Bonfires of the Confederacy — 'Roll Alabama, Roll!'

The trail and tale of 'CSS Alabama' and its battle with 'USS Kearsarge'

Ellen Morton Hamil

Last month an article in Rye Reflections covered a tour of the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard and some 20th century history of its relationship with submarines. It noted the Shipyard was established in 1800, triggering my recollection of an important role the Shipyard played in a Civil War battle that took place in 1864 off the coast of France. The ship was the USS Kearsarge and its opponent the CSS Alabama.

Battle of the Alabama (left) and Kearsarge (right), painting by Louis Le Breton. (from Wikimedia Commons)

I knew nothing about the Kearsarge or the Alabama until a year ago when my husband and I attended the annual Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival.(Click here for website.) We were in the Portsmouth Athenaeum listening to Bob Webb, a regular performer from Phippsburg, Maine, when Bob pointed to a picture of the USS Kearsarge. "Ah, the Kearsarge," he said, "a ship built right here in Portsmouth and famous for sinking the notorious CSS Alabama. This reminds me of Roll Alabama, Roll!, a post-Civil War shanty that describes the beginning, the end and the carnage in between wrecked by the CSS Alabama." Jeff Warner, a Portsmouth resident and folklorist, later told me the song was used for raising the yards, and some say as a pump song.  Both sing a version made popular by Stan Hugill, an English shanty man. It goes like this:
When the Alabama’s keel was laid   Chorus:  Roll Alabama, Roll
It was laid in the yards of Jonathan Laird Chorus:  O roll Alabama, roll
It was laid in the town of Birkenhead (Chorus)
Down Mersey way she sailed then (Chorus)
Liverpool fitted her with guns and men (Chorus)
Down Mersey way she sailed forth (Chorus)
To destroy the commerce of the North (Chorus)
To Cherbourg harbor she sailed one day (Chorus)
To collect her share of the prize money (Chorus)
And many a sailor saw his doom (Chorus)
When the Yankee Kearsarge hove into view (Chorus)
A shot from the forward pivot that day (Chorus)
Blew the Alabama’s steering gear away (Chorus)
Off the three mile limit in sixty-four (Chorus)
She sank to the bottom of the ocean floor (Chorus)
This story is about the CSS Alabama. It was 1861. The Civil War had started and the Southern states had seceded from the Union. The South found itself without ships, so the Confederacy sent a man by the name of James Bulloch to Liverpool to commission one. Queen Victoria had declared Britain neutral in the War Between the States so a purchase in the name of the Confederacy would not be possible. Most of the Liverpool merchants, many of whom depended upon cotton from the south for their textile mills, sided with the Confederacy. And, Bulloch, who was from Georgia, didn’t have any problem making a deal with the Lairds for a wood-hulled gunboat powered by both steam and sail. At the signing of the contract, which he paid for with his own funds, the ship was known only by its order number, the 290.

But spies and agents for both the North and the South roamed the streets of Liverpool and London and it wasn’t long before suspicions arose that the 290 wasn’t intended as a ship for Spain (as rumored) but a commerce raider for the South. To keep its secret as long as possible, Bulloch made arrangements to equip it with guns, ammunition and coal at an island in the Azores.  There Raphael Semmes who had just finished a successful six-month tour on the CSS Sumter would take command. But Bulloch was told to get the ship out of Liverpool as quickly as possible as movement was afoot in the diplomatic community to halt the ship from leaving the harbor. Bulloch pulled off a charade that didn’t raise any eyebrows by inviting beautiful young ladies and their escorts aboard the 290 under the pretense of a festive afternoon outing while making a trial run.  At a safe distance down the river, he arranged for a tug to take them back to Liverpool. The 290 sailed away to its destination at the Azores.

Raphael Semmes. (from Wikimedia Commons)

On August 24, 1862, Captain Semmes lowered the British flag and raised the Confederate Stars and Bars and officially named the ship the CSS Alabama, after his home state. Its mission: “to burn, sink and destroy the commerce of the United States.”  The adventure of pillage and fire was about to begin. Roll Alabama, Roll

On September 5, the Alabama encountered a whaling ship out of Martha’s Vineyard. Employing a tactic Captain Semmes used to entice ships to come closer and put the Alabama at a more favorable position for overtaking the vessels, he raised the British flag. The Captain of the whaler raised the Stars and Stripes of the United State, and all aboard were expecting a friendly greeting at sea just as the Alabama fired a warning shot. Semmes then sent a boarding party to ransom whatever supplies they could use aboard the Alabama. Then he would transfer the crew of the captured ship to the Alabama, and the vessel would be set on fire. As soon as he could find a port to unload the passengers of the now disposed of ship, he would release them and send them ashore.

This was his modus operandi. He would encounter a ship at sea, raise a flag of another nation (sometimes even the United States), maneuver closer to the vessel and then commence firing while lowering the first flag and raising the flag of the Confederate states. Although this was prohibited in the rules of engagement on land, it was allowed at sea. He started a personal collection of ships’ chronometers. (Marine chronometers were used for celestial navigation. A ship’s latitude could be measured by the sun’s angle at noon, but longitude required the application of a standard of time, such as Greenwich Mean Time, that was measured by a chronometer.)

Chronometer in the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum. (Jim Cerny photo)

He got off to a successful start and before two months had passed he had burned 20 ships. Some of the more spectacular fires were whaling ships carrying a full cargo of oil that would light up the night sky for miles. If the ship had too many passengers or cargo not owned by the North, he would take them on condition of a bond to be paid to the Confederacy after the war. He was acting more like a privateer than a warship of the Confederacy.

Two months later he had captured and released three ships, but 10 more had gone up in flames. In January 1863 he sunk the USS Hatteras in his only military engagement, then from February to July he torched and burned 29 more. From August 1863 to December they were in the East Indies and merchant ships were scarce.

Success wasn’t a matter of luck for Raphael Semmes. Prior to the war he had been in the U.S. Navy and was familiar with many of the ships belonging to the North and could recognize them from a distance. He knew the routes they would take to whaling grounds or trans-Atlantic crossings. He was an intellectual, trained as an attorney, well read, and his journeys had covered the globe.

He also got help from the New York newspapers that published the schedules of ships in the ports of Boston, New York and in between. At that time more than 50 percent of the ships engaged in commerce were owned by the North. Thus when the Alabama took a ship captive, the first items removed were the New York newspapers and the chronometer. Aside from shipping schedules, the captain and crew relished reading about their exploits as told to reporters from captives who found their way back to the United States.

In early December he learned of a steamer, the Ariel,, traveling a path that possibly would come close to his. He laid in wait, and, when it was sighted, the Alabama pulled close and raised the Union colors as did the Ariel.  As the passengers gazed in wonder at the Alabama wondering if it might be a U.S. warship to escort them, the Alabama fired a blank and raised the Confederate flag. The stunned crew of the Ariel knew they had come face to face with the infamous Alabama. A boarding party discovered 140 armed marines en route to San Francisco and a few hundred other civilian passengers shaking in their boots. The officers of the Alabama were disarmingly polite. Pouring on the Southern charm, they sought out the prettiest ladies and reassured them they were safe. It worked, and soon the ladies were asking for souvenirs…buttons, epaulets … anything to take back as evidence of their encounter with the “pirates” of the well-known and feared Confederate cruiser.

After two years of plying the trade routes and whaling grounds, the Alabama needed a port for repairs. She’d been run hard and put away wet. Semmes put into Cherbourg, a port on the coast of France. It wasn’t long before the spies and diplomatic officers of the North knew she was there. Word spread fast, and the USS Kearsarge, which had spent two years hunting the Alabama, responded immediately. Outside the harbor limits she took up a watchful presence, never straying far. Semmes sent a message that he would engage the Kearsarge. The French and British newspapers carried news of the planned event and hordes of residents on both sides of the English Channel staked viewing spots along the coast and aboard private yachts. A Civil War battle was to take place in their backyards. Semmes had been trapped in harbors prior to this and managed to evade capture by brazenly sneaking out under low cloud coverage or darkness of night. If this wasn’t possible, he would take his chances in a fight rather than sit and rot in the Cherbourg harbor. But before any battle at sea, he entrusted a payroll, gold sovereigns and his collection of 65 chronometers with friends ashore.

On the day of battle, the Alabama shipped out of the harbor to come face to face with the Kearsarge. The history books are full of the battle path the two ships took, a full seven circles face to face from east to west. The Alabama fired first as they faced off. She proved to be no match for the Kearsarge, in part because of her poor overall condition and the poor condition of her powder, shells, etc.

The battle lasted about two hours with the Alabama firing 150 rounds and the Kearsarge 100. But a shot to the hull at the waterline was the death knell for the Alabama. It was reported by observers that there was dead silence as the Alabama slid below the water’s surface. But things were not so quiet when it was discovered that Semmes and 41 of his officers and crew had escaped capture by being whisked away on a private yacht the Deerhound, owned by a wealthy Englishman.

The sea journey of the CSS Alabama had come to an end. But consequences of her actions didn’t stop when she sank. The North no longer owned half of the world’s ocean commerce. They had sold their interests to businessmen in other countries. And after the war the North made claims for reimbursement from Great Britain for the destruction of its ships and cargo. After several years it was finally adjudicated in 1871 by a tribunal of five nations in favor of the North who received almost $7 million for damages caused by the Alabama.

More recently a team of American and French marine archeologists have found the Alabama where she rests at the bottom of the sea. She is in a difficult place for recovery as diving is possible only during a short time period when the tides are changing. She was positively identified by her bronze steering wheel engraved in French with the words, “God helps those that help themselves.”  

My sources for this article are Wolf of the Deep – Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama by Stephen Fox; The Alabama and the Kearsarge – The Sailor’s Civil War by William Marvel ; the History Channel’s DVD Raise the Alabama and numerous articles supplies to me by Richard Winslow III of Rye, New Hampshire.

Also, during my research I uncovered an interesting aside. My first cousin, Hank McFarland aka Black Dog McFarland, is a direct descendant of the Mrs. McFarland of Concord, New Hampshire, wife of the publisher of the Concord Statesman, who in some reports sponsored the launching of the Kearsarge on September 11, 1861, and may have been responsible for its name.

All in all, it has been an interesting journey. The Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival is coming up the last weekend of this month, September 25-27. I wonder what adventure it will take me on this year? Roll Alabama, Roll! …

September, 2009