THE 'KEARSARGE' AND THE 'ALABAMA' - PAGE 1
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How very clever of you to find this page! It has been operating for many years now, and as time has passed & new interesting data has come to hand, additional pages have been added. But the pages & the related images seem to be totally invisible to any of the search engines. Which really should not be a surprise since the battle is most famous & there are surely thousands of sites with references to it.
So welcome! And I hope that you enjoy your visit.
On this page, I provided data specific to the artist Thomas M. M. Hemy as it related to his service aboard the USS Kearsarge. In this page, I will try in a few paragraphs to explain what happened on that fateful day of Jun. 19, 1864, some years before Thomas Hemy served aboard her, when the USS Kearsarge engaged the CSS Alabama off the coast of France. A very famous fight indeed. Amazingly, in view of its location, it was really part of the U.S. Civil War.
THE CSS ALABAMA
To understand the significance of the event, one needs to know a little of the history of the "CSS Alabama". So you should know that in the early days of the U.S. Civil war, Confederate privateers, with great success, preyed upon Union shipping wherever it could be found. The proceeds of sale, of the ships and cargoes that they captured, were used to pay the officers and crew by way of the distribution of prize money. But, with the Union blockade of southern ports, that practice became impossible. So the Confederacy instead arranged for steam-powered ships, built so as to be capable of carrying a heavy battery of guns, to be built in the shipyards of Birkenhead, England. While destined to be warships, the true purpose for the vessels was kept secret, and the vessels were sailed from England with British crews to be fitted for war in other ports of the world. One such ship, a three-masted 1050 ton schooner known as No. 290 and then the "Henrica" or 'Enrica', in late Jun. 1862 put out to sea on the evening tide - one step ahead of the British authorities who planned to seize her. That vessel, soon to be renamed the "Alabama", took, in her two year career, a toll of Union shipping which is quite amazing.
The Henrica/Enrica sailed to Terciera in the Azores, & there guns, ammunition and supplies were brought aboard and installed. She was placed under the command of newly promoted Captain Raphael Semmes, an experienced Commander in the Confederate Navy & 53 years of age. Earlier, he had, in command of the CSS Sumter, destroyed 18 Union ships in the West Indies & the Atlantic. He renamed the ship the Alabama. While the officers were Confederate, the crew were almost entirely British, (with a few Canadians & other nationalities), presumably lured by the prospect of high wages & prize money.
I find it strange to read that the Alabama never had a home port. She could not get to any southern port in the U.S. due to the Union blockade, & for the next two years she plied the seas of the world to destroy Union shipping. The seas of the world? Yes indeed! She ranged across the North & South Atlantic Oceans, rounded the southern tip of Africa & ventured as far east as Singapore, destroying Union shipping wherever she found it. She certainly out-manoeuvred & defied the Federal naval forces. If, to have fought a battle of the U.S. Civil War off the coast of France seems strange, how much stranger it is to read that the Alabama sank Union shipping as far away as the Indian Ocean & the China Sea!
And here is the Alabama (source). It is a portion of a hand-tinted engraving, after a drawing by Smyth, published in "Harper's Weekly" in 1862. The Alabama, I read, captured the packet ship Tonowanda southeast of Nova Scotia on Oct. 8 or 9, 1862. It was not destroyed, rather released on bond to carry prisoners captured on other ships taken by the Alabama.
The Alabama's first prey would seem to have been the whaling fleet & the first victim was the 'Ocmulgee' a whaler presumably ill equipped to defend itself, captured & burned on Sep. 5, 1862. The Alabama claimed 10 ships in that month, nine of which were whaling vessels. Next month, i.e. Oct. 1862, the Alabama claimed 11 more ships, generally burned but sometimes ransomed. The carnage continued at a lesser pace, 4 ships in Nov. 1862, 2 in Dec. 1862, 3 in Jan. 1863 and so on and so on. 67 ships in all, it would seem, in the period from Sep. 1862 through Jun. 1864. (but the total number varies in the different accounts I have read). The ships were most often burned. And sometimes ransomed. One prize was converted to a Confederate cruiser. The Alabama seemed able to destroy Union shipping almost at will, & while it did defeat the USS Hatteras near Galveston Texas, it generally chose to do its job without confronting Union warships. She evaded the Union steamer Vanderbilt, waiting off Cape Town, South Africa, to attack her, by escaping under the cover of fog. No wonder, she was called a 'daring rover', a 'pirate' or 'corsair' & probably many more colourful words. She earned her reputation. Union shipping was badly hit. Union ships dared not ply the oceans.
Here is is Alabama, as it was illustrated in 'Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War', taken from a photograph while she was at Liverpool. A larger version is here, but beware the image is very big indeed!
In Jun. 1864, the Alabama put into the port of Cherbourg in France, a neutral country. She needed to be dry-docked, her boilers needed extensive repair, & she needed to be recoppered (she had, I read, a 'copper bottom', hence I presume the need to dry-dock). It was expected that two months would be required to effect the repairs. The USS Kearsarge, at anchor off Flushing, Holland, was informed of her position & sailed via Dover, England, to meet her.
The Alabama was, then, commanded by a seasoned Captain, Captain Raphael Semmes, with a mostly well experienced crew, armed with a 100-pounder rifle pivot gun, a 68-pounder gun & six 32-pounder guns. But the vessel was clearly in need of repair.
THE USS KEARSARGE
I must say that I was surprised to find so little data available on the WWW about the USS Kearsarge. Yes there is some, but rather little for such a very famous vessel in U.S. history.
That said, she was built at Portsmouth Navy Yard, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1861 - a 1550 ton Mohican Class Steam Sloop Of War. She was launched on Sep. 11, 1861, & commissioned on Jan. 24, 1862, with Captain Charles W. Pickering in command. Almost immediately she was deployed to European waters, where she spent nearly three years searching for Confederate raiders. On Apr. 8, 1863, Captain John A. (Ancrum) Winslow took over command. I have learned that he was born on Nov. 19, 1811 and died Sep. 29, 1873. Winslow had spent his life in the service of the Navy, having joined as a midshipman in 1827 & was well experienced.
Here is a photograph of Captain John A. Winslow in 1862/3 & of him (third from the left) aboard the Kearsarge taken soon after the Alabama victory. John M. Browne, the surgeon, whose words I quote below, is second from the left. The complete images, of which these are but a part, can both be seen on this page. The gun that inflicted much of the Alabama damage can be seen at left, i.e. the 11-inch Dahlgren pivot gun. Its training tracks can be seen on the deck.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about the Kearsarge was that she was 'iron-clad'. But I should explain what that means. It would seem that Lieutenant-Commander James S. Thornton, her executive officer, had earlier served with Admiral Farragut & had noted how effective it had been to protect the midship section of a ship from the fort guns they had to pass to reach New Orleans. (David Glasgow Farragut - 1801-1870 - A brief quote about what he did. "To prepare the ships to run past the forts, the crews crisscrossed the hulls with great chains until they were almost as well protected as the ironclads.") So the idea was adopted by the Kearsarge. Chains were attached to the sides of the ship in the Azores long after she was constructed & more than a year prior to the battle with the Alabama. Chain plating, made of one hundred and twenty fathoms of iron sheet-chain (what exactly is sheet-chain, I wonder?) covered an area amidships 49 1/2 feet long & 6 feet 2 inches high. The chains were affixed by iron dogs & would protect the engines when the upper part of the coal bunkers were empty. The chains were covered, some might indeed & did say 'concealed', by one-inch deal (pine) boards. In the words of John M. Browne, Surgeon of the Kearsarge:
The work was done in three days, at a cost for material not exceeding seventy-five dollars. In our visit to European ports, the use of sheet-chains for protective purposes had attracted notice and caused comment. It is strange that Captain Semmes did not know of the chain armor; supposed spies had been on board and had been shown through the ship, as there was no attempt at concealment; the same pilot had been employed by both ships, and had visited each during the preparation for battle.
And here is the Kearsarge, in fact three images of the ship. The colour image comes from here & shows the ship under sail, as painted by an unknown artist in 1890. The artist seems, to my eye at least, to have compressed the ship lengthwise, & made the ship look 'stockier' that she really was, if you understand my meaning. At top left is an image dating from late 1864 - the complete image can be seen here. And at bottom left is a portion of an image of the battle off Cherbourg, showing the Kearsarge in action. A more complete version of that image is on the next page, while the whole image is available on this page.
The Kearsarge was armed with seven guns: two 11-inch Dahlgren pivot guns, smooth bore, one 30-pounder rifle gun, & four light 32-pounders. During the encounter only five of the Kearsarge guns were used.
This page is rapidly becoming much too large. So I will continue the story on the next page.