Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sinking Ships and (Relative) Ancient History

One hundred and forty-four years ago, on June 19, 1864, the CSS Alabama was sunk at the end of a fierce naval engagement with the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg in France. The Alabama had docked in Cherbourg for maintenance and repairs after over two years on the high seas during the Civil War. The ship was captained by Maryland native Raphael Semmes. Captain Semmes is deeply revered as a local hero in Alabama, especially in Mobile, where a large statue was erected and the town of Semmes, Alabama was named in his honor.

The CSS Alabama was built for the Confederate States in 1862 in Birkenhead, England by the shipbuilders John Laird Sons and Company --- and these very facts are part of the famous sea shanty, Roll, Alabama Roll.

When the Alabama's Keel was Laid,
(Roll Alabama, roll!),
'Twas laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird
(Roll, roll Alabama, roll!)
'Twas Laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird,
twas laid in the town of Birkenhead.
Down the Mersey way she rolled then,
and Liverpool fitted her with guns and men.
From the western isle she sailed forth,
to destroy the commerce of the north.
To Cherbourg port she sailed one day,
for to take her count of prize money.
Many a sailor laddie saw his doom,
when the Kearsarge it hove in view.
When a ball from the forward pivot that day,
shot the Alabama's stern away.
Off the three-mile limit in '64 the Alabama was seen no more.

It was also the subject of a a folk song sung in Afrikans, Daar Kom die Alibama, which commemorates the Alabama's voyage to Cape Town harbor in 1863.
Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see,
Daar kom die Alibama,
Die Alibama die kom oor die see...
(There comes the Alabama,
The Alabama that comes oer the sea,
There comes the Alabama,
The Alabama that comes oer the sea...)
The CSS Alabama is a topic of great interest to many people from everywhere and for many reasons. The Hoole Library has received reference questions about the CSS Alabama from all over the United States, as well as places like South Africa, Portugal, France, and England -- all places where the Alabama sailed, clocking over 75,000 miles and capturing sixty Union vessels in her short two years.
International interest in the ship continues to this day. Her wreckage was discovered by the French Navy in the 1980s, and over the course of nearly two decades of cooperation between the French and American governments, major joint underwater archeological investigations took place and many artifacts were recovered in the early part of the 21st century at the wreckage site off the coast of France.
We receive reference questions of course because people are interested and because we do have physical holdings on the CSS Alabama, including a photo album kept by an officer of the ship, Edward M. Anderson.
Lt. Edward Maffit Anderson from the Album of E.M. Anderson,
William Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama

Dr. W.S. Hoole, namesake of the Hoole Library, wrote about and studied the Alabama, as did former UA History professor, Dr. Charles Summersell. Both men have materials in their own personal collections on the CSS Alabama.

And it was in 1996, relative ancient history in the world of online exhibits and digital collections, a then doctoral student, along with two UA Libraries faculty members, developed and authored the CSS Alabama Digital Collection, a resource of documents, images, maps, and other materials to help those who are interested in CSS Alabama learn more. That young doctoral student is now Dr. Toby Graham, head of the Digital Library of Georgia -- a trailblazer in digital collection development and digital programs. And while the CSS Alabama Digital Collection may look a little dated, it still is used regularly by people all over the world. A twelve year old digital collection is practically a stone tablet in the grand scheme of the evolution of web development technology since that time.

Some of the images were taken from the book, Two Years on the Alabama by Fourth Lt. Arthur Sinclair, published by Lee and Shepard in Boston in 1895. This book is featured in the Publishers' Bindings Online project.

Fourth Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair, from the Album of E.M. Anderson,
William Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama

Visit the CSS Alabama Digital Collection to learn more about the confederate raider and to experience what was once a cutting edge digital collection. It shows both how far we have come, as well as just how innovative this project was for its time. Additional materials such as sheet music for the song, The Alabama are accessible as part of our digital collections.

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