CSS Alabama Opens 1863 With a Bang, Part 1

CSS Alabama painting by Tom Freeman.

The year commenced with one of only two major ship-to-ship engagements on the high seas, and the only Confederate win. The fiery clash in which USS Kearsarge sank CSS Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg on June 19, 1864, is the most famous.

Alabama had her moment, however, when she destroyed USS Hatteras off Galveston, Texas, January 11, 1863, generating alarm throughout the Caribbean. The episode illustrates important themes of the naval Civil War.

The Confederacy’s ocean navy comprised only a few vessels and these were not traditional warships but dedicated commerce raiders designed to capture and destroy unarmed enemy merchantmen. They were not intended to confront the big guns of the U.S. Navy.

Alabama was the most successful, claiming 65 prizes valued at nearly $6,000,000, followed closely by CSS Florida and CSS Shenandoah. Alabama was the architype of a new class of warship—sleek and swift under sail and steam, and sustainable for long cruises.

This blending of ancient wind propulsion at its apogee with revolutionary steam-driven propellers against clumsy cargo vessels, many still under sail, compared in tactical advantage to twentieth century submarines. Alabama and her sisters could catch almost any merchant while outrunning most combat ships.

Commander James Bulloch, chief Confederate purchasing agent in Europe, secretly contracted to build Alabama at Liverpool. She slipped out of the River Mersey in July 1862 to begin a two-year odyssey of destruction through the Caribbean, North and South Atlantic, and across the Indian Ocean to Singapore under the infamous Captain Raphael Semmes.

Raphael Semmes

Semmes and Alabama terrified powerful Northern shipping and whaling interests who harangued the Lincoln administration to stop her. By late 1862, the Rebel raider was wreaking havoc in the West Indies when the captain decided to head farther west.

“My object, in running into the Gulf of Mexico,” Semmes wrote in his memoir, “was to strike a blow at Banks’ expedition, which was then fitting out for the invasion of Texas. This gentleman, who had been a prominent Massachusetts politician, but who had no sort of military talent, had risen to the surface with other scum, amid the bubbling and boiling of the Yankee caldron, and was appointed by ‘Honest Abe’ to subjugate Texas.”

Semmes learned from helpful Northern newspapers that Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks would disembark at Galveston, “which the enemy had captured from us, not a great while before.” Such an army, reportedly 30,000 men, required a hundred or more transport ships; they would anchor “pell-mell” in the open sea off the bleak coast of that small harbor.

He planned to arrive simultaneously with the Yankee expedition, whose schedule was detailed in the papers. “Much disorder, and confusion would necessarily attend the landing of so many troops, encumbered by horses, artillery, baggage-wagons, and stores. My design was to surprise this fleet by a night-attack, and if possible destroy it, or at least greatly cripple it.

“The surprise would probably be complete, in the dead of night, and when the [accompanying] gun-boats of the enemy would be sleeping in comparative security, with but little, if any steam in their boilers. Half an hour would suffice for my purpose of setting fire to the fleet, and it would take the gun-boats half an hour to get up steam, and their anchors, and pursue me.”

With a few weeks to kill before the Bank’s expedition arrived, Semmes set out for the Mona Passage between the islands of St. Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico hoping to waylay a Yankee steamer coming up from Panama loaded with California treasure.

“A million or so of dollars in gold, deposited in Europe, would materially aid me, in my operations upon the sea. I could purchase several more Alabamas, to develop the ‘nautical enterprise’ of our people, and assist me to scourge the enemy’s commerce.”

Semmes worried about Union warships guarding this well-plowed passage, “but there was nothing in the shape of a ship of war to be seen. The enemy was too busy blockading the Southern coasts to pay much attention to his commerce.” U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles prioritized the blockade, dispatching only a few warships to chase down elusive Rebel commerce raiders, usually too little, too late.[1]

Although Alabama encountered no gold ships, the American bark Parker Cooke, bound from Boston to St. Domingo, provided a welcome store of fresh foodstuffs, and she made a beautiful bonfire, noted Semmes, lighting up the sea and land for leagues.

The captain was delighted to capture a recent New York paper, which lamented: “The damaging effect of the Alabama’s raid on our shipping upon the maritime interests of this port were as conspicuous to-day as yesterday. It was next to impossible for the owner of an American ship to procure freight unless he consented to make a bogus sale of his ship.”

Passengers on board the steamer Ariel look on in panic as the CSS Alabama approaches.
US Naval History and Heritage Command

On December 7, 1862, Alabama met one of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s big Atlantic and Pacific Mail steamers, Ariel, southbound for Panama to load gold for the return trip to New York.

Among 700 men and women passengers were 140 U.S. Marines on their way to California. (See Neil Chatelain’s post Sailors, Diplomats, Tycoons and the Campaign to Control California’s Gold in the Civil War.)

“This crowd presented a charming picture,” wrote Semmes, “especially the ladies, most of whom were gayly dressed, with the streamers from their bonnets, their veils, and their waste ribbons flirting with the morning breeze.”[2]

Alabama fired a warning shot. One Ariel traveler “saw the smoke rise, the balls leave the guns and come tumbling and whizzing towards me…. A number [of passengers] were on deck, but decreased very rapidly the first minute after the balls passed.” “It was amusing to witness the panic which ensued,” wrote Semmes. However, “This was an elephant I had not bargained for, and I was seriously embarrassed to know what to do with it.” [3]

Led by Great Britain, neutral nations forbad entry of captured prizes into their ports, and Alabama could not take aboard hundreds of prisoners. He was compelled to release Ariel under bond (a promise of payment for value of ship and cargo upon Confederate independence).

Alabama proceeded into the Gulf of Mexico finally arriving undetected off Galveston around noon on January 11, 1863. Semmes planned to get just close enough to sight the gaggle of ships anchored off the beach and then await nightfall. But the masthead lookout saw only a few apparent warships and no transports.

Galveston Harbor from Harper’s Weekly, June 1863, with cities of Galveston and Houston and the 1836 Battle of Jan Jacinto noted.

“Here was a damper! What could have become of Banks, and his great expedition and what was this squadron of steam ships-of-war doing here?” Presently a shell thrown by one of the steamers was seen to burst over the city. The captain concluded correctly that Galveston had been retaken by friendly forces and was under bombardment by their adversary.[4]

Three months earlier in October 1862, Rebels had evacuated the indefensible port to U.S. Navy blockaders. On January 1, 1863, Confederate Major General John B. McGruder with a few troops and gunboats expelled the occupiers in a brisk and confusing fracas against Union gunboats.

Confederate forces capture USS Harriet Lane in Galveston Harbor.

Also captured was the USS Harriet Lane, a sidewheel former revenue cutter and potential commerce raider or blockade runner. “Gentleman John” enjoyed his first positive press since Yorktown on the Peninsula, April 1861, before he was ostracized to the West due to a poor showing in The Seven Days.

This battle of Galveston is the lone instance in which Confederates lifted the blockade—if only for four days—and recaptured a significant port. It was the only such still in their hands at war’s end, not that it did much good at that distance.

Meanwhile, the Banks expedition was rerouted to New Orleans and eventually to the Red River Valley where his 35,000-man force supported by Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboats would be embarrassingly repulsed by General Kirby Smith in May 1864.

What should Semmes do now? “I certainly had not come all the way into the Gulf of Mexico, to fight five ships of war, the least of which was probably my equal.” He couldn’t run away; he had promised the crew “some sport off Galveston.”

The enemy answered the question. Lookouts reported that one of the unidentified steamers was headed their way. “The Alabama had given chase pretty often, but this was the first time she had been chased. It was just the thing I wanted, however.” Semmes would draw this single ship far enough out to engage before her consorts could come up.[5]

Still under sail but with fires banked in the boilers, Alabama could raise steam in ten minutes. Her propeller had been cranked up clear of the water into the well under the stern (to reduce drag under sail).

Semmes brought the ship about and headed out to sea as if fleeing. He lowered and engaged the propeller and ordered up a small head of steam to supplement the sails and prevent the curious pursuer from closing too rapidly.

Night descended before the follower could be positively identified. By her build and rig, however, the steamer was not one of the U.S. Navy’s powerful standard warships, a steam frigate or sloop-of-war. “We were quite willing to try our strength with any of the other classes,” he noted.

Finally, about twenty miles out, Semmes furled sails, beat to quarters, and wheeled about. The ships rapidly closed to speaking range, about 100 yards, and stopped engines. A call of “What ship is that?” pierced the darkness. “This is her Britannic Majesty’s steamer Petrel,” replied Semmes, “What ship is that?” “This is the USS _________.”

The vessel’s name dissolved in the night wind, but Semmes had heard enough. They faced an enemy warship. The stranger hailed again saying he was sending a boat to check identification. “We heard a boatswain’s mate call away a boat, and could hear the creaking of the tackles, as she was lowered into the water.”

At the captain’s order, First Lieutenant John M. Kell sang out, “This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama!” Turning to the gun crews, he commanded “Fire!” The USS Hatteras was ready and responded immediately. Part 2 will tell the rest of the story.[6]


[1] Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat, During the War Between the States (Baltimore, 1869) 321-322.

[2] Ibid., 324, 326, 329.

[3] Neil Chatelain, “Fighting for California Gold on the Panama Route” in Dwight Hughes and Chris Makowski, eds, The Civil War on the Water: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War (Savas Beaty, 2023), 55; Semmes, Memoirs, 329-330.

[4] Semmes, Memoirs, 335.

[5] Ibid., 335-336.

[6] Ibid., 336.

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