In the late 19th century Laird's shipyard of Birkenhead was said to be the finest in the world. There seems little doubt that John Laird knew the purpose of the ship the notorious confederate sympathiser Commander James Bulloch had commissioned him to build. "Ship number 290" was constructed in oak and elm rather than iron, permitting later repairs anywhere in the world. She was launched in May 1862 under the temporary name "Enrica" but throughout construction there had been no mention of military use and no weapon was installed lest the British Government intern the whole venture. It seems payment was in cash.
The Northern Union ambassador had heard rumours of the project and began legal procedings to restrain the vessel. These progressed but slowly and on 28 July the ship set sail for a "trial in the bay", barely ahead of a court order detaining it. Local dignitaries on board were said to be astonished to be returned to shore by tug-boat, after their brief celebratory banquet on board. One suspects they knew.
In a neatly concerted operation 30 sailors then joined the vessel at Anglesey and she sailed under English colours to rendezvous with two supply ships at the Azores and take on guns, ammunition, coal, stores and a command of Southern chivalry under Raphael Semmes.
They struck the British ensign, hoisting the Confederate flag in it's place. The renamed "Alabama" then set course for American waters and sank the US torpedo boat "Matteras", having put paid to some 20 merchantmen en route.
Over the next 2 years "Alabama" scourged the Western Ocean, stopping, pillaging and sinking 68 merchant vessels in all. Very much the "Graf Spey" of her day, and far more successful than the 1939 German pocket battleship! Strategy was to shift to new waters every couple of months. Once he had dealt with the local Commerce, Semmes had to move on before US Navy cruisers might deal with him! He needed coal and could only buy this at ports where his activities were unknown. Despite his piratical methods Semmes was a merciful man and was later to be aquitted of war crimes on the evidence of Union sailors.
The finale came in French waters where Alabama had put into Cherbourg for repairs. She was spotted by the US schooner "Keersage" who waited for her just outside the 3-mile limit. There was a brief but fierce encounter observed by the French warship "Couronne" and the British yaught "Deerhound". Alabama's more powerful cannon was ineffective with her munitions said to be damp from prolonged sea voyage. She was eventually holed in the stern and sank. Most of her sailors were picked up by the "Keersage", but some 42 including Captain Semmes got away on the "Deerhound".
Alabama's surgeon is recorded as staying with the ship to the end to tend the wounded, then drowning as he could not swim. There is a plaque to his memory in London's Charing Cross hospital.
After the war there was much bad blood, and the Union sued the British Government, eventually settling for the then massive sum of £3,229,166 on the grounds that "neutral" Britain might have stopped the raider before it left Birkenhead.
The Alabama was built at Liverpool or Birkenhead, and left the latter port in August last; is about 1,2OO tons burden, draft about fourteen feet, engines by LAIRD & SONS, of Birkenhead, 1862. She is a wooden vessel, propelled by a screw, coppered bottom, about 21O feet long, rather narrow, painted black outside and drab inside, has a round stern, billet head, very little shear, flush deck for and aft, a bridge forward at the smoke- stack, carries two large black boats on cranes amidships forward of the main rigging, two black quarter-boats between the main and mizzen masts, one small black boat over the stern on cranes. The spare spars on a gallows between the bridge and foremast show above the rail. She carries three long 32-pounders on a side, and is pierced for two more amidships; has a lOO pound rifled pivot gun forward of the bridge, and a 68 pound pivot on the main deck; has tracks laid forward for a pivot bow gun, and tracks aft for a pivot stern- chaser, all of which she will take on board to complete her armament.
Her guns are of the Blakely pattern, and manufactured by WESLEY & PRESTON, Liverpool, 1862. She is bark rigged, has very long bright lower masts and black mast heads, yards black, long yardarms, short poles, (say one to two feet) with small dog vanes on each, and append ant to the main studding-sail booms on the fore and main, and has wire rigging, carries on her foremast a square foresail, large trysail with two reefs, topgallant sail and royal. On the mainmast, a large trysail with two reefs and a bonnet. No square main-sail bent, topsail two reefs, topgallant sail and royal. On the mizzen mast, a very large spanker and a short three cornered gaft topsail, has a fore and foretopmast staysail and jib. Has had no staysails to the main or mizzen masts bent, or royal yards aloft.
It is represented to go thirteen knots under canvas and fifteen under steam. Can get steam in twenty minutes, but seldom uses it, except in a chase or emergency. Has all national flags, but usually sets the St. George's Cross on approaching a vessel. Her present complement of men is 12O, all told, but is anxious to ship more. Keeps a man at the masthead from day-light to sunset.
Her sails are of hemp canvas, made very roaching; the topsails have twenty cloths on the head and thirty on the foot. General appearance of the hull and sails decidedly English. She is generally under two topsails, fore and main topsails, fore and fore topmast staysails, sometimes topgallant sails and jib, but seldom any sail on the mizzen, except while in chase of a vessel. She is very slow in stays, generally wears ship. She was built expressly for the business. She is engaged to destroy, fight, or run, as the case may be. She took her armament and crew, and most of her officers, on board near Terciera, Western Islands, from an English vessel. Her crew are principally English, the officers chivalry of the South.
Laird's shipyard is still an important employer in Birkenhead. More detail is available on the BBC local history pages on the "Alabama". Roy Rawlinson's Liverpool Dixie site is well researched and has massive local detail on the story. There are also some fine images of Alabama's final battle on the US navy history site
Meanwhile intrepid French submariners have found the wreck in 60 metres of water at latitude 49° 45' north longitude 1° 41' west with There is further archeological information on this splendid French marine site.
You might also like to look at my Birkenhead history page,
chrisryall.net home page, and the Upton based
history Web ring
www.chrisryall.net/birkenhead/alabama.htm © Chris Ryall 1987-2008