Tuesday, June 19, 2012

June 19, 1864: Raider CSS Alabama is Sunk

CSS Alabama
We have all heard the tails of German Commerce Raiders raising hell with allied shipping during both World Wars. What you may not know is that long before the Germans used the strategy, the Confederates came up with the idea -and they were pretty good at it.

In 1862, John Laird Sons and Company of Liverpool, England built the screw sloop-of-war CSS Alabama for the Confederate States of America. The ship was launched as a cruiser and commissioned as CSS Alabama on 24 August 1862. Under Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama spent the next two months capturing and burning ships in the North Atlantic and intercepting American grain ships bound for Europe. Continuing its path of destruction through the West Indies, Alabama sank USS Hatteras near Galveston, Texas and captured its crew. After visiting Cape Town, South Africa Alabama sailed for the East Indies where it spent the next six months cruising for and destroying Union shipping. While there, the formidable commerce raider destroyed seven more ships before redoubling the Cape of Good Hope and returning to Europe.

On 11 June 1864 Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France and Captain Semmes requested the permission of city officials to dock and overhaul his ship. Three days later, the sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, which had been pursuing the raider, arrived off Cherbourg and began patrolling just outside of the harbor. On June 19, Alabama sailed out of Cherbourg to engage Kearsarge. As Kearsarge turned to meet its opponent, Alabama opened fire. Kearsarge’s crew waited until the distance between both vessels closed to less than 1,000 yards before returning fire. The two ships steamed on opposite circular courses as each commander tried to cross the bow of his opponent to deliver a heavy raking fire. The battle quickly turned against Alabama, primarily due to the poor quality of its powder and shells; by contrast, Kearsarge benefited from additional protection provided by chain cables her Captain had placed along its sides.

Approximately one hour after firing the first shot, Alabama had been reduced to a rapidly sinking hulk. According to witnesses, Alabama had fired 150 rounds to the Kearsarge’s 100 when a shell fired by Kearsarge tore open a section of Alabama’s hull at the waterline. Seawater quickly rushed through the cruiser and it began to sink. Semmes subsequently struck his colors and sent a boat to surrender to his opponent. Although Kearsarge’s crew rescued most of the raider’s survivors, the British yacht Deerhound picked up Semmes and 41 others who escaped to England.

During its two-year career as a commerce raider, Alabama inflicted considerable disorder and devastation on United States merchant shipping throughout the globe. The Confederate cruiser claimed more than 60 prizes with a total value of approximately $6,000,000 (a devastating amount to Union commerce at the time).

Live Long and Prosper...

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