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CSS Tuscaloosa

Robert B. Kane, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base
During the American Civil War, the Confederate Navy named two warships after the city of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. The first was an American bark (or barque), a sailing ship with at least three masts, with square-rigged foremasts and the aftermast rigged fore-and-aft that was captured by the CSS Alabama in mid-1863 and converted into a commerce raider. The second ship was an unfinished ironclad that the Confederate Navy used as a floating battery in the river mouths of the upper Mobile Bay area and was scuttled at the end of the war to prevent it from falling to Union forces.
CSS Alabama
The first CSS Tuscaloosa began its maritime career as the American merchant ship Conrad out of Philadelphia. On June 20, 1863, during a mission known as the "South Atlantic Expeditionary Raid," Capt. Raphael Semmes and his Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama captured the Conrad carrying a cargo of wool and goat skins off the Brazilian coast as it sailed from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York. Because of the vessel's speed, Semmes commissioned it the next day as the CSS Tuscaloosa and employed it as a both a cruiser and support tender for the Alabama. He may have done so as a way to avoid violating contemporary maritime law, which prevented warships from bringing captured prizes into neutral waters. Semmes armed the ship with three brass 12-pounder cannons along with rifles, pistols, and ammunition and provisions for a three-month cruise. He appointed Lt. John Low as captain and assigned 15 men from the Alabama's crew to the newly commissioned CSS Tuscaloosa.
Semmes then instructed Low to sail down the west coast of Africa toward the Cape of Good Hope. On July 31, Low and his men captured the Union merchant ship Santee carrying a shipment of rice. On August 8, Low entered Simon's Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, where British officials allowed him to refit and provision the Tuscaloosa, despite Britain's strict neutrality policy. Seven days later, Low left for a 90-day cruise during which he stopped at Angra Pequena, Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), to unload the ship's cargo of wool and goat skins. After crossing the South Atlantic, Low sailed into Santa Catarina in southern Brazil on November 19 to purchase supplies, but Brazilian officials refused the request and directed him to leave before sundown. By December 26, Low had returned to Simon's Bay, where British officials seized the Tuscaloosa, intending to hold the vessel until the original owners could reclaim it. Low and his crew left the ship, and an officer and several sailors from the HMS Narcissus took control. Neither the ship's original owners nor Confederate agents ever reclaimed the vessel, so British authorities released it to the U.S. Consul in March 1864. The Consul, in turn, gave the vessel to the Union Navy.
Selma Naval Foundry
The second CSS Tuscaloosa was a propeller-driven ironclad ram built by the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry at Selma, Dallas County, in 1862. The vessel was 152 feet long and 34 feet wide (beam) and sat eight feet (draft) in the water; it was protected by four inches of armor plating manufactured by the Shelby Iron Works of Shelby, Shelby County, and the Atlanta Rolling Mill (just east of present-day downtown Atlanta). It was temporarily armed with two 42-pound and two 32-pound smoothbore cannons, which the Confederate Navy replaced with four of the more modern 7-inch Brooke rifles. Launched at Selma on February 7, 1863, on the same day as the CSS Huntsville, the ship sailed down the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers to Mobile, Mobile County, at a speed of only three miles per hour (2.5 knots), owing to the underpowered engine. The ship made a trial run in April 1863, was fitted with armor and its permanent guns, and received its crew at Mobile; it was commissioned in the fall under the command of Charles H. McBlair. Owing to its lack of maneuverability, the Tuscaloosa, like the Huntsville, served mainly as a floating battery in the waters around Mobile, blocking and protecting the river entrances of the upper bay.
Battle of Mobile Bay
Following the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, the Tuscaloosa and the CSS Huntsville escaped up the Spanish River. Although Union forces controlled most of the bay, the city of Mobile and the upper bay remained under Confederate control for eight more months. Between March 27 and April 9, 1865, Union forces successively laid siege to Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley on the eastern shore of the Tensaw River in the upper bay. The Confederate gunboats Huntsville, Nashville, and Morgan provided gunnery support for the Confederate defenders, but Confederate battle reports do not mention the Tuscaloosa, which may indicate that it was not operational at the time of these battles.
Immediately after Mobile surrendered on April 12, 1865, the Huntsville and the Tuscaloosa were scuttled in the Spanish River just off the north side of Blakeley Island to prevent them from falling into Union hands. The commander of Confederate naval forces in Mobile Bay was unable to save them because he had no boats available to tow them to safety and their engines were too weak to travel upriver against the current under their own power.
In December 1983, Sydney Schell, a retired maritime lawyer, found the wrecks of the Huntsville and Tuscaloosa buried in 15 to 20 feet of mud within 200 feet of each other at the site where the Confederates had scuttled the two ships. He reported to the Mobile Press-Register, in an interview in February 1989, that both ships were in excellent condition, although the Tuscaloosa had split into two pieces. He estimated that it would cost between $15 and $20 million to raise and preserve the ships and build an interpretive center to house them. In spring 2005, a group of Tuscaloosa residents banded together to raise money to fund a feasibility study to determine if the Tuscaloosa could be raised and restored as a museum but there are no current projects to raise it.
Additional Resources
Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996.
Semmes, Raphael. The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter. 1864. Reprint. Scituate, Mass.: Digital Scanning, Inc., 2002.
Still, William N., Jr. Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971
Published:  April 9, 2015   |   Last updated:  January 28, 2016