The Duel Between The "Alabama" And The "Kearsarge"
Cherbourg, France 1864
by John M. Browne, Surgeon Of The "Kearsarge"
On Sunday, the 12th of June, 1864, the Kearsarge, Captain John A. Winslow, was lying at anchor in the Scheldt, off Flushing, Holland. The cornet suddenly appeared at the fore, and a gun was fired. These were unexpected signals that compelled absent officers and men to return to the ship. Steam was raised, and as soon as we were off, and all hands called, Captain Winslow gave the welcome news of a telegram from Mr. Dayton, our minister to France, announcing that the Alabama had arrived the day previous at Cherbourg; hence the urgency of departure, the probability of an encounter, and the expectation of her capture or destruction. The crew responded with cheers. The succeeding day witnessed the arrival of the Kearsarge at Dover for dispatches, and the day after (Tuesday) her appearance off Cherbourg, where we saw the Confederate flag flying within the breakwater. As we approached, officers and men gathered in groups on deck, and looked intently at the "daring rover" that had been able for two years to escape numerous foes and to inflict immense damage on our commerce. She was a beautiful specimen of naval architecture. The surgeon went on shore and obtained pratique (permission to visit the port) for boats. Owing to the neutrality limitation, which would not allow us to remain in the harbor longer than twenty-four hours, it was inexpedient to enter the port. We placed a vigilant watch by turns at each of the harbor entrances, and continued it to the moment of the engagement.
On Wednesday Captain Winslow paid an official visit to the French admiral commanding the maritime district, and to the United States commercial agent, bringing on his return the unanticipated news that Captain Semmes had declared his intention to fight. At first the assertion was barely credited, the policy of the Alabama being regarded as opposed to a conflict, and to escape rather than to be exposed to injury, perhaps destruction; but the doubters were half convinced when the so-called challenge was known to read as follows:
C. S. S. "ALABAMA," CHERBOURG,
June 14th, 1864
To A. BONFILS, ESQ., CHERBOURG.
SIR: I hear that you were informed by the U. S. Consul that the Kearsarge was to come to this port solely for the prisoners landed by me, and that she was to depart in twenty-four hours. 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 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.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, Your obedient servant,
R. SEMMES, Captain
This communication was sent by Mr. Bonfils, the Confederate States Commercial Agent, to Mr. Liais, the United States Commercial Agent, with a request that the latter would furnish a copy to Captain Winslow for his guidance. There was no other challenge to combat. The letter that passed between the commercial agents was the challenge about which so much has been said. Captain Semmes informed Captain Winslow through Mr. Bonfils of his intention to fight; Captain Winslow informed Captain Semmes through Mr. Liais that he came to Cherbourg to fight, and had no intention of leaving. He made no other reply.
Captain Winslow assembled the officers and discussed the expected battle. It was probable the two ships would engage on parallel lines, and the Alabama would seek neutral waters in event, of defeat; hence the necessity of beginning the action several miles from the breakwater. It was determined not to surrender, but to fight until the last, and, if need be, to go down with colors flying. Why Captain Semmes should imperil his ship was not understood, since he would risk all and expose the cause of which he was a selected champion to a needless disaster, while the Kearsarge, if taken or destroyed, could be replaced. It was therefore concluded that he would fight because he thought he would be the victor.
Preparations were made for battle, with no relaxation of the watch. Thursday passed; Friday came; the Kearsarge waited with ports down, guns pivoted to starboard, the whole battery loaded, and shell, grape, and canister ready to use in any mode of attack or defense; yet no Alabama appeared. French pilots came on board and told of unusual arrangements made by the enemy, such as the hurried taking of coals, the transmission of valuable articles to the shore, such as captured chronometers, specie, and the bills of ransomed vessels; and the sharpening of swords, cutlasses, and boarding-pikes. It was reported that Captain Semmes had been advised not to give battle; that he replied he would prove to the world that his ship was not a privateer, intended only for attack upon merchant vessels, but a true man-of-war; further, that he had consulted French officers, who all asserted that in his situation they would fight. Certain newspapers declared that he ought to improve the opportunity afforded by the presence of the enemy to show that his ship was not a "corsair," to prey upon defenseless merchantmen, but a real ship-of-war, able and willing to fight the "Federal" waiting outside the harbor. It was said the Alabama was swift, with a superior crew, and it was known that the ship, guns, and ammunition were of English make....
Sunday, the 19th, came; a fine day, atmosphere somewhat hazy, little sea, light westerly wind. At 10 o'clock the Kearsarge was near the buoy marking the line of shoals to the eastward of Cherbourg, at a distance of about three miles from the entrance. The decks had been holystoned, the bright work cleaned, the guns polished, and the crew were dressed in Sunday suits. They were inspected at quarters and dismissed to attend divine service. Seemingly no one thought of the enemy; so long awaited and not appearing, speculation as to her coming had nearly ceased. At 10:20 the officer of the deck reported a steamer approaching from Cherbourg-a frequent occurrence, and consequently it created no surprise. The bell was tolling for service when some one shouted, "She's coming, and heading straight for us!" Soon, by the aid of a glass, the officer of the deck made out the enemy and shouted, "The Alabama!" and calling down the ward-room hatch repeated the cry, "The Alabama!" The drum beat to general quarters; Captain Winslow put aside the prayer-book, seized the trumpet, ordered the ship about, and headed seaward. The ship was cleared for action, with the battery pivoted to starboard.
The Alabama approached from the western entrance, escorted by the French iron-clad frigate Couronne, flying the pennant of the commandant of the port, followed in her wake by a small fore-and-aft-rigged steamer, the Deerhound, flying the flag of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club. The commander of the frigate had informed Captain Semmes that his ship would escort him to the limit of the French waters. The frigate, having convoyed the Alabama three marine miles from the coast, put down her helm, and steamed back into port without delay.
The steam-yacht continued on, and remained near the scene of action.
Captain Winslow had assured the French admiral that in the event of an engagement the position of the ship should be far enough from shore to prevent a violation of the law of nations. To avoid a question of jurisdiction, and to avert an escape to neutral waters in case of retreat, the Kearsarge steamed to sea, followed by the enemy, giving the appearance of running away and being pursued. Between six and seven miles from the shore the Kearsarge, thoroughly ready, at 10:50 wheeled, at a distance of one and a quarter miles from her opponent, presented the starboard battery, and steered direct for her, with the design of closing or of running her down. The Alabama sheered and presented her starboard battery. More speed was ordered, the Kearsarge advanced rapidly, and at 10:57 received a broadside of solid shot at a range of about eighteen hundred yards. This broadside cut away a little of the rigging, but the shot mostly passed over or fell short. It was apparent that Captain Semmes intended to fight at long range.
The Kearsarge advanced with increased speed, receiving a second and part of a third broadside, with similar effect. Captain Winslow wished to get at short range, as the guns were loaded with five-second shell. Arrived within nine hundred yards, the Kearsarge, fearing a fourth broadside, and apprehensive of a raking, sheered and broke her silence with the starboard battery. Each ship was now pressed under a full head of steam, the position being broadside, both employing the starboard guns.
Captain Winslow, fearful that the enemy would make for the shore, determined with a port helm to run under the Alabama's stem for raking, but was prevented by her sheering and keeping her broadside to the Kearsarge, which forced the fighting on a circular track, each ship, with a strong port helm, steaming around a common center, and pouring its fire into its opponent a quarter to half a mile away. There was a current setting to westward three knots an hour.
The action was now fairly begun. The Alabama changed from solid shot to shell. A shot from an early broadside of the Kearsarge carried away the spanker-gaff of the enemy, and caused his ensign to come down by the run. This incident was regarded as a favorable omen by the men, who cheered and went with increased confidence to their work. The fallen ensign reappeared at the mizzen. The Alabama returned to solid shot, and soon after fired both shot and shell to the end. 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 Kearsarge gunners had been cautioned against firing without direct aim, and had been advised to point the heavy guns below rather than above the water-line, and to clear the deck of the enemy with the lighter ones. Though subjected to an incessant storm of shot and shell, they kept their stations and obeyed instructions.
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: "That is a good one!" "Down, boys!" "Give her another like the last!" "Now we have her!" and so on, cheering and shouting to the end.
After the Kearsarge had been exposed to an uninterrupted cannonade for eighteen minutes, a 68-pounder Blakely shell passed through the starboard bulwarks below the main rigging, exploded upon the quarter-deck, and wounded three of the crew of the after pivot-gun. With these exceptions, not an officer or man received serious injury. The three unfortunate men were speedily taken below, and so quietly was the act done that at the termination of the fight a large number of the men were unaware that any of their comrades were wounded. Two shots entered the ports occupied by the thirty-twos, where several men were stationed, one taking effect in the hammock-netting, the other going through the opposite port, yet none were hit. A shell exploded in the hammock-netting and set the ship on fire; the alarm calling for fire-quarters was sounded, and men who had been detailed for such an emergency put out the fire, while the rest staid at the guns.
It is wonderful that so few casualties occurred on board the Kearsarge, considering the number on the Alabama-the former having fired 173 shot and shell, and the latter nearly double that number. The Kearsarge concentrated her fire, and poured in the II -inch shells with deadly effect. One penetrated the coal-bunker of the Alabama, and a dense cloud of coal-dust arose. Others struck near the water-line between the main and mizzen masts, exploded within board, or, passing through, burst beyond. Crippled and tom, the Alabama moved less quickly and began to settle by the stern, yet did not slacken her fire, but returned successive broadsides without disastrous result to us.
Captain Semmes witnessed the havoc made by the shells, especially by those of our after pivot-gun, and offered a reward to any one who would silence it. Soon his battery was turned upon this particular offending gun. It was in vain, for the work of destruction went on. We had completed the seventh rotation on the circular track and had begun the eighth, when the Alabama, now settling, sought to escape by setting all available sail (foretrysail and two jibs), left the circle amid a shower of shot and shell, and headed for the French waters; but to no purpose. In winding, the Alabama presented the port battery, with only two guns bearing, and showed gaping sides, through which the water washed. The Kearsarge pursued, keeping on a line nearer the shore, and with a few well-directed shots hastened the sinking. Then the Alabama was at our mercy. Her colors were struck, and the Kearsarge ceased firing. I was told by our prisoners that two of the junior officers swore they would never surrender, and in a mutinous spirit rushed to the two port guns and opened fire upon the Kearsarge. Captain Winslow, amazed at this extraordinary conduct of an 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. The Kearsarge was laid across her bows for raking, and in position to use grape and canister.
A white flag was then shown over the stern of the Alabama and her ensign was half-masted, union down. Captain Winslow for the second time gave orders to cease firing. Thus ended the fight, after a duration of one hour and two minutes. Captain Semmes, in his report, says: "Although we were now but four hundred 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." He is silent as to the renewal by the Alabama of the fight after his surrender-an act which, in Christian warfare, would have justified the Kearsarge in continuing the fire until the Alabama had sunk beneath the waters.
Boats were now lowered from the Alabama. Her master's-mate, Fullam, an Englishman, came alongside the Kearsarge with a few of the wounded, reported the disabled and sinking condition of his ship, and asked for assistance. Captain Winslow inquired, "Does Captain Semmes surrender his ship?" "Yes," was the reply. Fullam then solicited permission to return with his boat and crew to assist in rescuing the drowning, pledging his word of honor that when this was done he would come on board and surrender. Captain Winslow granted the request. With less generosity he could have detained the officer and men, supplied their places in the boat from his ship's company, secured more prisoners, and afforded equal aid to the distressed. The generosity was abused, as the sequel shows. Fullam pulled to the midst of the drowning, rescued several officers, went to the yacht Deerhound, and cast his boat adrift, leaving a number of men struggling in the water.
It was now Seen that the Alabama was settling fast. The wounded, and the boys who could not swim, were sent away in the quarter-boats, the waistboats having been destroyed. Captain Semmes dropped his sword into the sea and jumped overboard with the remaining officers and men.
Coming under the stern of the Kearsarge from the windward, the Deerhound was hailed, and her commander requested by Captain Winslow to run down and assist in picking up the men of the sinking ship. Or, as her owner, Mr. John Lancaster, reported: "The fact is, that when we passed the Kearsarge the captain cried out, 'For God's sake, do what you can to save them'; and that was my warrant for interfering in any way for the aid and succor of his enemies." The Deerhound was built by the Lairds at the same time and in the same yard with the Alabama. Throughout the action she kept about a mile to the windward of the contestants. After being hailed she steamed toward the Alabama, which sank almost immediately after. This was at 12:24. The Alabama sank in forty-five fathoms of water, at a distance of about four and a half miles from the breakwater, off the west entrance. She was severely hulled between the main and mizzen masts, and settled by the stern; the mainmast, pierced by a shot at the very last, broke off near the head and went over the side, the bow lifted high from the water, and then came the end. Suddenly assuming a perpendicular position, caused by the falling aft of the battery and stores, straight as a plumb-line, stem first, she went down, the jib-boom being the last to appear above water. Thus sank the terror of merchantmen, riddled through and through, and as she disappeared to her last resting-place there was no cheer; all was silent. . . ..
The Kearsarge received twenty-eight shot and shell, of which thirteen were in the hull, the most efficient being abaft the mainmast. A 100-pounder rifle shell entered at the starboard quarter and lodged in the stern-post. The blow shook the ship from stem to stern. Luckily the shell did not explode, otherwise the result would have been serious, if not fatal. A 32-pounder shell entered forward of the forward pivot port, crushing the waterways, raising the gun and carriage, and lodged, but did not explode, else many of the gun's crew would likely have been injured by the fragments and splinters. The smoke-pipe was perforated by a rifle shell, which exploded inside and tore a ragged hole nearly three feet in diameter, and carried away three of the chain guys. Three boats were shattered. The cutting away of the rigging was mostly about the mainmast. The spars were left in good order, A large number of pieces of burst shell were gathered from the deck and thoughtlessly thrown overboard. During the anchorage in Cherbourg harbor no assistance was received from shore except that rendered by a boiler-maker in patching up the smoke-stack, every other repair being made by our own men.
Captain Semmes in his official report says:
At the end of the engagement it was discovered, by those of our officers who went alongside the enemy's ship with the wounded, that her midship section on both sides was thoroughly iron-coated. The planking had been ripped off in every direction by our shot and shell, the chain broken and indented in many places, and forced partly into the ship's side. The enemy was heavier than myself, both in ship, battery, and crew; but I did not know until the action was over that she was also iron-clad.
The ships were well matched in size, speed, armament, and crew, showing a likeness rarely seen in naval battles. The number of the ship's company of the Kearsarge was 163. That of the Alabama, from the best information, was estimated at 150.
The chain plating was made of one hundred and twenty fathoms of sheetchains of one and seven-tenths inch iron, covering a space amidships of forty-nine and one-half feet in length by six feet two inches in depth, stopped up and down to eye-bolts with marlines, secured by iron dogs, and employed for the purpose of protecting the engines when the upper part of the coalbunkers was empty, as happened during the action. The chains were concealed by one-inch deal-boards as a finish. The chain plating was struck by a 32-pounder shot in the starboard gangway, which cut the chain and bruised the planking; and by a 32-pounder shell, which broke a link of the chain, exploded, and tore away a portion of the deal covering. Had the shot been from the 100-pounder rifle the result would have been different, though without serious damage, because the shot struck five feet above the water-line, and if sent through the side would have cleared the machinery and boilers. It is proper therefore to assert that in the absence of the chain armor the result would have been nearly the same, notwithstanding the common opinion at the time that the Kearsarge was an "iron-clad" contending with a wooden ship. The chains were fastened to the ship's sides more than a year previous to the fight, while at the Azores. It was the suggestion of the executive officer, Lieutenant-Commander James S. Thornton, to hang the sheet-chain (or spare anchor-cable) over the sides, so as to protect the midship section, he having served with Admiral Farragut in passing the forts to reach New Orleans, and having observed its benefit on that occasion. 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. The Alabama had bunkers full of coal, which brought her down in the water. The Kearsarge was deficient in seventy tons of coal of her proper supply, but the sheet chains stowed outside gave protection to her partly-filled bunkers.
The battery of the Kearsarge consisted of seven guns: two II -inch pivots, smooth bore, one 30-pounder rifle, and four light 32-pounders; that of the Alabama of eight guns: one 68-pounder pivot, smooth bore, one I 00-pounder pivot rifle, and six heavy 32-pounders. Five guns were fought by the Kearsarge and seven by the Alabama, each with the starboard battery. Both ships had made thirteen knots an hour under steam; at the time of the battle the Alabama made ten knots. The masts of the Kearsarge were low and small; she never carried more than top-sail yards, depending upon her engines for speed. The greater size and height of the masts of the Alabama and the heaviness of her rig (barque) gave the appearance of a larger vessel than her antagonist....
The contest was decided by the superiority of the 11-inch Dahlgrens, especially the after-pivot, together with the coolness and accuracy of aim of the gunners of the Kearsarge, and notably by the skill of William Smith, the captain of the after-pivot, who in style and behavior was like Long Tom Coffin in Cooper's "Pilot."
This Sunday naval duel was fought in the presence of more than 15,000 spectators, who, upon the heights of Cherbourg, the breakwater, and rigging of men-of-war, witnessed "the last of the Alabama. " Among them were the captains, their families, and crews of two merchant ships burnt by the daring cruiser a few days before her arrival at Cherbourg, where they were landed in a nearly destitute condition. Many spectators were provided with spy-glasses and camp-stools. The Kearsarge was burning Newcastle coals, and the Alabama Welsh coals, the difference in the amount of smoke enabling the movements of each ship to be distinctly traced. An excursion train from Paris arrived in the morning, bringing hundreds of pleasure-seekers, who were unexpectedly favored with the spectacle of a sea-fight. A French gentleman at Boulogne-sur-Mer assured me that the fight was the conversation of Paris for more than a week.