The American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine

Captain's sword, CSS Alabama

Made by W Walscheid of Solingen, Germany, 1864

Object number T: 12901
Bequeathed by Gracie Fields

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Captain's sword, CSS Alabama

This sword is inscribed on one side ‘Captn Raphael Semmes' and on the other ‘Steamer Alabama CSN, 1864'.

The Confederate States Ship Alabama was built by John Laird at Birkenhead. It was funded by Liverpool cotton merchants in order to support the southern Confederate states and protect cotton exports during the American Civil War. During construction, she was disguised as a merchant ship to deceive the British government, who had made it illegal to provide weapons and personnel for any foreign power at war. In August 1862, Captain Raphael Semmes took command of the Alabama. For nearly two years she sailed all over the world, putting out of action a total of 69 Union ships, at a cost to the northern states of $6m.

The closest the Alabama ever got to the Confederate states was in January 1863, when she sank the USS Hatteras, during the bombardment of the town of Galveston in Texas. On board was a young Rochdale man named Bell, who documented the event in a letter published in the Rochdale Observer. There was anger in the northern states that Confederate warships were being built in Britain with British money, arms and crew. The Americans accused the British government of allowing the Alabama to sail. Rochdale politicians John Bright and Richard Cobden used their considerable influence with President Lincoln to persuade the US government that it had been a mistake and not a deliberate act of provocation.

The CSS Alabama was finally sunk in June 1864, outside the French port of Cherbourg. The sword may have been presented to Captain Semmes during his stay in Europe following the loss of the Alabama.

This information was provided by curators from Touchstones Rochdale.