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Home >> The Writings of Alexander Molyneaux: June 19-th, 1864
In June 1864, the U. S. Navy steam sloop U. S. S Kearsarge fought the Confederate commerce raider C. S. S. Alabama off the coast of France, outside the harbor at Cherbourg. The Kearsarge was commanded by Captain John Winslow (1811-1873) and the raider Alabama was commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes (1809-1877).
After several successful raiding missions in the Atlantic, the Alabama had retired to Cherbourg for repairs. After what had been a two year pursuit, the Kearsarge finally trapped the Alabama in harbor. With repairs nearly completed and no way to escape, the Alabama sailed out of the harbor to engage the Kearsarge. Before they left the harbor, the crew of the Alabama took several days to practice their drills, take-on supplies and otherwise prepare for the upcoming battle.
Exchanging blows for over an hour, the Alabama suffered several large holes below the waterline and proceeded to sink. After a request from Captain Semmes, the Kearsarge rescued about 70 men. Another ship in the area, a British yacht named the Deerhound, rescued about 30 survivors - including the Captain and officers of the Alabama. Over forty Confederate sailors were killed.
The Kearsarge had three wounded, one who died the next day.
Following Alexander's poem and for those interested, we've included four reports that were written after the battle. The first two reports were written by Captain Winslow of the USS Kearsarge. The third report comes from Captain Semmes of the CSS Alabama. The fourth report comes from the London Times and contains the observations of those on the British yacht Deerhound.
Report of Captain Winslow,
Captain John Winslow (1811-1873)
(In command of the U.S.S Kearsarge)
SIR: I have the honor to inform the Department that the day subsequent to the arrival of the Kearsarge off this port, on the 14th instant, I received a note from Captain Semmes, begging that the Kearsarge would not depart, as he intended to fight her and would not delay her but a day or two.
According to this notice, the Alabama left the port of Cherbourg this morning at about 9:30 o'clock.
At 10:20 a. m. we discovered her steering toward us. Fearing the question of jurisdiction might arise, we steamed to sea until a distance of 6 or 7 miles was attained from the Cherbourg breakwater, when we rounded to and commenced steaming for the Alabama. As we approached her within about 1,200 yards she opened fire, we receiving two or three broadsides before a shot was returned. The action continued, the respective steamers making a circle round and round at a distance of about 900 yards from each other. At the expiration of an hour the Alabama struck, going down in about 20 minutes afterwards, and carrying many persons with her.
It affords me great gratification to announce to the Department that every officer and man did his duty, exhibiting a degree of coolness and fortitude which gave promise at the outset of certain victory.
I have the honor to be, most respectfully, your obedient servant,
JNO. A. WINSLOW
U. S. S. KEARSARGE,
English Channel, July 30, 1864
SIR: In obedience to the instructions of the Department I have the honor to make the following supplementary report of the action between the Kearsarge and the Alabama: On the morning of the 19th ultimo, the day being fine, with a hazy atmosphere, wind moderate from the westward, with little sea, the position of the Kearsarge at 10 o'clock was near the buoy which marks the line of shoals to the eastward of Cherbourg, and distant about 3 miles from the eastern entrance, which bore to the southward and westward. At 10:20 o'clock the Alabama was descried coming out of the western entrance, accompanied by the Couronne (ironclad). I had, in an interview with the admiral at Cherbourg, assured him that in the event of an action occurring with the Alabama the position of the ships should be so far offshore that no question could be advanced about the line of jurisdiction. Accordingly, to perfect this object, and with the double purpose of drawing the Alabama so far offshore that if disabled she could not return, I directed the ship's head seaward, and cleared for action with the battery pivoted to starboard. Having attained a point about 7 miles from the shore, the head of the Kearsarge was turned short round and the ship steered directly for the Alabama, my purpose being to run her down, or if circumstances did not warrant it, to close in with her. Hardly had the Kearsarge come round before the Alabama sheered, presented her starboard battery, and slowed her engines. On approaching her, at long range of about a mile, she opened her full broadside, the shot cutting some of our rigging and going over and alongside of us. Immediately I ordered more speed, but in two minutes the Alabama had loaded and again fired another broadside, and following it with a third, without damaging us except in rigging. We had now arrived within about 900 yards of her, and I was apprehensive that another broadside, nearly raking us as it was, would prove disastrous. Accordingly, I ordered the Kearsarge sheered, and opened on the Alabama. The position of the vessels was now broadside and broadside, but it was soon apparent that Captain Semmes did not seek close action. I became then fearful, lest after some fighting he would again make for the shore. To defeat this, I determined to keep full speed on, and with a port helm to run under the stern of the Alabama and rake, if he did not prevent it by sheering and keeping his broadside to us. He adopted this mode as a preventive, and as a consequence the Alabama was forced with a full head of steam into a circular track during the engagement.
The effect of this maneuver was such that at the last of the action, when the Alabama would have made off, she was near 5 miles from the shore, and had the action continued from the first in parallel lines, with her head inshore, the line of jurisdiction would no doubt have been reached. The firing of the Alabama from the first was rapid and wild. Toward the close of the action her firing became better. Our men, who had been cautioned against rapid firing without direct aim, were much more deliberate, and the instructions given to point the heavy guns below rather than above the water line and clear the deck with the lighter ones was fully observed. I had endeavored with a port helm to close in with the Alabama, but it was not until just before the close of the action that we were in position to use grape. This was avoided, however, by her surrender. The effect of the training of our men was evident. Nearly every shot from our guns was telling fearfully on the Alabama, and on the seventh rotation on the circular track she winded, setting fore-trysail and two jibs, with head inshore. Her speed was now retarded, and, by winding, her port broadside was presented to us, with only two guns bearing, not having been able, as I learned afterwards, to shift over but one. I saw now that she was at our mercy, and a few more guns, well directed, brought down her flag. I was unable to ascertain whether they had been hauled down or shot away, but a white flag having been displayed over the stern, our fire was reserved. Two minutes had not more than elapsed before she again opened on us with the two guns on the port side. This drew our fire again, and the Kearsarge was immediately steamed ahead, and laid across her bows for raking. The white flag was still flying, and our fire was again reserved. Shortly after this her boats were seen to be lowering, and an officer in one of them came alongside and informed us that the ship had surrendered and was fast sinking. In twenty minutes from this time the Alabama went down, her mainmast, which had been shot, breaking near the head as she sank, and her bow rising high out of the water as her stern rapidly settled.
The fire of the Alabama, although it is stated that she discharged 370 or more shell and shot, was not of serious damage to the Kearsarge. Some thirteen or fourteen of these had taken effect in and about the hull, and sixteen or seventeen about the masts and rigging. The casualties were small, only three persons having been wounded; yet it is a matter of surprise that so few were injured, considering the number of projectiles that came aboard. Two shot passed through the ports in which the 32's were placed, with men thickly stationed around them, one taking effect in the hammock netting and the other going through the port on the opposite side; yet no one was hit, the captain of one of the guns being only knocked down by the wind of the shot, as supposed. The fire of the Kearsarge, although only 173 projectiles had been discharged, according to the prisoners' accounts was terrific. One shot alone had killed and wounded eighteen men and disabled the gun; another had entered the coal bunkers, exploding, and completely blocked up the engine room, and Captain Semmes states that shot and shell had taken effect in the sides of the vessel, tearing large holes by explosion, and his men were everywhere knocked down.
Of the casualties in the Alabama no correct account can be given. One hundred and fifteen persons reached the shore, either in England or France, after the action. It is known that the Alabama carried a crew (officers and men) of about 150 into Cherbourg, and that while in the Southern Ocean her complement was about 170; but desertions had reduced this complement. The prisoners state that a number of men came on board at Cherbourg, and the night before the action boats were going to and fro, and in the morning strange men were seen who were stationed as captains of the guns. Among these there was one lieutenant (Sinclair), who joined her in Cherbourg.
The Alabama had been five days in preparation; she had taken in 350 tons of coal, which brought her down in the water. The Kearsarge had only 120 tons in, but as an offset to this, her sheet chains were stowed outsidestopped up and down as an additional preventive and protection to her more empty bunkers. The number of the crew of the Kearsarge, including officers and sick men, was 163 and her battery numbered seven guns two 11-inch and one 30-pounder rifle, and four light 32-pounder guns.
The battery of the Alabama numbered eight guns one heavy 68, of 9,000 pounds, one 110-pounder rifle, and six heavy 32-pounder guns. In the engagement the Alabama fought seven guns and the Kearsarge five, both exercising her starboard battery until the Alabama winded, using then her port side with one gun, and another shifted over.
The collateral events connected with this action have already been laid before the Department. I enclose a diagram, showing the track which was described during the engagement, by the rotary course of the vessels.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
SOUTHAMPTON, June 21, 1864
Captain Raphael Semmes (1809-1877)
(In command of the C.S.S Alabama)
SIR: I have the honor to inform you, in accordance with my intention as previously announced to you, I steamed out of the harbor of Cherbourg between 9 and 10 o'clock on the morning of June 19 for the purpose of engaging the enemy's steamer Kearsarge, which had been lying off and on the port for several days previously. After clearing the harbor we descried the enemy, with his head offshore, at a distance of about 9 miles. We were three-quarters of an hour in coming up with him. I had previously pivoted my guns to starboard, and made all my preparations for engaging the enemy on that side. When within about a mile and a quarter of the enemy he suddenly wheeled, and bringing his head inshore presented his starboard battery to me. By this time we were distant about 1 mile from each other, when I opened on him with solid shot, to which he replied in a few minutes, and the engagement became active on both sides. The enemy now pressed his ship under a full head of steam, and to prevent our passing each other too speedily, and to keep our respective broadsides bearing, it became necessary to fight in a circle, the two ships steaming around a common center and preserving a distance from each other of from a quarter to half a mile. When we got within good shell range, we opened on him with shell. Some ten or fifteen minutes after the commencement of the action our spanker gaff was shot away and our ensign came down by the run. This was immediately replaced by another at the mizzenmast- head. The firing now became very hot, and the enemy's shot and shell soon began to tell upon our hull, knocking down, killing, and disabling a number of men in different parts of the ship. Perceiving that our shell, though apparently exploding against the enemy's sides, were doing but little damage, I returned to solid shot firing, and from this time onward alternated with shot and shell. After the lapse of about one hour and ten minutes our ship was ascertained to be in sinking condition, the enemy's shell having exploded in our sides and between decks, opening large apertures, through which the water rushed with great rapidity. For some few minutes I had hopes of being able to reach the French coast, for which purpose I gave the ship all steam and set such of the fore-and-aft sails as were available. The ship filled so rapidly, that before we had made much progress the fires were extinguished in the furnaces, and we were evidently on the point of sinking. I now hauled down my colors to prevent the further destruction of life, and dispatched a boat to inform the enemy of our condition. Although we were now but 400 yards from each other, the enemy fired upon me five times after my colors had been struck, dangerously wounding several of my men. It is charitable to suppose that a ship of war of a Christian nation could not have done this intentionally. We now turned all our exertions toward the wounded and such of the boys as were unable to swim. These were dispatched in my quarter boats, the only boats remaining to me, the waist boats having been torn to pieces.
Some twenty minutes after my furnace fires had been extinguished, and the ship being on the point of settling, every man, in obedience to a previous order which had been given to the crew, jumped overboard and endeavored to save himself. There was no appearance of any boat coming to me from the enemy until after the ship went down. Fortunately, however, the steam yacht Deerhound, owned by a gentleman of Lancashire, England (Mr. John Lancaster), who was himself on board, steamed up in the midst of my drowning men and rescued a number of both officers and men from the water. I was fortunate enough myself thus to escape to the shelter of the neutral flag, together with about forty others, all told. About this time the Kearsarge sent one and then, tardily, another boat.
Accompanying you will find lists of the killed and wounded, and of those who were picked up by the Deerhound. The remainder there is reason to hope were picked up by the enemy and by a couple of French pilot boats, which were also fortunately near the scene of action. 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, this having been done with chains constructed for the purpose, placed perpendicularly from the rail to the water's edge, the whole covered over by a thin outer planking, which gave no indication of the armor beneath. This 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. She was most effectively guarded, however, in this section from penetration. The enemy was much damaged in other parts, but to what extent it is now impossible to tell. It is believed he was badly crippled.
My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly, and though they have lost their ship they have not lost honor. Where all behaved so well it would be invidious to particularize; but I cannot deny myself the pleasure of saying that Mr. Kell, my first lieutenant, deserves great credit for the fine condition in which the ship went into action, with regard to her battery, magazine, and shell rooms; also that he rendered me great assistance by his coolness and judgment as the fight proceeded.
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 ironclad. Our total loss in killed and wounded is 30, to wit, 9 killed and 21 wounded.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
The London Times
June 21, 1864
The yacht Deerhound rescuing survivors
(From a sketch by Robert Lancaster)
The English steam yacht Deerhound, belonging to Mr. John Lancaster, of Hindley Hall, Wigan, Lancashire, arrived here last night and landed Captain Seromes, (commander of the late confederate steamer Alabama,) thirteen officers, and twenty-six men, whom she rescued from drowning after the action off Cherbourg yesterday which resulted in the destruction of the world renowned Alabama. From interviews held this morning with Mr. Lancaster, with Captain Jones, (master of the Deerhound,) and with some of the Alabama's officers, and from information gleaned in other quarters, I am enabled to furnish you with some interesting particulars connected with the fight between the Alabama and the Kearsarge.
The Deerhound is a yacht of 190 tons and 70 horse power, and her owner is a member of the royal yacht squadron at Cowes and of the royal Mersey yacht club. By a somewhat singular coincidence she was built by Messrs. Laird & Son, of Birkenhead, and proof of her fleetness is furnished by the fact that she steamed home from the scene of action yesterday at the rate of thirteen knots an hour. On arriving at Cherbourg at 10 o'clock on Saturday night, by railway from Caen, Mr. Lancaster was informed by the captain of his yacht, which was lying in harbor awaiting his arrival, that it was reported that the Alabama and the Kearsarge were going out to fight each other in the morning. Air. Lancaster, whose wife, niece, aud family were also on board the yacht, at once determined to go out in the morning and see the combat.
The Alabama left Cherbourg harbor about 10 o'clock on Sunday morning, and the Kearsarge was then several miles out to seaward, with her steam up ready for action. The French plated ship-of-war Couronne followed the Alabama out of harbor, aud stopped when the vessels were a league off the coast, her object being to see that there was no violation of the law of nations by any fight taking place within the legal distance from land. The combat took place about nine miles from Cherbourg, and, as there are some slight differences (as might naturally be expected under the circumstances) in relation to the period over which it lasted, and other matters, it may be well here to reproduce from Mr. Lancaster's letter in the Times of this morning the subjoined extract from the log kept on board the Deerhound:
"Sunday, June 10, 9 a. m. - Got up steam and proceeded out of Cherbourg harbor. 10.30. - Observed the Alabama steaming out of the harbor towards the federal steamer Kearsarge. 11.10. - The Alabama commenced tiring with her starboard battery, the distance between the contending vessels being about one mile. The Kearsarge immediately replied with her starboard guns; a very* sharp, spirited firing was then kept up, shot sometimes being varied by shells. In manoeuvring both vessels made seven complete circles at a distance of from a quarter to half a mile. At 12 a slight intermission was observed in the Alabama's firing, the Alabama making head sail, and shaping her course for the land, distant about 9 miles. At 12.30 observed the Alabama to be disabled and in a sinking state. We immediately made towards her, and on passing the Kearsarge were requested to assist in saving the Alabama's crew. At 12.50, when within a distance of 200 yards, the Alabama sank. We then lowered our two boats, and, with the assistance of the Alabama's whale-boat and dingy, succeeded in saving about forty men, including Captain Semmes and thirteen officers. At 1 p. m. we steered for Southampton."
One of the officers of the Alabama names the same hour, viz: 11.10, as the commencement of the action, and 12.40 as the period of its cessation, making its duration an hour and a half; while the time observed on board the Deerhound, which is most likely to be accurate, that vessel being free from the excitement and confusion necessarily existing on board the Alabama, limited the action to an hour, the last shot being fired at 12.10. The distance between the two contending vessels when the Alabama opened fire was estimated on board the Deerhound at about a mile, while the Alabama's officer tells me that she was a mile and a half away from the Kearsarge when she fired the first shot. Be this as it may, it is certain that the Alabama commenced the firing, and as it is known that her guns were pointed for a range of 2,000 yards, and that the second shot she fired, in about half a minute after the first, went right into the Kearsarge, that may be taken as the real distance between the two ships. The firing became general from both vessels at the distance of a little under a mile, and. was well sustained on both sides, Mr. Lancaster's impression being that at no time during the action were they less than a quarter of a mile from each other. Seven complete circles were made in the period over which the fight lasted. It was estimated on board the Deerhound that the Alabama fired in all about 150 rounds, some single guns, and some in broadsides of three or four, and the Kearsarge about 100, the majority of which were 11-inch shells. The Alabama's were principally Blakeley's pivot guns. In the early part of the action the relative firing was about three from the Alabama to one from the Kearsarge, but as it progressed the latter gained the advantage, having apparently a much greater power of steam. She appeared to have an advantage over the Alabama of about three knots an hour, and steam was seen rushing out of her blowpipe all through the action, while the Alabama seemed to have very little steam on.
At length the Alabama's rudder was disabled by one of her opponent's heavy shells, and they hoisted sails; but it was soon reported to Captain Semmes by one of his officers that his ship was sinking. With great bravery the guns were kept ported till the muzzles were actually under water, and the last shot from the doomed ship was fired as she was settling down. When her stern was completely under water Captain Semmes gave orders for the men to save themselves as best they could, and every one jumped into the sea and swam to the boats which had put off to their rescue. Those of them who were wounded were ordered by Captain Semmes to be placed in the Alabama's boats and taken on board the Kearsarge, which was as far as possible obeyed.
Captain Semmes and those above mentioned were saved in the Deerhound's boats, and when it was ascertained that the water was clear of every one that had life left, and that no more help could be rendered, the yacht steamed away for Cowes, and thence to this port.
The Kearsarge, it is known, has for some time past been in hot pursuit of the Alabama, which vessel Captain Winslow was determined to follow everywhere till he overtook his enemy. Very recently she chased and came up with one of the vessels of the Chinese expeditionary force returning to England, aud ran alongside with her gun pointed and crew at quarters, before she could be convinced of her mistake, for the expeditionary vessel was very like the celebrated confederate cruiser. The Kearsarge was then described as likely to prove a formidable overmatch for the Alabama, having higher steam power and rate of speed, a crew "nearly double" that under Captain Semmea, and, unlike her sister ship the Tuscarora, carrying ten, instead of eight, very heavy 11-inch shell guns-the so-called columbiads of the American navy. The Alabama, on the contrary, is stated to have had ouly two heavy rifled guns and six broadside 32-pounders. The confederate, too, after her long cruise, was sorely in need of a refit. A part of her copper, it is said, was off, and her bottom was covered with long weeds.
The crew of the Alabama comprised, in all, about 150 when she left Cherbourg. Of these, 10 or 12 were killed during the action, and a number were known to be drowned, the difference between these and the number brought home by the Deerhound being, it is hoped, saved by the boats of the Kearsarge, or some French pilot-boats which were in the vicinity. The French war vessel Couronne did not come out beyond three miles. The surgeon of the Alabama was an Englishman, and, as nothing has been heard of him since he went below to dress the wounds of some of the sufferers, it is feared that he went down with the ship.
The wounded men on board the Deerhound were carefully attended to until her arrival here, when they were taken to the Sailors' Home, in the Canute road. Several of the men are more or less scarred, but they are all out about the town to-day, and the only noticeable case is that of a man who was wounded in the groin, and that but slightly.
Captain Semmes, and his first lieutenant, Mr. J. M. Kill, are staying at Kelway's hotel, in Queen's Terrace, where the gallant commander is under the care of Dr. Ware, a medical, gentleman of this town, his right hand being slightly splintered by a shell.
When the men came on board the Deerhound they had nothing on but their drawers and shirts, having been stripped to fight, and one of the men, with a sailor's devotedness, insisted on seeing his captain, who was then lying in Mr. Lancaster's cabin in a very exhausted state, as he had been intrusted by Captain Semmes with the ship's papers, and to no one else would he give them up. The men were all very anxious about their captain, and were rejoiced to find that he had been saved. They appeared to be a set of first-rate fellows, and to act well together in perfect union under the most trying circumstances.
The captain of the forecastle on board the Alabama, a Norwegian, says that, when he was in the water, he was hailed by a boat from the Kearsarge, "Come here, old man, and we'll save you;" to which he replied, "Never mind me, I can keep up half an hour yet; look after some who are nearer drowning than I am." He then made way for the Deerhound, thanking God that he was under British colors.
Throughout the action the Deerhound kept about a mile to windward of the combatants, and was enabled to witness the whole of it. The Kearsarge was burning Newcastle coals, and the Alabama Welsh coals, the difference in the smoke (the north country coal yielding so much more) enabling the movements of each ship to be distinctly traced. Mr. Lancaster is clearly of opinion that it was the Kearsarge's 11-inch shells which gave her the advantage, and that, after what he has witnessed on this occasion, wooden ships stand no chance whatever against shells. Both vessels fired well into each other's hull, and the yards and the masts were not much damaged. The mainmast of the Alabama had been struck by shot, and as the vessel was sinking broke off and fell into the sea, throwing some men who were in the maintop into the water. Some tremendous gaps were visible in the bulwarks of the Kearsarge, and it was believed that some of her boats were disabled. She appeared to be temporarily plated with iron chains, &c. As far as could be seen, everything appeared to be well planned and ready on board the Kearsarge for the action. It was apparent that Captain Semmes intended to fight at a long range, and the fact that the Kearsarge did not reply till the two vessels got nearer together showed that they preferred the short range, and the superior steaming power of the latter enabled this to be accomplished. It is remarkable that no attempt was made by the Kearsarge to close and board the Alabama, and when the Alabama hoisted sail and made as if for the shore, the Kearsarge moved away in another direction, as though her rudder or screw was damaged and out of control. Great pluck was shown on both sides during the action. On board the Alabama all the hammocks were let loose, and arrangements had been made for sinking her rather than that she should be captured.
As far as it is known, not a relic of the Alabama is in the possession of her successful rival. When she was sinking, Captain Semmes dropped his own sword into the sea to prevent the possibility of its getting into their hands, and the gunner made a hole in one of the Alabama's boats and sank her for the same reason.
Before leaving the Deerhound, Captain Semmes presented to Mr. Lancaster's son one of his officer's swords and a pistol in remembrance of the occurrence and the kind treatment he and his men had received on board the yacht. The men stated that the best practice generally on board the Alabama during the action was shown by the gunners who had been trained on board the Excellent in Portsmouth harbor.
The spectacle presented during the combat is described, by those who witnessed it from the Deerhound, as magnificent, and thus the extraordinary career of the Alabama has come to a grand and appropriate termination.
The presence of the Deerhound on the scene was a providential circumstance, as, in all probability, the men saved by her would otherwise have been drowned, and a lamentable addition would thus have been made to the number of lives lost on the occasion.
Nothing is known here respecting the Kearsarge or her subsequent movements. She was in command of Captain John Winslow, and has about the same number of officers and crew as the Alabama. The last official American navy list describes her as 1,031 tons register, and carrying eight guns, being two guns less than the Tuscarora mounts, to which in all other respects the Kearsarge is a sister ship. The Tuscarora will be remembered as the federal ship-of-war that some two years and a half ago lay at this port watching the Nashville. Several of the Alabama's officers now here were attached to the Nashville on that occasion.
The Alabama's chronometers, specie, and all the bills of ransomed vessels are saved, having been handed over to a gentleman at Cherbourg before she left that port.
Mr. Mason, the confederate agent, Captain Bullock, and the Rev. Mr. Tremlett arrived by the 4 o'clock train this afternoon from London, and proceeded to Kelway's hotel to meet Captain Semmes.
Captain Semmes and all the men are now placed under the care of Mr. J. Wiblin for such medical attendance as may be required.