Roll, Alabama, Roll
DESCRIPTION: The Alabama is built in Birkenhead by Jonathan Laird. After a long career of commerce-raiding, the Kearsarge catches her off Cherbourg and sinks her
EARLIEST DATE: 1925
KEYWORDS: shanty battle navy Civilwar
May 15, 1862 - Launching of the C.S.S. Alabama
June 19, 1864 - The Alabama sunk by the U.S.S. Kearsarge
FOUND IN: US(MA) New Zealand
REFERENCES (10 citations):
Doerflinger-SongsOfTheSailorAndLumberman, pp. 35-37, "The Alabama" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Colcord-SongsOfAmericanSailormen, p. 65, "Roll, Alabama, Roll" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hugill-ShantiesFromTheSevenSeas, p. 159, "Roll, Alabama, Roll!" (1 text, 1 tune) [AbEd, pp. 126-127]
Palmer-OxfordBookOfSeaSongs 122, "Roll, Alabama, Roll" (1 text, 1 tune)
Kinsey-SongsOfTheSea, pp. 122-123, "The Alabama" (1 text, 1 tune)
Scott-TheBalladOfAmerica, pp. 245-247, "Roll, Alabama, Roll" (1 text, 1 tune)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, pp. 350-351, "The Alabama" (1 text)
Silber-SongsOfTheCivilWar, pp. 252-253, "Roll, Alabama, Roll" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-SoldierSongsAndHomeFrontBalladsOfCivilWar, p. 70, "Roll, Alabama, Roll" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. "Roll the Cotton Down" (tune)
cf. "Mars Forevermore" (form)
NOTES [1027 words]: When the Civil War began, the Confederates had neither navy, nor merchant fleet, nor significant shipbuilding capability; all rested in the hands of the North. Facing economic strangulation, the South explored every avenue to build a fleet. And in their Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory they had perhaps the most creative of all Jefferson Davis's cabinet officers; it is probably not coincidence that Mallory was the only Confederate cabinet officer to serve for the entire existence of the Confederacy
Early in the war, the British were willing to help the Confederates build a navy. One of the ships built for this purpose was the Alabama, a fast commerce-raider. Built by Jonathan Laird, Ltd. at Birkenhead near Liverpool, the Federals protested her building from first to last, but somehow the papers never quite came through in time. (Nevins, pp. 266-267, describes how American Minister to Britain Charles Francis Adams kept bringing new details to the British government about the Alabama. The British government theoretically agreed to try to stop work on the ship, but the local customs inspectors ignored their instructions. Stokesbury, p. 252, describes how Laird kept the whole thing quiet by simply calling the hull "No. 290.")
After the completion of the hull in 1862, the Alabama sailed for the Azores to pick up arms and her Captain, Raphael Semmes (brother of the Confederate General Paul Semmes, killed at Gettysburg), who was the former commander of the raider Sumter and considered "the most distinguished fighter in the Confederate navy" (RandallDonald, p. 450). The crew reportedly "was mostly English and included very few Southerners" (RandallDonald, p. 450).
Paine, p. 12, claims that the Alabama was, in terms of ships seized, the most successful commerce raider of all time; he credits her with destroying 55 ships and capturing ten more which were released on bond. McPhersonCry, p. 547, credits her with 64 victories in her two year career. Jameson, p. 12, lists her tally as "sixty-five vessels and $10,000,000 worth of property." RandallDonald, pp. 450-451, lists her as having taken 62 merchant ships plus the larger navy vessel Hatteras. Catton simply says (p. 386) that she sank more than "threescore ships" while noting (p. 128) that one of her victims was the Alert, the ship in which R. H. Dana served his "Two Years Before the Mast." Boatner, p. 4, claims she took care of 69 ships.
Although she once ran the blockade to enter the Confederate port at Galveston, the Alabama was generally unable to stop at Confederate ports, which were blockade; when she needed repairs in 1864, she stopped at the French port of Cherbourg. An American got off word of her presence there, and the Kearsarge was waiting when the Alabama sailed. Soon after the Alabama crossed the three mile limit, the Kearsarge moved in; the Confederate ship sank some forty minutes later. Her crew was rescued by a British yacht.
According to Pratt, p. 151-152, there wasn't much difference in actual fighting power between the Alabama and the Kearsarge. (Paine, p. 12, lists Alabama with 6 32-pounders plus a 110-pounder and a 68-pounder; she could steam at 13 knots and carried a crew of 148. On p, 285, Paine lists Kearsarge as having two 11" pivot guns and 4 32-pounders; her crew was 160 and her speed 11 knots McPhersonWaters. McPhersonWaters, p. 204 says Alabama had 6 32-pounders, a 68-pound smoothbore, and a 7-inch/110 pound Blakely rifle; the Kearsarge had four 32-pounders, two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, and a 30-pound rifle).
But raw fighting power rarely settles battles. The Kearsarge was a well-drilled ship with properly-trained gunners. Alabama, which constantly had to change bases, could never lay in an adequate supply of powder and shot, so her gunners were much less accurate. Browne-BL, p. 584, declares "The firing of the Alabama was rapid and wild, getting better near the close; that of the Kearsarge was deliberate, accurate, and almost from the beginning productive of dismay, destruction, and death." Of course, Browne was the surgeon of the Kearsarge, so he was biased. But the assessment seems to be true; McPhersonWaters, p. 204, says "The Alabama fired faster but wider, logging 370 shots to the Kearsarge's more disciplined and accurate 173. One of the Alabama's 110-pound rifle shells smashed into the Kearsarge's sternpost -- a potentially fatal shot, but it failed to explode.". And Kearsarge had those two very heavy 11-inch guns -- Dahlgrens were "ship-killers." As a result, Kearsarge was able to score many more damaging hits and destroy her opponent while taking very little damage. Only three men on the Kearsarge were wounded (Browne-BL, p. 585), although one injury proved moral.
Both sides claimed that the other had fired after the Alabama ran up the white flag (Browne-BL, p. 586). But Alabama was already sinking, and only a few shots were fired.
The Alabama was a great success, but few ships followed her. The Americans demands for reparation, known as the "Alabama Claims," caused the British to stop building ships for the Confederacy. In all the claims covered the damage done by eleven ships; the total bill was $19,021,000, largely due to the Alabama, the Shenandoah, $6,488,320; and the Florida, $3,698,609 (according to Boatner, p. 5). The Americans were finally paid in 1873. Boatner, p. 5, says the amount was $15.5 million, which figure is also quoted by Stokesbury, p. 252; Randall/Donald, which devotes half a dozen pages to the neutral tribunal which adjudicated the claims, says that the figure was $1,929,819 in gold; I suspect some of the discrepancy lies in conversion rates.
According to Delgado, p. 122, the wreck of the Alabama was found off Cherbourg in 1984, and some artifacts have been recovered.- RBW
For a broadside on the same subject see
LOCSinging, as112570, "The Sinking of the Pirate Alabama," J. Magee (Philadelphia), 1864; also hc00026b, "The Sinking of the Pirate Alabama"; cw103190, "Kearsarge and Alabama"
attributed to Silas S. Steele, "Tune: 'Teddy the Tiler,' or 'Cannibal Islands.'" - BS
Last updated in version 6.0
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- Browne-BL: John M. Browne, "For God's sake, do what you can to save them!" article in Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson, editors, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, four volumes, 1888. For convenience of transport, I used the version of the article printed in the abbreviated one-volume edition "edited" (read: hacked down almost to uselessness) by Ned Bradford, 1956; page references are to the 1979 Fairfax Press edition.
- Catton: Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (being the third volume of The Centennial History of the Civil War), Doubleday, 1965 (I use the 1976 Pocket Books edition)
- Delgado: James P. Delgado, Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea, Checkmark, 2001
- Hendrick: Burton J. Hendrick, Statesmen of the Lost Cause: Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet, Literary Guild of America, 1939
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson's Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- McPhersonCry: James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (The Oxford History of the United States: The Civil War Era; Oxford, 1988)
- McPhersonWaters: James M. McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, University of North Carolina Press, 2012
- Nevins: Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: War Becomes Revolution 1862-1863 [volume VI of The Ordeal of the Union], Scribners, 1960
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
- Randall/Donald: J. G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction, second edition by David Donald, Heath, 1961
- Stokesbury: James L. Stokesbury, Navy & Empire, Morrow, 1983
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