The Alabama Story

As we all know, 2012 was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. In this article from Issue 2 of The Merseysider magazine, Andrew Hull considers why another maritime anniversary that year was largely overlooked, and tells the incredible story of the CSS Alabama.

An 1865 illustration of the Alabama (Liverpool Record Office)

An 1865 illustration of the Alabama (Liverpool Record Office)

It’s inspired songs, poems and a play by Jimmy McGovern. Yet the story of the Alabama – a Confederate warship built in Birkenhead, crewed by Liverpudlians and sunk off the coast of France after 20 months wreaking havoc on the high seas – remains unknown to many. 2012 is the 150th anniversary of its launching, but this appears to have been little noticed.

The explanation may be an understandable reluctance to celebrate the exploits of a ship which was, after all, fighting for a rebel government committed to the continuation of slavery. But the compelling nature of both the human and the historical aspects of the Alabama narrative is unmistakeable. It is a fascinating story of intrigue, skulduggery and maritime adventure, with Liverpool and Birkenhead at its heart. And to find this story of interest is not to approve of the Southern cause, or to wish that the outcome of the American Civil War had been different.

That war became inevitable in April 1861 when rebel forces seized a Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. More Southern states joined those who had already seceded from the Union and battle was joined. From the outset the North was stronger – commercially, industrially and militarily – and they quickly imposed a blockade on the Southern ports. The blockade prevented supplies getting in, but it also prevented cotton getting out – cotton which usually reached the mill towns of northern England via Liverpool. The result was a devastating ‘cotton famine’, with thousands of mill workers thrown out of work and into terrible poverty. Despite this suffering, many working people strongly supported the North, as illustrated by a rally at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, which sent a message to Abraham Lincoln wishing him well in his efforts to eradicate slavery, ‘that foul blot upon civilisation’. But, partly because of the economic consequences of the blockade, there was no shortage of Confederate sympathisers in Britain either.

The story of the CSS Alabama really begins in June 1861 with the arrival in Liverpool of Confederate agent James D. Bulloch. He was from Georgia, an experienced seaman who’d served in the US navy, and a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. He quickly made contact with fellow Southerner Charles Prioleau of Fraser Trenholm & Company, whose offices were at 10 Rumford Place (off Chapel Street – the building is still there). Fraser Trenholm were a large American-owned business conglomerate, who acted in effect as international bankers for the Confederacy. Bulloch’s mission was to acquire ships for the South, using money channelled through Fraser Trenholm – both blockade runners (ships that would break the blockade and get supplies in to Southern ports) and fighting ships that would attack the North’s merchant vessels.

10 Rumford Place today

10 Rumford Place today

Bulloch and Prioleau knew they had to tread carefully. British neutrality meant that it was against the law to supply arms or other military materials (including ships) to any warring factions, or to enlist British subjects for a foreign cause. They also wanted to conceal their activities from the North, whose representative in Liverpool was the US consul Thomas Dudley, based in offices just a few minutes away from Fraser Trenholm in Water Street. Dudley ran a network of Union agents and they and their Confederate counterparts made up a nest of spies around the Liverpool waterfront, constantly on the hunt for information in the alehouses, wharves and shipyards.

Bulloch began by commissioning a vessel from the Liverpool shipbuilders William C. Miller and Sons. The cover story was that she would be an Italian merchant ship: she was given an Italian sounding name (the Oreto) and the commissioning of the ship was ostensibly conducted by the local agent of an Italian firm. Dudley’s spies were alert to what was happening and he reported to the US ambassador in London, ‘There is much secrecy about the Oreto, but my impressions are strong that she is intended for the Southern Confederacy.’ Representations were made to the British government, and customs officers inspected the ship. Finding no equipment on board that would suggest it was a warship, they allowed it to leave Liverpool in March 1862. But the Oreto headed for Nassau in the Bahamas, where it was turned into a fighting ship and re-named the CSS Florida. It went on to capture or destroy 37 Union ships.

Within weeks of commissioning the Oreto, Bulloch approached John Laird in Birkenhead to build the Alabama. Laird’s shipyard had been in business for 30 years and was already one of the world’s leading shipbuilders. Bulloch wanted (and would get) something very special: a ship that, in his words, would be ‘equal to any of Her Majesty’s ships of corresponding class in structure and finish, and superior to any vessel of her date in fitness for the purpose of a sea rover, with no home but the sea, and no reliable source of supply but the prizes she might take.’

The Alabama was to be a 1,000 ton screw steamer, 210ft long with a 32ft beam. She was rigged for long distance cruising, with long lower masts to allow for unusually large sails. She was also fitted with two 300hp engines and iron bunkers which could hold 350 tons of coal, enabling her to travel under steam for many days at a time. The ship itself was built of wood: although iron ships were increasingly common, Bulloch knew that a wooden construction would make it easier to repair the ship wherever her adventures took her. (An accurate model, made at Laird’s not long after the building of the ship, can be seen at the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead.)

Laird shipyard's own model of the Alabama (Williamson Art Gallery and Museum)

Laird shipyard’s own model of the Alabama (Williamson Art Gallery and Museum)

Thomas Dudley and his spies took an intense interest in the building of the ship, and he repeatedly protested to the British government that Laird was building a Confederate warship, not a merchant vessel. But he couldn’t prevent the launching of the ship on May 14th, 1862. Like the Florida, the Alabama was initially given a name that disguised its Southern connection: the Enrica. Following the launching, the Enrica remained in Birkenhead for fitting out and sea and engine trials.

The British authorities were under increasing pressure to seize the ship, and Bulloch also knew that Union ships might seek to intercept the Enrica when it ventured out into the open sea. The ship’s departure had to be swift and secret. On 29th July the Enrica was anchored off Seacombe, supposedly in readiness for another ‘sea trial’. On board were a party of guests, giving apparent credence to the claim that the ship was merely making a trial run. The guests included four of John Laird’s grown-up children (two sons and two daughters), and it seems likely the Laird family knew the ship would not be returning. After the guests transferred to a steam tug the Enrica left the Mersey, sailing on to the Azores by an unusual route that successfully evaded Union shipping.

Captain Semmes (Liverpool Record Office)

Captain Semmes (Liverpool Record Office)

In the Azores, all pretence that the ship was an innocent merchant vessel came to an end. The Enrica was armed, re-named the Alabama and its British captain stood down to be replaced by Captain Raphael Semmes, who with a group of Confederate officers had secretly sailed from Liverpool on another ship. Semmes (known to his crew as ‘Old Beeswax’) was, appropriately, from Alabama and had served in the US navy.

Although led by American officers, most of the crew had been recruited in Liverpool – men like Joseph Connor, a cook from Walnut Street, where his wife had a butcher’s shop, or Frederick Johns, a steward whose father ran a coal yard in Howard Street. They were motivated for the most part less by any allegiance to the Southern cause than the prospect of a share in the prize money that might be gained from the capture of Union ships. The first impression of one of the Confederate officers was that they were a group of ‘incorrigible young rascals’, but his respect for them grew as their abilities and resourcefulness became apparent.

The Alabama preyed on Union merchant shipping and quickly acquired a reputation for ruthless, destructive efficiency. Semmes’s usual practice was to seize any cargo that might be of use, destroy the ship and avoid unnecessary harm to the crew or passengers, holding them prisoner until he could put them ashore or letting them escape in lifeboats if land was nearby. In its first month of service alone, ten Union ships fell victim to the Alabama. In all, over a 20 month period more than 60 Union ships were taken, at an estimated cost to the Union of nearly five million dollars in lost ships and cargoes.

On board the Alabama (Illustrated London News, Liverpool Record Office)

On board the Alabama (Illustrated London News, Liverpool Record Office)

The Alabama had no home port and roamed the seas, using captured cargoes to replenish its supplies and occasionally stopping off at neutral ports for repairs. Its voyages took it around the world, across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, to Brazil and Singapore and around the Cape of Good Hope. Its exploits were reported in sensationalist style by the newspapers of the day, who gave the Alabama a myth-like status as the ‘ghost ship’ or ‘sea wolf’.

The end came at Cherbourg. Semmes had taken the ship to the French port for urgent repairs. News of the Alabama’s whereabouts reached the Dutch port of Flushing and, more specifically, Captain John Winslow of the USS Kearsage, a Union warship. Winslow immediately headed for Cherbourg. He knew that he could not attack the Alabama in a neutral port so waited offshore to confront the ship when it tried to leave. Winslow and Semmes had once served together in the US navy (even sharing a cabin), but now the two readied themselves for a contest they knew could only have one winner.

It has been argued that Semmes could have stayed where he was (in the safety of a neutral port), though there is also evidence that he knew the French would not have allowed the Alabama to remain. But whatever his reasons, Semmes sent a message to the Kearsage declaring his intention to fight.

The final battle (Illustrated London News, Liverpool Record Office)

The final battle (Illustrated London News, Liverpool Record Office)

The episode took on the character of a spectator sport, as word spread and crowds flocked to Cherbourg in anticipation of a dramatic showdown between the Kearsage and the now legendary Alabama. They included the artist Edouard Manet, whose view of the ensuing battle (possibly from a boat) he recorded in his painting ‘The Battle of the Kearsage and the Alabama’.

On 19th June 1864 the Alabama left Cherbourg harbour. The odds were heavily stacked against her because the Kearsage was more powerfully armed and her sides were strengthened by hidden iron chains. When the two ships met they began circling each other, both vessels firing shells. Some of the shells from the Alabama bounced off the sides of the Kearsage; another hit the ship’s stern but failed to explode. Semmes later claimed that if it had done success would have been his, but instead, after exchanging fire for more than an hour, the Alabama began to sink. The order was given to abandon ship. By the end of the battle twenty crew members had been wounded and another twenty one had died (some killed during the fighting, others drowned). Ten of those lost were from Merseyside, and two of these are buried at Cherbourg.

The following year the American Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederacy. Raphael Semmes had been wounded in the battle but was among those rescued from the sea by a British ship and taken to Southampton. He returned to the United States to continue fighting for the Confederacy and was officially pardoned in 1866.

19 Abercromby Square

19 Abercromby Square

Several of the other American characters in the story remained in Britain after the war. James D. Bulloch never returned to the United States but became a successful Liverpool businessman, eventually dying in 1901 at 76 Canning Street. He is buried in Toxteth Park cemetery. Also buried there is his half-brother Irvine Bulloch, who had served as an officer on the Alabama. Charles Prioleau of Fraser Trenholm & Company moved to London, but left behind the grand house that was built for him, 19 Abercromby Square. It later became the Bishop of Liverpool’s palace and is now occupied by Liverpool University. The building has a well preserved, ornate interior and interesting decorative features (such as the ‘Bonnie Blue’ stars of South Carolina in the stonework above the entrance) reveal the Confederate connection.

John Laird (Liverpool Record Office)

John Laird (Liverpool Record Office)

John Laird enjoyed mixed fortunes after the Civil War ended. His shipbuilding business continued to flourish, and he served as an MP from 1861 to 1874. But as well as the Alabama, Laird had built other ships for the South and this was not forgotten – not least because the United States lodged the so-called ‘Alabama Claim’, a demand for compensation for the loss of ships and cargoes. The claim was settled by an international tribunal, who ordered Britain to pay the US government £3.5 million. Regarded by many as a great Victorian industrialist who contributed more to the development of Birkenhead than any other individual, John Laird was never honoured by his country, and many believe his involvement in the Alabama affair was the reason for this.

We should like to thank John Murphy, Roger Hull of the Liverpool Record Office and Colin Simpson of the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum for their assistance with this article.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum has displays and artefacts relating to Liverpool’s involvement in the American Civil War. The model of the Alabama pictured above can be seen at the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead.

Further reading: David Hollett – The Alabama Affair; John Hussey – Cruisers, Cotton and Confederates