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Civil War Trust

Cruise and Combats of the "Alabama"

Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. IV
by John McIntosh Kell, the Executive Officer of the CSS Alabama

John Kell
John McIntosh Kell, executive officer of the "Alabama." (Battles and Leaders)

The Alabama was built for speed rather than battle. Her lines were symmetrical and fine; her material of the best. In fifteen minutes her propeller could be hoisted, and she could go through every evolution under sail without any impediment. In less time her propeller could be lowered; with sails furled, and yards braced within two points of a head-wind, she was a perfect steamer. Her speed, independent, was from ten to twelve knots; combined, and under favorable circumstances, she could make fifteen knots. When ready for sea she drew fifteen feet of water. She was barkentine-rigged, with long lower masts, which enabled her to carry an immense spread of lower canvas, and to lay close to the wind. Her engines were of three hundred horse-power, with a condensing apparatus that was indispensable.

Our armament consisted of eight guns: one Blakely 100-pounder rifled gun, pivoted forward ; one 8-inch solid-shot gun, pivoted abaft the mainmast ; and six 32-pounders in broadside. Our crew numbered about 120 men and 24 officers. The commander, Captain Semmes, had been an officer of high standing in the old navy, had studied law, paying particular attention to the international branch, and had been admitted to the bar in Alabama, of which State he was a citizen. Thus he was eminently qualified for the position he was now called upon to assume. During the Mexican war he commanded the brig Somers in the blockade of Vera Cruz, and lost that unfortunate vessel in chase, during a norther, and narrowly escaped drowning.

Semmes and Kell
Captain Semmes and John Kell on deck, 1863. (Naval Historical Center)

Of the crew of the Alabama I cannot say too much. It was made up from all the seafaring nations of the globe, with a large sprinkling of Yankee tars (among whom are to be found the best sailors), and with a nucleus of Southern pilots and seamen from the ports of Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. The pilots were given the positions of petty officers, and sustained their reputation nobly, materially aiding in the discipline of the crew, for upon our peculiar service, and with our ports locked against us, we were compelled to observe the strictest discipline, both with officers and crew. As the executive officer who enforced this discipline I may say that a nobler set of young men filling the position of officers, and a braver and more willing crew, never floated. As an evidence of their attachment to the. captain and the service, I will state that after the sinking of the Alabama, upon our visit to Liverpool, where the crew were paid off, a large deputation of them called upon Captain Semmes, and pleaded with him to get command of another ship the equal of the Kearsarge, promising that they would join him to a man.

The Alabama At Sea
The "Alabama" at sea. (Naval Historical Center)

The eleventh day after going into commission we captured our first prize, not one hundred miles from where we hoisted our flag. After working round the Azores for some weeks, with fine breezes, we shaped our course for Sandy Hook, but we encountered frequent gales off the Newfoundland banks, and on the 16th of October lost our main-yard in a cyclone. Being considerably shaken up, we decided to seek a milder latitude. Running down to the Windward Islands, we entered the Caribbean Sea. Our prizes gave us regularly the mails from the United States, from which we learned of the fitting out of the army under General Banks for the attack on Galveston and the invasion of Texas, and the day on which the fleet would sail, whereupon Captain Semmes calculated about the time they would arrive, and shaped his course accordingly, coaling and refitting the ship at the Arcas Keys. He informed me of his plan of attack, which was to sight the shipping off Galveston about the time that General Banks was due with his large fleet of transports, under the convoy perhaps of a few vessels of war.

The entire fleet would anchor in the outer roadstead, as there is only sufficient water on the bar for light-draughts. All attention at such a time would be given to the disembarkation of the army, as there were no enemy's cruisers to molest them, our presence in the Gulf not being known. We were to take the bearing of the fleet, and, after the mid-watch was set and all was quiet, silently approach, steam among them with both batteries in action, slowly steam through the midst of them, pouring in a continuous discharge of shell to fire and sink them as we went; thus we expected to accomplish our work and be off on another cruise before the convoys could move.

The Hatteras
The sinking of the "Hatteras." (Naval Historical Center)

But instead of sighting General Banks's fleet of transports we sighted five vessels of war at anchor, and soon after our lookout reported a steamer standing out for us. We were then under topsails only, with a light breeze, heading off shore, and gradually drawing our pursuer from the squadron. It was the Hatteras, and about dark she came up with us, and in an action of thirteen minutes we sank her. The action closed about twilight, when Captain Semmes, who always took his position on the weather horse-block , above the rail of the ship, to enable him to see all the surroundings, and to note the effect of our shot in action, or at exercise at general quo me and said, "Mr. Kell, the enemy have fired a gun to leeward; cease firing." We were then about seventy-five yards from the enemy, and could hear distinctly their hail, saying they "were fast sinking and on fire in three places, and for God's sake to save them." We immediately sent boats, and in the darkness took every living soul from her . These events occurred in the presence of the enemy's fleet, bearing the pennant, of Commodore Bell within signal-distance. The Hatteras went down in a few minutes.

She carried a larger crew than our own. Knowing that the Federal squadron would soon be upon us, every light on board ship was put under cover and we shaped our course for broader waters. During the night a, fearful norther came sweeping after us, but under the circumstances it was a welcome gale. Hoisting our propeller, we crowded all the sail we could bear, and soon were out of harm's way . As Captain Blake of the Hatteras (whom I had known in the old service) came on deck, he remarked upon the speed we were making, and gracefully saluted me with, "Fortune favors the brave, sir!" I wished him a pleasant voyage with us; and I am sure he, with his officers and men, received every attention while on board the Alabama.

The Alabama Approaching
Frightened merchantmen observe the "Alabama" approaching. (Naval Historical Center)

We paroled the officers and crew of the Hatteras at Kingston, Jamaica, and after repairing a few shot-holes and coaling ship, we passed on to our work in the South Atlantic, taking our position at the cross-roads of the homeward-bound East India and Pacific trade. After a few weeks of good work in that locality and along the coast of Brazil, we crossed over to the Cape of Good Hope, where we played "hide and seek " with the United States steamer Vanderbilt, whose commander, Charles H. Baldwin, had explained to Sir Baldwin Walker, the English Admiral of the station at Simon's Town, "that he did not intend to fire a gun at the Alabama, but to run her down and sink her." We were not disposed to try issues with the Vanderbilt; so one night when it blew a gale of wind from the south-east, we hove anchor and steamed out of Simon's Bay. By morning we had made a good offing, and, setting what sail we could carry, hoisted our propeller and made a due south course. We ran down to the fortieth degree south latitude, where we fell in with westerly gales and bowled along nearly due east, until we shaped our course for the Straits of Java. Our long stretch across the Indian Ocean placed us in the China Sea, where we were least expected, and where we soon fell in with the China trade. In a few weeks we had so paralyzed the enemy's commerce that their ships were absolutely locked up in port, and neutrals were doing all the carrying trade.

Having thus virtually cleared the sea of the United States flag, we ran down to Singapore, coaled ship, and then turned westward through the Straits of Malacca, across to India thence to the east coast of Africa. Passing through the Mozambique Channel, we again touched at the Cape of Good Hope, and thence crossed to the coast of Brazil.

Alabama Voyage
The 22-month voyage of the "Alabama." (Battles and Leaders)

Our little ship was now showing signs of the active work she had been doing. Her boilers were burned out, and her machinery was sadly in want of repairs. She was loose at every joint, her seams were open, and the copper on her bottom was in rolls. We therefore set our course for Europe, and on the 11th of June, 1864, entered the port of Cherbourg, and applied for permission to go into dock. There being none but national docks, the Emperor had first to be communicated with before permission could be granted, and he was absent from Paris. It was during this interval of waiting, on the third day after our arrival, that the Kearsarge steamed into the harbor, for the purpose, as we learned, of taking on board the prisoners we had landed from our last two prizes. Captain Semmes, however, objected to this on the ground that the Kearsarge was adding to her crew in a neutral port. The authorities conceding this objection valid, the Kearsarge steamed out of the harbor, without anchoring. During her stay we examined her closely with our glasses, but she was keeping on the opposite side of the harbor, out of the reach of a very close scrutiny, which accounts for our not detecting the boxing to her chain armor. After she left the harbor Captain Semmes sent for me to his cabin, and said: "I am going out to fight the Kearsarge; what do you think of it ?" We discussed the battle advantage the Kearsarge had over us in her 11-inch guns.

kearsarge
The USS "Kearsarge" in 1864. (Naval Historical Center)

She was built for a vessel of war, and we for speed, and though she carried one gun less, her battery was more effective at point-blank range. While the Alabama carried one more gun, the Kearsarge threw more metal at a broadside ; and while our heavy guns were more effective at long range, her 11-inch guns gave her greatly the advantage at close range. She also had a slight advantage in her crew, she carrying 163, all told, while we carried 149.

Considering well these advantages, Captain Semmes communicated through our agent to the United States consul that if Captain Winslow would wait outside the harbor he would fight him as soon as we could coal ship.

Accordingly, on Sunday morning, June 19th, between 9 and 10 o'clock, we weighed anchor and stood out of the western entrance of the harbor , the French iron-clad frigate Couronne following us. The day was bright and beautiful, with a light breeze blowing. Our men were neatly dressed, and our officers in full uniform. The report of our going out to fight the Kearsarge had been circulated, and many persons from Paris and the surrounding country had come down to witness the engagement. With a large number of the inhabitants of Cherbourg they collected on every prominent point on the shore that would afford a view seaward. As we rounded the breakwater we discovered the Kearsarge about seven miles to the northward and eastward. We immediately shaped our course for her, called all hands to quarters, and cast loose the starboard battery. Upon reporting to the captain that the ship was ready for action, he directed me to send all hands aft, and mounting a gun-carriage he made the following address:

Capt. Semmes
Captain Raphael Semmes captured nearly seventy ships during the Civil War. (Naval Historical Center)

"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! In the meantime you have been all over the world, and it is not too much to say that you have destroyed, and driven for protection under neutral flags, one-half of the enemy's commerce, which at the war covered every sea. This is an achievement of which you may well be proud, and a grateful country will not be unmindful of it. The name of your ship has become a household word wherever civilization extends! Shall that name be tarnished by defeat? The thing is impossible! Remember that you are in the English Channel, the theater of so much of the naval glory of our race and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you. The flag that floats over you is that of a young republic, which bids defiance to her enemy's whenever and wherever found! Show the world that you know how to uphold it! Go to your quarters."

In about forty-five minutes we were somewhat over a mile from the Kearsarge, when she headed for us, presenting her starboard bow. At a distance of a mile we commenced the action with our 100-pounder pivot-gun from our starboard bow. Both ships were now approaching each other at high speed, and soon the action became general with broadside batteries at a distance of about five hundred yards. To prevent passing, each ship used a strong port helm. Thus the action was fought around a common center, gradually drawing in the circle. At this range we used shell upon the enemy. Captain Semmes, standing on the horse-block abreast the mizzen-mast with his glass in hand, observed the effect of our shell. He called to me and said: " Mr. Kell use solid shot; our shell strike the enemy's side and fall into the water." We were not at this time aware of the chain armor of the enemy, and attributed the failure of our shell to our defective ammunition. The enemy's 11-inch shells were now doing severe execution upon our quarter-deck section. Three of them successively entered our 8-inch pivot-gun port: the first swept off the for ward part of the gun's crew the second killed one man and wounded several others; and the third struck the breast of the gun-carriage, and spun around on the deck till one of the men picked it up and threw it overboard.

broadside
The two ships fired nearly one thousand rounds between them in the course of the battle. (Naval Historical Center)

Our decks were now covered with the dead and the wounded, and the ship was careening heavily to starboard from the effects of the shot-holes on her water-line: Captain Semmes ordered me to be ready to make all sail possible when the circuit of fight should put our head to the coast of France ; then he would notify me at the same time to pivot to port and continue the action with the port battery, hoping thus to right the ship and enable us to reach the coast of France. The evolution was performed beautifully, righting the helm, hoisting the head-sails, hauling aft the tore try-sail sheet, and pivoting to port, continuing almost without cessation.

This evolution exposed us to a raking fire, but, strange to say, the Kearsarge did not take advantage of it. The port side of the quarter-deck was so encumbered with the mangled trunks of the dead that I had to have them thrown overboard, in order to fight the after pivot-gun. I abandoned the after 32-pounder, and transferred the men to fill up the vacancies at the pivot-gun under the charge of young Midshipman Anderson, who in the midst of the carnage filled his place like a veteran. At this moment the chief engineer came on deck and reported the fires put out, and that he could no longer work the engines. Captain Semmes said to me, "Go below, sir, and see how long the ship can float." As I entered the ward-room the sight was indeed appalling. There stood Assistant-Surgeon Llewellyn at his post, but the table and the patient upon it had been swept away from him by an 11-inch shell, which opened in the side of the ship an aperture that was fast filling the ship with water.

The Deck of the Kearsarge
The crew of the "Kearsarge" watching the "Alabama" keel. (U.S. Navy Historical Center)

It took me but a moment to return to the deck and report to the captain that we could not float ten minutes. He replied to me, "Then, sir, cease firing, shorten sail, and haul down the colors; it will never do in this nineteenth century for us to go down, and the decks covered with our gallant wounded." The order was promptly executed, after which the Kearsarge deliberately fired into us five shot. I ordered the men to stand to their quarters and not flinch from the shot of the enemy; they stood every man to his post most heroically. With the first shot fired upon us after our colors were down, the quarter master was ordered to show a white flag over the stern, which order was executed in my presence. When the firing ceased Captain Semmes or der ed me to dispatch an officer to the Kearsarge to say that our ship was sinking, and to ask that they send boats to save our wounded, as our boats were disabled. The ding boat, had escaped damage. I dispatched Master's-mate Fullam with the request. No boats appearing, I had one of our quarter-boats lowered, which was slightly injured, and I ordered the wounded placed in her. Dr. Galt, the surgeon who was in charge of the magazine and shell-room division, came on deck at this moment and was at once put in charge of the boat, with orders to "take the wounded to the Kearsarge."  They shoved off just in time to save the poor fellows from going down in the ship.

I now gave the order for every man to jump overboard with a spar and save himself from the sinking ship. To enforce the order, I walked forward and urged the men over board. As soon as the decks were cleared, save of the bodies of the dead, I returned to the stern-port, where stood Captain Semmes with one or two of the men and his faithful steward, who, poor fellow! was doomed to a watery grave, as he could not swim. The Alabama's stern-port was now almost at the water's edge. Partly undressing, we plunged into the sea, and made an offing from the sinking ship, Captain Semmes with a life preserver and I on a grating.

Llewellyn
Llewellyn couldn't swim, but refused to imperil the wounded men by adding his own weight to the lifeboats. (Battles and Leaders)

The Alabama settled stern foremost, launching her bows high in the air. Graceful even in her death-struggle, she in a moment disappeared from the face of the waters. The sea now presented a mass of living heads, striving for their lives. Many poor fellows sank for the want of timely aid. Near me I saw a float of empty shell-boxes, and called to one of the men, a good swimmer, to examine it; he cried,  "It is the doctor sir, dead." Poor Llewellyn! He perished almost in sight of his home. The young midshipman, Maffitt, swam to me and offered his life-preserver.

My grating was not proving a very buoyant float, and the white-caps breaking over my head were distressingly uncomfortable, to say the least. Maffitt said: "Mr. Kell, take my life-preserver, sir; you are almost exhausted." The gallant boy did not consider his own condition, but his pallid face told me that his heroism was superior to his bodily suffering, and I refused it. After twenty minutes or more I heard near me some one call out "There is our first lieutenant," and the next moment, I was pulled into a boat, in which was Captain Semmes, stretched out in the stern-sheets, as pallid as death. He had received during the action a slight contusion on the hand, and the struggle in the water had almost exhausted him. There were also several of our crew in the boat, and in a few moments we were alongside a little steam-yacht which had come among our floating men, and by throwing them ropes had saved many lives.

Upon reaching her deck, I ascertained for the first time that she was the yacht Deerhound, owned by Mr. John Lancaster, of England. In looking about I saw two French pilot-boats engaged in saving our crew, and finally two boats from the Kearsarge. To my surprise I found on the yacht Mr. Fullam, whom I had dispatched in the dingey to ask that boats be sent to save our wounded. He reported to me that our shot had literally torn the casing from the chain armor of the Kearsarge, indenting the chain in many places, which explained Captain Semmes's observation of the effect of our shell upon the enemy, "that they struck the sides and fell into the water." Captain Winslow, in his report, states that his ship was struck twenty-five or thirty times, and I doubt if the Alabama was struck a greater number of times. I may not, therefore, be bold in asserting that Kearsarge been protected by her iron cables, the result of the fight would have been different. Captain Semmes felt the more keenly the delusion to which he fell a victim (not knowing that the Kearsarge was chain-clad) from the fact that he was exceeding his instructions in seeking an action with the enemy; but to seek a fight with an iron-clad he conceived to be an unpardonable error.

sinking
The wreck of the "Alabama" was rediscovered in the 1980s. (Battles and Leaders)

However, he had the satisfaction of knowing she was classed as a wooden gun-boat by the Federal Government; also that he had inspected her with most excellent glasses, and so far as outward appearances showed she displayed no chain armor. At the same time it must be admitted that Captain Winslow had the right unquestionably to protect his ship and crew. In justice to Captain Semmes I will state that the battle would never have been fought had he known that the Kearsarge wore an armor of chain beneath her outer covering. Thus was the Alabama lost by an error, if you please, but, it must be admitted, a most pardonable one, and not until "Father Neptune" claimed her as his own did she lower her colors.

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