It was September 5, 1862, and Captain Abraham Osborn Jr. was having an especially good day. Two months out of Martha’s Vineyard, the rangy commander of the Yankee whaling bark Ocmulgee had just killed a huge sperm whale off the Azores. As his crew stripped the carcass of blubber, a steam-powered sloop-of-war flying the Stars and Stripes appeared over the horizon. Osborn and his 37 seamen continued their work, assuming it to be a U.S. Navy vessel. The boom of a cannon and the swift replacement of the U.S. flag with the Confederate Stars and Bars brought Osborn’s crew to stunned attention, as a small boat pulled alongside, and the Rebel captain informed the dumbfounded sailors, “You are a prize of the steamer Alabama!”
Osborn and his crew were taken off as the Confederates stripped the captive vessel’s stores. The Rebels then burned the whaler to the waterline. Ocmulgee was the first Northern commercial craft to be captured by the British-built Rebel raider; it would not be the last.
Alabama was one of many Confederate vessels built in the British Isles during the Civil War. Although Britain never officially declared support for the South, it conducted a brisk trade in construction—and at times, manning—of vessels for the Confederacy. Of these, the commerce raider Alabama was the most successful.
The vessel was built secretly in Liverpool at a cost of $250,000. When completed, Enrica, as it was officially named, was a thing of beauty, displacing more than 1,000 tons, and running 220 feet in length, with an elegant narrow beam. And Enrica was fast, with twin 300-horsepower engines that could deliver a speed of 12 knots. To conserve coal, its propeller could be removed and stored, making it a three-masted sloop. The ship also had a water purification system, and provisions could be taken from captured vessels, allowing the ship to remain at sea almost indefinitely.
Sailing as an unarmed British merchant ship, Enrica coursed from England to the Azores in July 1862. Once arrived, the 24 British officers were exchanged for Confederates, though the British crew remained. It received six 32-pounder smoothbores and two pivot guns.
The newly assigned Confederate captain, Raphael Semmes, would soon become the stuff of legend. Physically, Semmes was unprepossessing. His one distinguishing feature was a mustache with long, pointed terminals. His crew came to refer to him—never to his face, of course—as “Old Beeswax.” He was also, by all reports, a harsh but fair commander.
Semmes had served with distinction during the Mexican War, and when the Civil War broke out, he joined the Confederate Navy as a commander. After commanding CSS Sumter—a converted merchantman with which Semmes took some 18 prizes—he was promoted to captain and given the new raider’s helm.
Semmes’ first order was to recommission his new command CSS Alabama, to the strains of “Dixie.” He then took the ship out on a nearly two-year cruise of harassment and controlled devastation.
Within 14 days, he had seized and burned Ocmulgee and four other whalers. He paroled their sailors, allowing them to decamp in whaleboats.
Semmes developed a strategy that precluded lengthy pursuits. He would burn a captured ship, wait in the vicinity, and when other Northern merchant ships attempted to come to the stricken vessel’s aid, capture them as well. Semmes’ methods produced stunning results. He was not, however, determined to burn every vessel, since captured ships brought into friendly ports were considered prizes, and brought healthy rewards for officers and crew. “I made every effort to avoid the necessity of destroying my prizes,” he wrote later. “I only resorted to this practice, when…there was nothing else to be done.”
As months passed, and dozens of vessels fell to Semmes and Alabama, Northern newspapers screamed for action. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sent warships to seek out the Rebel raiders, and a special flying squadron specifically to find Alabama. USS San Jacinto stumbled upon the Alabama in the West Indies, but Semmes slipped away during the night, leaving a “confused and perplexed” Yankee captain in his wake.
Semmes combed the world’s oceans for prey, but after 22 hard months, Alabama was in dire need of repairs. On June 11, 1864, an exhausted Semmes guided it into the neutral French port of Cherbourg to take on provisions and undergo a much-needed overhaul. Three days later, the U.S. sloop-of-war Kearsarge observed Alabama at anchor, and set up a blockade three miles outside the harbor. Despite the precarious condition of his ship, Semmes steamed out to meet the enemy.
The two ships pummeled each other at 1,000 yards; however, many Alabama shells failed to explode due to corrosion, Ultimately, his steering gone, his decks strewn with debris and blood, Semmes raised a white flag, and—along with 40 sailors—jumped over the side, as the Alabama settled at the stern and sank. They escaped capture when a British yacht picked them up. Semmes returned to the war and was made an admiral and a brigadier general—the only man to hold flag rank in the Navy and the Army. After the war, he was briefly arrested for treason and piracy.
Ron Soodalter, a regular contributor to America’s Civil War, is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon.