“Sunday, the 19th, came; a fine day, atmosphere somewhat hazy, little sea, light westerly wind. 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.”
This was the scene on board the U.S.S, “Kearsarge” on the morning of this date, June 19 in 1864 as reported by John M. Browne, the Surgeon on the “Kearsarge”. It was the opening scene of what would be one of the last of its kind: a one on one duel between wooden sailing warships. It is true that both the “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” of the Confederate Navy were steam powered warships, but they both were nevertheless wooden ships. And their duel on this date during the Civil War hearkened back to a time when iron men in wooden ships battled it out one against the other. A mode of combat which included a challenge to a duel, and bravura theatrics of a kind which had already passed into obsolescence with the duel between the “Monitor” and the “Merrimack” (“Virginia”) just over two years before.
The C.S.S. “Alabama” Arrives in Cherbourg… so does the U.S.S. “Kearsarge”
After almost two years of very successfully cruising and raiding at the expense of the United States’ commercial shipping, “Alabama” cruised into European waters in early June 1864. The confederate raider was in fact an armed sloop with 8 guns. She had managed to ravage Union shipping to the tune of 68 merchantmen. The British-built raider had also sunk a Union warship, the blockader “Hatteras” off Galveston on January 11 of 1863. So she was to the Union Navy a sought-after scourge off the seas. But by June of 1864, she was run-down and badly in need of repairs. She put into Cherbourg, France, on June 11. News of her presence soon became known to Union spies, and reached the USS “Kearsarge” which immediately steamed from Holland to Cherbourg, arriving on the 14th. Seeing that he was blockaded, with his ship’s repairs delayed and with the liklihood that his ship would not be able to return to her raiding career without a fight, “Alabama’s” Captain Raphael Semmes challenged “Kearsarge’s” Captain John Winslow (pictured, below) to a ship-to-ship duel via the following declaration sent to the Confederate commercial agent Mr. Bonfils and duly passed to Captain Winslow:
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
According to Mr. Browne, the rumors were Captain Semmes was looking to prove himself and his ship: “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….”
The Two Ships Have it Out….
Whatever his reasons, Semmes brought his ship out on that Sunday morning just after Captain Winslow had finished conducting Sunday morning church services. “Alabama” was accompanied to the edge of International Waters by the French ironclad warship “Couronne”, and the English pleasure yacht “Deerhound”. Winslow, who was a former shipmate of Semmes was a hardbitten realist, and not a romantic. He cleared “Kearsarge” for action and quickly prepared to fulfill his determination to catch the famous raider.
“Alabama” opened fire at a range of approximately one mile at 11:10 a.m. The two ships were fairly well matched, “Alabama” with eight guns to seven for the “Kearsarge”. But the Union ship had heavier guns and her men were much better marksmen than the Confederate gunners. The two combatants steamed in half-mile circles for about an hour. Mr. Browne reported the slow and methodical destruction of the “Alabama” by the Union gunners aboard the “Kearsarge”:
“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…. 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 “Kearsarge” Triumphs!
The union gunners zeroed in on their prey, ripping her decks, riddling her hull and uprooting her guns. “Alabama” of course returned fire, but most of her shots missed their target. When an eleven inch Union shell exploded in “Alabama’s” engine room, Semmes attempted to turn for the French shore to save his ship. But Winslow brought “Kearsarge” between “Alabama” and the French coast to cut off her retreat, and seal her fate. After combat lasting about an hour, the “Alabama” sunk with a loss of 21 of her men to only one man lost aboard the “Kearsarge”. Rather than accepting defeat in the old time honored tradition of surrendering his sword to his opposing captain, Semmes hurled his sword into the sea and escaped aboard the “Deerhound” which had remained on the scene to observe. Semmes would go to England and return to service in the Confederate Navy and after briefly being imprisoned after the war would die in 1877. Winslow would advance to the rank of Rear Admiral before retiring in 1872 and dying shortly after. His coffin was draped in the “Kearsarge’s” battle flag. While en route from Haiti to Nicaragua in February of 1888, the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” was wrecked on Roncador Reef. An effort to salvage her proved fruitless, and “Kearsarge” was stricken from the Navy List later in the year.
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Picture History of the U.S. Navy: From Old Navy to New, 1776-1897by Theodore Roscoe and Fred Freeman, Bonanza Books, New York, 1956.