In 1862, the Confederate Naval vessel CSS Alabama was the scourge of the seas. Just over a year into the Civil War the Confederacy had bought the ship in England. And the Union Navy had dispatched its own warship, the USS Kearsarge, to stop it.
Built in secrecy to avoid falling afoul of the British government’s official stance of neutrality, the Alabama was launched without cannon. Because the British couldn’t sell her as an armed vessel, the Confederacy to arm her. As soon as the ship entered international waters, the Confederate Navy outfitted her with eight cannon. Then it set her loose on a mission to capture as many merchant ships headed for America’s northern states as possible.
The Alabama may have exceeded the Confederates’ wildest expectations. Under the command of Capt. Raphael Semmes, she burned 65 ships, though never harmed their crew or passengers.
Under both power and sail, the ship could make 13 knots. Its captain and crew quickly made their impact on the war. Within a month of her commissioning, Alabama was cruising the shipping lanes east of the Azores, capturing and burning every American merchant vessel she encountered. Commissioned in July of 1862, she had destroyed 21 ships before the end of the year.
The Union Navy had taken notice of the Alabama. She had easily sunk a Union sidewheeler the USS Hatteras in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The USS Kearsarge Receives her Orders
The Navy had constructed the USS Kearsarge at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1861 and sent her to sea in search of Confederate raiders.
New Hampshire newspaper publisher Henry McFarland claimed he had suggested naming the vessel for New Hampshire’s Mount Kearsarge to his friend, an assistant secretary of the Navy who summered in the Granite State. The assistant secretary would later say his own wife suggested the name.
Either way, the USS Kearsage had been launched in 1862 and soon it was given a new mission: Capture or sink the Alabama. Capt. John Winslow, a Mayflower descendant, and a crew of sailors, many from New England, tackled their mission with gusto. From November 1862 to March 1863 the Kearsarge underwent some special modifications at ports in Spain.
The Kearsarge carried seven guns and under power and sail she could manage 11 knots. Though she might not seem quite a match for the Alabama, the Union Navy had taken notice of the awesome power of the Alabama. Steps were taken to strengthen Kearsarge. Along her sides, strategically placed to protect her engines, the Spanish shipyard installed three layers of chain armoring. And to disguise the battle armor, they constructed false wooden sides that sat atop the armor, painted black to match the hull.
The Kearsarge Hunts Alabama
For months, the Kearsarge scoured the Atlantic in search of the Alabama. But the elusive Alabama sailed the waters of South America and across to Africa, leaving a trail of devastation in her wake. By June of 1863, when the Alabama pulled into the French port of Cherbourg for much needed refitting, she had captured and destroyed 65 ships. She had boarded more than 450 ships and taken 2,000 prisoners over a period of 560 days.
When the officers of the Kearsarge learned the Alabama was in Cherbourg, they made their way to the port at best speed, arriving just three days after the Alabama. At the mouth of the port, the Kearsarge’s pursuit stopped abruptly. France was neutral in the war, and an attack on a ship in port would have been an unprovoked act of war.
The Kearsarge requested support from other Union naval vessels in blockading the Alabama in port. The commander of the Alabama made a snap decision. He would not be hemmed into the port while the Union Navy gathered strength. He quickly outfitted the Alabama to go to sea with the intention of engaging the Kearsarge.
Kearsarge at the Battle of Cherbourg
On June 19, the Alabama left port. The Kearsarge raced ahead of it to reach international waters to avoid a naval battle in French waters. Safely out to sea, the two vessels began to circle, each trying to gain an advantage.
From a range of 1,000 feet, the Alabama fired first. The Kearsarge waited until the ships got closer. On shore, spectators watched as the two ships fired hundreds of cannon shots at each other. The Alabama fired more than 370 shots at the Kearsarge, but the Kearsarge’s makeshift armor held. Though her hull bent under the barrage, it did not break.
The Kearsarge fired far fewer shots, but her shots were accurate. When the smoke began to clear, the Alabama was sinking. The Kearsarge had blasted holes through the ship below the waterline, dooming the mighty Alabama.
The Alabama surrendered. Capt. Semmes dumped his sword into the ocean rather than face the indignity of surrendering it — an act considered dishonorable by some. One man was killed on the Kearsarge and two were injured. On the Confederate side, 19 men died. Some 70 men surrendered to the Kearsarge. Semmes managed to flee aboard on a passing British vessel and escape to England with about 40 of his men.
The crew of the Kearsarge were hailed as heroes back in New York. For their actions in the Battle of Cherbourg, 17 sailors received the medal of valor. The ship, meanwhile, would continue in service in various capacities up until 1894.
The Kearsarge commander, John Winslow, was promoted to commodore and then rear admiral, commanding the Pacific Squadron until his retirement in 1872. He died in Boston shortly thereafter.
Aftermath and Repercussions
The Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, went on to teach Moral Philosophy at the Louisiana State Seminary, later Louisiana State University. He died in 1877 from complications of food poisoning after earing contaminated shrimp. The city of Semmes, Ala., was named after him.
Britain had angered the United States by letting one of its shipyards build the Alabama. That led to a long legal challenge initially led led by American Minister Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of presidents. Known as the Alabama Claims, the U.S. demanded payment of damages for the destruction wrought by the Alabama and several other British-built Confederate raiders. In 1872, Britain settled with a payment of $15.5 million.
In 1984, a French Navy mine hunter discovered the wreck of the Alabama off Cherbourg. The archaeological investigation recovered several cannon. In 2002, a diving expedition recovered the ship’s bell along with cannon, tableware and ornamental commodes.
In Stamford, Conn., a cannon from the USS Kearsarge stood in West Park from 1901 until 1942. It was then hauled away as scrap during World War II.
Thanks to: Kearsarge Mountain and the Corvette Named for It by Henry MacFarland.
Images: The gun that sank the Alabama By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14576197040/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/photographichist06mill/photographichist06mill#page/n308/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43879541. Battle of Kearsarge and Alabama By Édouard Manet – 1. From en.wiki2. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1757414. Painting of Alabama By Rear Admiral J. W. Schmidt  – From the US Navy's Naval Historical Center. Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here;uploaded onto en.wiki 03:11, 14 November 2004 by McMullen 740×571 (59,800 bytes; Painting of CSS Alabama), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1338854,