Off the coast of Cherbourg, France, the Confederate raider CSS Alabama loses a ship-to-ship duel with the USS Kearsarge and sinks to the floor of the Atlantic, ending an illustrious career that saw some 68 Union merchant vessels destroyed or captured by the Confederate raider.
At the outset of the Civil War, the Union began an increasingly successful blockade of Southern ports and coasts, crippling the economies of the Confederate states. In retaliation, Confederate raiders, outfitted in the South and abroad, launched an effective guerrilla war at sea against Union merchant shipping. In 1862, the CSS Alabama, a 1,000-ton screw-steam sloop of war, was built at Liverpool, England, for the Confederate Navy. Britain had proclaimed neutrality in the Civil War but was sympathetic to the Southern cause and gave tacit aid to the Confederacy in the opening years of the conflict. Before the Alabama was put to sea, the Union government learned of its construction, but the protestations of the U.S. ambassador did not prevent it from sailing from Liverpool. After leaving British waters disguised as a merchant ship, the Alabama was outfitted as a combatant by supply ships and placed in commission on August 24, 1862.
The CSS Alabama was captained by Raphael Semmes of Mobile, Alabama, who as commander of the Confederate raider Sumter had captured 17 Union merchant ships earlier in the war. The warship was manned by an international crew–about half Southerners, half Englishmen–and rounded out by a handful of other Europeans and even a few Northerners. Leaving sunk and burned U.S. merchant ships in its wake, the Alabama cruised the North Atlantic and West Indies, rounded Africa, and visited the East Indies before redoubling the Cape of Good Hope back to Europe. By the time the Alabama docked at Cherbourg for a badly needed overhaul on June 11, 1864, it had inflicted immense damage on the seaborne trade of the United States, destroying 60-odd U.S. merchant ships during its two-year rampage.
The USS Kearsarge, a steam-sloop that had been pursuing the Alabama, learned of its presence at Cherbourg and promptly steamed to the French port. On June 14, the Kearsarge arrived and took up a patrol just outside the harbor. After being fitted and stocked over five more days, the Alabama steamed out to meet its foe on June 19. A French ironclad lurked nearby to ensure that the combat remained in international waters.
After an initial exchange of gunfire, the battle quickly turned against the Alabama, whose deteriorated gunpowder and shells failed to penetrate the Kearsarge‘s chain-cable armor. Within an hour, the Alabama was reduced to a sinking wreck. Captain Semmes tried to retreat back to Cherbourg, but his way was blocked by the Kearsarge, and he was forced to strike his colors. The crew abandoned ship, and the Alabama went down into the Channel. The survivors were rescued by the Kearsarge and the British yacht Deerhound, which had been observing the battle. Those picked up by the latter, including Semmes and most of his officers, were taken to England and thus escaped arrest.
After traveling to Switzerland for a much-needed rest, Semmes returned to the Confederacy via Mexico. Appointed a rear admiral, he helped command the Confederate Navy in Virginia’s James River. After the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, he returned to Mobile to practice law and write about his war experiences. After years of U.S. protests, the British finally agreed in 1871 to take responsibility for the damages caused by British-built Confederate raiders. In 1872, an international arbitration panel ordered Britain to pay the United States $15.5 million in damages, of which more than $6,000,000 was inflicted by the Alabama.