CSS Alabama

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CSS Alabama.jpg
CSS Alabama
Career Confederate States Navy Jack
Launched: 29 July 1862
Commissioned: 24 August 1862
Fate: Sunk in battle
Displacement: 1,050 tons
Length: 220 ft
Beam: 31 ft 8 in
Draft: 17 ft 8 in
Speed: 13 knots
Complement: 145 officers and men

In 1862, John Laird Sons and Company of Liverpool, England built the screw sloop-of-war CSS Alabama for the Confederate States of America. Launched as Enrica, the vessel was fitted out as a cruiser and commissioned as CSS Alabama on 24 August 1862. Under Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama spent the next two months capturing and burning ships in the North Atlantic and intercepting American grain ships bound for Europe. Continuing its path of destruction through the West Indies, Alabama sank USS Hatteras near Galveston, Texas and captured its crew. After visiting Cape Town, South Africa, Alabama sailed for the East Indies where it spent the next six months cruising for enemy shipping. While there, the formidable commerce raider destroyed seven more ships before redoubling the Cape of Good Hope and returning to Europe.

After nearly two years of highly successful cruising at the expense of the United States' commercial shipping, Alabama returned to European waters in early June 1864. Badly in need of a refit, she put into Cherbourg, France, on 11 June. News of her presence soon reached the USS Kearsarge, which promptly steamed to Cherbourg, arriving on the 14th. Seeing that he was blockaded, with repairs delayed and with the probabability that his ship would not be able to resume her raiding activities, Semmes challenged Kearsarge's Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel. That suited Winslow very well, and he took station offshore and waited.

After four days of coaling, drill and other preparations, Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg harbor in the morning of 19 June 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained in the area to ensure that the combat remained in international waters. On paper, Kearsarge and Alabama were well-matched, with the Union warship having a slight advantage in gun power and speed. As the Confederate approached, Kearsarge steamed further to sea, to ensure that Alabama could not easily return to port.

At 10:50 AM, Captain Winslow put his ship around and headed for the enemy. Alabama opened fire a few minutes later, at a distance of about a mile, and continued to fire as the range decreased. As the ships closed to about a half-mile, Kearsarge turned and began to shoot back. Both ships had their guns trained to starboard, and the engagement followed a circular course, with the ships steaming in opposite directions and turning to counter the other's attempts to gain an advantageous position. Superior Federal gunnery, and the deteriorated condition of Alabama's powder and shells, soon began to tell. Though Alabama hit her opponent several times, the projectiles caused little damage and few casualties. One shell hit Kearsarge's sternpost, failed to explode and survives today as a relic of the battle.

After about an hour's shooting, Alabama was beginning to sink, with several men killed and many others wounded. Among the injured was Semmes, who turned and tried to run back toward Cherbourg. However, when Kearsarge headed him off and the rising water stopped his engines, Semmes struck his flag. As Alabama sank, some twenty minutes after firing ceased, most of her crew were rescued by the victor and by the British yacht Deerhound. Those saved by the latter, including Semmes and most of his officers, were taken to England and thus escaped capture and imprisonment. One of the Civil War's most significant naval actions was at an end, as was the career of the Confederacy's most destructive ocean raider. In her history, the Confederate cruiser claimed more than 60 prizes with a total value of approximately $6,000,000.

Discovery of the wreck

One hundred and twenty years after Alabama’s loss, the French Navy mine hunter Circe discovered a wreck in approximately 200 feet of water off Cherbourg, France. French Navy Commander Max Guerout later confirmed that the wreck represented Alabama’s remains.

In 1988, the non-profit organization Association CSS Alabama was founded to conduct scientific exploration of the shipwreck. Although Alabama is within French territorial waters, the United States government claims ownership of the wreck as a spoil of war. On October 3, 1989 the United States and France signed an agreement that recognized CSS Alabama as an important heritage resource of both nations and established a joint French-American Scientific Committee to oversee archaeological investigation of the wreck. Ratification of the agreement established a precedent for international cooperation as it applies to archaeological research, as well as the protection of unique historic shipwrecks.

At the behest of the Naval Historical Center, members of the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center (NPS-SRC) traveled to Cherbourg in June 1993 to evaluate the French archaeological team responsible for investigating Alabama’s remains. This was the first time that American archaeologists actually visited the site; during previous visits, American scholars and scientists were only able to observe videotape of the French team at work, or debrief divers once they returned to the surface. NPS-SRC reported to the Director of Naval History that the French archaeologists conducted quality work at Alabama, despite difficult on-site conditions.

On March 23, 1995 the Association CSS Alabama and the Naval Historical Center signed an official agreement granting the former responsibility for the archaeological investigation of Alabama’s remains. This agreement was effective for five years and could be renewed by mutual consent once the five-year limit expired. In 1999, the CSS Alabama Association (a separate organization, based in Mobile, Alabama) joined the French organization to actively support investigating Alabama. Association CSS Alabama and CSS Alabama Association continue to promote the international scope of the project by raising funds in France and the United States.

In July 2002, the Naval Historical Center and the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCCD) collaborated on remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operations to assist an archaeological investigation of Alabama. The Institute for International Maritime Research Inc. based in Washington, North Carolina carried out the 2002 project for the CSS Alabama Association and the Association CSS Alabama. Dr. Gordon P. Watts, Jr. served as Principal Investigator. The 2002 investigations mark 18 years of previous research at the Alabama wreck site.

In spite of generally poor weather conditions, French and American archaeologists, French volunteer divers, and French Navy personnel continued excavation of the site and recovered a number of small “at risk” artifacts, as well as one of Alabama’s two riding bitts. The 2002 investigations recovered a total of 19 objects, including the ship’s bell and its mounting bracket. The ROV phase of operations focused on providing digital video and photographic documentation for the production of a geo-referenced photomosaic of Alabama. The NSWCCD ROV work platform included a RESON Seabat 6012, an Insite Tritech Scorpio Plus Digital Still TV Camera, a pair of Nuytco 200-watt Newlites, and an ORE Trackpoint II Plus Ultra Short Base line (USBL) system. Unfortunately, unpredictable environmental factors constrained ROV operations and thwarted efforts to develop a complete site photomosaic. Despite these problems, the 2002 ROV operations collected approximately 10 hours of quality video and more than 1,816 still images over the course of two dive periods totaling only six days. In addition, use of the ROV permitted the Principal Investigator to maintain complete and real-time quality control over the data collection process.


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