Union Warship Battles Confederate Raider

June 13, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 24 (192 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Lincoln’s Wit


June 13, 1864. On this date, The New York Times ran a short story that read: “A gentleman in conversation remarked to President LINCOLN on Friday that nothing could defeat him but GRANT’s capture of Richmond, to be followed by his nomination at [the Democratic Party’s convention in] Chicago and acceptance. [The Democrats eventually nominated former General George B. McClellan.] ‘Well,’ said the President, ‘I feel very much like the man who said he didn’t want to die particularly, but if he had got to die, that was precisely the disease he would like to die of.'”

 War’s Longest Engagement Begins

June 15, 1864. On June 15, General Ulysses S. Grant began a siege of Petersburg, VA, less than 25 miles from Richmond. Petersburg would not fall until April 3, 1865, less than a week before the end of the war. The siege was the longest sustained military operation of the war.

Federal Law Grants Black Soldiers Equal Pay, But Not All Black Soldiers Were Treated Equally. Problem Finessed by Relying Ingeniously on ‘God’s Higher Law’

Colonel E.N. Hallowell

Colonel E.N. Hallowell

“On June 15, 1864 Congress finally enacted legislation granting equal pay to Negro soldiers. The law was made retroactive to January 1, 1864 for all black soldiers, and retroactive to the time of enlistment for those Negroes who had been free on April 19, 1861. The distinction between freemen and freedmen created a serious dilemma for some regiments. Most Northern black regiments had both free Negroes and ex-slaves in their ranks; even the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Regiments included a few men who had escaped from slavery after April 19, 1861. Morale in such regiments would be impaired if some of the men received more back pay than others. Colonel E.N. Hallowell of the Fifty-fourth worked out an inspired solution to the problem. The fact of freedom before April 19, 1861, was established by the soldier’s oath. Hallowell invented the following oath: ‘You do solemnly swear that you owed no man unrequited labor on or before the 19th day of April, 1861. So help you God.’ This became known as the ‘Quaker Oath,’ and even those men of the Fifty-fourth who had been slaves took the oath in good conscience ‘by God’s higher law, if not by their country’s.’ Several other Northern Negro regiments imitated Hallowell’s oath.”


James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965, 1991), p. 206

– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert

Union Warship Battles Confederate Raider off the French Coast

June 19, 1864. In late July 1862, a wooden sloop of war was secretly launched for the Confederacy by John Laird Sons and Company, Birkenhead, Cheshire, England. The vessel, a highly successful Confederate raider that attacked Union merchant shipping, was to become one of the most famous warships in the Civil War.

Captain Semmes on CSS Alabama. Click on image for larger picture

Captain Semmes on CSS Alabama. Click on image for larger picture

In an effort to hide the fact that a Confederate warship had been made in England, it was sailed to the Azores with a British civilian crew. On August 24, 1862, in international waters off the Portuguese Island of Terceira, it was commissioned as a Confederate man of war and renamed the C.S.S. Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. The 24 officers were a mix of British and Confederates, whereas the crew was mainly British, for a total of 145 men.

19th century print, depicting the sinking of Hatteras by CSS Alabama, off Galveston, Texas on 11 January 1863. Click on image for larger picture.

19th century print, depicting the sinking of Hatteras by CSS Alabama, off Galveston, Texas on 11 January 1863. Click on image for larger picture.

From August 1852 until December 1863 the Alabama completed seven separate expeditionary raids against Union merchant shipping; they took place on both sides of the north and south Atlantic, and even the East Indies in the Pacific Ocean. Her crew boarded 450 vessels, captured or sank 65, took over 2,000 seamen and passengers prisoner, and caused nearly $6,000,000 in losses, the equivalent of approximately $123,000,000 today. She did not attempt to visit any of the Confederate ports which were under blockade by the Union Navy, but she did fight a battle in the Gulf of Mexico and sink the Union side-wheeler, U.S.S. Hatteras. To Captain Semmes’s credit, the Alabama suffered no casualties.

A photo of naval officers on board Kearsarge shortly after the sinking of the CSS Alabama. Click on image for larger picture.

A photo of naval officers on board Kearsarge shortly after the sinking of the CSS Alabama. Click on image for larger picture.

On June 11, 1864, after spending 534 days out of 657 days at sea, the Alabama put into Cherbourg Harbor, in France, for much-needed repairs. Three days later, the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which had been hunting Confederate raiders, found her there, and set up a patrol outside of the harbor to intercept her if she tried to leave. Several days later, Captain Semmes decided to take the Kearsarge on in battle, and sent the U.S. Consul in Cherbourg a note to that effect; the message was transmitted to the captain of the Kearsarge.

The battle commenced at about 11:00 a.m. on June 19, 1864 in open water about seven miles from Cherbourg harbor with the two warships circling in opposite directions around a common center. Thousands of French civilians lined the Cherbourg breakwater and nearby cliffs to watch the battle.

Firing started when the vessels were about a mile and a half apart and continued as they closed to about 1,000 yards. The Alabama fired almost 350 shots, but they were not particularly accurate. Moreover, the ship’s gunpowder and fuses had deteriorated and the guns did not always fire. The Kearsarge‘s gunners fired half as frequently, but they were more deliberate; they aimed for the Alabama‘s waterline, and were more accurate. After about an hour, the badly damaged Alabama began to sink, and Captain Semmes surrendered. As the ship sank, the Kearsarge and a British yacht that had been watching the battle rescued Semmes and most of the crew. The Alabama suffered nine killed and 21 wounded, including Captain Semmes; the Kearsarge had only three wounded.

CSS Florida. Click on image for larger picture.

CSS Florida. Click on image for larger picture.

The loss of the Alabama left the Confederacy with only two other British-built raiders, Florida and Shenandoah, as significant threats to Federal shipping. The Florida surrendered at Bahia, Brazil in October 1864. The Shenandoah survived the war and finally gave herself up to British authorities at Liverpool in November 1865.

After the war, both Great Britain and the U.S. had claims against the other that needed to be settled. Chief among the U.S. claims were the losses to the owners of merchant ships, fishing boats, and whalers caused by the seizures and sinkings of their vessels by the British-built and armed raiders, the Alabama, the Florida, and the Shenandoah. The arguments over these various claims went on for years, and feelings ran high on both sides and could have caused a war.

CSS Shenandoah. Click on image for larger picture.

CSS Shenandoah. Click on image for larger picture.

Finally, under the Treaty of Washington, negotiated on May 8, 1871, committees of arbitration were established to deal with the claims. On September 14, 1872, an arbitration committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, awarded the United States $15.5 million for losses. . . . These terms were accepted by both countries, and peace was maintained.


Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, by Ned Bradford (1956);

A Diplomatic History of the American People by Thomas A. Bailey, by Thomas A. Bailey (1958);

The Growth of American Foreign Policy, A History, by Richard W. Leopold (1962);

The United States Navy from the Revolution to Date (1917);

The Union Reader, Richard B. Harwell, ed. (1958), p. 274:

Wikipedia for U.S.S. Kearsarge, Raphael Semmes, and C.S.S. Alabama.

– Submitted by Donald J. Miner


Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1864

3 responses to “Union Warship Battles Confederate Raider

  1. I had a letter from General McDowell to a Mrs. Lyndsay which had enclosed with it 2 pieces of wood. It was sent after the war, and read something like this:
    “My Dear Mrs. Lyndsay,
    When in the Boston Navy Yard, the Kearsarge set in for repairs, and I obtained these specimens. One is from one of her stern planks and the other is from the seat of one of the Alabama’s life boats, where that pirate Semes place is aft side.
    Respectfully yours,
    The letterhead was from a shoe store, and dated after the war.

    Unfortunately, I loaned these to a cadet named David Patten, to have them put on display at Norwich decades ago. At the end of the school term he was headed back to California, and he told me that I could pick them up from the University.
    I made several phone calls to try and retrieve them from the curator who told me he had never seen these, and told me that they accession forms for such items. I will not name him, but I think these somehow wound up either in the basement of Norwich University, or someone elses private collection.
    It would be nice if someone could rediscover these artifacts, as the lighter life boat piece, still had the paint on it.

  2. An interesting summary but one or two points need clarification.

    The Alabama investigated about 236 neutral ships between August 30 1862-June 9 1864, and sunk/bonded about 64 federal shipping between September 5 1862-April 27 1864. In total the shipping amounted to 300 in all, and not the figure of 450.

    The Florida only surrendered when it was attacked and rammed while in harbour under the ports protection.

    The total that served on the Alabama was about 213, from 1862-64. When she left Liverpool for the Azores, she had around 110 men on board, not 145. This latter figure was estimated to be the amount during the fight off Cherbourg, and not leaving Liverpool.

    I don’t quite understand the 7 expeditionary raids against Union shipping between August 1852 (sic) and December 1863 comment.

    Greg Bayne President ACWRTUK

  3. Pingback: The Confederacy’s Desperate Situation | Vermont Humanities

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