|Admiral Raphael Semmes|
[Editor’s note: Excerpted from Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States by Admiral Raphael Semmes, Baltimore, Md., 1869]
In the interval between our leaving the West Indies, and arriving off Galveston, this city had been retaken by General Magruder, assisted by a gallant seaman of the merchant service, Captain Leon Smith. Smith, with a couple of small river steamers, protected by cotton bags, and having a number of sharp-shooters on board, assaulted and captured, or drove to sea the enemy’s entire fleet, consisting of several heavily armed steamships.
What was best to be done in this changed condition of affairs? I certainly had not come all the way into the Gulf of Mexico, to fight five ships of war, the least of which was probably my equal. And yet, how could I very well run away, in the face of the promises I had given my crew? for I had told them at the Arcas islands, that they were, if the fates proved propitious, to have some sport off Galveston. Whilst I was pondering the difficulty, the enemy himself, happily, came to my relief; for pretty soon the look-out again called from aloft, and said, “One of the steamers, sir, is coming out in chase of us.” The Alabama had given chase pretty often, but this was the first time she had been chased. It was just the thing I wanted, however, for I at once conceived the design of drawing this single ship of the enemy far enough away from the remainder of her fleet, to enable me to decide a battle with her before her consorts could come to her relief.
At length, when I judged that I had drawn the stranger out about twenty miles from his fleet, I furled my sails, beat to quarters, prepared my ship for action, and wheeled to meet him. The two ships now approached each other, very rapidly. As we came within speaking distance, we simultaneously stopped our engines, the ships being about one hundred yards apart. The enemy was the first to hail. “What ship is that?” cried he. “This is her Britannic Majesty’s steamer Petrel,” we replied. We now hailed in turn, and demanded to know who he was. The reply not coming to us very distinctly, we repeated our question, when we heard the words,“This is the United States ship ——” the name of the ship being lost to us. But we had heard enough. All we wanted to know was, that the stranger was a United States ship, and therefore our enemy. A pause now ensued—a rather awkward pause, as the reader may suppose. Presently, the stranger hailed again, and said, “If you please, I will send a boat on board of you.” His object was, of course, to verify or discredit the answer we had given him, that we were one of her Britannic Majesty’s cruisers. We replied, “Certainly, we shall be happy to receive your boat;” and we heard a boatswain’s mate call away a boat, and could hear the creaking of the tackles, as she was lowered into the water.
|The USS Hatteras, right, beginning to sink following its classic sea battle|
with the CSS Alabama off Galveston, January 11, 1863.
(US Naval Historical Center)
Things were now come to a crisis, and it being useless to delay our engagement with the enemy any longer, I turned to my first lieutenant, and said, “I suppose you are all ready for action?” “We are,” he replied; “the men are eager to begin, and are only waiting for the word.” I then said to him, “Tell the enemy who we are, for we must not strike him in disguise, and when you have done so, give him the broadside.” Kell now sang out, in his powerful, clarion voice, through his trumpet, “This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama!” and turning to the crew, who were all standing at their guns—the gunners with their sights on the enemy, and lock-strings in hand—gave the order, fire! Away went the broadside in an instant, our little ship feeling, perceptibly, the recoil of her guns. The night was clear. There was no moon, but sufficient star-light to enable the two ships to see each other quite distinctly, at the distance of half a mile, or more, and a state of the atmosphere highly favorable to the conduct of sound. The wind, besides, was blowing in the direction of the enemy’s fleet. As a matter of course, our guns awakened the echoes of the coast, far and near, announcing very distinctly to the Federal Admiral—Bell, a Southern man, who had gone over to the enemy—that the ship which he had sent out to chase the strange sail, had a fight on her hands. He immediately, as we afterward learned, got under way, with theBrooklyn, his flag-ship, and two others of his steamers, and came out to the rescue.
Our broadside was returned instantly; the enemy, like ourselves, having been on his guard, with his men standing at their guns. The two ships, when the action commenced, had swerved in such a way, that they were now heading in the same direction—the Alabama fighting her starboard-broadside, and her antagonist her port-broadside. Each ship, as she delivered her broadside, put herself under steam, and the action became a running fight, in parallel lines, or nearly so, the ships now nearing, and now separating a little from each other. My men handled their pieces with great spirit and commendable coolness, and the action was sharp and exciting while it lasted; which, however, was not very long, for in just thirteen minutes after firing the first gun, the enemy hoisted a light, and fired an off-gun, as a signal that he had been beaten. We at once withheld our fire, and such a cheer went up from the brazen throats of my fellows, as must have astonished even a Texan, if he had heard it. We now steamed up quite close to the beaten steamer, and asked her captain, formally, if he had surrendered. He replied that he had. I then inquired if he was in want of assistance, to which he responded promptly that he was, that his ship was sinking rapidly, and that he needed all our boats. There appeared to be much confusion on board the enemy’s ship; officers and crew seemed to be apprehensive that we would permit them to drown, and several voices cried aloud to us for assistance, at the same time. When the captain of the beaten ship came on board to surrender his sword to me, I learned that I had been engaged with the United States steamer Hatteras, Captain [H.C.] Blake.
There was very little said by the enemy, about this engagement, between the Alabama and the Hatteras, as was usual with him when he met with a disaster; and what was said was all false. My own ship was represented to be a monster of speed and strength, and the Hatteras, on the other hand, to be a tug, or river steamer, or some such craft, with two or three small guns at the most. The facts are as follows: The Hatteras was a larger ship than the Alabama, by one hundred tons. Her armament, as reported to us by her own people, was as follows: Four 32-pounders; two Parrot 30-pounder rifles; one 20-pounder rifle; and one 12-pounder howitzer—making a total of eight guns. The armament of the Alabama was as follows: Six 32-pounders; one 8-inch shell gun; one Blakeley rifle of 100 pounds—total, eight guns. There was, besides, a little toy-rifle—a 9-pounder—on the quarter-deck of the Alabama, which had been captured from a merchant-ship, and which, I believe, was fired once during the action. The crew of the Hatteras was 108 strong; that of the Alabama110. There was thus, as the reader sees, a considerable disparity between the two ships, in the weight of their pivot-guns, and the Alabama ought to have won the fight; and she did win it, in thirteen minutes—taking care, too, though she sank her enemy at night, to see that none of his men were drowned—a fact which I shall have occasion to contrast, by-and-by, with another sinking. The only casualty we had on board the Alabama was one man wounded. The damages to our hull were so slight, that there was not a shot-hole which it was necessary to plug, to enable us to continue our cruise; nor was there a rope to be spliced. Blake behaved like a man of courage, and made the best fight he could, ill supported as he was by the “volunteer” officers by whom he was surrounded, but he fell into disgrace with the Demos, and had but little opportunity shown him during the remainder of the war, to retrieve his disaster.[Editor's note: The casualties on both sides were amazingly light. The Hatteras had two men killed and five wounded. As Admiral Semmes noted, only one man was slightly wounded on the Alabama.]