Ship's bell dispute rings out in court U.S. owns the Confederate relic, Navy says.

April 08, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA -- The bell once hung on the deck of the CSS Alabama, the most feared Confederate raiding vessel of the Civil War. Cannon shots and shells whistled past it during a fierce duel with the Union navy off the coast of France. In the end, the Alabama slipped beneath the waves, taking the bell with it.

Yesterday, the brass relic was in the middle of another battle with the Navy -- this time here in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where words were the only weapons and federal judges will decide the issue: Who owns the bell?

On one side is Richard Steinmetz, 55, a Westwood, N.J., antiques dealer, who bought the 1-foot-tall bell 12 years ago for $14,000 from a dealer in England and later offered to sell it to the U.S. Naval Academy -- with no success. On the other side is the Navy, which confiscated the artifact last year after convincing a U.S. District Court that the federal government was the rightful owner.

The case is the first involving Confederate property to reach the Court of Appeals in more than 100 years, said Peter E. Hess, one of Mr. Steinmetz's attorneys. He also said the court's decision would affect the ownership of other artifacts from historic shipwrecks.

The court is expected to render a decision within the next several weeks.

"The CSS Alabama was a ship surrounded by controversy from its construction to its sinking," Mr. Hess told the court. ". . . The controversy continues."

The Alabama was known in ports around the world for its raids on federal shipping. It had captured or destroyed 65 U.S. merchant ships by June 1864 and was cheered by crowds at Cherbourg, France, when it went out to meet the USS Kearsarge.

The two adversaries pounded away until the Alabama began taking on water. "Haul down the colors," ordered Confederate Capt. Raphael Semmes. "It will never do . . . for us to go down and the decks covered with our gallant wounded."

What happened next is in dispute. The colors came down, but by some accounts, the cannon fire continued on both sides. Moments later, a white flag went up and the Kearsarge began rescue operations.

The Alabama "was never boarded by a Union officer or soldier," Mr. Hess told the judges.

The bell was retrieved in 1936 by a diver who traded it for drinks at an English pub. The pub was bombed by the Germans during the World War II and the bell was recovered from the ruins and ended up the property of an antiques dealer.

The dealer sold it to Mr. Steinmetz.

U.S. Justice Department Attorney Mark E. Schaefer told the judge the Alabama was not a "stateless vessel" but a warship of a belligerent power -- the Confederate States of America. And because the United States defeated the former rebel states, it had the right to take possession of its property.

Mr. Steinmetz said the bell "belongs to the American people. I just want to be compensated for it."

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