THE 'KEARSARGE' AND THE 'ALABAMA' - PAGE 2
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It would appear that Captain Semmes of the Alabama was advised not to give battle. Perhaps, however, he wished to prove 'that his ship was not a 'corsair', preying upon defenseless merchantmen, but a real ship-of-war, able and willing to fight the 'Federal' waiting outside the harbor.' Certainly he would have known that other Union ships would soon join the Kearsarge off Cherbourg. Anyway he decided to fight, & advised the U.S. Consul 'that my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until tomorrow evening, or after the morrow morning at furthest. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out.' It is interesting to learn that the two Captains knew one another. They had both served on the same side in the Mexican War, & had even roomed together!
So the two ships were somewhat evenly matched. The Kearsarge had the greater tonnage of the two. The ships company of the Kearsarge was 163, the Alabama in the range of 150 (nobody seems to know exactly how many). The Kearsarge had one major gun less than the Alabama. Both had sailed at about the same speed of about 13 knots, but their speed during the battle was slower, about 10 knots, it would seem. Both Captains were experienced & both were 53 years of age. I presume that Captain Semmes felt that his ship & his crew were the more experienced & therefore the better of the two.
And how extraordinary the fight. The possibility of witnessing history in the making drew people to Cherbourg. A train arrived from Paris, if you please, with hundreds of trippers out for a Sunday excursion. There were said to be more than 15,000 spectators, perched on camp stools atop the heights of Cherbourg, in the rigging of ships & elsewhere to witness the spectacle. Quite what they could all see would seem to be a bit of a puzzle even if they had spy-glasses as many did. The battle took place five to seven nautical miles off the coast & surely the ships would have been mere dots on the horizon. I read that the ships burned different types of coal & one could trace the movements of the ships by the differing density & quantity of the smoke trails they created. The crews of the last two ships burned by the Alabama were on hand to witness the fight. A spectacle indeed!
This is a good place to mention that while there are now many images of the engagement on this site, there is one most interesting image which I surely will never be able to present. And in view of the text of the previous paragraph, i.e. that the action did not take place particularly close to shore, the reference is all the more surprising. I read that 'photographer François Rondin set up his camera and made an exposure of the battle raging at sea between the U.S.S. Kearsarge & the dreaded Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama. Seen widely at the time in the window of Rondin's Cherbourg shop, the priceless print has disappeared'. How very interesting!
Between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning of Sunday, Jun. 19, 1864 then, the Alabama steamed out of port. A fine day. Little sea & a slight westerly wind. The Kearsarge spotted her, of course, & headed out to sea - to ensure that the fight would be in international waters & to make any later escape by the Alabama back to French waters impossible. Soon however the Kearsarge turned & approached the Alabama presenting her starboard battery. The Alabama turned to do the same. The first shot was fired by the Alabama at the range of about a mile. Second & third shots were fired by the Alabama. Small damage to the Kearsarge rigging but nothing significant. The Kearsarge had, I read, her guns loaded with five-second shells so she needed to be closer. At a range of 900 yards came the Kearsarge's first broadside. The Kearsarge turned to ensure that the Alabama could not escape & a circular dance ensued, starboard side to starboard side, 1/4 to 1/2 mile apart. Round & round in a circle, firing broadsides at one another. (complete next image, a contemporary engraving, is on this page)
The firing of the Alabama would seem to have been erratic & wild, while the Kearsarge was more disciplined & accurate. The very first Kearsarge shots caused considerable destruction & loss of life. Her heavy guns were aimed low while the lighter guns were aimed higher to try to clear the Alabama's decks. Throughout the engagement, the Kearsarge fired 173 shot & shell & the Alabama twice that number. It would seem, however, that it was the 11 inch Dahlgren swivel guns on the Kearsarge & particularly the after such pivot-gun that proved to be so devastating. Shells ripped holes in the Alabama's hull, the water poured in, the fires in her boiler were extinguished & she tried to break for the French coast under sail. But to no avail. She was rapidly sinking. The Alabama's shells had caused relatively little damage to the Kearsarge, perhaps due to the protective chains. But there is doubt about that. The powder of the Alabama may have been suspect. John M. Browne, Surgeon of the Kearsarge was of the opinion that the chains had little effect on the outcome. What could have had a greater effect was an Alabama 100-pounder shell that hit the Kearsarge, lodged in the sternpost but did not explode. Had that shell exploded, the outcome might have been very different. (that sternpost, together with the actual shell, is today viewable at the Navy Memorial Museum, Building 76, in Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., & a couple of images of it are available on this page.
The Alabama about to sink. (complete 1922 painting by Xanthus Smith, on this page.)
What happened then is in some dispute. The Kearsarge stated that the Alabama struck her colors & displayed the white flag on her stern. And that the Kearsarge then stopped firing. But that the Alabama then recommenced firing to which the Kearsarge responded. Captain Semmes reports that the Kearsarge continued to fire after the Alabama's colors were struck. In his words 'It is charitable to suppose that a ship of war of a Christian nation could not have done this intentionally.' His report did not mention the fact that the Alabama would seem to have continued firing after having surrendered.
The Alabama's conduct after that is also very suspect. But to understand the situation you should first know that the whole engagement was witnessed close at hand by the Deerhound, a small British steamer, with some association with the Alabama. And that at the end of the encounter, the Kearsarge had only two usable small boats to effect any rescue of seamen from the water. When the Alabama was about to sink, a boat under the control of Alabama master's mate Fullam, was sent to the Kearsarge with a few of the wounded. 'Does Captain Semmes surrender his ship?' 'Yes' was the reply. Fullum promised to assist in rescuing the drowning, & pledged that once that was done he would return & surrender. The Deerhound was advised 'For God's sake, do what you can to save them'. And they both, Fullum & the Deerhound, did pick up survivors but neither returned to surrender, as honor demanded.
Fullum, it would appear, rescued several of Alabama's officers, left many others struggling in the water, boarded the Deerhound & cut his boat adrift. The Deerhound took aboard a total of about 40 Alabama survivors including Captain Semmes & his first lieutenant. And then took off in the confusion, headed towards England, while the Kearsarge was still busy picking up survivors.
The image that follows is from Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, & shows the Alabama sinking by the stern with her crew in the water having abandoned ship. The page from which this was scanned is in quite poor condition, hence the black marks which are, in fact, holes in the printed page.
The fight lasted one hour & two minutes only! The Alabama slid stern first & vertically below the surface of the ocean.
One gunner aboard the Kearsarge died of wounds sustained in the battle & two others were seriously injured. That is all. 9 were killed aboard the Alabama & 21 wounded. Many more from the Alabama were taken aboard the Kearsarge & paroled by Captain Winslow. More were picked up by French vessels & reached the safety of France. And Captain Semmes & 38 of his officers & crew escaped to England.
The next image is really too 'busy'. I was interested in the Dahlgren swivel guns which won the day. So I include the images here. The after gun is at top. The forward gun is below. The complete images, & even the names of the Kearsarge crew members in the two images, can be found here.
I would welcome the help of any reader who can correct, in any way however small, the facts as I have written them on these Kearsarge/Alabama pages.
1. The fine report on the battle written by John M. Browne, Surgeon of the Kearsarge.
2. the extensive Union correspondence & reports of Captain John A. Winslow & other Kearsarge crew members.
3. the Confederate equivalent of link 2, i.e. the correspondence & reports of Captain Raphael Semmes & other Alabama crew members.
4. 'Selected Views' of the Kearsarge & links to many other Kearsarge image pages.
5. Detailed information on each of the Alabama Crew members.