- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

Raphael Semmes was spoiling for a fight.

His orders as commander of the Confederate cruiser Alabama directed him to target the Federal merchant marine and avoid combat with enemy warships. In the five months that the Alabama had been at sea, he had adhered faithfully to those orders while burning or bonding 26 Federal merchantmen. But he had promised his sailors action, and off Galveston, Texas, in the early days of 1863, he planned to deliver on that promise.

From newspapers found on Alabama’s prizes, Semmes knew that a Federal amphibious operation under Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks was preparing to capture Galveston. He hoped to disrupt that operation. But when, on Jan. 11, Semmes’ lookout spied land, he reported no merchant fleet such as would have carried Banks’ army.

Instead, the Confederates discovered five enemy warships. Semmes could hardly take on five such ships, but the Federals solved his problem for him. The Alabama’s lookout reported that one of the Federal steamers was coming out.

Commodore Henry H. Bell commanded the Federal squadron off Galveston. Upon seeing the Alabama offshore, Bell signaled one of his ships, Hatteras, to check it out.

The Hatteras, an iron-hulled side-wheeler, had been a passenger vessel on the Delaware River before the war, and in the first year of the war had enjoyed some success against Confederate blockade runners.

Now, however, maintenance problems had cut its top speed to 7 or 8 knots. Still more ominous, its armament — four 32-pounders, two 30-pounders, and a 20-pound howitzer — was far inferior to that of the Alabama.

At about 3:30 p.m. Cmdr. Homer Blake of the Hatteras acknowledged Bell’s signal and headed into the gulf. After more than an hour’s steaming, one of his officers told Blake that the strange sail looked like the Alabama’s.

The prospect of engaging a heavier foe was not inviting, yet it presented an opportunity of sorts. Hatteras could not be expected to defeat the Confederate raider, but it might damage it sufficiently to allow Semmes to be taken by other vessels of Bell’s squadron.

Semmes turned his ship about, lowered the propeller and moved slowly into the gulf. He was in complete control of the situation, for if the ship pursuing him proved too powerful for the Alabama, he could still outrun it. Blake, on his part, was not fooled by the stranger’s seeming nonchalance; he signaled to Bell that the intruder was a steamer and cleared his ship for action.

At about 7 p.m., after darkness had fallen, Hatteras hailed the stranger, asking its identity. Semmes, falling back on a time-honored ruse, identified his ship as a British steamer, Petrel. Blake replied that he would send a boat, and soon the creak of tackle could be heard across the water.

The Federal gig had scarcely begun to pull toward the Alabama when Semmes turned to his executive officer, John Kell, and asked if he was ready for action. Kell replied that he was and called out through his trumpet, “This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama!”

With that, Semmes gave the order to open fire. The two ships lay only about 100 yards apart, and the Federal response was immediate. Alabama was firing its starboard guns, Hatteras its port batteries. As the two vessels exchanged fire, the distance between them narrowed so that at one point it was less than 50 yards.

In the words of one Confederate officer, “It was a grand though fearful sight to see the guns belching forth, in the darkness of the night, sheets of living flame.”

Semmes’ command post was the horse block, a raised platform on the quarterdeck. Most of Hatteras’ fire was toward Alabama’s stern, and one of Semmes’ officers was impressed with his captain’s poise. “As [shots] came whizzing over him, he with his usual coolness would exclaim, ‘Give it to the rascals’; ‘Aim low men’; ‘Don’t be all night sinking that fellow.’ ”

After perhaps seven minutes, a shell from Alabama’s forward pivot entered Hatteras at the waterline, exploding in the sick bay. A 32-pounder struck the walking beam, knocking the engine out of line and causing it to vibrate badly. Still another disabled the engine, releasing so much steam that the pumps became inoperable and the engineers had to evacuate the engine room.

In Galveston, the Federals could see the flash of guns, followed by the sound of heavy weapons. Commodore Bell belatedly suspected that the Hatteras was in over its depth and went to its rescue in his flagship, Brooklyn.

He was too late. On Hatteras, Blake made a half-hearted attempt to turn toward the Alabama and board the raider, but Semmes pulled away and prepared to rake his antagonist yet again. Blake had had enough. With his ship settling and fire threatening the magazines, he ordered them flooded and fired a lee gun in token of surrender.

There was no immediate response from the victor. Then a voice from the darkness offered assistance, and boats from both vessels began ferrying prisoners to the raider. On the deck of Alabama, Blake offered Semmes his sword. Thereupon Semmes, in a gesture that went beyond normal protocol, invited Blake to use his own cabin.

Ten minutes after the last survivors were rescued, Hatteras went down by the bow. At daybreak, the Brooklyn would spy its mast, pennant still flying, protruding from the shallow gulf waters.

By Semmes’ reckoning, the entire action had lasted just 13 minutes. Casualties on both sides were light; the Confederates had only one man wounded, while the Federals, despite the punishment they had taken, had just two killed and five wounded.

The engagement could hardly have gone better for Semmes. He had wanted some action for his crew, and the enemy had obligingly supplied a large but inferior vessel. The Alabama had been struck seven times but had suffered no significant damage. Semmes conceded “a great disparity in weight of metal in our favor” but insisted that by fighting at close range, he had made his opponent’s smaller guns almost as potent as his own.

Whatever the disparity between the vessels, the engagement between Alabama and Hatteras was something of a milestone. For the first time, a steam warship had been sunk by another steam warship. In defiance of landsmen’s logic, a duel between a wooden ship and an iron vessel of the same size had resulted in a quick victory for the wooden vessel. Raphael Semmes had defeated a Federal warship in single combat, a feat that no other Confederate captain would match.

Semmes headed back into the gulf, his ship crowded with prisoners whom he would discharge at Jamaica. He then resumed the commerce raiding that made Alabama the most destructive Confederate raider of the Civil War.

More than a year later, off the French coast, Semmes would make the mistake of challenging a Federal warship whose advantage over the Alabama was as large as the Alabama’s had been over Hatteras. This time it would be Semmes who required rescue, from the chill waters of the English Channel.

John M. Taylor’s books include “Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama.”

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