On the morning of June 19, 1864 the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama left the port of Cherbourg, France and prepared to do battle with the United States Navy’s sloop of war USS Kearsarge. The Alabama had entered port on June 11th for repairs and refueling, and the Kearsarge found her there three days later. Since Cherbourg was a neutral port, the captain of the Kearsarge, John Winslow, could do nothing. But Captain Raphael Semmes of the Alabama sent word to Winslow that he would fight the Kearsarge if Winslow would take his vessel outside the three mile international limit and wait for Alabama to complete refueling. Winslow readily accepted, sailed out of the harbor, and waited.
The CSS Alabama was built in England in 1862. Great Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act would not allow British shipbuilders to build and arm warships for foreign nations at war, but the authorities were lax in their enforcement of the law. Although the American government was aware of the true purpose of the ship while it was under construction, Confederate agent James D. Bulloch was able to get the ship out of England before the slow moving British government acted to stop it. In August, Alabama left England unarmed and sailed for the Azores, where it met up with another ship carrying arms for the new vessel.
Now fully armed, the Alabama began a highly successful run as a commerce raider under Captain Semmes. Commerce raiders attacked commercial shipping rather than other warships, and for nearly two years, the Alabama sailed throughout the world sinking American merchant ships wherever they were found. By the time Semmes brought his vessel in to Cherbourg, the Alabama had sunk or captured 64 merchant ships and one U.S. Navy ship, the USS Hatteras.
Kearsarge vs. Alabama
As the Alabama cruised out of Cherbourg, Winslow moved his ship farther out to sea to stay clear of French territorial waters. This would also make it more difficult for the Alabama to head back to port if it was damaged in the fight. Back at Cherbourg, people lined the coast to watch the action unfold; upon hearing of the impending battle, visitors from as far away as Paris arrived by train to witness the event.
When the Kearsarge was about seven miles out to sea, Winslow turned the ship and headed straight for the Alabama. When the ships were about a mile apart, Alabama opened the firing with a broadside from her starboard guns. As the ships closed in on one another, Alabama fired two more broadsides, but inflicted little damage. The sides of the Kearsarge were covered with chains, making an effective armor for the ship. At about 900 yards, Kearsarge fired a broadside at Alabama and the firing then became general.
The ships faced each other starboard to starboard and began to steam in a circular path, shooting at each other. Though the Alabama fired more rounds, the fire from the Kearsarge was more effective. Winslow had his gunners aim his heavier guns below Alabama’s waterline and used his lighter cannons to clear the deck.
After an hour or so, the heavily damaged Alabama was sinking and its crew had several killed and wounded. Semmes tried to head back to Cherbourg, but Kearsarge cut him off. Semmes ordered the flag lowered and gave the order to abandon ship. The wounded were placed in a lifeboat and those not wounded seriously took to the water. Within minutes of abandonment, Alabama sank beneath the waves of the English Channel.
Kearsarge picked up many of the survivors, but others were picked up by the English steam yacht Deerhound, a civilian ship. Deerhound rescued about 40 officers and men, including Captain Semmes. Semmes asked to be taken to England, and the Deerhound headed for Southampton. American diplomats tried to get Great Britain to turn Semmes over to the United States, but the British refused. Semmes eventually made his way back to the Confederacy via Mexico.
- Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) by James McPherson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988
- By Sea And By River (Da Capo Paperback)Military History Books) by Bern Anderson. New York: Knopf, 1962.
- “Cruise and Combats of the Alabama” by John McIntosh Kell. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, Editors. New York: Century Company, 1887-88.
- “The Duel Between the Alabama and the Kearsarge” by John M. Browne. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
- Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States by Raphael Semmes. Baltimore, Maryland: Kelly, Piet and Co., 1869
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I Volume 3. Washington DC: Government Printing Office 1896.