June 19, 1864 – A naval battle off the coast of France resulted in the destruction of the Confederacy’s most feared commerce raider on the high seas.
The C.S.S. Alabama had terrorized commercial shipping on the high seas since August 1862, cruising 75,000 miles and destroying 58 vessels worth $6.547 million during that time. After raiding through the Indian Ocean and South Pacific in late 1863, the Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, needed to dock her for much-needed repairs. Semmes brought the commerce raider to Cherbourg, France. According to Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair:
“We have cruised from the day of commission, August 24, 1862, to June 11, 1864, and during this time have visited two-thirds of the globe, experiencing all vicissitudes of climate and hardships attending constant cruising. We have had from first to last 213 officers and men on our payroll, and have lost not one by disease, and but one by accidental death.”
The French authorities denied Semmes permission to dock the Alabama, but he docked her anyway, confident that Emperor Napoleon III would welcome a Confederate ship into one of his ports. As the Cherbourg port admiral forwarded Semmes’s application to Napoleon, news of the Alabama’s arrival spread throughout Europe.
The U.S. minister in Paris telegraphed Captain John A. Winslow of the U.S.S. Kearsarge that the Alabama was at Cherbourg to discharge prisoners and take on fuel and repairs. The Kearsarge (named for a New Hampshire mountain) was docked 300 miles away off the Dutch coast, at the mouth of the River Scheldt near Flushing. Winslow had hunted the Alabama for a year, and he was urged to hurry to Cherbourg before the raider eluded him again.
Winslow arrived off Cherbourg on the 14th, keeping the Kearsarge beyond the three-mile limit as mandated by international law. When Semmes learned of the Kearsarge’s arrival, he ordered 100 tons of coal for refueling and notified the Confederate port agent, “I desire you to say to the U.S. consul that my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out.”
Semmes protested Winslow’s request to take on the 38 prisoners released from the Alabama, arguing that since the U.S. government refused to recognize the Alabama as a ship of war, Winslow could recruit the prisoners into service against her. The Cherbourg authorities refused Semmes’s request for ammunition because it would violate France’s official neutrality. The Alabama began taking on coal on the 16th, when Semmes wrote Flag Officer Samuel Barron:
“The position of Alabama here has been somewhat changed since I wrote you. The enemy’s steamer Kearsarge, having appeared off this port, and being but very little heavier, if any in her armament than myself, I have deemed it my duty to go out and engage her. I have therefore withdrawn for the present my application to go into dock, and am engaged in coaling ship.”
Semmes transferred the valuables aboard the Alabama to the Confederate agent at Cherbourg on the 18th. He notified French officials that he would give battle the next day, attended mass, and then retired early, declining invitations to be entertained by French admirers.
The Alabama set out to fight the Kearsarge on the morning of the 19th, with onlookers shouting, “Vivent les Confederates!” Semmes later wrote:
“The day being Sunday and the weather fine, a large concourse of people–many having come all the way from Paris–collected on the heights above the town, in the upper stories of such of the houses as commanded a view of the sea, and on the walls and fortifications of the harbor. Several French luggers employed as pilot-boats went out, and also an English steam-yacht, called the Deerhound. Everything being in readiness between nine and 10 o’clock, we got underway, and proceeded to sea, through the western entrance of the harbor…”
When Winslow first saw the Alabama approaching, he ordered the Kearsarge to turn away northeastward. Semmes knew Winslow was not running away; he was drawing the Alabama into the open waters of the English Channel, seven miles off Cherbourg. According to the Kearsarge log:
“At 10.20 discovered the Alabama steaming out from the port of Cherbourg, accompanied by a French iron-clad steamer, and a fore-and-aft rigged steamer showing the white English ensign and a yacht flag. Beat to general quarters and cleared the ship for action. Steamed ahead, standing offshore. At 10.50, being distant from the land about two leagues, altered our course, and approached the Alabama.”
Semmes climbed atop a gun and addressed his crew:
“Officers and seamen of the Alabama! You have, at length, another opportunity of meeting the enemy–the first that has been presented to you since you sank the Hatteras… The name of your ship has become a household word wherever civilization extends. Shall that name be tarnished by defeat? The thing is impossible!… The flag that floats over you is that of a young Republic who bids defiance to her enemies, whenever and wherever found; show the world that you know how to uphold it.”
The ships closed in and began circling each other. The Alabama had eight guns, but the salt air had deteriorated her old ammunition, and her crew did not often use the guns when confronting merchant vessels. The Kearsarge had just seven guns, but two were powerful 11-inch Dahlgrens. Moreover, she was heavier and her crew had hung heavy chains along the sides to better repel enemy fire. The Alabama had a crew of 149 men, and the Kearsarge had 163.
The Alabama fired the first shot at 10:57 a.m., a broadside from 1,800 yards that disabled a gun crew. The Kearsarge waited until moving within closer range before responding, and a blistering exchange ensued. The Kearsarge’s surgeon John M. Browne recalled:
“The action was now fairly begun… The firing of the Alabama was rapid and wild, getting better near the close; that of the Kearsarge was deliberate, accurate, and almost from the beginning productive of dismay, destruction, and death… The effect upon the enemy was readily perceived, and nothing could restrain the enthusiasm of our men. Cheer succeeded cheer; caps were thrown in the air or overboard; jackets were discarded; sanguine of victory, the men were shouting, as each projectile took effect…”
The Alabama fired 370 shots, but only 28 found their mark. One of them, a 100-pound shell, could have severely damaged the Kearsarge’s sternpost but it failed to explode. Others bounced off the hanging chains. Conversely, the well-trained Federals inflicted heavy casualties and destroyed the Alabama’s superstructure.
After about an hour, the Alabama had been so damaged on her sides that she began taking on water. Semmes ordered the first lieutenant to put to shore, but the water extinguished the boilers. Semmes ordered the colors struck. According to Browne, “Captain Winslow, amazed at this extraordinary conduct of the enemy who had hauled down his flag in token of surrender, exclaimed, ‘He is playing us a trick; give him another broadside.’ Again the shot and shell went crashing through her sides, and the Alabama continued to settle by the stern…”
Semmes finally raised the white flag and sent a gig to the Kearsarge requesting help. The Alabama sunk stern-first at 12:24 p.m., as Semmes threw his sword into the channel and jumped overboard. He later reported:
“After the lapse of about one hour and 10 minutes, our ship was ascertained to be in a sinking condition… Although we were now but 400 yards from each other, the enemy fired upon me five times after my colors had been struck. It is charitable to suppose that a ship of war, of a Christian nation, could not have done this intentionally.”
Winslow dispatched two boats to rescue the survivors and signaled the nearby British yacht Deerhound to help as well. The Confederates rescued by Winslow’s boats were taken prisoner. The 13 Confederates taken by the Deerhound, including Semmes and First Lieutenant John M. Kell, were taken to safety at Southampton.
Winslow later wrote, “The Deerhound ran off with prisoners which I could not believe any cur dog could have been guilty of under the circumstances, since I did not open upon him.” Winslow and Semmes had been friends and messmates aboard the U.S.S. Cumberland before the war. Some noted this former friendship and accused Winslow of letting Semmes escape.
The Alabama sustained 30 casualties (nine killed and 21 wounded). Semmes commended his crew, writing, “My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly, and though they have lost their ship they have not lost honor.” He later protested that Winslow had illegally converted the Kearsarge into an ironclad by hanging the heavy chains on her sides.
The Kearsarge lost only three men (one killed and two wounded). Fifteen sailors of the Kearsarge later received Medals of Honor, and Winslow was later promoted to commodore for his decisive victory. This was one of the most spectacular naval battles of the war, won by superior firepower.
After the war, the U.S. government demanded that Great Britain pay $419 million in damages for allowing the Alabama to be constructed on her soil. This case was adjudicated by an international court, but for now the famed and feared Alabama was no more.
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