For most Civil War enthusiasts, the predominant images are of land battles. If much thought is given to naval conflicts, probably the battle of the ironclads comes first to mind.
One of the rare ship-to-ship duels of the Civil War occurred off the coast of Galveston, Texas on this date of January 11, 1863. Galveston had at this time been recaptured by the South from Federal control, so the U.S.S. Hatteras was part of a fleet on blockade duty. Coming out to investigate a ship off the coast, the crew was certainly shocked to run into the Confederate raider C.S.S. Alabama. In a short nighttime duel, the superior guns of the Alabama made rather quick work of the Hatteras.
The Alabama was a very successful Confederate vessel over its two-year career. It was launched from Liverpool and commissioned in international waters in August of 1862 under the command of Raphael Semmes. Though the boat would never anchor in a Southern port, she captured or burned 65 Union ships, inflicting $6,000,000 in damage, without any loss of life upon merchant crews. However, the Alabama would meet her end on the 19th of June, 1864 off Cherbourg, France, where the U.S.S. Kearsarge would send it to the bottom.
Regarding the fight from 150 years ago today, here are some excerpts from the book Two Years on the Alabama by Arthur Sinclair.
Very soon the smoke from the stack of one of the steamers apprised us that she was getting under way, and soon she was bowling along, steering right for us. We had been under sail all the while. At once the fires are stirred, the propeller lowered, and the ship’s head put off shore … it is evident that the whole fleet is preparing to get under way … it was necessary to get the enemy now approaching as far from the rest of the fleet as possible, and also to allow night to set in before engaging him. We succeed in putting about fifteen miles between us and the fleet, then with canvas furled, steam by this time being sufficient, the engines are stopped, and with officers and men at quarters we await the result. It is now dark, the enemy being but indistinctly seen. Many are the conjectures as to his strength and class, and opinions as to whether the rest of the fleet is on its way out. The consensus of opinion is emphatic that what we do must be done quickly, and that the captain ought to lay us alongside her, if she does not prove too heavy.
The enemy has now come up. We have been standing in shore while awaiting her, but now our head is turned off shore again. Then comes the hail, “What ship is that?”
“This is her Britannic Majesty’s steamer Petrel” is the reply. The two vessels are now nearly motionless, and both of course at quarters. Our men are wild with excitement and expectation. In the darkness it is impossible to make out her class except that she is a side-wheeler. Our crew have lock-strings in hand, keeping the guns trained on her, and awaiting the command to fire. The two vessels are so near that conversation in ordinary tones can be easily heard from one to the other. For a time the Hatteras people seem to be consulting. Finally they hailed again, “If you please, we will send a boat on board of you” to which our executive officer replied, “Certainly, we shall be pleased to receive your boat.”
The boat was soon lowered from the davits and began pulling toward us. All occasion for subterfuge being now at an end, word was immediately passed to the divisions that the signal to fire would be “Alabama.” When the boat was about half-way between the two vessels, Lieut. Kell hailed, “This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama!” The last word had barely passed his lips when sky and water are lighted up by the flash of our broadside, instantly followed as it seemed by that of the enemy. A running fight was now kept up, the Alabama fighting her starboard, and the Hatteras her port battery, both vessels gathering headway rapidly. Never did a crew handle a battery more deftly than ours. About six broadsides were fired by us. The enemy replied irregularly, and the action only lasted thirteen minutes. It was evident to us from the trifling nature of the wounds to our hull and rigging that the Hatteras was being whipped. A crash amongst her machinery soon settled the business. Then she fired a lee gun, and we heard the quick, sharp hail of surrender, accompanied by the request that our boats be sent to her immediately, as she was sinking. The whole thing had passed so quickly that it seemed to us like a dream. …
… This is probably one of the quickest naval duels on record. But it was none too quick for our safety; for as we laid our course their lights were to be plainly seen coming up rapidly in our wake. But there was now no danger, for the Alabama was at that time more than a match in speed for any vessel in the admiral’s fleet.
The Alabama made way for Kingston, Jamaica, where 10 days later the Federal crew was deposited.
We found our prisoner officers a rather jolly set; and the time passed very pleasantly, barring the villainous weather. Porter, the Hatteras’ executive officer, seemed to take quite a fancy to me, having known my father intimately. He would keep nearly all my watches with me, pacing the deck and talking of old times. I did everything possible to cheer and reassure him, giving his officers and crew full credit for doing all they could under the circumstances, having to contend against a ship much more powerful …