C.S.S. Alabama was built by Messrs. Laird. Shipbuilders of Birkenhead, England. Commissioned by James D. Bullock on behalf of the Confederate Navy, she was paid for out of Southern cotton credits. She took her first sea trip as the cruiser 290 on a fine, clear morning of July 29th, 1862. With her were a party of English “ladies” and their husbands as part of a ruse to prevent her seizure as a violation of England’s neutrality. Immediately after lunch a tug drew alongside and the guests were politely requested to leave the ship.
The 290 then, temporarily called the Enrica, set sail for Terceira in the Azores to rendezvous with the Agrippina, which delivered her officers, armaments and supplies. On August 24, under a mild blue sky, the confederate flag blossomed from the mast of the Confederate States Steamer ALABAMA. She was 234 ft. in length, 32 ft. wide and had a draft of 15 ft. Under full sail she was about 1,000 tones and had a maximum speed of 13 knots. Her full crew compliment was 110 including officers. She was heavily armed with two pivot guns and six 32 lb. cannons.
The Alabama began a career that lasted 2 years and she never saw a homeport. She ransomed, sank or captured some 66 enemy ships including the U.S.S. Hatteras, a Federal gunboat of equal size in the Gulf of Mexico. It was reported that for every ship taken by her, seven were forced to remain in port for want of cargo and insurance thus causing huge losses to Northern maritime trade. Her cruises took her to every ocean in the World, from the Grand Banks to the Singapore Straits. Whalers, clippers, barks and brigs fed her appetite on her cruise of destruction.
Time was running out for Captain Semmes and the Alabama. The last ship captured was the Tycoon, a clipper out of New York. After this final act of retaliation against the North, on 11 June 1864 the Alabama entered the French port of Cherbourg for desperately needed supplies and repairs. Even her gunpowder was suspect. The Federal steamer Kearsage soon arrived in Cherbourg form her station off Flushing. Capt. Semmes took the decision to give battle to the Kearsarge in spite of the poor condition of the Alabama and the contest took place in the English Channel in full view of thousands of spectators lining the heights of the French coast. The battle damaged Alabama could not sustain the effort. If however a round fired from one of the deadly pivot guns of the Alabama into the stern of the Kearsage had exploded, the outcome of the battle might have been different.
The American Civil War had it’s echoes in Cape Town where it is the origin of the folk song “Daar Kom die Alabama” and she has remained a part of South Africa’s history and folklore since she first entered Table Bay on August 6, 1863.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild