January 11, 1863 – The famed Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama engaged Federal warships trying to reinstate the blockade of Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico.
After losing Galveston to the Confederates on New Year’s Day, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut sent the U.S.S. Brooklyn and five gunboats under Commodore Henry H. Bell to try taking the port city back with a naval bombardment. Farragut told Bell, “The moral effect must be terrible if we don’t take it again. May God grant you success for your own sake and the honor of the Navy.”
During this time, the C.S.S. Alabama under Captain Raphael Semmes was headed to Galveston. Semmes learned from a New York newspaper aboard a captured Federal vessel that an army-navy expedition was also headed for the port city, and he hoped to destroy as many transports as possible before the Federals could catch him.
As Semmes approached, he realized the story had been false. Seeing the Federal warships off Galveston, he tried luring one out into the open sea to do battle. He raised a British flag, making the Alabama appear to the Federals to be a blockade runner. When the Confederate ship came within sight late on the afternoon of the 11th, Lieutenant Commander Homer C. Blake received orders to investigate. He commanded the U.S.S. Hatteras, a side-wheel ferryboat fitted with five guns.
Semmes lured the Hatteras out about 20 miles offshore, where Blake hailed, “What Ship is That?” The Alabama’s crew replied, “Her Majesty’s Steamer Petrel.” As Federal crewmen dropped a boat to row over, the Confederates quickly raised their colors and fired a broadside into the Hatteras. The shocked Federals tried to fight back, but despite the Hatteras’s size advantage, the Alabama had superior firepower and the element of surprise.
The fight ended after just 13 minutes, when the Federals raised the white flag. The Hatteras sank six minutes later, with two Federals killed and five wounded. Semmes rescued the remaining 121 crewmen and hurried off before the remaining Federal vessels could catch him. The Federals in the rowboat returned to shore to report what happened. The Alabama headed for Jamaica, where Semmes later released the prisoners.
This was a rare naval battle between two warships, and it marked the first time in the war that a steam powered vessel sank another steam powered vessel in the open sea. A Federal naval court of inquiry later concluded that Blake’s conduct had been “commendable and proper” during the engagement.
Farragut reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “It becomes my painful duty to report still another disaster off Galveston.” By the time Commodore Bell regrouped his fleet, the Confederates had fortified Galveston enough to make the city invulnerable to a naval bombardment. The Confederates held Galveston for the rest of the war, but the Federals were now more determined than ever to seek and destroy the dangerous Alabama.
Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 350; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 255; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 125; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 253; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 310-11; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 129-30; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 142