Manet and the ACW – 3: Captain Semmes and the CSS Alabama

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Continuing from posts 1 here and 2 here, in this post I begin to examine what authors Juliet Wilson-Bareau and David C. Degener in their book Manet and the American Civil War call “one of the most celebrated naval battles of the American Civil War.”

Queen Victoria 1861

The authors adeptly set the scene by providing the reasons why an American Civil War naval battle would take place in European waters and capture the imagination of artist Edouard Manet. They chronicle the debate that led to “Lincoln’s blockade” of the south contending that the very word “blockade” ultimately gave the “Confederate organization” the status of a “quasi government” which would have “a position among nations.” [i] This ultimately led to both Queen Victoria (see bio here) of Great Britain (May 13, 1861) and Emperor Napoleon III of France (June 11, 1861) declaring the neutrality of their respective countries. “The evolving rules and policies of neutrality would eventually play a large role in determining the circumstances under which, in June 1864, U.S.S. Kearsarge – a ship originally built to enforce Lincoln’s blockade – engaged and sank the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of France…” [ii]

CSS Alabama Captain, Raphael Semmes

Captain Raphael Semmes on the CSS Alabama

Captain Semmes on the deck of the CSS Alabama

The Alabama, a six screw steamer, was built in Great Britain by John Laird Sons and Company and found its way into Confederate hands because the “British customs agents, port authorities, prosecutors, judges, and courts found ways of understanding England’s Foreign Enlistment Act and the Queen’s declaration of neutrality.” [iii] Enacted during the reign of George III, the Act “prohibited the outfitting of, or aid to, vessels that would be used to commit hostilities against a nation with which England was not currently at war.” [iv} But in a clandestine series of events surrounding the vessels shake down cruise, the ship, known initially as simply No. 290, was acquired by Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch (1823 - 1901) [a fascinating fellow who deserves a post of his own] who saw it supplied and crewed sufficiently to sail to the Azores where its new captain, Southern “son” Raphael Semmes (1809 – 1877), would christen it the CSS Alabama on August 24, 1862. The “enterprising” and “abrasive” Semmes would become a celebrity for his raiding of Federal ships. His exploits would be enthusiastically covered by the London media, indicative of Great Britain’s sympathy for the “Confederate cause for almost the entire duration of the American Civil War.” [v]

"The Pirate 'Alabama,' Alias '290,' Certified to be correct by Captain Hagar of the 'Brilliant'"

[i - v] Juliet Wilson-Bareau with David C. Degener, Manet and the American Civil War, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

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Manet and the American Civil War – 1

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A recently received a gift of a book that I am thrilled to add to my library. It is, Manet and the American Civil War published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [which I had the opportunity to visit for the first time this year], and Yale University Press. It is co-authored by Juliet Wilson-Bareau, “an independent art historian based in London” and David C. Degener, an independent researcher based in San Francisco.

The Battle of U.S.S Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama

Click on image to be directed to my bookshelf listing.

 Manet and the American Civil War

  • Published on: 2003-06-10
  • Publisher: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Yale University Press, New Haven and London
  • ISBN: 0-300-09962-2 
  • Binding: Paperback
  • 86 pages
  • The book’s primary focus is the battle of the U.S.S. Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama. This from the front flap which provides an eloquent introduction to the book which I could not better….

    “On June 19, 1864, the United States warship Kearsarge sank the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in one of the most celebrated naval engagements of the American Civil War. The battle was widely reported in the illustrated press and riveted public attention on both sides of the Channel. When Kearsarge later anchored off the French resort town of Boulonge-sur-Mer it was thronged by curious visitors, one of whom was the artist Edouard Manet.  Although he did not witness the historic battle, Manet made a painting of it partly as an attempt to regain the respect of his colleagues after being ridiculed for his works in the 1864 Salon. Manet’s picture of the naval engagement and his portrait of the victorious Kearsarge belong to a group of his seascapes of Boulonge whose unorthodox perspective and composition would profoundly influence the course of French paintings.”

    In part 2, more on Edouard Manet followed in subsequent posts about the two ships and their encounter across the Atlantic.

    Note that I have added a shelf to my online library titled “Civil War Art and Artists.” You can access that shelf here. I will shortly cross-reference this book on the Naval History shelf as well.

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