Diary of a Southern Bell: CSS Alabama

In the autumn of 1984, a French minesweeper scouring the English Channel happened upon a most curious discovery: the wreckage of a Civil War-era commerce raider belonging to the Confederate States of America. How did this vessel come to lay a mere seven nautical miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France, and what pieces of history did the shallow waters preserve?

Rebellion, piracy, and defeat

The ship’s story begins in 1862 when, under strict secrecy, British shipbuilders John Laird Sons and Co. took on a new commission from the fledgling Confederate States Navy: to build a 220-foot-long side-wheel steamer with reinforced decks and cannon emplacements that could deploy rapidly to waters across the globe. The contract was arranged through a local cotton broker with ties to the Confederacy. 

By Queen Victoria’s decree, however, the British were officially neutral in America’s internal conflict, so by law the builders could not outfit the ship with armaments or weapons of war. Those would be added later when the ship, completed opposite Liverpool, reached international waters.

For nearly two years, the commerce raider was the scourge of the Union in waters from Singapore to Texas – attacking merchant ships and whalers, taking their crews prisoner, and commandeering anything of value for the benefit of the Confederacy. Estimates place the value of pirated goods at approximately $6 million. Christened the CSS Alabama, the ship’s wheel was auspiciously engraved with the motto, “Aide-toi et Dieu t’aidera” – the French proverb suggesting ‘God helps those who help themselves.’

With a mostly European-born crew, the CSS Alabama fell under the command of Maryland-born but Confederate-pledged Raphael Semmes, her only captain. Under his direction, Alabama claimed more than 60 conquests. So incensed was the U.S. Navy, they offered a reward of $500,000 for capture, $300,000 for sinking the CSS Alabama.

The Battle of Cherbourg

When, after 22 months at sea, the CSS Alabama sought docking at Cherbourg to repair its copper plating and replenish gunpowder stocks, the U.S. Navy found an advantage. The U.S. Minister to France protested the safe harboring of “so obnoxious and so notorious” a vessel that he promptly dispatched an alert to Capt. John A. Winslow of the USS Kearsarge, anchored nearby at the Dutch port of Flushing. 

Image: ‘Sinking of the CSS Alabama’ by American marine artist Xanthus Smith, oil on canvas (1922). Courtesy: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, New York.

On June 19, 1864, the two vessels met. Between six and seven miles off the coast of France, Alabama was first to send three cannon shells barreling in the direction of Kearsarge. It was no match for the better-equipped Union ship. After 70 minutes of fighting, water began rushing inside the CSS Alabama and it listed stern-first into the depths. Capt. Semmes ordered the men to flee overboard and sent a dispatch to the Kearsarge with note of his surrender. Ungallantly, he tossed his sword into the sea rather than surrender it to the Union vessel.

For 120 years, the CSS Alabama lay where it sank. The lower hull and portions of the starboard side were buried in the dense sediment of the seabed, while the tidal currents whittled away at the exposed wreckage. What remained, as recovered in subsequent American-French excavations, were over 500 artifacts including cannon, rigging elements, tableware, tobacco pipes, ornate commodes, and items of daily life from aboard a Confederate warship.

Bell from the CSS Alabama

Image: Bronze bell recovered from the wreckage of the CSS Alabama, along with the mounting bracket and hardware that secured it to the foremast. Courtesy: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

The ship’s bell

Among the accoutrement recovered from the wreckage was a bronze bell, cast between 1861-1862. Lifted during an archeological survey in 2002, the bronze bell was accompanied by the mounting bracket that had secured it to the foremast. Measuring 13 inches in diameter and 10 inches high, the bell could announce the time, indicate whether an important personage had boarded the vessel, and signal the position of the ship in heavy fog. The clapper has not been recovered.

Many of the conserved artifacts in the CSS Alabama collection are curated at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory, which conducts further analysis of the collection, monitors artifacts for stabilization, and provides access to the collection for research. The National Bell Festival is grateful to the NHHC for providing historical background for this unique bell in American history.

Cover image: Capt. Raphael Semmes, CSS Alabama’s commanding officer, stands by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863. His executive officer, 1st Lt. John M. Kell, stands in the background by the ship’s wheel. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy (Retired), 1931. Courtesy: U.S. Naval Historical Center.