The Sinking of the Alabama

On Sunday June 19, 1864, the Confederate ship the Alabama captained by Raphael Semmes set sail for its final battle, a battle that would soon inspire generations of both songwriters and historians to come. However, the ship’s story began two years earlier in 1862 during the beginning American Civil War. Built in Liverpool, the Alabama spent almost the entirety of its two-year career in the waters around Great Britain; despite its short time in action, the Alabama managed to destroy or capture over 80 merchantmen – ships used for commerce – and one warship. By the time the Alabama was gearing up for its final battle, the ship had created an international reputation that both mystified and troubled its prospective enemies.

However, the confederate warship was not immortalized for its “single-handed war against Northern Commerce” but for its crew’s actions in their final moments in the Battle of Cherbourg against the Union ship the Kearsarge: the battle that sunk the Alabama. Although the battle would be counted as a Union victory, tales of the Alabama and its crew’s final moments gained far more glory. The crew of the Alabama became famous for their refusal to surrender even when their ship was damaged beyond all hope. A newspaper article from the Daily Cleveland Herald written on July 7, 1864, recounted that “with great bravery the guns were kept ported till the muzzles were actually underwater, and the last shot from the doomed vessel was fired as she was setting down.” It was not until the ship’s stern was completely underwater that Captain Semmes gave the orders for his men to “save themselves as best they could.”  It is estimated that the crew of the Alabama contained about 150 men and that 10 to 12 of the ship’s crew were killed during the Battle at Cherbourg.

The songs “The Alabama,” “Roll, Alabama, Roll” and “The Alabama and the Kearsarge” are just a few of the many pieces created by Confederate musicians to eulogize the ship’s final moments and more importantly to spread word of the crew’s immense bravery in a battle against an ironclad ship that far outmatched the firearms of the Alabama. In 1864, when the war was coming to a close, the Confederacy was trying with all its might to bolster the morale of its army and citizens. Captain Semmes and his crew became symbols of what the Confederacy needed most in this stage of the war, “No Surrender.”


Further Reading

Bowock, Andrew. CSS Alabama: Anatomy of a Confederate Raider. Rochester: Chatham Publishing; 2002. Print.

Robinson III, Charles M. Shark of the Confederacy. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 1995. 1-6, 135-149. Print.

The Sinking of the Alabama.” Daily Cleveland Herald [Cleveland, Ohio] 7 July 1864: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.


Margaret Lawson