Four Flags Over Alabama:
The Strange & Marvelous Career of a Confederate Raider, Part 2
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
Grand Tour of a Cause-Célèbre
Perhaps just as galling to Unionists as Alabama‘s destructive impunity was her sheen of romance that so enthralled the public imagination. The difference between a “pirate” and a “privateer” is that the latter has “papers” (in old-fashioned legal language, “letters of marque”). One works for a cause greater than himself (though he certainly enjoys the profits), and the other for no cause but himself — Sir Francis Drake, the “privateer,” and Blackbeard, the “pirate.” Though neither Semmes, nor the Alabama deserved the name “pirate . . . any more than Lee, Davis, or Stonewall,” the practice became a kind of litmus test among Northerners. If one spat out the title “Pirate Alabama,” with a squint of the eye and a sour curl of the lip, then he was a good Union man. Those who left off the word — or, even worse, replaced it with the legitimate-sounding “privateer” — were immediately suspected of treasonous sympathies. Unlike the bloodthirsty rogues of the seventeenth-century Caribbean, or the Turks and Somalians who terrorized the Mediterranean, the men aboard Semmes’ raider never once took a life; they brought their captives aboard, supplied them with food and blankets, then dropped them off at the nearest accommodating port. In fact, calling the Alabama and her crew “pirates” was good publicity, for it only served to make them more sensational. Their celebrity abroad preceded future transatlantic American phenoms, like Charles Lindbergh.
After the Alabama seized the Ariel in 1863, a capture made when her gunners fired a fuse shell that “struck the foremast above [Ariel’s] hurricane deck,” the passengers were all filled with “the utmost consternation and fright,” particularly the ladies aboard. According to Ariel’s Captain Jones, many people expected to be robbed, then their throats cut. A number of fair-weather men “who had sworn allegiance to Uncle Samuel, and who had eaten his salt for 20 years, suddenly forgot to aspirate their ‘h’s’,” and became either devoted subjects of the Queen or suddenly unable to speak the Queen’s English at all. As was customary for these rituals, the Alabama’s First Lieutenant Low came aboard the captured ship and addressed them all. By the time the ordeal was over, and the captives prepared to disembark at Kingston, Jamaica, “all the Ariel’s passengers appear[ed] to have been enchanted by Lieutenant Low” — once again, a feeling particularly true of the ladies. “All great villains, if they are smart, are courteous,” remarked the wry Jones.
While at Kingston, Semmes spent a few days ashore, one night delivering “a speech to the merchants of that city at their Commercial Exchange.” During this “slave pirate’s [talk],” a bitter abolitionist observed, A. F. Sinclair and H. F. Colthirst, “both of whose ancestors were liberated from slavery by the British government in 1838,” cheered him with enthusiasm. In fact, few men present on the occasion were not possessed of slave forebears. Yet, “unmindful of the past, simply that they might ingratiate themselves with the villainous Captain Semmes,” they hurrahed “his dangerous expedition on behalf of the Confederates.” Scenes like this one suggest that to many people, the “Stars and Bars” waving over Alabama represented the ship’s gallant defiance in the face of long odds more than it did Southern slavery or Cause.
The Alabama met with similar acclaim in Brazil, her arrival at Bahia causing “a great deal of excitement.” One local worthy found Semmes “a well-educated, gentlemanly person, speaking in a quiet manner about his country, quite devoid of all bombast.” In a manner “not very favorable” to the Yankee, Brazilians “contrasted the behavior of” Semmes with that of an American captain whose ship had shoved off several days earlier. Before the Alabama left for other climes, she and her crew enjoyed a farewell banquet, toasts to her continued success echoing throughout the evening’s colorful festivities.
By the time she reached Cape Town, South Africa in August of 1863, the Alabama had become an international sweetheart. Cruising into port and laden with fresh loot to sell, her crew met with a hearty welcome and eager customers. “Three cheers were given for Captain Semmes and his gallant privateer,” declared the Cape Town Argus. Her visit even inspired the creation of a now-traditional Afrikaans folk song/sea shanty (an understudied white genre, the sea shanty): “Daar kom die Alibama.” Such favoritism “upon the part of a neutral people, is, perchance, wrong,” the writer allowed. But it was not necessarily “taking the view of either side, Federal or Confederate.” Rather, Cape Town’s enthusiasm was simply indicative of its people’s “admiration of the skill, pluck, and daring [possessed by] the captain and her crew,” all of whom “afford[ed] a general theme of admiration for the world over.”
The Confederates never had a better or more beloved ambassador than the Alabama. She captured as many hearts as she slashed Yankee purses. Yet, while Semmes and Southerners viewed the vessel as a manifestation of the South’s fighting spirit – the flag snapping in the wind with her sails was a passion symbol linked to the blood that her sons shed for her on land, as well as sea — foreigners were more likely to divorce the ship and its exploits from the Confederacy. Despite Southern efforts, the Alabama had become a universal symbol of “pluck and daring” to her non-American admirers. They uncoupled her from Southern nationalism and instead associated the Alabama with the general qualities of spirited tenaciousness — of a David casting stones at a Goliath. This detachment was easy, for the ship was physically distant from Southern shores, and Europeans filled the lower ranks of her crew. Global spectators could therefore shower the sloop with plaudits, while keeping the Southern nation itself at ocean’s length. Fans applauded Alabama’s conquests and thrilling escapes, while never feeling bound to embrace the Confederate nation for which she sailed. It was midway through 1863, and still Britain had declined to recognize the Confederacy. Hopes on that front began to dim.
Part III: Under the Tricolore
The Confederates then turned their eyes to France, in the midst of its Second Empire. A grandiose era needed an ambitious project, and Napoleon III dreamed of reinvigorating Gallic colonies in the New World, so much of them having been lost to Anglo-American interests the previous century. During the winter of 1861, France, Spain, and Britain had jointly invaded Mexico (while the Americans were busily embroiled with Southern secession) after the Mexican government reneged on its large debts to all three powers. While the Spanish and British left soon after negotiating a settlement, the French wanted more: a conquest of Mexico that would serve as the prestigious imperial base for a monarchical-Catholic revanchism. Napoleon III offered Austrian Archduke Maximilian the chance of founding a Habsburg-Mexican monarchy. With French support, Maximilian crowned himself Emperor of Mexico in 1864.
Napoleon knew that the United States deeply opposed these aggressive geopolitical maneuvers in its own backyard, and the Civil War was the perfect means of distracting the Lincoln administration, while Maximilian cemented his reign. So much the better if the Union split into two, inevitably weaker halves. A victorious and resurgent Union would not hesitate to kick Napoleon’s puppet emperor out of the hemisphere, while the new Confederacy might be more pliable. In fact, the Confederates promised not to interfere in French affairs — if France would agree to recognize them as a separate nation. Because of these and other reasons, Napoleon favored the South. But whatever his personal feelings, the days of absolutism, Divine Right, Sun Kings, and even real Napoleonism were over, and most Frenchmen did not want to get involved in America’s brother-war, nor did they want to rush into a diplomatic decision that could backfire. Like their British counterparts, powerful French officials may have privately preferred the Confederacy, but desperate promises, “King Cotton Diplomacy,” and feistiness were not enough to persuade their governments to abandon neutrality.
The Alabama’s Waterloo at Cherbourg
After returning from the Indian Ocean in mid-1864, Semmes confessed that at last “sea-life [was] becoming more and more distasteful to [him].” He had reached “an age when men long[ed] for quiet and repose.” Though still a spry fellow, Semmes had just turned 53, and he “looked older.” As if reflecting the state of her master, the Alabama was in desperate need of repairs. She was beginning to more and more resemble the Flying Dutchman’s barnacled ghost-ship, “weeping seawater” and trailing algae in her wake. Indeed, Semmes wondered if his fate might not be similar to that of the mythic captain, doomed to sail forever toward no destination and for no cause, but a Lost One. “Shall we ever reach that dear home which we left three years ago, and which we have yearned after so frequently? Will it be battle, or shipwreck, or both, or neither?” Will we have war, or peace? Once and for all, “when will the demon-like passions of the North be stilled?”
The answer in Semmes’ case was: not until the North sent him and his brig to join the watery grave of “a thousand [other] fearful wrecks,” its crewmen’s bones scattered and gnawed there by the fishes. At the time, Union efforts to seek and destroy her “furnish[ed] no parallel” in American, English, or French history. In just 15 months after the Alabama’s maiden voyage to the Azores, the US Navy had ordered over 60 new vessels built and 15 men-of-war commissioned “for the purpose of overhauling her.” Manning one such vessel was Captain John Winslow of the USS Kearsarge, Semmes’ old Navy comrade who had served with him on the same crew during the Mexican War — one of the little, delicious coincidences that flavored America’s Iliad. When Winslow received an urgent message stating that the Alabama had made port at Cherbourg, the nearby Winslow rushed to finally snap shut the trap.
The French port of Cherbourg juts out into the main, the spear-point of Normandy, whose peninsula braves the unquiet skies and choppy waters of the English Channel. Many proud warriors, seasoned mariners, and even princes have met their doom on its hidden shoals and within sight of land; the shock of frigid waves that pitched them about and plunged them under was the last sensation its victims knew before the sea swallowed them for its toll. A fitting stage for a grudge match. Once Semmes and the Alabama rolled into this rainy harbor town, they found themselves no longer as welcome as they once were. 1864 had gone badly for the South. It was becoming clear to everyone that the last few pieces on the board remained, the game continuing only out of a proud Anglo-Saxon tradition of playing to the bitter end. The French authorities informed Semmes and his crew that they could stay at Cherbourg for no longer than 24 hours. But for the Alabama, there was even worse news to come: The heavily-gunned and chain-armored Kearsarge had arrived, and the Yankees had no intention of letting her out alive.
The only options left to Semmes were bad ones. Although he had orders to avoid combat with warships (something he ignored in the case of the Hatteras), those instructions now seemed null and voided. The Alabama could either remain hemmed in at Cherbourg, “in which case more Federal cruisers would flock to Winslow’s aid and see to it the Alabama rotted at anchor.” Or, she could fight. Semmes calculated that if the Kearsarge defeated him, it would not ultimately influence the War’s outcome: a single ship lost. If, on the other hand, the Alabama triumphed, not only would it be glorious for her captain and crew, but it would inspire renewed hope for the South — a public-relations coup that might “win the great European powers once again to her side.” The decision was a quick and easy one. Semmes accepted his opponent’s glove and began preparing for the next day’s duel to the death. “God defend the right, and have mercy upon the souls of those who fall, as many of us must,” Semmes wrote in his log — the resolute prayer of a soldier.
Word spread across England and France that a great battle was at hand, and 15,000 people eagerly gathered on the heights and sea bluffs near Cherbourg. And then the Europeans proceeded to do what they did best during the four years of this murderous American brawl: They settled in and watched the show.
On the morning of June 19, the crew lit their boilers and stripped to the waist. Semmes wore his dress uniform and insisted on displaying all the captured flags he had accumulated and taken as prizes during his two years as captain. For the last time, he called every man on deck and delivered an impassioned speech:
Officers and Seamen of the Alabama: You have another opportunity of meeting the enemy . . . you have been all over the world, and . . . you have destroyed, and driven for protection under neutral flags, one half of the enemy’s commerce . . . and a grateful country will not be unmindful of it. The name of your ship has become a household word . . . Shall that name be tarnished by defeat? Impossible! Remember that you are on the English Channel, the theater of so much of the naval glory of our race, and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you. The flag that floats over you is that of a young Republic, who bids defiance to her enemies, whenever, and wherever found. God save the South!
With that, the Alabama left the harbor and cast off toward Destiny. On her way she passed Napoléon, a French ship-of-the-line, whose crew began to play “Dixie” to the tossing of caps and the ringing chorus of cheers. Several other craft followed her, including the pro-Southern Englishman John Lancaster aboard his yacht, the Deerhound. When at last the “Sea Kings” met their Federal opponent some miles from the shore, everyone held their collective breath. Even the Channel seemed to still in anticipation.
Then, low and powerful booms rippled across the water, and high cracks snapped at the air. The two ships circled closer and closer together in a fatal war-dance, their cannons becoming more and more accurate. One of the Alabama’s 110-pound shells struck the Kearsarge’s sternpost early in the battle. Had it exploded, “it would have left Yankee Capt. John Winslow in command of a rudderless derelict that [Semmes] could have sunk at his leisure.” But war is never fair, and the shell was a dud. How unsettling it is to learn that luck — that the unknowable minds of the war gods — determine the fate of armies and the outcome of battles just as, if not more, often than skill.
Little by little, the Alabama was getting the worst of it, while her own shots ricocheted off Kearsarge’s “chainmail” and fell into the water. The Southerners’ “spardeck [was] by this time being rapidly torn up by shells bursting on the [planks].” Another heavy shell “enter[ed] [Alabama] at the waterline,” and detonated in the engine room. For a moment, the water traveling in the wake of its passage was of such a volume that it submerged and hid the aft guns from the crew. The ship began to list and tremble “from stem to stern at the blow.” The engineer sent to assess the damage grimly informed Semmes that the amount of water flooding into the lower levels was now well beyond the capabilities of the pumps. In her final moments, the once resplendent and uncatchable Alabama “present[ed] a woeful appearance, torn up in innumerable holes, and air bubbles rising and bursting.” They were her death throes, their sounds groaning as if the boat were in agony. Realizing that the Alabama could not be saved, Semmes ordered his men to jump into the water and save themselves before the ship pulled them down to the bottom of the English Channel. Kearsarge’s surgeon, John M. Browne, watched as Alabama’s mizzen-mast “broke off . . . and went over the side, the bow lift[ing] high from the water.” Then came the end. “Suddenly assuming a perpendicular position . . . she went down.” Her jib boom was the last to appear above water. Within 15 minutes, the Alabama had vanished completely, as if she had never been.
For a time, Winslow seemed uninterested in rescuing the exhausted men who were now desperately splashing and treading water. John Lancaster steered his yacht hurriedly toward them and took as many as he could aboard the Deerhound. Other private craft and fishing boats arrived to help the beleaguered sailors as well, while the Kearsarge continued to idle. Only a few of Alabama’s smaller lifeboats remained seaworthy, and the fortunate passengers of one of them urged the ship’s doctor, David Herbert Llewellyn, to climb aboard. With supreme gallantry, he refused and insisted his place be given to the wounded sailors whom he could no longer tend. Soon after, he drowned.
12 others of Alabama’s crew drowned, 9 died in battle, and 20 were wounded.
When Kearsarge at last began helping survivors out of the water, Winslow scoured the area for the “Pirate Semmes.” His prisoners lied and told him that their Captain had died. In fact, Semmes managed to make it ashore in an English boat — probably via the Deerhound. There, Europeans gave him asylum, as well as a new ship. Weeks later, an exasperated Northern press discovered that “Captain Semmes, late of Alabama, was now aboard the Liverpool barge Sea King . . . There seems to be no doubt that” the pirate was once more “on the deck of a ship under the Confederate flag.” The British had helped the Rebels escape justice again!
The specter of Alabama, too, reemerged, albeit 120 years later, when French divers discovered the wreck several hundred feet underwater. And because she lay within their territorial aegis, the French claimed her for the Tricolore. For its part, the Kearsarge met an ignoble end. Contemplate the 1894 eulogy of a bitter ex-Naval officer who had once served on that warship:
[Kearsarge] survived the guns of the enemy and the perils of the deep for thirty years — only to lay her bones upon the surf-eaten shore of an “ocean graveyard.” Not conquered by the storm, but run upon well-known rocks in fine weather: a victim of the careless navigation of her own officers.
What vast pools of blood and tears we shed so that the Union, one and indivisible, might survive the “storm” of civil war — only for later leaders, careless at the rudder, to dash it upon the rocks of hubris and “well-known” folly.
Part IV: Under the Stars and Stripes, or The “Alabama Claims,” Part II
Among the lessons illustrated by the Alabama and the larger Confederate story are these. One, neutrality is an unclear status, for its definition seems to shift with point-of-view. Maintaining it is an often necessary but thankless task that will win few friends. Lazy and uncommitted “favor” is an easier road to tread by far, and one that can masquerade as either “intervention” or “neutrality,” depending on the audience to be convinced/flattered. Two, it is imprudent to begin a war while drunk on the heady wine of one’s optimistic assumptions. Nor, as the Alabama’s motto suggested, should a people expect other nations to rush to its aid when the shooting starts. More often than not, help isn’t on the way. Three, there is a curious paradox when it comes to some strains of nationalism. The North planned to “preserve the Union” by declaring to the world her sovereignty in language laced with universal principles, human rights, and exhortations to save global commerce. Meanwhile, the South used explicitly nationalist language when supporting the globe-trotting Alabama and in hopes of winning over foreign opinion. And finally, that the Alabama’s singular career deserves a place in white history’s magnificent Halls of Honor.
In pursuit of this aim and with the intention of restoring the ruins of that famous wreck, French archaeologists dredged from the sea the Alabama’s propellers, engine fragments, artillery pieces, alarm bell, and tableware. Once again, the United States came bearing a ruler with which to rap European knuckles. As successor to the Confederacy, it held title to the Alabama — a suit based on transnational codes that the previous “Alabama Claims” had helped to establish. Though the French Government resisted these arguments, on May 19, 1989, Parisian officials notified the American embassy of their concession.
Who, indeed, should assert a “claim” to the Alabama? The Union who abhorred the ship and once argued that she was the responsibility of the British? The ruins that are left of the old raider now lie under the Stars and Stripes. If there was one thing the Confederates could not manage, it was to persuade an “impartial world” to recognize their flag above the soil where Southern warriors fought. And as an indignant Sir Alexander once put it, if there was one thing the Unionists could not extort, it was that an “impartial world” concede that the flag above the soil where Southern warriors fell did not “cover the remains of patriots and heroes.” Since those particular colors no longer fly, how I almost wish that the Channel had not given up the Alabama’s shards of partisan pride — that instead it still covered her remains on the sea-bed’s neutral ground.
* * *
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 “Civil War in America,” London Times, October 30, 1862.
 “The Capture of the Ariel by the Alabama,” The New York Times, January 14, 1863.
 Freedom’s Champion, February 23, 1863.
 “Federals and Confederates in Brazil,” London Times, June 23, 1863.
 “Naval Affairs,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 24, 1863.
 Whether they meant it was another matter; Southerners believed in Manifest Destiny and expansionism just as fervently as Northerners did.
 Don Holloway, “High Seas Duel,” in The Civil War Quarterly (Fall 2014) pp. 16-30, 24.
 Ibid., 24.
 William Shakespeare, Richard III, I.iv, 21–33.
 “The Chase of the Alabama,” New York Times, January 17, 1863. Interestingly enough, many of those US Navy ships were, like the Alabama, built in England.
 “High Seas Duel,” 28, 35.
 Ibid., 34.
 Hank Burchard, “Seas, Scenes of the Civil War,” Washington Post, January 10, 1992.
 “High Seas Duel,” 37, 38-9.
 New Haven Palladium, November 30, 1864.
 H. S. Hobson, The Famous Cruise of the Kearsarge (Bonds Village, Mass., 1894), 9.
 Internationalism and globalism are not interchangeable. Internationalism depends on the existence and recognition of the nation concept, while globalism largely rejects the nation’s legitimacy. A lack of vigilance, however, results in the first easily becoming the second; Union arguments and conduct during the Civil War are examples of this phenomenon.
 See J. Ashley Roach, “France Concedes United States Has Title to Alabama,” The American Journal of International Law 85, no. 2 (April 1991) pp. 381-383.
 “Sir Alexander Cockburn’s Judgment,” 387.
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Riveting tale. Privateers of all stripes rouse the romantic in men. Reading of the Alabama’s exploits, I was reminded of the voyages of the German auxiliary cruisers – merchantmen retrofitted to intercept Allied merchant shipping, although the heroic Kormoran did manage to sink the Australian light cruiser Sydney (at the cost of her own destruction).
Mariners and “soldiers of the sea” are a romantic and mysterious people, aren’t they? Known for their coarseness, as well as their sensitivity.
Like all great captains, Semmes had an ego, and several years after the war had ended, he declared all of the books written about the Alabama to be “meagre,” “barren,” and “miserable failures.” The cruise of a ship was “a biography,” for the ship herself walked “the waters like a thing of life” and spoke “in accents” to those capable of understanding her. And those interpreters could not be “lands-men,” but “sea-men.” Ego aside, he might have been right. The divide between the most of us who prefer solid ground, and those few who feel most alive while afloat between the continents, is a profound one.
What a great story! Dashing heroes, adventure on the seas, intrigue…. And I very much enjoyed the details: Captain Semmes keeping his law office windows open, for example. There certainly is something magnetic about the sea air and the cries of seagulls.
It was the beginning of summer three years ago, and I remember reaching Mobile after having driven the length of Alabama. I had the windows rolled down, and the second the sea-breeze hit, I breathed in the Gulf, sighed, and thought, yes, I’m pretty much home now. Still quite a ways to Texas, but home.
Some years back I got to know Adm. Semmes’s great-great-grandson, Oliver Semmes, who still lives (or was then living) in the same general neck of the woods–Pensacola, to be precise, so you would not be astonished to learn he’d had a career connected to the Navy (Captain, USNR) and avionics. A very pleasant gent, who kept alight the flame of his forebear’s memory and probably knew more about him than any historian or biographer (certainly more than Stephen Fox, who did an unsavory portrait of the Admiral in Wolf of the Deep). This gg-grandson liked to tell people that like Raphael Semmes he remained both a firm Confederate and a Catholic.
A curious byproduct of the Alabama claims in the 1870s was that it soon afterwards became possible for American citizens from Ireland and Britain to renounce their British subjecthood. Great Britain had thitherto acknowledged American sovereignty de jure but not necessarily de facto. If your ggg-grandfather signed American naturalization papers, he swore to abjure any loyalty to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and most especially to King George or King William or Queen Victoria…yet there was no corresponding acknowledgment from the other side! So you could go to Nova Scotia and just be a British subject again. This created endless complications, notably before the War of 1812, when American seamen born as British subjects (perhaps the majority of them) could be impressed into duty on an RN or merchant ship; and then during the Civil War, when the Federals tried to draft American residents who claimed British citizenship.
Another effect was that the USA and UK did not exchange ambassadors. Until 1893 they exchanged “ministers” that were something like the special-interest representatives we might keep at the Swiss legation when dealing with an unfriendly or unrecognized foreign regime.
Basically America was a demi-nation internationally till late 19th century…more autonomous than Australia or Canada, but not in the same league as Prussia or France or Russia! This may help explain Winston Churchill’s confused, possessive attitude toward that English-Speaking People that eclipsed its Mother Country.
Of course there were benefits for certain individuals under this arrangement. Such Americans, or Confederates, as Teddy Roosevelt’s Bulloch uncles (who commanded or served with the Confederate Navy out of Liverpool), could take British citizenship with little more than an act of declaration.
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