Relics of Confederate warship headed for Maryland Alabama was sunk off French coast

November 05, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Relics from the wreckage of the Confederacy's most-feared ocean raider, the CSS Alabama, are to be retrieved from France next week by a Navy archaeologist and the chief conservator for the Maryland Historical Trust.

The Civil War fighting ship was sunk by the Union steamer USS Kearsarge off the French coast at Cherbourg in June 1864, and what remains of the Alabama now lies in 200 feet of water. But two years of difficult marine archaeology has begun to bring bits of its history into the sunlight for the first time in almost 130 years.

Among the most important finds is the ship's wheel, engraved in French: "God Helps Those Who Help Themselves."

The Historical Trust, which has drawn notice for its expertise in marine archaeology, has a $50,000, 18-month Navy contract for conservation of the Alabama's remains at a Crownsville lab. French laboratories are handling other artifacts.

The Alabama project is "a very important thing to the Navy," said Betty Lynn Seifert, the trust's chief conservator, who will go to France to prepare and pack the relics for shipment on Nov. 15.

Ms. Seifert said the artifacts are being stored in water at a French naval base. Containers and specialized packing materials sufficient to hold 2,400 pounds of waterlogged relics are awaiting her arrival.

After the relics are flown to Maryland, Ms. Seifert and an assistant will begin the slow job of conserving them. Electrolytic baths, chemical treatments and coatings will be used to remove salt and to stop the corrosion of metal and the collapse of wooden objects.

Naval historians "are studying some of the technology that was used" on the Alabama, Ms. Seifert said. "All these vessels have their little secrets."

But perhaps more important to the Navy is the Alabama's fame -- or infamy from the Union point of view. "It's more the fact of the vessel and its success when it was out," she said. "A little notoriety always helps."

During a two-year campaign waged by Capt. Raphael Semmes -- a Charles County native and first cousin of the founder of the Baltimore law firm, Semmes Bowen & Semmes -- the Alabama and its crew became the scourge of Union shipping.

The Alabama was built in England on a commission from Confederate agents. To safeguard Britain's official neutrality, however, the British disguised the ship's real owners.

The finished ship and its cannon were sent separately to the Azores, where Captain Semmes took possession on Aug. 24, 1862. There he replaced the British flag with the Confederate colors and had his ship's band play "Dixie."

Eleven days later, the Alabama seized and burned the Union whaler Ocmulgee sailing near the Azores, the first of 10 whaling ships she would burn in 13 days.

Without losing a single man to disease or enemy fire, the Alabama captured or burned 65 Union merchant ships she encountered from Nova Scotia to the coast of India.

A dozen Union fighting ships sailed in pursuit of the Alabama. But it wasn't until June 1864, when the Alabama put in to the French port of Cherbourg for repairs, that Union forces got the upper hand. Cmdr. John A. Winslow learned of the Alabama's whereabouts and sailed the Kearsarge from England to block the Alabama's next move and challenge Captain Semmes to a fight.

Six days later, with thousands of French and English sightseers gathered along the shore and in boats, the Alabama sailed seven miles out of Cherbourg and opened fire on the Kearsarge from a range of 1 1/2 miles.

Captain Semmes soon found he was outgunned and handicapped by both the Kearsarge's heavy chain armor and his own faulty ammunition. The Alabama's casualties were heavy, and when his ship began to sink, he struck his colors.

His ship was never boarded. Survivors were rescued by boats from the Kearsarge and from France. Captain Semmes and many of his officers were picked up by an English yacht and taken to Southampton. The Alabama went to the bottom.

David Cooper, an underwater archaeologist with the Naval Historical Center in Washington, said the first relic to be recovered from the Alabama may have been a brass bell retrieved in 1936 by a diver who traded it for drinks at an English pub, though its authenticity is uncertain. The bell found its way to a New Jersey antiques dealer, who earlier this year tangled with the U.S. government in court over ownership -- and lost.

L The bell is now on display at the Navy Museum in Washington.

The wreck was located in 1984 and tentatively identified by French navy divers. Confirmation came later with the discovery of the ship's wheel, portions of armament and the propulsion machinery.

"She was a sailing ship, but also carried steam," said Mr. Cooper, who will accompany Ms. Seifert to France. "That was not unusual for ships at that time," he said. "But she also had a device that enabled the propeller to be lifted out of the water into the stern. It was called a lifting screw, and this ship does have a lifting screw. There is a very good string of evidence to establish her identity."

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