CSS Selma

CSS Selma Originally named the Florida, the CSS Selma was a steam-powered, side-wheel ship that plied the waters of the Gulf Coast during the mid-nineteenth century. At the start of the Civil War, the Confederate Navy converted the vessel into a gunboat for service in Mobile Bay and along the Gulf Coast. The U.S. Navy captured it during the Battle of Mobile Bay and recommissioned it as the USS Selma. In mid-1865, the Navy returned the Selma to commercial service, but it sank off the coast of Texas in 1868.

The Florida was built in 1856 at Mobile, Mobile County, as a commercial packet (a small ship that carried domestic mail, passengers, and freight on a regular schedule) for the Mobile Mail Line. On April 22, 1861, Confederate captain Lawrence Rousseau commandeered the vessel for service in the Confederate Navy. While it was harbored in Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, in June, the upper deck was removed and the hull was strengthened. It was recommissioned as the CSS Florida under the command of Lt. Charles W. Hays and assigned to the New Orleans defense flotilla, commanded by Cdre. G. N. Rollins, by November 1861.

The CSS Florida displaced 590 tons of water, had a draft of six feet, was 252 feet long, and 30 feet at its beam (widest point). The vessel was armed with one 8-inch smoothbore and two 9-inch smoothbore cannons and one 6.4-inch rifled cannon and was armored with iron plating that partially protected its engine. It had a speed of nine knots and carried up to 99 officers and men.

Lt. Peter U. Murphey Although the Florida spent much time blockaded in Mobile Bay, it did make several forays into Mississippi Sound. On its first cruise on October 19, 1861, the crew was guarding a merchant ship moving from Mobile into the Gulf of Mexico, but the anchor became snagged on a military telegraph line and the ship was forced to stop. Crewmembers repaired the damage, but the Florida then ran aground for approximately 36 hours. After the crew freed the ship, they encountered the USS Massachusetts, a steam-powered gunship assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron, near Ship Island south of Biloxi, Mississippi. The Florida crew fired a shot from the rifled pivot gun that struck the Union vessel’s port stateroom, forcing it to retreat.

On December 4, the Florida was charged with protecting the side-wheel steamer CSS Pamlico with some 400 troops on board. It encountered the USS Montgomery, another prewar steamer converted to a warship, in Horn Island Pass between the coast and the Mississippi barrier islands. The Montgomery’s commander T. Darrah Shaw, realizing he was outgunned, returned to the safety of the waters around Union-held Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island. Despite saving his ship from possible capture or destruction, Shaw was relieved of his command.

During the summer of 1862, the Confederate Navy acquired the British-built sloop-of-war CSS Florida and renamed the original CSS Florida as the CSS Selma after Selma, Dallas County, with Lt. Peter U. Murphey as the new commander. On February 5, 1863, while sailing down Mobile Bay with 100 extra men and looking to board a Union blockader, the Selma hit a snag crossing the Dog River Bar, south of Mobile, and sank in eight feet of water. The crew pumped out the water and returned the ship to service within eight days.

CSS Selma and USS Metacomet On August 5, 1864, Union admiral David F. Farragut led 18 vessels into Mobile Bay and fought the Confederate defenders there in the largest naval battle of the Civil War. The Confederate squadron, commanded by Franklin Buchanan, consisted of four vessels, including the Selma. During the battle, the Selma steadily fired on the USS Hartford, Farragut’s flagship. After the Union ships passed Forts Gaines and Morgan and entered the bay, Farragut ordered the gunboat USS Metacomet, commanded by James Jouett, cut loose from the Hartford to pursue the Selma, as the wooden-hulled ships had been tied together in pairs. After an hour-long running fight, the Selma failed to reach the safety of shallow water and surrendered to the faster, more heavily armed Metacomet after its crew had killed seven and wounded eight, including Murphey, aboard the Selma.

That evening, Farragut commissioned the captured gunboat as the USS Selma and appointed Arthur R. Yates as commander. The Selma participated in the Union Navy’s bombardment of Fort Morgan on August 10 and, six days later, in a reconnaissance expedition up the Dog River. The ship remained in Mobile Bay until January 1865, when it was transferred to New Orleans. On July 16, 1865, the Navy decommissioned the Selma, and G. A. Hall purchased the ship. He converted the Selma back to commercial service on August 17, 1865. The Selma sank on June 24, 1868, off the mouth of the Brazos River, south of Galveston, Texas.

Additional Resources

Hearn, Chester G. Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign: The Last Great Battles of the Civil War. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.

Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Still, William N., Jr., ed. The Confederate Navy. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1997.

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