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The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter

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The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter
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Author(s): R. Semmes
Date Published: 2009/12
Page Count: 364
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-881-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-882-7

A famous rebel naval captain tells his story

The author of this book, Captain Semmes, was one of the most renowned American seamen of his time—particularly among the sailors of the Confederacy. Whilst it was essential that every nation have its own naval force, for the Southern states this was doubly important because the new 'nation' was heavily reliant on agriculture and its exports, had a paucity of essential manufacturing and was subjected to rigorous blockade by the Federal government to ensure there would be no free or uncontested passage of either. This book covers the activities of two notable and famous ships of the C. S. N—the steamers Alabama and Sumter, and no one was in a better position to report the activities of the Confederate Navy at sea and at war than Captain Semmes who commanded these ships. This essential source work on this subject is available in soft back and cloth bound collectors’ hard back with dust wrapper.

Sir,—It is my painful duty to inform the Department of the destruction of the United States steamer Hatteras, recently under my command, by the rebel steamer Alabama, on the night of the 11th instant, off the coast of Texas. The circumstances of the disaster are as follows:—<br>
Upon the afternoon of the 11th inst., at 2.30 p.m., while at anchor in company with the fleet under Commodore Bell, off Galveston, Texas, I was ordered by signal from the United States flag-ship Brooklyn to chase a sail to the southward and eastward. I got under weigh immediately, and steamed with all speed in the direction indicated. After some time, the strange sail could be seen from the Hatteras, and was ascertained to be a steamer, which fact I communicated to the flag-ship by signal. I continued the chase, and rapidly gained upon the suspicious vessel. Knowing the slow rate of speed of the Hatteras, I at once suspected that deception was being practised, and hence ordered the ship to be cleared for action, with everything in readiness for a determined attack and a vigorous defence.<br>
When within about four miles of the vessel, I observed that she had ceased to steam, and was lying broadside and awaiting us. It was nearly seven o’clock, and quite dark; but notwithstanding the obscurity of the night, I felt assured, from the general character of the vessel and her manoeuvres, that I should soon encounter the rebel steamer Alabama. Being able to work but four guns on the side of the Hatteras—two short 32 pounders, one 30 pounder rifled Parrot gun, and one 20 pounder rifled gun,—I concluded to close with her that my guns might be effective, if necessary.<br>
I came within easy speaking range—about seventy-five yards—and upon asking “What steamer is that?” received the answer, “Her Britannic Majesty’s ship Petrel.” I replied that I would send a boat aboard, and immediately gave the order. In the meantime the vessels were changing positions, the stranger endeavouring to gain a desirable position for a raking fire. Almost simultaneously with the piping away of the boat the strange craft again replied, “We are the Confederate steamer Alabama,” which was accompanied with a broadside. I at the same moment returned the fire. Being well aware of the many vulnerable points of the Hatteras, I hoped, by closing with the Alabama, to be able to board her, and thus rid the seas of the piratical craft.<br>
I steamed directly for the Alabama, but she was enabled by her great speed and the foulness of the bottom of the Hatteras, and consequently her diminished speed, to thwart my attempt when I had gained a distance of but thirty yards from her. At this range musket and pistol shots were exchanged. The firing continued with great vigour on both sides. At length a shell entered amidships in the hold, setting fire to it, and at the same instant—as I can hardly divide the time—a shell passed through the sick bay, exploding in an adjoining compartment, also producing fire. Another entered the cylinder, filling the engine-room and deck with steam, and depriving me of my power to manoeuvre the vessel, or to work the pumps, upon which the reduction of the fire depended.<br>
With the vessel on fire in two places, and beyond human power, a hopeless wreck upon the waters, with her walking-beam shot away, and her engine rendered useless, I still maintained an active five, with the double hope of disabling the Alabama and attracting the attention of the fleet off Galveston, which was only twenty-eight miles distant.<br>
It was soon reported to me that the shells had entered the Hatteras at the water-line, tearing off entire sheets of iron, and that the water was rushing in, utterly defying every attempt to remedy the evil, and that she was rapidly sinking. Learning the melancholy truth, and observing that the Alabama was on my port bow, entirely beyond the range of my guns, doubtless preparing for a raking fire of the deck, I felt I had no right to sacrifice uselessly, and without any desirable result, the lives of all under my command.<br>
To prevent the blowing up of the Hatteras from the fire, which was making much progress, I ordered the magazine to be flooded, and afterwards a lee gun was fired. The Alabama then asked if assistance was desired, to which an affirmative answer was given.<br>
The Hatteras was then going down, and in order to save the lives of my officers and men, I caused the armament on the port side to be thrown overboard. Had I not done so, I am confident the vessel would have gone down with many brave hearts and valuable lives. After considerable delay, caused by the report that a steamer was seen coming from Galveston, the Alabama sent us assistance; and I have the pleasure of informing the Department that every living being was conveyed safely from the Hatteras to the Alabama.<br>
Two minutes after leaving the Hatteras, she went down, bow first, with her pennant at the masthead, with all her muskets and stores of every description, the enemy not being able, owing to her rapid sinking, to obtain a single weapon.<br>
The battery upon the Alabama brought into action against the Hatteras numbered nine guns, consisting of six long 32 pounders, one 100 pounder, one 68 pounder, and one 24 pounder rifled gun. The great superiority of the Alabama, with her powerful battery, and her machinery under the water-line, must be at once recognized by the Department, who are familiar with the construction of the Hatteras, and her total unfitness for a conflict with a regular built vessel of war.<br>
The distance between the Hatteras and the Alabama during the action varied from twenty-five to one hundred yards. Nearly fifty shots were fired from the Hatteras, and I presume a greater number from the Alabama.<br>
I desire to refer to the efficient and active manner in which Acting-master Porter, executive officer, performed his duty. The conduct of the Assistant-surgeon, Edward S. Matthews, both during the action and afterwards, in attending to the wounded, demands my unqualified commendation. I would also bring to the favourable notice of the Department Acting-master’s mate McGrath, temporarily performing duty as gunner. Owing to the darkness of the night and the peculiar construction of the Hatteras, I am only able to refer to the conduct of those officers who came under my especial attention; but from the character of the contest, and the amount of damage done to the Alabama, I have personally no reason to believe that any officer failed in his duty.<br>
To the men of the Hatteras I cannot give too much praise. Their enthusiasm and bravery were of the highest order.
I enclose the report of Assistant-surgeon E.S. Matthews, by which you will observe that five men were wounded and two killed. The missing, it is hoped, reached the fleet at Galveston.<br>
I shall communicate to the Department, in a separate report, the movements of myself and my command from the time of our transfer to the Alabama until the departure of the earliest mail from this place to the United States.