The history of CSS Alabama

Links between Liverpool and the Confederate States

Liverpool had strong political, emotional and financial connections and sympathies with the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War (1861-1865). One of the main reasons for the link was economical, based on the importance of cotton, upon which both the Southern States and Lancashire mills depended.

The outbreak of hostilities in 1861 found the Southern States in the worst position compared to the North, which had more manufacturing, arms production and industrial power. The South, because of its lack of resources, was forced to look to Europe. The already strong links from the cotton trade made Liverpool the obvious choice for organising supplies and aid for the Confederacy. A fleet of Confederate blockade-runners and naval cruisers were built on Merseyside to keep this vital cotton supply line open.

Construction of ships

James Dunwoody Bulloch, a Confederate naval officer, arrived in Liverpool on 4 June 1861 with orders to buy or have constructed 6 steam vessels suitable for use as commerce destroyers against the Union. He contacted the Liverpool firm of Fraser, Trenholm & Co, a prominent commercial house in the city, who were to act as financial agents to the Confederate Government and finance the building of these vessels.

In July 1861, a contract was signed with shipbuilders Laird Brothers, for vessel number 290, known as Enrica. On 29 July 1862 Enrica went to sea supposedly for trials with various dignitaries on board. After putting them off by a tug she quietly sailed off for the Azores to take on armaments and ammunition and begin life as the blockade-runner CSS Alabama.

Compensation for damage

Captain Raphael Semmes took command of the Alabama on 13 August. From that time until June 1864 she captured and burned 55 Union merchantmen worth $4,500,000 and bonded ten others to the value of $562,000. On 19 June 1864, the Alabama met the USS Kearsage off Cherbourg, France. After a spectacular battle watched by thousands on the French coast, the Alabama was sunk.

In 1873, the United States Government demanded that the British Government should pay compensation for the damage caused by the Confederate ships. It became known as the ‘Alabama Claim’ because she had caused the most damage. Together with the Florida and Shenandoah, the Alabama had accounted for half of the total number of union vessels captured. It resulted in the British Government paying £3,000,000 compensation for allowing the Confederate Government to purchase the ships in England and allowing them to use British ports.