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Maritime Tales – The Alabama

27 December 2006 by stepheng

Welcome to the first of my online Maritime Tales. In this post I’m looking at CSS Alabama.

The warship Alabama wreaked havoc on the high seas for the breakaway Confederate States during the American Civil War – and she was built in Birkenhead. Alabama sank or captured 67 Union sailing ships and one steamer before the USS Kearsage sent her to the bottom off Cherbourg, France, in 1864.

Laird Brothers built the Alabama for agents of the Confederate Navy in 1862. There was a lot of support for the Confederates in Liverpool because the huge cotton industry had been badly affected by the Civil War. Cotton from the Confederate states was hit and thousands of cotton workers in Lancashire thrown out of work.

The British government had adopted a neutral stance in the Civil War. When they found out where the Alabama was destined, ministers ordered that she be detained in Birkenhead. However, the Alabama managed to slip away, steaming down the Mersey supposedly to carry out engine trials. She made for the Azores where she was fitted with armaments.

During her two-year campaign, she cruised the seas looking for prey. First she created havoc from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. Then she was off the coast of Brazil before crossing the Atlantic to South Africa.

The Alabama sailed the Indian Ocean and travelled as far east as Singapore. She met her nemesis after going to Cherbourg for an extensive refit. Her captain, Raphael Semmes, wanted to stay for several months but the French ordered him to leave. The Alabama went out to meet the Kearsage. The two ships fought while spectators watched from the shore. After being at sea so long, Alabama was no match for the Kearsage and was reduced to a battered hulk in an hour.

There are a number of fascinating exhibits associated with the Alabama at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.  A signet ring bears the name R Hobbs, possibly a Liverpool man who was quartermaster on the Alabama. He was wounded in the famous showdown with the Kearsage. A miniature anchor is believed to be made from brass from the Alabama’s engine room. 
A model of the Alabama has fine details including eight cannons on deck.  The oil painting of the ship by Samuel Walters is also on show in the Art & the Sea gallery.

On our main site you can see photographs taken on board ship, plus there’s more about Liverpool’s role in the American Civil War.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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