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Confederate Navy's New Historical Site Is in England

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This past week, the Civil War Preservation Trust designated a new historical site — in England. The shipyards there supplied the Confederate Navy with some of its ships, including the CSS Alabama. Edwin Bearss the Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service, talks with Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The Civil War Preservation Trust has designated a new historical site, and no, it's not in Virginia, not in Maryland. To get to this landmark you'll need a passport and a plane ticket. It's in Wirral County, England, the maritime area on the river Mersey between Liverpool and Birkenhead. These old ship building docks played a little known role in the battle between American's North and South. Edwin Bearss, the Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service, explained why this site, 4,000 miles from U.S. shores, has been included in the Civil War Discovery Trail.

Mr. EDWIN BEARSS (Chief Historian Emeritus, National Park Service): The Civil War was fought at sea as well as at land. And the Confederates, lacking the capabilities to build a Navy, will outfit commerce raiders in Great Britain, among other places, the most prominent being in Great Britain, in Liverpool, where they built one ship, the commerce raider Florida, and in Birkenhead, where they built the most famous of the Confederate raiders, Alabama.

SEABROOK: The CSS Alabama.

Mr. BEARSS: Yes.

SEABROOK: I know many songs about the Alabama.

Mr. BEARSS: Yeah. There's a couple of chantey. One of them goes, Roll Alabama, roll...

SEABROOK: (Singing) Roll, Alabama, roll.

Mr. BEARSS: Built in the yard of Jonathan Laird(ph), though his name was John, but I guess it rhymes better in a chantey to make him Jonathan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEARSS: Alabama is then commissioned as a Confederate warship, puts out, and on the fifth day of September, actually when Lee's army is crossing the Potomac River for their invasion of Maryland, Alabama captures their first ship, a whaler named Oakmulgee, off the Azore Islands.

After she leaves the Azores, she cruises to the north Atlantic off the east coast of the United States, enters the Gulf of Mexico, and in the third week of 1863, when she is four months old, off Galveston she will have her only engagement, in which she sinks the USS side-wheel warship Hatteras.

Then it's back into the Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil, to Bahia, to the south Atlantic, to a lay-up for repairs in Cape Town, then across the Indian Ocean, bringing dismay, controversy and destruction to the Union United States Merchant Marine. Then into the Java Sea, through the straits of Malaya, to the only place a picture is taken of her as she's anchored in Singapore, across the Bay of Bengal, back across the Indian Ocean. And finally, in early June, needing serious repairs, she puts into Cherbourg, France.

During this period, she has destroyed 60 United States merchant ships, bonded others, and the United States Merchant Marine will be years ever recovering.

SEABROOK: The Alabama lasted three months shy of two years, yet she's known as one of the great raiders. How did she get destroyed?

Mr. BEARSS: From the long months at sea, the powder aboard Alabama has deteriorated.

SEABROOK: The gunpowder.

Mr. BEARSS: So at about seven miles offshore, as a French warship stands by to make sure that no shots are exchanged within French territorial waters, Alabama comes out. Kearsarge approaches, and the famous battle between Alabama and Kearsarge take place, in which they sail in circles, firing broadsides at each other as they move from northeast to southwest.

Early, it looks like Alabama may win. People visiting the naval museum here in Washington can go down there and see the stern post of Kearsarge, and you can see a projectile from, as the "Roll Alabama" chantey go, will strike her in her stern's post. But it's a dud, or the battle would've probably been different and Kearsarge would've gone down. But after about less than two hours, she is going to sink.

SEABROOK: Mr. Bearss, thank you so much.

Mr. BEARSS: Okay, thank you. It was a pleasure to be with you to talk about something I love and am very enthusiastic - see, I'm one of these people that, if I was a millionaire, I would be doing what I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEARSS: My avocation and vocation are the same.

SEABROOK: It is our honor to have you here, sir. Thank you.

Mr. BEARSS: Thank you.

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