Second National Ensign of the CSS Alabama, June 1864.
This hand-sewn woolen, 40"x 65" flag is the second and final ensign from the CSS Alabama's last battle, hoisted after the spinnaker gaff on which she wore her ensign was shot away. This smaller ensign, likely the boat flag from the captain's gig, was eventually struck in a battle against the USS Kearsarge off the coast of France in June 1864.
The CSS Alabama was one of the most famous ships of the Confederate Navy. Perhaps second only to the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, the epic 19 June 1864 battle fought between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama off of Cherbourg, France is certainly the most romanticized.
The CSS Alabama was a commerce raider and the most successful of the ships of this ilk sent to sea by the self-styled Confederate States of America. Captained by Raphael Semmes, she secretly left the United Kingdom in July 1862 and was commissioned into the Navy to begin a global 22-month career, during which she would board 447 vessels of various nations, burn 55 and release 10 U.S. ships, and take and parole over 2,000 prisoners without losing any crew members or captives.
During this entire time, the CSS Alabama never entered a Confederate port, so she was entirely dependent on her own devices and an occasional foreign chandler for all of her flags and signals. When she was commissioned she broke out a Confederate first national ensign at her spinnaker gaff, and would display other ensigns and boat flags of this type until the design was changed by the Confederate Congress in 1863.
When the new flag was introduced, the CSS Alabama was cruising in the South Atlantic preparatory to entering the Indian Ocean and as such, it is highly unlikely that a copy of the Confederate Navy's 1863 Table of Allowances for Ensigns was ever delivered to the Alabama. Instead she relied on her prizes and occasional ports-of-call for her news. Exactly how or when she learned of the adoption of the second national flag is unknown but we do know that it was sometime late in 1863. We know this for in his memoir "Two Years on the Alabama", Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair wrote on page 210: "We show our bright white flag with the cross and stars, - strange flag to these skippers, as well as to the rest of our recent visitors; for we had only made and bent it since reaching the East and learning of the change".
It is probable that the CSS Alabama only learned of the new flag after reaching the British Straits settlements Crown Colony of Singapore, where Captain Semmes and his officers were feted for three days by the British merchant High Rowland Beaver. Beaver was the proprietor of Cumming, Beaver and Co., who later revictualed the Alabama from his own pocket.
What is clear that the CSS Alabama made her own ensigns and boat flags, and most likely this was done from an incomplete description or drawing. We know this as this flag does not bear the white fimbriation separating the blue arms of the St. Andrew's cross from the red background that is generally seen in the cantons of second national flags. Thanks to the absence of the white fimbriation, we can better understand this Alabama ensign.
Flags attributed to the CSS Alabama are not uncommon. There are nine flags attributed to the ship in museums or private collections. Two are first national pattern flags and one is a masthead pennant. Of the remaining six, one is a 108" x 186" silk presentation flag that was gifted to Captain Semmes and another is a 105" x 210" second national flag attributed to the CSS Alabama and later gifted to the Tennessee State Museum without provenance in 1977.
The remaining flags are all thought to be second national boat flags however, one of these is quite small 24" x 36" and therefore unlikely to be to be an actual boat flag. Interestingly, it also has the white fimbriation that the other Alabama boat flags lack. Furthermore, it was sold at auction with only an oral provenance making the Alabama attribution suspicious.
The remaining three Alabama flags are all similar in that they omit the white fimbriation in the canton. A 66" x 115", wool boat flag is in a collection in the Iziko Museum in Cape Town South Africa. Another wool boat flag, estimated to be about 38" X 56", is in the possession of the descendants of the Alabama's First Assistant Engineer William P Brooks, who according to the family took it before it sank.
The third flag is ZFC2590, which was acquired directly from the descendants of Hugh Rowland Beaver to whom it was presented to by officers from the CSS Alabama who were known to have visited him in his English home during the summer of 1864. Thus it seems from the surviving flags that the boat flags of the CSS Alabama were all shipboard made, all roughly the same size and fabric and all omitted the white fimbriation in the canton.
According to Captain Semmes' report of the battle, "…our spanker-gaff was shot away, and our ensign came down by the run. This was immediately replaced by another at the mizzen-masthead". (Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat p. 757)
According to Lt. I.S. Bulloch, the Alabama's navigator, who was quoted in the 8 May 1880 edition of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean, this flag was made shipboard by the sailing quartermaster and was used on the captains gig whenever it carried Capt. Semmes.
The Beaver-Leach family has always insisted that this is that very ensign and that it was later presented to the family by Captain Semmes in gratitude for Hugh Rowland Beaver's generous hospitality both in Singapore during the cruise and later at his estate in the United Kingdom.
The flag is wool and "roughly" made, typical of the type of flag one would expect from a ship-board fabricated flag. It is in good condition showing that it has endured only slight usage. The flag's condition not surprising as Alabama didn't take any prizes after spring 1864, as it was in transit to Europe for much-needed repairs and her small boats were stowed until the battle on 19 June 1864.
Washington Flag Congress, 2011
24th International Congress of Vexillology and
45th annual meeting of the North American Vexillological Association.
Washington, DC & Alexandria, VA
July 31-August 6, 2011
Private Presentation for Alabama Congressman Spencer Bachus (R)
Rayburn House Office Building
1 August 2012
(See ZFC3716 - Congressman Bachus' gift of appreciation)
Dana, Charles, ed."The Flag of the Alabama" The Chicago Inter-Ocean, 8 May 1880.
Beaver, Hugh, "An Anglesey Sea Captain", Anglesey Antiquarian Society Transactions, 1928, p.59.
Leach, J.H., Mrs. "Letter of the great-great niece of Hugh Beaver", Mariner's Mirror, Vol. 59, No.3, August, 1973, p. 351.
Tucker, Neely, "Planting the flag with a collector's passion", The Washington Post, 4 August 2011, p. C1.
• CSS Alabama 1863 to 1864.
• Gifted as a token of esteem & gratitude to Hugh Rowland Beaver via the officers of the CSS Alabama, summer 1864.
• Thence by direct descent in the Beaver-Leach families to Robin Leach until 2012.
• Sold via auction at Sotheby's, New York, NY to the Zaricor Flag Collection, 2012.