearsarge benefited little that day from the protection of her outboard chain armor, whose presence Semmes always claimed was unknown to him at the time of his decision to issue the challenge to fight.

This hull armor had been installed in just three days, more than a year before, while Kearsarge was in port at the Azores. It was made using 120 fathoms of 1.7-inch single link iron chain and covered hull spaces 49-feet, six-inches long by six-feet, two-inches deep. It was stopped up and down to eye-bolts with marlines and secured by iron dogs. It was concealed behind one-inch deal-boards painted black to match the upper hull's color. This chaincladding was placed along Kearsarge 's port and starboard midsection down to the waterline, for the purpose of protecting her engines and boilers when the upper portion of the cruiser's coal bunkers were empty. This armor belt was hit twice during the fight: First in the starboard gangway by one of Alabama 's 32-pounder shells that cut the chain and bruised the hull planking underneath, then again by a second 32-pounder shell that exploded and broke a link of the chain armor, tearing away a portion of the deal-board covering. Even if those shots had come from Alabama 's more powerful 100-pounder Blakely pivot gun, the likely result would not have been too serious: The shots struck the chain armor five feet above the waterline. Had both shots penetrated Kearsarge 's side, they would have still missed her vital machinery. A little more than an hour after the first shot was fired, Alabama was reduced to a sinking wreck by Kearsarge 's powerful 11-inch Dahlgrens, forcing Captain Semmes to strike his colors and to send one of his two surviving boats to Kearsarge to ask for assistance. According to witnesses, Alabama fired 370 rounds at her adversary, averaging one round per minute per gun, while Kearsarge 's gun crews fired less than half that many, taking more careful aim. During the confusion of battle, five more rounds were fired at Alabama after her colors were struck. Her gun ports had been left open and the broadside cannon were still run out, coming to bear on Kearsarge. Then a hand-held white flag came fluttering from Alabama 's stern spanker boom, finally halting the engagement. Kearsarge's fatal shot came a bit earlier in the battle when one of her 11-inch shells tore open a mid-section of Alabama 's starboard waterline. Water quickly rushed through the defeated cruiser, eventually drowning her boilers and forcing her down by the stern to the bottom. Kearsarge rescued the majority of the survivors but 41 of Alabama 's officers and crew, including Semmes, were rescued by the Deerhound, a private yacht, while the Kearsarge stood off to recover her rescue boats while waiting for Alabama to sink. Captain Winslow was forced to stand by helplessly and watch Deerhound spirit away to England his much sought after adversary, Captain Semmes, and his surviving shipmates.

Perhaps the most courageous and selfless act during the Alabama's last moments involved the ship's assistant surgeon, Dr. David Herbert Llewellyn. Dr. Llewellyn, a Briton, was much loved and respected by the entire crew. During the battle, he steadfastly remained at his post in the wardroom tending the wounded until the order to abandon ship was finally given. As he helped wounded men into the Alabama's only two functional lifeboats, an able bodied sailor attempted to enter one, which was already full. Llewellyn, understanding that the man risked capsizing the craft, grabbed and pulled him back, saying "See, I want to save my life as much as you do; but let the wounded men be saved first." An officer in the boat, seeing that Llewellyn was about to be left aboard the stricken Alabama, shouted "Doctor, we can make room for you." Llewellyn shook his head and replied, "I will not peril the wounded." Tragically, and unknown to the crew, Llewellyn had never learned to swim, and he drowned when the ship went down.

His sacrifice did not go unrecognized. The Confederacy awarded him posthumously the Confederate Medal of Honor In his native Wiltshire, a memorial window and tablet were placed at Easton Royal Church. Another tablet was placed in Charing Cross Hospital, where he attended medical school.

Officers and Crew

Officers and Crew
Officer Post
List of Officers Of The Confederate States Steamer Alabama As They Signed Themselves.
Raphael Semmes Commander
John Mclntosh Kell First Lieutenant And Executive Officer
Richard F. Armstrong Second Lieutenant
Joseph D. Wilson Third Lieutenant
John Low Fourth Lieutenant
Arthur Sinclair Fifth Lieutenant
Francis L. Galt Surgeon And Acting Paymaster
Miles J. Freeman Chief-Engineer
Wm. P. Brooks Assistant- Engineer
Mathew O Brien Assistant-Engineer
Simeon W. Cummings Assistant-Engineer
John M. Pundt Assistant-Engineer
Wm. Robertson Assistant-Engineer
Becket K. Howell Lieutenant Marines
Irvine S. Bulloch Sailing-Master
D. Herbert Llewellyn Assistant-Surgeon
Wm. H. Sinclair Midshipman
E. Anderson Maffitt Midshipman
E. Maffitt Anderson Midshipman
Benjamin P. Mecaskey Boatswain
Henry Alcott Sailmaker
Thomas C. Cuddy Gunner
Wm. Robinson Carpenter
Jas. Evans Master’s Mate
Geo. T. Fullam Master’s Mate
Julius Schroeder Master’s Mate
Baron Max. Von Meulnier Master’s Mate
W. Breedlove Smith Captain S Secretary


During her two-year career as a commerce raider, Alabama had caused disorder and devastation across the globe for United States merchant shipping. The Confederate cruiser claimed more than 60 prizes valued at nearly $6,000,000. In an important development in international law, the U.S. Government pursued the "Alabama Claims" against the British Government for such devastation, and following a court of arbitration, won heavy damages.

The Wreck

In November 1984, the French Navy mine hunter Circé discovered a wreck under nearly 60 m (200 ft) of water off Cherbourg. The location of the wreck (WGS84) was 49°45'147N / 001°41'708W. Captain Max Guerout later confirmed the wreck to be the Alabama's remains.

In 1988, a non-profit organization the Association CSS Alabamawas founded to conduct scientific exploration of the shipwreck. Although the wreck resides within French territorial waters, the U.S. government, as the successor to the former Confederate States of America, is the owner. On October 3, 1989, the United States and France signed an agreement recognizing this wreck as an important heritage resource of both nations and establishing a Joint French-American Scientific Committee for archaeological exploration. This agreement established a precedent for international cooperation in archaeological research and in the protection of a unique historic shipwreck. This agreement will be in effect for five years and is renewable by mutual consent.

The Association CSS Alabama and the U.S. Navy/Naval Historical Center signed on March 23, 1995 an official agreement accrediting Association CSS Alabama as operator of the archaeological investigation of the remains of the ship. Association CSS Alabama, which is funded solely from private donations, is continuing to make this an international project through its fund raising in France and in the United States, thanks to its sister organization, the CSS Alabama Association, incorporated in the State of Delaware.

In 2002, a diving expedition raised the ship's bell along with more than 300 other artifacts, including cannons, structural samples, tableware, ornate commodes, and numerous other items that reveal much about life aboard the Confederate warship.

CSS Alabama Folklore

"Roll Alabama, roll!"

The Alabama is the subject of a well known sea shanty, '"Roll Alabama, roll'":

When the Alabama's Keel was Laid, (Roll Alabama, roll!), 'Twas laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird (Roll, roll Alabama, roll!)
'Twas Laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird, 'twas laid in the town of Birkenhead.
Down the Mersey way 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 laddie saw his doom, when the Kearsarge it hove in view.
When a ball from the forward pivot that day, shot the Alabama's stern away.
Off the three-mile (5 km) limit in '64, the Alabama was seen no more.

"Daar Kom die Alibama"

The Alabama's visit to Cape Town in 1863 has passed (with a slight spelling change) into South African folklore in the Afrikaans song, '"Daar Kom die Alibama'":

Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see,
Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see...

There comes the Alabama,
The Alabama that comes oer the sea,
There comes the Alabama,
The Alabama that comes oer the sea...

Battle Ensigns and Other Flags

The Stars and Bars

At the beginning of Alabama 's first cruise, the commerce raider would have flown as its battle ensign, the early seven-star version of the First National Flag of the Confederacy, commonly known as the Stars and Bars. Up to six more white stars would be added before the flag's design was completely changed by the Confederate Congress. It was under a later version of the First National Flag that Alabama sank the Union side-wheeler USS Hatteras off Galveston, Texas in January of 1863.

An early Stars and Bars ensign was later salvaged from Alabama's floating debris, following her sinking by the USS Kearsarge. It still survives and is held in the collection of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. The ensign's dimensions are 64-inches (hoist) by 112-inches (fly), a proportion of five-to-nine. Its dark blue canton contains eight white stars, eight-inches high, in an unusual arrangement: The stars are configured in three, centered, horizontal rows of two, then three, and finally two. The eighth star is tucked in the lower left corner (and in the lower right corner on the opposite side), giving the canton's layout an asymmetrical appearance. This additional star was likely added in haste while at sea when news reached Alabama that an eighth state had joined the Confederacy.

During the majority of Alabama's commerce raiding cruises, several different versions of the Stars and Bars would have likely flown on board. Their dark blue cantons could have contained at various times nine, ten, eleven, and eventually thirteen white stars (as pictured above, right), as more states seceded and joined the Confederacy. In addition, Alabama is known to have carried both British Union Jack and U. S. Stars and Stripes battle ensigns in her flags' locker. Both were flown, along with other nations' ensigns, at various times to conceal Alabama 's true nationality, especially as she approached her prey: the Union's commercial shipping.

Jacks and Secondary Flags

The practice of using secondary naval flags after the British tradition was common practice for the Confederacy, linked as she was by both heritage and economy to the British Isles. The flegling Confederate Navy therefore adopted and used jacks, commissioning pennants, signal, and designating flags. Alabama 's dark blue naval jack would have been flown forward of her battle ensign and likely carried this same, asymmetrical, eight-star configuration, being a rectangular duplicate of the ensign's square canton. Later versions of her first naval jack could have contained, like her battle ensign, nine, ten, eleven, and eventually thirteen white stars. Alabama 's long, tapering commissioning pennant could have been anywhere from 25-feet to 70-feet in length and would have flown atop her main mast at various times. It carried a blue hoist one-quarter the length of its fly with the same number of white stars as her naval jack and battle ensign. The balance of the streamer would have been divided horizontally with red over white stripes.

The Stainless Banner

By late 1863, a new battle ensign, the Second National Flag of the Confederacy, also known as the Stainless Banner, was flying aboard Alabama. The specifications for this new ensign, established on 1 May 1863 by the Confederate Congress, gave it a hoist-to-fly proportion of one-to-two, the white area being twice as wide as the height. Its square canton was the established thirteen-star red, blue, and white Southern Cross, familiar to the South's land forces as the Confederate Battle Flag. However, a short time later, the Confederate Navy Department revised the regulations, changing the battle ensign's proportions to the more familiar two-to-three ratio. Whatever its proportion, the white expanse of The Stainless Banner proved to have poor visibility over water, especially when viewed in contrast against a hazy sky.

The adoption of the Stainless Banner 2nd National Flag also meant a change in Alabama 's naval jack. While the exact dimensions of her specific jack are unknown, the Confederate naval regulations adopted on 26/28 May 1863 required that they be a larger version of the ensign's new thirteen-star canton, the red, blue, and white Southern Cross. Instead of being square in proportion, all jacks were rectangular in shape, their width one-and-a-half times their height, a ratio of two-to-three. But most surviving examples of Confederate naval jacks show their proportions varied, despite the naval regulation's requirements. Differences in both state and regional manufacturing methods and materials availability can account for this. Following the Civil War and up through today, the rectangular Southern Cross naval jack became the Confederate flag most commonly associated with the South.

It's unknown which versions of these later flags were flown at specific intervals during Alabama 's seven raiding campaigns. Captain Semmes, while visiting friendly or neutral foreign ports, may have simply commissioned multiple new battle ensigns, naval jacks, and pennants as needed, while refitting and reprovisioning his ship. Or he simply may have had them altered or remade on board when captured newspaper articles or official dispatches containing the changes reached Alabama.

Accounts state that the Stainless Banner Second National Flag was flying high on a line attached to Alabama 's mizzen gaff until just before her sinking off Cherbourg, France, in 1864. At the close of her losing fight with the USS Kearsarge, Alabama 's battle ensign was ordered struck for the last time. What happened to it following the battle is unknown. All other colors on board, old and new, except the one noted above, were lost with her destruction by the Kearsarge.

However, the Alabama Department of Archives and History has in its collection one more important Stainless Banner ensign belonging to CSS Alabama. It was presented to the ship by ladies in England but was never flown aboard. Such presentations of ceremonial colors were uncommon for ships of the Confederacy, but a few are known to have received such honors, including Semmes' famous commerce raider. This elegant Second National Flag is huge and made of silk. Its very large size and now quite delicate condition has precluded any modern display or up-close study, so its various details and dimensions are currently unavailable.

See Also



  • This article contains public domain material from the Naval Historical Center.
  • *
  • Hearn, Chester G., Gray Raiders of the Sea, Louisiana State Press, 1996. ISBN 0807121142
  • Luraghi, Raimondo, A History of the Confederate Navy, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1996. ISBN 1557505276
  • Marvel, William, The Alabama & the Kearsarge, University of North Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN 0807822949
  • Still, Jr., William N.; Taylor, John M.; Delaney, Norman C., Raiders and Blockaders, the American Civil War Afloat, Brassy's, Inc., 1998. ISBN 1574881647
  • Secretary of the Navy (1864). Sinking of the Alabama--Destruction of the Alabama by the Kearsarge. Annual report in the library at the Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.
  • Roberts, M. D., Arthur C. (1999, 2000) Reconstructing USS Kearsarge, 1864. Silver Springs, MD: Vol. 44, #4; Vol. 45, #s 1, 2, and 3, Nautical Research Journal. ISSN 0738-7245.
  • Madaus, H. Michael. (1986). Rebel Flags Afloat: A Survey of the Surviving Flags of the Confederate States Navy, Revenue Service, and Merchant Marine. Winchester, MA: 80-page special edition of The Flag Bulletin, #115. ISSN 0015-3370.

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