CSS Alabama cannon at Lasch lab

Saturday, August 12, 2000

By SCHUYLER KROPF Of The Post and Courier staff

The prestige of the Hunley conservation lab has taken off like a cannon shot. On Friday, one of six heavy guns from the sunken rebel raider CSS Alabama - the most feared ship of the Confederate navy - arrived at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston to be cleaned up.

The addition means two of the South's three most-famous ships are now represented at the lab. Nothing much remains of the third: the ironclad Virginia (Merrimac), w hich was blown to bits to prevent capture. The 5-ton, 8-foot cannon arrived via the Port of Charleston in a container ship from Cherbourg, France.
Perhaps the biggest news is that the gun bears an 1862 manufacturer's label from the Fawcett Preston & Co. foundry of Liverpool, England - further proof of England's complicity with the South during the War Between the States.

Although a Southern ship, the Alabama was built in England, and although they tried to mask it, her designers knew her sole purpose would be to destroy U.S. shipping around the globe.

"The Alabama was a commerce raider," Hunley conservation team member Shea McLean said Friday at the lab inside the old Charleston Naval Shipyard. "To many people, especially in the North, it was a pirate ship." "She was the Bismarck of her day," he added, referring to the World War II German battleship.
She also met a similar fate. In June 1864, the Alabama was sunk off Cherbourg following its famous English Channel duel with the Union ship Kearsarge.
Still, the Alabama's story as a raider is an international one, illustrating that the Civil War wasn't confined to North America. Her officers, including her captain, Raphael Semmes, were mostly Southerners, while her crew were whatever seamen she could find willing to take the risks of being a raider. They spoke a variety of tongues.
The Alabama preyed on U.S. ships as far away as the Asian Pacific, sinking or capturing more than 60 vessels. But her demise came in June 1864 off the shore of France, where she had run seeking repairs from years at sea. Trapped in Cherbourg, the Alabama suddenly left port to engage the Kearsarge, which outgunned her and quickly sent her to the bottom. French tourists watched the battle from shore.
The cannon that arrived in North Charleston on Friday, known as a 32- pounder for the size ball it fired, was recovered in June during a cooperative dive mission between France and the United States, said Hunley project manager Dr. Bob Neyland.
Also taking part was Dr. Gordon Watts, who discovered the wreck of the ironclad USS Monitor off North Carolina.
A gun just like the Alabama's cannon was recovered earlier, but it had no English markings on it, so divers thought it was part of England's semi-quiet conspiracy to help the South.
"We really expected to find no evidence of anything English on these guns," McLean said. "These guns were made especially for the Alabama."
England's complicity cost it dearly. Six years after the war, the United States sued England and the Geneva Tribunal of Arbitration ruled that Great Britain had failed in its obligation of neutrality by aiding the rebel navy. It was ordered to pay $15.5 million for worldwide Union ship losses inflicted by the Alabama and other vessels.
The cannon will be kept in its own restoration tank - separate from the H.L. Hunley tank - for treatment of years of encrustation accumulated 200 feet down in the English Channel.
When the work is done, the gun will be transferred to the state of Alabama.
Other Alabama relics that arrived Friday include eating plates, a porthole, a scupper and a sealed wooden box. Its contents aren't known. Meanwhile, plans are in the works to open the lab for public viewing of the H.L. Hunley while it is being restored.

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