Roll Alabama, Roll


When the Alabama’s keel was Laid, (Roll Alabama, Roll), ‘Twas Laid in the Yard of Jonathan Laird (Roll, Roll Alabama, Roll!)
‘Twas laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird, ’twas lain in the town of Birkenhead. ?Down the Mersey way she rolled then, and Liverpool fitted her with guns and men. ?From the western isle she sailed forth, to destroy the commerce of the north.

The CSS Alabama
The CSS Alabama

On June 11, 1864, the British-built CSS Alabama nosed into the French harbor of Cherbourg for repairs. After two years of successful raiding in the Atlantic Ocean, the crew never would have guessed that for most of them, this would be the last landfall of their lives.

The Alabama was a beauty. Built secretly in 1862, she slipped out to sea undetected and fully armed. She featured 6 32-pounder cannons in addition to 2 larger pivot cannons. She cut through the water using a combination of sail and steam. Using only her sails, the Alabama could reach a speed of 10 knots; add steam power and this increased to an impressive 13.25 knots. The ship was built to be a raider, and that is exactly what she did.

Sailing all over the globe, the Alabama completed seven expeditionary raids, proudly aiding the Confederate cause despite never docking at any Rebel ports. Her crew boarded nearly 450 vessels, captured or destroyed 65 Union merchant ships, and took over 2,000 prisoners. Perhaps the most remarkable fact of all is that all of this was accomplished without the loss of a single life.

Battle of Cherbourg, France
Battle of Cherbourg, France

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The Alabama’s good luck was destined to run dry in June 1864. Captain Winslow and his Union ship, the USS Kearsarge, had been pursuing the Alabama for nearly two years. They finally caught up to the commerce raider when she docked at Cherbourg. Armor clad, the Kearsarge held the advantage in a duel against the Alabama. But the Union ship did not strike first. Winslow waited just outside the harbor, effectively blocking the Alabama from the open sea. Confederate Captain Semmes aboard the Alabama quickly discovered the trap and knew a fight was imminent.

On June 19, the Confederate crew hoisted their flag and sailed proudly into open waters. The Kearsarge followed her into neutral territory. The ships approached each other slowly, circling each other in the water. As soon as they came within range, the first shot rang out from the Alabama. Whereas the Alabama was to fire as many rounds as possible at the foe (close to 370), the Kearsarge’s crew took more time planning their shots, making sure each hit counted. With better armor and a more effective strategy, the battle ended as the Alabama sank into the sea and the Confederate captain was forced to ask the Kearsarge for aid.

In just under an hour, over 40 Confederate sailors were killed. Winslow recruited the

Captain Semmes of the CSS Alabama
Captain Semmes of the CSS Alabama

British vessel Deerhound to help him rescue those remaining alive on the sinking ship. Captain Semmes and fourteen of his men were lucky enough to find themselves on the Deerhound and were able to evade capture as the ship sailed off towards Southampton.
There was much celebrating when news of the Alabama’s defeat reached the northern United States. After wreaking havoc across the Atlantic and disrupting the North’s already fragile commerce system, the demise of the Alabama was good news indeed.

The sunken Alabama was rediscovered in 1984. In 2002 a diving expedition brought up nearly 300 artifacts artifacts including the ship’s bell. These are now housed at the Naval History and Heritage Command conservation lab.

To Cherbourg port she sailed one day, for to take her count of prize money.
Many a sailor laddie saw his doom, when the Kearsarge it hove in view.
When a ball from the forward pivot that day shot the Alabama’s stern away.
Off the three-mile limit in ’64, the Alabama was seen no more.

3 Responses to Roll Alabama, Roll

  1. My great-great-grandfather’s first cousin, Lt. John Low, kept the log of the CSS Alabama.

    1. That’s really interesting. I love it when people have a personal connection to the story being told. Thanks for sharing! Do you know what ended up happening to him?

      1. He was an English subject whose family ran an import/export and cotton-factor business in Savannah, Georgia and Liverpool. After the War he ended up settling in Australia where his descendants still reside. It is my guess that he may have migrated there partly because of the enthusiastic welcome that Confederate ships received in Australian ports. He and my great-great-grandfather were the only ones of the family who openly fought for the Confederacy; the rest maintained at least nominal neutrality (although two of the older generation were imprisoned for four months at Fort Warren, after a trip to England under suspicion of arranging for armaments and ship building for the CSA–guilty as charged).

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