Confederate Raider ‘Alabama’ Sunk by Union Gunboat ‘Kearsarge’
By the summer of 1864 the Union navy was desperately trying to hunt down and destroy the Confederate navy’s highly-successful warship Alabama. Built in Great Britain and launched in 1862, the Alabama had roamed the world’s oceans for two years, attacking Union merchant ships everywhere it went. In its two-year career the Alabama captured 65 Union ships without suffering a single casualty to its crew. Its captain, Raphael Semmes, was also proud of the fact that no captured ship’s crew or passengers had ever been harmed by the Alabama.
By the summer of 1864, however, after two years of continuous raiding covering more than 70,000 nautical miles, Semmes knew his ship needed an overhauling. He sailed to France and entered the harbor of Cherbourg on June 11, 1864—but the French refused to permit the Alabama’s needed repairs. Semmes took on provisions while arguing with local officials for access to a dry dock, but to no avail.
Three days later, on June 14, the U.S. Navy’s Kearsarge appeared at the mouth of Cherbourg Harbor. The Kearsarge was one of 20 Federal ships out looking for the Alabama, and its captain, John Ancrum Winslow, was determined to not let the Alabama escape. He only had to wait five days for action.
On June 19, 1864, the Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg Harbor and fought a spectacular battle with the Kearsarge, observed by thousands of French citizens lining the shoreline and several neutral ships offshore. The two warships blasted each other for nearly 80 minutes, hurling hundreds of shells at each other while each ship made seven complete circles trying to outmaneuver the enemy. Although the Alabama was bigger and carried more guns, its ship was damaged after two years at sea, its crew tired, and its powder and shells faulty. The Kearsarge gunners’ superior accuracy prevailed, and the Alabama was sunk around 12:30 that afternoon.
Captain Semmes and 40 of his crew were rescued by a passing English yacht, the Deerhound, while the remaining survivors (around 70) were captured by the Kearsarge and held as prisoners of war. During the fighting the Kearsarge had suffered one killed and three wounded, while the Alabama had around 40 crewmembers killed. The feared Confederate raider sank to the bottom, and a major threat to Union shipping was no more.
The news of the Kearsarge’s triumph over the Alabama reached the U.S. when the steamship City of Baltimore docked at New York on July 5, 1864, after an Atlantic crossing. Newspapers were quick to print the long-awaited news, as the following three articles show.
This article was published by the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia) on the front page of its July 6, 1864, issue:
The Loss of the Alabama
The steamship City of Baltimore which reached New York yesterday from Liverpool brings the intelligence of the sinking of the Confederate steamer Alabama, in an engagement with the United States steamer Kearsarge, on the 19th of June, off the harbor of Cherbourg. According to the accounts published in the Northern papers: “On the morning of Sunday, 19th, at 10:30, the Alabama was observed steaming out of Cherbourg harbor, towards the steamer Kearsarge. At 11:10 the Alabama commenced the action by firing with her starboard battery, at a distance of about a mile. The Kearsarge also opened fire immediately with her starboard guns. A sharp engagement, with rapid firing from both ships, was kept up, both shot and shell being discharged. In maneuvering, both vessels made complete circles at a distance of from a quarter to half a mile. At 12 o’clock the fire from the Alabama was observed to slacken, and she appeared to be making head sail, shaping her course for land, which was distant about nine miles. At 12:30 the Confederate vessel was in a disabled and sinking state. The English yacht Deerhound immediately made towards her, and when at a distance of two hundred yards, the Alabama sank, and the Deerhound lowered her boats, and with the assistance of those from the sinking vessel, succeeded in saving about forty men, including Captain Semmes, and thirteen other officers. The Alabama’s loss is as follows:
Drowned: one officer and one man; killed: six men; wounded: one officer and sixteen men.
Captain Semmes was slightly wounded in the hand.
Capt. Semmes declined a public dinner at Southampton. He has gone to Paris to report to the Confederate Commissioner. Three of the Alabama’s officers, and six of the crew, were landed at Cherbourg from a French pilot-boat; also, several from the British ship Action.
According to some accounts, the Kearsarge sustained considerable damage, her sides being torn open, showing the chain plating. A dispatch, however, from Cherbourg, says that she had suffered no damage of importance, and that none of her officers were killed and wounded. Only three seamen were wounded.
The Paris correspondent of the London Globe says the Alabama made two attempts to board the Kearsarge, but her commander outmaneuvered Semmes, and finally sent a projective right through the Alabama’s boiler. Then seeing what had occurred, he brought all his guns to bear on the Confederate in a concentrated broadside from the starboard, and made a breach four yards in length under the water mark, when she began to sink rapidly.
The Federal Navy Department has received a dispatch from New York giving the following report made by Captain Semmes, concerning the loss of his vessel:
“Capt. Semmes says that in an hour and ten minutes the Alabama was found to be in a sinking condition, the enemy’s shells having exploded on her sides and between decks. For a few moments he had hopes of reaching the French coast, but the ship filled rapidly and the furnace fires were extinguished. He also says: ‘I now hauled down colors to prevent the further destruction of life, and dispatched a boat to inform the enemy of our condition. Although we were now but four hundred yards from each other, the enemy fired at 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. Some 20 minutes after my furnace fires had been extinguished, and the ship being on the point of sinking, 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 boats coming from the enemy after the ship went down. It was fortunate for myself I thus escaped to the shelter of the neutral flag on board Mr. Lancaster’s yacht, Deerhound, together with about forty men.’”
Before the engagement Captain Semmes left all his chronometers, sixty in number, specie and ransom bonds, at Cherbourg.
The whereabouts of the Kearsarge is doubtful; one rumor places her at Ostend, and another at Cherbourg. She landed some wounded men at Cherbourg.
The Kearsarge is a steam sloop of 1,031 tons and has an armament of two 11-inch shell guns, one 30-pound rifle pivot, and two light 32-pounders. The Alabama was a vessel of 1,150 tons, and had an armament of one 100-pound rifle pivot, one 8-inch pivot, six 32-pounders and one 25-pound howitzer. The Kearsarge is commanded by John A. Winslow, of Massachusetts, a native of North Carolina.
This article was published by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on July 6, 1864:
A Naval Battle and Victory
An arrival at New York yesterday from Europe brings the long-looked for and gratifying intelligence that the United States steamer Kearsarge had at length encountered the famous Confederate privateer Alabama, and, after an engagement of an hour and a half, disabled and sunk her—Capt. Semmes and a part of his crew being rescued by an English yacht, and the remainder, nearly seventy, being rescued by the boats of the Kearsarge and held as prisoners.
The Kearsarge, Capt. John A. Winslow, is a screw steamer of 1,031 tons and eight guns. The Alabama, Capt. Semmes, was a propeller steamer, built at Liverpool, said to be of 1,150 tons and nine guns.
The battle was a regular, square-up fight, the Confederate steamer having the advantage in size and guns, and the result was a brilliant triumph and an honor to the naval prowess of the Federal commander and his gallant crew. Capt. Winslow had but one deck officer beside himself, viz. Lieut. Commander J. S. Thornton.
This article was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on July 6, 1864:
Affairs in Washington
Captain Winslow Made a Commodore
Special Telegraph Dispatches for the Inquirer.
Washington, July 5.
The Navy Department are jubilant over the sinking of the Alabama, and Captain Winslow, commanding the Kearsarge, has been made a Commodore. He is a native of North Carolina, but for some years past has been a citizen of Massachusetts. By naval laws, when an inferior vessel sinks a superior one, her entire value goes to the victors. An appropriation will be made by Congress. The Alabama was worth $300,000, and Captain Winslow’s share will be from $70,000 to $100,000, while the lowest seaman or ship hand will get from $1200 to $1500.
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