Friday, October 20, 2017

An American Civil War Battle In France?

A hilltop behind our little town of Glencoe, California, is named Alabama Hill. It was named after a Confederate warship the CSS Alabama by a group of gold miners who were Southern sympathizer during the Civil War. I was looking into the reason why a hilltop near my home is named after the CSS Alabama when I discovered that she had an interesting history. Yes, including being part of an American Civil War battle in France of all places.

Believe it or not, her last battle did in fact take in what I believe was a very unlikely place during the Civil War. The Battle of Cherbourg, as it became known as, took place off of Cherbourg, France, in 1864.

Now if you didn't know that there was an American Civil War sea-battle between the North and South that took place in France, well that makes two of us. Frankly, I had no clue until lately that Union and Confederate Navy vessels engaged each other outside of American waters.

Knowing that those miners here in Glencoe named a hill after the Alabama, let's look at the fascinating CSS Alabama first. Of course, the question becomes why was she there in France in the first place?

The CSS Alabama was a sloop-of-war that was built for the Confederate States Navy in 1862, She was built in England. Her sole purpose was as a "commerce raider". Her job was to attack Union navy and merchant ships. A quirk of history is that she was a Confederate navy warship that never ever docked at an American port, North or South, during her lifespan.

Fact is, the CSS Alabama was built in what was thought to be complete secrecy in England. Her construction was arranged by Confederate agents who worked through a Confederate cotton broker in England. That cotton broker was Fraser, Trenholm & Co who was in fact the Confederacy's overseas bankers. Fraser, Trenholm & Co supported slavery in the American South even though slavery was already outlawed in England. Fraser, Trenholm & Co supported the Confederacy by arranging the sale of cotton for the South, and by arranging the financing and construction of a Confederate fleet of blockade runners and commerce raiders in England. 

Loopholes being what they are when it comes to laws, English laws had loopholes no different than any other nation. Ehen it came to England's neutrality laws, their laws stated that a ship could be designed and built as an armed vessel as long as it didn't carry any armament guns until after it sailed into International waters. So basically, the CSS Alabama was designed and built with Navy regulations of reinforced decks for cannons, magazines storage, gun ports, and other specifications for a warship as long as she did not have guns. 

She was initially named the "Enrica" in May of 1862. Then, as stealthy as possible to avoid detection by a Union vessel the USS Tuscarora which was dispatched to find that new Confederate warship, she is said to have slipped out of England in early July. She had a civilian Captain and crew when she sailed to Terceira Island in the Portuguese Azores. 

Capt. Raphael Semmes and Lt. John Kell 
aboard CSS Alabama 1863
Once in the Azores, she was met by Confederate Navy Captain Raphael Semmes in August. Captain Semmes is interesting to me in that prior to jumping ship from the U.S. Navy and joining the Confederate Navy during the Civil War, he actually served in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1861. That's a 35 year Navy career before joining the Confederates. Also, he's the only Naval officer that I've ever heard of who was supposedly promoted to Confederate Navy Rear Admiral and then later was supposedly promoted to Brigadier General in the Confederate Army.  

Of course, records show that while he only preformed the duties of a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army for about four days, his actual promotion to that rank was never approved of by the Confederate Senate. Fact is, his appointment to that position was never approved because he only held that rank for only a few days before General Robert E. Lee surrendered and the war ended. As for his insistence that he was a Brigadier General, some say that he insisted on being referred to as a Brigadier General so that he wouldn't be hanged for piracy on the high seas after the war.

At Terceira Island in the Azores, the "Erica" was outfitted as a Naval cruiser of the time. She was equipped with six British-made 32-pounder broadside cannons. Forward of the main mast was a 7-inch pivot cannon, and aft was an 8-inch pivot cannon. Those cannons were positions so that they would be able rotate fire port or starboard. She was armed and fast. Fact is, she could make up to ten knots under sail alone. She could do 13.25 knots when using both her sails and steam powered screw which was powered by a 300 horsepower horizontal steam engine.

On July 29th, 1862, the Confederate Navy commissioned her the Confederate States Steamer (CSS) Alabama. She was considered a cruiser that the South designated a "commerce raider." The CSS Alabama's motto was "Aide-toi et Dieu t'aidera." In French, that's translated to "God helps those who help themselves." Her motto is said to have been engraved in a bronze plate on her great double ship's wheel.

The Alabama's crew boarded nearly 450 vessels. They captured, burned, and scuttled 65 Union ships which were mostly merchant vessels. She took more than 2,000 prisoners which she turned over to neutral ships or offloaded on neutral ports. Those figures make the CSS Alabama the most successful "commerce raider" in Maritime History. 

Fact is, as strange as it might sound, the CSS Alabama conducted seven expeditionary raids in areas of the globe that I would have never imagined a Confederate ship having gone to the areas that it did.

For example, the CSS Alabama's Eastern Atlantic Expeditionary Raid from the end of August to September of 1862 took place right after being commissioned. That was when she set sail for the shipping lanes Southwest and then East of the Azores. She is known to have burned and scuttled ten Northern whaling ships to prevent whale oil from being used in the North.
The CSS Alabama's New England Expeditionary Raid was from October into November of that same year. Captain Semmes pointed his ship to the Northeastern seaboard of New England. The Alabama worked that area venturing as far south as Bermuda. Off of Virginia, the Alabama's crew set fire to ten Northern merchant ships.

The CSS Alabama's Gulf of Mexico Expeditionary Raid which was from the middle of November of 1862 to the end of January of 1863. During that time, she supported the Confederate state of Texas against a Union expeditionary force. That action is also known as the Battle of Galveston when Confederate Major General John B. Magruder expelled occupying Union troops from Galveston. The Alabama is know to have sank the Union side-wheeler USS Hatteras.

The CSS Alabama's South Atlantic Expeditionary Raid took place from February to July of 1863. That was when the Union Navy started to hunt down the Alabama in earnest. The reason was that she burned and scuttled 29 Union merchant ships while raiding off the coast of Brazil. Yes, Brazil.
The CSS Alabama's South African Expeditionary Raid lasted from August to September of that same year. She patrolled off the coast of South Africa while working with the CSS Tuscaloosa to stop Union shipping.

The CSS Alabama's Indian Ocean Expeditionary Raid was from September to November. She made a 4,500 mile journey across the Indian Ocean, all while evading the Union gunboat USS Wyoming. During that time, the Alabama sunk three Union merchant ships near the Sunda Strait and the Java Sea.

The CSS Alabama's South Pacific Expeditionary Raid in December of 1863 was her final raiding expedition. During that time, it's said she sunk a few Union merchant vessels in the Strait of Malacca before finally heading to Confederate friendly France for a refit and repairs.
Those seven expeditionary raids took 657 days. During that time, the Alabama was at sea for 534 days of those 657. As stated before, she never visited a Confederate port. Yet even though that's the case, it seems as though she traveled all over the world. 

As for the Union's response to "commerce raiders" such as the CSS Alabama, they were not completely asleep at the wheel when it came to trying to stop them. In fact, before the "Erica" ever left England heading for the Portuguese Azores for armament, the Union's USS Tuscarora was in Southampton, England, with the mission of intercepting the Alabama. Sadly for the Union, the Tuscarora wasn't successful at stopping her at the time.

Capt. Winslow & officers aboard the USS Kearsarge 
So now after almost two years of sinking Union merchant ships pretty much all over the globe, the CSS Alabama returned to European waters for a refit, repairs, replenishment. Of course, it's a safe bet to say that the crew wanted time ashore as well. She put into the port at Cherbourg, France, on June 11th, 1864.

The Union's sloop-of-war the USS Kearsarge arrived on June 14th to meet her, and sink her. She was a Mohican-class United States sloop-of-war named after New Hampshire's Mount Kearsarge. She was built and commissioned at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine, on January 24th, 1862. She could do a top speed of 11 knots under sail and steam, and was armed with two 11 inch cannons, four 32 pounderss, and one 30-pounder. Her mission was to search out Confederate commerce raiders and blockade runners, and sink them. 

The USS Kearsarge was actually a bit smaller and almost 3 knots slower than the CSS Alabama. She also had one less gun than the Alabama, and they were small than which the Alabama was armed with.

While smaller, slower, and having less guns, she had one advantage over the Alabama. It was a secret that the Alabama's Captain did not know about. The Kearsarge was built to take hits while hunting Confederate commerce raiders. What that means is that it had a concealed iron chain armor cladding over its wooden hull. That armor was disguised, concealed, with wood. It's true, it was concealed behind 1 inch boards painted black to match the upper part of the ship's hull color. This cladding was positioned along Kearsarge's port and starboard mid-section down to her waterline. This was to protect her engines, boilers, and coal storage. 

I found it interesting that the Portuguese in the Azores did work on both Union and Confederate ships during our Civil War. For example, the same port that outfitted the CSS Alabama with British armament in July of 1862 had also installed the armor cladding on the USS Kearsarge's hull when she was in port in the Azores earlier that same year.

The USS Kearsarge left Portsmouth Navy Yard on February 5th, 1862, and immediate headed for the coast of Spain. After a brief three day stop in the Azores, the three says that it took to put on her armor, she steamed to Gibraltar to join the gunboat USS Chippewa in the blockade of the CSS Sumter which was also a Confederate commerce raider.

In early 1862, the CSS Sumter was making repairs in Cadiz, Spain, which was neutral during our Civil War. The Sumter was then forced to British Gibraltar. During the Union Navy's blockade which kept her there, she was unable to get the repairs and after almost a year of being guarded by a number of different Union warships, she was abandoned. 

Yes, as strange as it sounds, the Captain and crew of the CSS Sumter ended up just abandoning her in December of 1862. The CSS Sumter's Captain was none other than Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes. After he left the Sumter, he and his crew were reassigned to the Alabama which was in the Azores.  

From the neutral port at Cadiz, Spain, from November of 1862 to mid-March of 1863, the USS Kearsarge searched for the Alabama. The Kearsarge is said to have searched for the Alabama all along the coast of Europe and down the North African coast. The break for the Kearsarge came when a Union agent in France sent word of the whereabouts of the Alabama.

The USS Kearsarge arrived at the mouth of the horbor in Cherbourg, France, to find the CSS Alabama on June 14th, 1864. It was there that the Kearsarge took up a position at the harbor's entrance. It was there that she waited for the Alabama to come out and fight.

This must have felt like a second chance for Confederate Captain Semmes in command of the Alabama. He was face to face with one of the ships that got the better of his last ship the Sumter. Maybe that's why the CSS Alabama's Captain Raphael Semmes reportedly sent a challenge to the USS Kearsarge's Captain John Winslow for a ship-to-ship duel on the open sea. Imagine that. 

Mindful of French neutrality, Union Captain Winslow took the Kearsarge out away and clear of French waters. No one questioned whether or not Captain Winslow would answer Captain Semmes challenge. The challenge suited Captain Winslow just fine as he led the Alabama out to sea almost seven miles from the Cherbourg harbor in France.

On June 19th, 1864, two American warships, one Union and the other Confederate, fought an American Civil War battle in France of all places. After four long days of refitting his vessel, drilling his men and preparing for battle with the Kearsarge, the CSS Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg harbor. The Alabama was escorted by the French Navy ironclad Couronne and a British yacht the Deerhound. Some reports say that two other French Navy warships escorted the Alabama out to sea and remained close to the battle to make sure that the fighting stayed out of French waters.

It is said that the Kearsarge steamed further out to sea as the Alabama approached. Some say Captain Winslow wanted to make sure that the Captain of the Alabama couldn't make a run for the French harbor if fate fell out of favor for the Confederate ship. Some say Captain Winslow simply wanted fighting room.

Either way, at 10:50 a.m., on the morning of June 19th, 1864, at a distance of about a mile, Captain Winslow spun the USS Kearsarge around and head straight for the CSS Alabama. When Captain Semmes saw the Kearsarge turn, and expose her starboard side, the Alabama opened fire. She was the first to open fire, and she continued to fire as the Kearsarge got closer.

As soon as the ships closed to about a half-mile of each other, it was then that the Kearsarge turned again and opened fire. And it was then, that the ship's reportedly engaged at a circular course of engagement, both firing mainly from their starboard side cannons. Witnesses stated that the ships neared to within 600 yards of each other.

Going in opposite directions, and then turning about to counter the other, the deadly dance at sea took place with cannon and smoke and death. During the battle, the armored hull of the Kearsarge was hit twice. The first shell hit was to the starboard side. It was one of the Alabama's 32-pounders. That hit would have sank any normal hulled ship, but all it did was cut part of the chain armor and dent the hull planking underneath. The second hit from one of the Alabama's 32-pounders actually exploded. That shell broke a link of the chain cladding and tore away some of the 1 inch boards covering the armor. One of Alabama's massive 100-pound shells hit the Kearsarge's sternpost but failed to explode. A piece of that post with the shell still lodged in it survives as a museum piece today.

Fact is, though the CSS Alabama hit the USS Kearsarge a number of times, the shells caused relatively little damage. As for the CSS Alabama, she was not fairing well at all as whole parts of her were being exposed. Soon Captain Semmes twice turned his vessel and tried to run back to Cherbourg harbor just as Captain Winslow suspected he would. Captain Winslow stopped each attempt by using the Kearsarge to cut him off.

It's true. The Alabama's sides were torn open by Union shells. And close to noon, as the action continued, the CSS Alabama headed for shore in an attempt to get back into French waters and safety now a few miles away.

Soon water flooded the Alabama's engines and they stopped. That was when Captain Semmes struck his colors. With that, both ship's cannons went silent. Captain Winslow is said to have stopped the Kearsarge uncertain as to whether or not the Alabama had actually surrendered or if it's battle flag had simply been shot away.

There is a story that a white flag was seen, and with that Captain Winslow called for a cease fire. The story goes on to say that the Alabama renewed her firing when the Kearsarge ceased firing. With that, Captain Winslow opened fired again with a vicious barrage. This went on even though the white flag was still flying.

All firing stopped again when Captain Semmes sent one of his longboats to the Kearsarge with a message of surrender. In his message, he also requested assistance in rescuing his crew. After that, for the next 15 to 20 minutes while the Alabama slowly sank, her crew tried getting safely away from the Alabama as she slipped beneath the sea. The Battle of Cherbourg ended when the CSS Alabama loss power and began to sink. Several of its crew were killed, and many were wounded. Among the wounded was Captain Semmes himself.

The Alabama's survivors were rescued by the Kearsarge and by the British yacht the Deerhound. The British yacht Deerhound went along side of the Kearsarge to ask Captain Winslow if they could assist in rescuing the Alabama's officers and crew. The Alabama was sinking fast. The Deerhound is said to have picked up between 39 and 42 crew members, which included Captain Semmes and 11 to 14 of his officers.

After the Deerhound picked up those survivors, she turned and sailed off back to Southampton, England. By going to England which was an ally of the Confederacy during the Civil War, they avoided capture and prison. Of course those Confederate sailors who made it to the Kearsarge were lucky to be alive, but they did become prisoners of war.

There is a story that Captain Winslow's officers aboard the Kearsarge watched in anger as the Deerhound left the area and headed back to England with the Confederates aboard. It's said that the officer begged him to fire upon the Deerhound for taking escaping prisoners, but Captain Winlow refused to do that.

The Battle of Cherbourg lasted by some accounts an hour and twenty minutes. The CSS Alabama sank out of sight. It is belived that about 40 of her crew were killed, and 70 became prisoners of war. The 39 to 42 Confederate sailors aboard the Deerhound escaped to England. As for the USS Kearsarge, she walked away from that battle the victor with one crewman killed and two others wounded.

I find it interesting that the wounded Captain Semmes is said to have thrown his sword into the sea just to deprive the Kearsarge's Captain Winslow of being handed his sword upon surrender. I also find it interesting that the Alabama out shot the Kearsarge almost 2 to 1 with little to show for it.

Believe it or not, as hard as it is for me to believe the figures, only 28 shells actually hit the Kearsarge. That's 28 rounds out of what is believed to have been at least 370 that the Alabama fired during the battle. In contrast, the Kearsarge only fired 173 projectiles with most of her rounds hitting the Alabama with effect.

Some say poor gunnery skills on the part of the Confederate gunners turned the battle against the Alabama. Some say it was the quality of the Alabama's powder, fuses, and shells. They say that the Alabama's powder and shells were in a deteriorated condition during that fight. But frankly, I really don't know how anyone would know that? Besides, the Alabama's gunners fired at least 370 rounds so that show that the powder couldn't have been bad. The problem the Alabama had was it's failure to hit its target.

And while some would insist that the Kearsarge go lucky that day, for me looking at what took place, I really believe that Union victory goes to a combination of factors. First, the armored hull of the Kearsarge was a huge advantage. Second, the Union gunners who were simply good at their job.

And lastly, the difference between the ships was a factor. They were designed with specific missions in mind. Very different missions. The CSS Alabama was designed to sink poorly or completely unarmed merchant ships. While the CSS Alabama did have bigger guns than the USS Kearsarge, the Kearsarge was designed with an armored hull to do battle with other ships of war.  I believe that gave the Union Navy an advantage that day. The day an American Civil War battle was fought in France.

Tom Correa


  1. Excellent article. I have always been fascinated by the Alabama. Sometime, look into the career of the USS Comet, a privateer in the war of 1812. Highhandedly was more successful than any other American ship.

  2. I might make a comedy film out of this article. I'll call it, "What The French?" and if possible, I'll get Adam Sandler to do it. It will be about how France almost goes to war with the United States during the American Civil War. "Monsieur, zere is a snail in my muzzleloader!" "Bring me my red shirt." "But mon ami, why?" "Because if de Americans attack our ship and I happen to be shot, ze men won't notice it because ze blood will blend in with ze shirt." "Ah, clever Captain." "Captain, more American are coming!" "Bring me my brown pants." LOL


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