The End of the Alabama
Captain Semmes was spoiling for a fight—and Winslow of the U.S.S. Kearsarge was waiting for him, just off Cherbourg
Early in 1864 the Confederate States Steamer Alabama left the Indian Ocean and headed for European waters. Her captain, Raphael Semme—tired, ill, and bad-tempered after almost three years commanding Confederate raiders noted in his journal on May 21: “Our bottom is in such a state that everything passes us. We are like a crippled hunter limping home from a long chase.” During almost two years at sea the Alabama had never been long enough in any port for a thorough overhaul of her hull, rigging, and engines. Since her fires had never been allowed to go out, flues and pipes had not been properly cleaned. As First Officer John McIntosh Kell observed, the ship was “loose at every joint, her seams were open, and the copper on her bottom was in rolls.”
On April 23 Semmes had made a target of a captured vessel. Shot and shell were used “with reasonable success,” according to Semmes. Others thought differently. Of twenty-four rounds fired, only seven were seen to have any effect. Some observers attributed this to bad shooting, but there were other possibilities, of which Kell gradually became aware. Upon investigation, he found that many of the shell fuses were faulty. It would later be found that a large quantity of powder had become damp because of the magazine’s proximity to the condensing apparatus. Even the supply of powder put up in cartridges and stored in copper tanks, which Semmes assumed was still in good condition, had—he would later admit deteriorated “perhaps to the extent of one-third of its strength.” The size of the problem would not be known until weeks later. But there was no question that the Alabama needed to be put up in dry dock for repairs that would take at least a month.
At midday on June 11, 1864, the Alabama dropped anchor at Cherbourg, France. During; her twentytwo months at sea, she had overhauled 294 vessels, fifty-five having been burned and ten others released on bond. It was a record that would not be equalled by any other Confederate raider. The presence of the Alabama at Cherbourg was an embarrassment to the French authorities there. Since the docks were naval property, only Emperor Napoleon II—away on a vacation—could give the necessary permission for her to be docked. However, Sommes was allowed to land his prisoners and take on coal.
On June 14 the U.S.S. Kearsarge, commanded by John A. Winslow, appeared olTthe breakwater. Sommes had learned the day before of her coming and faced three alternatives: he could continue waiting for permission to dry-dock, he could leave Cherbourg at once without taking on coal, or he could fight. If he made the first choice, he would lose most of his crew, and the Federals would be waiting in greater strength for him to leave. And Semmes—who was actually spoiling for a fight—had no intention of making a getaway. When the Kearsarge steamed into view, Lieutenant Kell, glass in hand, stood on the quarter-deck trying to make out her hull, rigging, and battery. He saw a “smooth black hull” but—since her principal guns were pivoted—could learn little of her battery. However, Semmes believed that he had adequate knowledge of the Kearsarge, since he had seen her at close range two years earlier at Gibraltar. He was convinced that the Alabama was a match for her.
Soon after the arrival of the Kearsarge, Semmes summoned Kell to his cabin. Kell, twenty years later, gave a newspaper reporter his recollection of Semmes’s words:
I have sent for you to discuss the advisability of fightins the Kearsarge. As you know, the arrival of the Alabama at this port has been telegraphed to all parts of Europe. Within a few days, Cherbourg will be effectually blockaded by Yankee cruisers. It is uncertain whether or not we shall be permitted to repair the Alabama here, and in the meantime, the delay is to our advantage. I think we may whip the Kearsarge, the two vessels being of wood and carrying about the same number of men and guns. Besides, Mr. Kell. although the Confederate States government has ordered me to avoid engagements with the enemy’s cruisers, I am tired of running from that flaunting rag!
Kell was not convinced that the decision to fight was a wise one, but—as he later confided to his wife—he “could not remonstrate with Captain Semmes.” Instead, he reminded him of their defective powder and of the fact that, at target practice in April, only one in three fuses had been good. Semmes shrugged off Kell’s concern, saying, “I will take the chances of one in three.” Kell said, “I’ll fit the ship for action, sir.”
Soon after the Kearsarge had arrived, Semmes had sent a statement to Winslow (through the American consul at Cherbourg) of his intention to fight. He received no reply from VVinslow, who had earlier been advised by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “To accept or send a challenge would be to recognize the pirates on terms of equality, elevating them and degrading our own.” But Winslow had no intention of allowing the Alabama to escape. It was arranged with the American consul that men be stationed each night on the blufi overlooking the harbor. They were to fire signal rockets in the event that Semmes tried to leave port under cover of darkness.
By June 18 Semmes felt that his ship and crew were ready. He refused to be influenced by the “unanimous feeling” of the French port authorities, who advised that he should avoid combat with a “superior force.” Kell had been assiduous in preparing the Alabama’s battery, magazine, and shell rooms. But when Captain George Terry Sinclair, Confederate naval agent in Europe, arrived at Cherbourg from Paris only hours before the battle, he found the officers looking “rough, jaded, and worn out.” He observed of Semmes: “He seemed to have weighed the matter well in his own mind, and determination was marked in every line of his faded and worn countenance.” Before disembarking, Sinclair advised Semmes to keep his ship at a respectful distance from Winslow’s powerful eleven-inch pivot guns.
The evening before the fight Kell wrote letters to his wife Blanche and his mother, knowing that they might be his last. He had good reason for gloom, for two of his three young children had died of diphtheria ten months before, and some of his wife’s frantic letters from Vineville, Georgia—pleading for his return—had finally reached him.
Sunday, June 19, 1864. The day was bright and cloudless, with only a slight haze. On the Alabama the fires had been started shortly after 6 A.M. As Semmes inspected his men, dressed in clean white frocks and blue trousers, he commented on their smart looks. He also remarked to Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair: “If the bright, beautiful day is shining for our benefit, we should be happy at the omen.” The officers, in their best uniforms, were tense with excitement as they paced the decks. Decks and brass work were immaculate from recent holystoning and polishing, and overhead flew the Confederate ensign. Musing over his prospects, Semmes surprised his fifth lieutenant by asking: “How do you think it will turn out today, Mr. Sinclair?” Sinclair, unaccustomed to being consulted by his captain, replied (as he recalled it later): “I cannot answer the question, sir, but can assure you the crew will do their full duty and follow you to the death.” Semmes answered, “Yes, that’s true,” and began pacing the quarter-deck.
Kell continued to be the busiest officer aboard as he supervised the final preparations for battle. The decks were sanded and tubs of water placed along the spar deck as a precaution against lire. Then the men were sent to their stations.
At about 9:45 A.M. the Alabama got under way. She passed in front of the French ironclad frigate Couronne, which had started her own fires hours earlier. The Couronne would escort the Confederate raider to the three-mile limit to make certain that there was no violation of French territory. As the Alabama passed the liner Napoleon, the crew of the French vessel manned the rigging and gave three rousing cheers; then their band broke out with “Dixie.” Thousands of spectators—Confederate and Union sympathizers alike—were arrayed upon the hillsides, on the breakwater, atop buildings, and aboard vessels. Among those best situated to watch the fight were wealthy Englishman John Lancaster and his family, vacationing aboard their private yacht Deerhound. That morning at breakfast the family had held a vote to determine whether to attend church services or watch the fight from their yacht. The children all elected to see the action. In addition to the Couronne and the Deerhound, a few pilot and fishing boats trailed along. Aboard one pilot boat was the artist Edouard Manet, equipped with pencils, colors, and sketchbook. Manet would produce one of the most accurate representations of the Alabama-Kearsarge engagement. A Cherbourg photographer had brought his equipment onto the old church tower overlooking the harbor, and he would take at least one recognizable photograph of the fight (but one that, unfortunately, has since been lost).
After the Alabama steamed around the breakwater and sighted the Kearsarge, three miles away, Semmes headed his ship directly toward the enemy. The starboard battery was prepared for action. Semmes ordered Kell to have all hands piped aft, where the men heard an address by their captain well calculated to arouse them:
Officers and Seamen of the Alabama!—You have, at length, another opportunity of meeting the enemy—the first that has been presented to you since you sank the Hatteras! In the meantime you have been all over the world, and it is not too much to say, that you have destroyed, and driven for protection under neutral flags, one half of the enemy’s commerce, which, at the beginning of the war, covered every sea. This is an achievement of which you may well be proud; and a grateful country will not be unmindful of it. The name of your ship has become a household word wherever civilization extends. Shall that name be tarnished by defeat? The thing is impossible! Remember that you are in the English Channel, the theatre of so much of the naval glory of our race, and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment, upon you. The flag that floats over you is that of a young Republic, who bids defiance to her enemies, whenever, and wherever found! Show the world that you know how to uphold it! Go to your quarters.
The sailors cheered enthusiastically, shouting “Never! Never!” at mention of defeat.
Aboard the Kearsarge, shortly after 10 A.M., the signal bell had just summoned the men for divine service. Captain Winslow, wearing a rather rusty-looking uniform, was opening his Bible when the lookout gave the cry, “Here she comes! The Alabama!” Winslow closed the Bible and told a cabin boy to bring his side arms. He ordered the drummer to sound quarters. James Wheeler, acting master, ran to the hatchway of the wardroom mess and shouted to the startled officers below, “She’s coming! She’s coming and heading straight for us!”
Within two minutes all the men were at their stations. It is likely that they recalled Winslow’s remark of three days earlier: “My lads, I will give you one hour to take the Alabama, and I think you can do it!” Running on a full head of steam, the Kearsarge was turned northeastward to open sea. Winslow wanted the battle to be fought well outside the three-mile limit both to avoid any incident with the French authorities and to prevent Scmmes from escaping. Aware that he would have a greater advantage at close range, he ordered his guns loaded with five-second shell and sighted for five hundred yards.
After reaching the three-mile limit, the Couronne turned and left the Alabama, which was still headed toward the Kearsarge. Meanwhile, the Kearsarge had moved seven miles out to sea before turning around. Then, as the two vessels steamed directly at each other, the decks of the Kearsarge were sanded. Winslow’s plan was to run down the Alabama or, “if circumstances did not warrant it, to close in with her.”
Semmes, standing on the horse block, the highest point on deck, had his glasses trained on the Kearsarge. His two pivot guns were rotated to starboard, as he intended to engage the enemy on that side. Semmes realized that the two 11-inch Dahlgrens on the Kearsarge gave the Federals an advantage at close range, while his own hundred-pound Blakely pivot gun was most effective at long range. He had it set for two thousand yards and loaded with solid shot. Lieutenant Richard F. Armstrong—commanding the gun—was instructed to have his gunners aim low, at the hull of the Kearsarge. Better to fire too low than too high, Semmes told his men, as the ricochet of their shot over the smooth water would remedy any defect in their vertical aim.
It was now about 11 A.M., fortyfive minutes since they had rounded the breakwater. A mile and a quarter’s distance from the Kearsarge, the Alabama sheered, discharging her Blakely. The shot went high. The Kearsarge, on full steam, came with such speed that the Alabama was able to discharge only two more shot, which were also too high and damaged only the rigging.
Suddenly Winslow sheered off, presenting his starboard battery. The men responded instantly to his order: “All the divisions! Aim low for the waterline! Fire! Load and fire as rapidly as possible!” The thirtypound rifle gun on the topgallant forecastle, manned by the marine detachment, was the first fired. A shell struck the Alabama near her forward port, throwing out splinters and wounding a man at a gun. Another sailor later recalled: “He leaped away with a leg smashed, and another man at the next gun fell dead. The shell caught our slide rack, and I think the man was killed by one of our own shot, which was thrown against him by the shell of the Kearsarge.” The Alabama next received a full broadside. Winslow had intended to run under the Alabama’s stern, but Semmes’s keeping his broadside exposed prevented this. At five hundred yards both ships were forced into a circular track under full steam, moving in opposite directions and each fighting her starboard side. The positions of the ships reminded one Yankee sailor of “two flies crawling around on the rim of a saucer.” They would make seven complete circles before the end of the action, gradually lessening the distance between them by about a hundred yards.
The action was now continuous on both sides. An assistant engineer on the deck of the Kearsarge was able to see shot and shell from the Alabama “skip like stones … thrown to ricochet until they burst to windward with a hollow roar, sending aloft a shower of glittering spray.” The Alabama fired at least two shots for every one of the Kearsarge. Although Kell believed that his men “handled their guns beautifully,” he would also give due credit to his adversary: “She came into action magnificently.” He was standing near the eight-inch pivot gun commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Wilson when an eleven-inch shell exploded through the gun port and—as Kell later recalled—wiped out “like a sponge from a blackboard one-half of the gun’s crew.” A second shell killed one man and injured others. Then a third shell from the Kearsarge struck the breast of the gun carriage and spun around on deck without exploding. Seaman Michael Mars, compressor man, quickly picked it up and threw it over the side. Lieutenant Wilson, in a state of shock at being struck by blood and limbs, was in no condition to continue his command. Mars signalled to Kell, requesting permission to clear the deck. Kell bowed his head in assent, and the remains were shovelled into the sea. After the deck had been resanded, the places of Wilson and the dead and wounded were filled on Kell’s order by Midshipman Edward Anderson and eight men from a nearby thirty-two-pound gun. They worked coolly and methodically.
About twenty minutes after the action began, the spanker gaff that flew the Alabama’s, colors was shot away, and the flag fell to just above the deck. Another flag was immediately raised at the mizzenmast head. At about the same time, a shell from the Alabama struck the hull of the Kearsarge. The men on the Alabama cheered, believing they had “knocked her engines to pieces,” before they realized there was little damage.
Positioned on the horse block to best direct the maneuvering of the Alabama, Semmes left his gunners with “no particular orders” during the action. However, it was later claimed by his sailors that he offered a reward to the men who could silence the two 11-inch Dahlgrens that were causing such havoc aboard his ship. Semmes is reported to have said of his opponents during the fight: “Confound them, they’ve been fighting twenty minutes, and they’re cool as posts.”
Kell distinguished himself throughout the battle, and the captain later praised his “coolness and judgment.” Lieutenant Sinclair in his Two Tears on the Alabama, written many years later, recalled “the Luff’s” behavior:
From point to point of the spar-deck in his rapid movement he was directing here, or advising there; now seeing to the transfer of shot, shell, or cartridge; giving his orders to this and that man or officer, as though on dress-muster; occasionally in earnest conversation with Semmes, who occupied the horse-block, glasses in hand, and leaning on the hammock-rail; at times watching earnestly the enemy, and then casting his eye about our ship, as though keeping a careful reckoning of the damage given and received. Nothing seemed to escape his active mind or eye, his commanding figure at all times towering over the heads of those around.
Aboard the Kearsarge Captain Winslow stood atop an arms chest on the starboard side of the quarter-deck, half of his body exposed above the rail as he overlooked his own deck while scrutinizing the enemy. He repeatedly gave the order, “Faster, sir! Faster! Four bells!” to Henry McConnell, third engineer, while holding up four fingers signifying “Full speed ahead!” He gave orders in the same manner to Quartermaster William Poole at the helm. In addition to his other duties, Winslow watched the oncoming shells, directing the men near him when to dodge them. Men would drop flat, supporting themselves on hands and toes until the shot had struck or gone “howling” by, then spring up to resume action. Drenched in sweat and covered with powder stains, they were alternately laughing, talking, and cheering. The sponger of one gun was so stained with a “thick coating of burnt powder that it was hard to tell where blue undershirt ended and skin began.”
Kell’s counterpart on the Kearsarge—Executive Officer James S. Thornton—passed from one gun to another advising the crews: “Don’t fire unless you get good aim; one shot that hits is better than fifty thrown away.” There was a brief pause in the action at one of the pivot guns as both vessels became enveloped in smoke. To an officer’s anxious inquiry as to the cause of the delay, the gun captain replied, “Nothing is the matter, sir. She is all ready to give him a dose.” “Then why in hell don’t you fire?” demanded the officer. “I’ll fire, sir, as soon as I get sight” came the unruffled reply. The smoke soon disappeared, and a missile from the gun struck the ocean close to the Alabama’s water line, sending a shower of spray into the air. There was even comic relief for the Federals. To the amusement of their shipmates, two old sailors used up a box of ammunition firing a twelve-pound howitzer boat gun.
Among the many observers on shore was Captain Sinclair. Equipped with “splendid glasses,” Sinclair noted that, although the Alabama fired three shots for every two of her opponent, she usually fired too high. He also noticed a difference in the powder smoke of the two ships: that from the Alabama resembled “puffs of heavy steam,” while that of the Kearsarge was “much lighter.” It was obvious to those taking part in the action that there was a difference. As Kell later recalled, “The report from the Kearsarge’s battery was clear and sharp, the powder burning like thin vapor, while our guns gave out a dull report, with thick and heavy vapor.” Thus was Kell proved correct in his earlier evaluation of the Alabama’s powder and the extent of its deterioration. The situation was far more serious than Semmes had believed when he challenged Winslow.
There was no question, moreover, as to the superiority of the gunners on the Kearsarge. Kell would admit that the Yankee guns were “served beautifully, being aimed with precision, and deliberate in fire.” Captain Winslow noted in his official report: “The firing of the Alabama from the first was rapid and wild. Toward the close of the action her firing became better.” An Alabama sailor admitted: “Our guns were too much elevated, and shot over the Kearsarge. The men all fought well, but the gunners did not know how to point and elevate the guns.” Austin Quinby, a marine corporal on the Kearsarge, noted the effect of this on the Federals. He later wrote in his journal:
When the battle commenced it made our hair stick right up strait but after we had got settled down to work and saw by their rapid and haphazard fire that they were not doing us much damage we took it easy; they would fire when they were in their smoke and when we were enveloped in ours. …
The corporal also observed that in their haste and excitement the Alabama s gunners fired off about six of their ramrods, resembling “black meteors with their long tails.” Of the more than three hundred shot and shell fired by the Alabama during the hour-long engagement, only twentyeight struck the Kearsarge. On the Federal side, the Kearsarge fired 173 shot and shell (mostly shell), a large number finding their mark and accounting for the “fearful work” of destruction. No grape or canister was used, although Winslow had a large quantity on hand.
Although the shells of the Kearsarge were taking a heavy toll in killed and wounded, the Alabama remained on the offensive, her captain waiting for the lucky shot that would cripple his opponent. At length, his forward pivot-gun crew sent a hundred-pound shell smashing under the counter of the Kearsarge, glancing along until it lodged in the rudderpost. As the Kearsarge trembled from the shock, the sailors on the Alabama cheered loudly. Here was their lucky shot. However, their cheers died when the anticipated explosion failed to occur. For Semmesand Kell, the failure was bitter. To his dying day each would believe that faulty powder or a defective fuse had prevented the shell from exploding. They were convinced that this shell alone could have sunk the Kearsarge. At the very least, they believed, it should have made the rudder inoperable and thus influenced the outcome, since the Alabama was still very much in the action. Actually, however, if the shell had exploded at first contact—when it was supposed to—it would have damaged the ship’s counter, some twenty feet from the sternpost.
John Bickford, a first loader at one of the Kearsarge’s pivot guns, had a different version of the failure of so many shells to explode: “It’s true that quite a number failed to explode, but it wasn’t the fault of the shells. It was the fault of the excited men who fired them.” According to Bickford, almost all of the unexploded shells from the Alabama still had on the lead caps that should have been ripped off by the gun loaders. As he explained in articles published years later in the Boston Journal and the Boston Evening Transcript, unless the lead cap was removed to expose the fuse primer—set to explode in so many seconds—it was impossible for a shell to explode. The Yankee from Gloucester, Massachusetts—afterward awarded the Medal of Honor for “marked coolness and good conduct” during the fight—told of his experience with one such shell:
I was standing on the starboard side of the gun, with my foot directly on the planksheer, when all of a sudden I heard the whir of a shell, a Blakely, and instantly my foot got a jar that seemed to fill it with pins and needles. That … shell had struck the planksheer and gone way through it, at least so far that it exposed its primer, or where it should be, but I saw that the patch was still there on the shell. …
Well, of course all the gun crew j umped back, looking for an explosion. I just turns round and says to ’em, “Never mind that, boys, it won’t go off, because they forgot to take the patch off.” I stayed where I was, loading the gun, and all the fellows jumped right to work again.
A shell from the Alabamas Blakely gun caused the only casualties on the Kearsarge. It passed through the starboard bulwarks below the main rigging, exploding on the quarter-deck and injuring three sailors at the after pivot gun. William Gowin, the most seriously injured, refused assistance and dragged himself to the forward hatch, where he was helped below by the surgeon. Gowin—who had an arm amputated—died within the week, becoming the only fatality aboard the Kearsarge.
The twenty-eight shot and shell which struck the Kearsarge did no major damage. Twelve struck the hull, while eight were believed to have damaged the rigging. Two of the boats were put out of commission and one of the sails was badly torn. A shell entered the funnel of the Kearsarge and exploded, tearing out a space about three feet in diameter and throwing metal about the deck. A piece of the shell passed through a water dipper that a thirsty fireman had just raised to his lips. A hundred-pound shell ploughed across the roof of the engine-room skylight, coming within fourteen inches of Engineer McConnell before passing harmlessly overboard through the port rail.
During the latter part of the fight, the Alabama received the full effect of accurate and deadly fire. Seaman James Hart, carrying a shell to his gun, was blown to pieces. The “first serious disaster” to the ship was the destruction of her rudder. For the remainder of the action, steering could be done only by using tackles. At about the same time—forty-five minutes after the battle had commenced—an eleven-inch shell passed through the starboard side, emerging and exploding on her port side and tearing great gaps in her timbers and planking. To the delight of the Kearsarge sailors, it “raised the very devil.” A coal-bunker bulkhead caved in, filling the fire room and almost burying the men there under coal. With only two boilers left working, the Alabama’s steam pressure was greatly reduced.
Filled with smoke and steam and with gaping holes in her hull, the Alabama—careening heavily to starboard—was in no condition to continue fighting. It was either escape, surrender, or be destroyed. The men were ordered to lie low, as it was feared that Winslow would now order a raking fire. But Semmes was not ready to surrender. He believed that by shifting the weight of his battery from starboard to port he might raise the shot holes above the water line. The ship was now five miles from the coast and with luck might make the three-mile limit. He gave the order: “Mr. Kell, as soon as our head points to the French coast in our circuit of action, shift your guns to port and make all sail for the coast.”
The helm was righted, the fore trysail sheets and two jibs hoisted, and the evolution executed successfully. At the same time, the pivot guns—after being cleared of the dead—were shifted to port with only a brief pause in the action. Kell appeared at the skylight above the engine room and in a “voice of thunder” shouted to the men below: “What is the matter in the engine room? Put on steam!” Engineers William Brooks and Matt O’Brien, covered with sweat and coal dust, answered that the Alabama carried all the steam she could manage without blowing up. Then reconsidering, O’Brien declared, “Let her have the steam; we had better blow her to hell than to let the Yankees whip us!” But it would take more than the extra twenty-five pounds of steam to save the Alabama. Winslow had anticipated Semmes’s intentions and steamed across his adversary’s bow. He was now in a position to rake her.
Aboard the Alabama none could doubt the seriousness of the situation. An officer, looking out a port and seeing the water rushing into the gangway at every roll, was certain that the Alabama’s “last moments were close at hand.” A sailor later recalled: “Our men were then very fatigued and many disabled and wounded. We still fired as well as possible from the port side, though we knew the day was lost.” O’Brien came on deck to report that the rapidly rising water was almost flush with the furnace fires. He found Semmes on the horse block with a handkerchief tied around his hand to cover a painful although superficial wound. Semmes listened in silence, then ordered: “Return to your duty!” The engineers were now certain that they would go down with the ship. Engineer John Pundt said bitterly: “Well, I suppose ‘Old Beeswax’ has made up his mind to drown us like a lot of rats! Here, Matt! Take off my boots!” On deck there was some confusion, “though nothing like a panic, excepting on the part of one or two.”
Semmes ordered Kell to find out how long the ship could float. Going below, Kell found the sight “appalling.” The holes in the hull were “large enough to admit a wheel barrow.” Surgeon David Llewellyn was at his post, but the wounded man on his table had been swept away by a shell. Kell returned to the deck and reported that the ship could not remain afloat for more than ten minutes. Semmes, apparently unaware that his colors had again been shot down, gave the order: “Then, sir, cease firing, shorten sail, and haul down the colors; it will never do in this nineteenth century for us to go down, and the decks covered with our gallant wounded.” As there was no white flag available, a man on the spanker boom held up a makeshift one—the white portion of the Confederate ensign. The officers and men on the Kearsarge would later claim that when they observed the white flag and the firing of a lee gun they ceased firing, but that two more shots were then fired from the Alabama, one from the forward pivot gun. Unconvinced that his enemy had surrendered, Winslow cried out: “Give it to them again, boys; they are playing us a trick!” Each of his gun captains obeyed the order instantly, firing five volleys into the Alabama. Two 11-inch shells struck the coal bunker, throwing up coal dust as high as the yardarm. Aboard the doomed raider, Kell cried out: “Stand to your quarters, men. If we must be sunk after our colors are down, we will go to the bottom with every man at his post!” And among the sailors the word was passed, “There’s no quarter for us!” But when the white flag was again raised on the spanker boom, all firing ceased. Semmes then ordered Kell: “Dispatch an officer to the Kearsarge and ask that they send boats to save our wounded—ours are disabled.”
Finding the dinghy undamaged, Kell put Master’s Mate George Fullam in charge of her with instructions to surrender the ship and request assistance. Marine officer Becket Howell, a nonswimmer, was allowed to take an oar as one of the crew. When Kell discovered that another boat was only slightly disabled, he directed the removal of the wounded to it. Among these was Seamanjames King—“Connemara”—a troublemaker who had caused Kell many a headache since shipping on the Alabama at Singapore. As Kell stood briefly over the mortally wounded sailor, King seized his hand and kissed it. Amazed, Kell could not help thinking of the numerous times King had been punished on his orders. Lieutenant Wilson and Surgeon Francis Gait were placed in charge of the boat and the wounded taken away, for the ship was settling fast. Winslow—who remembered how the Hatteras had been lured to destruction by Semmes—was apparently uncertain whether the Alabama was actually sinking. He continued to wait for more evidence. Only after Fullam had come aboard (after first deliberately dropping his sword over the side of the dinghy) was Winslow aware of the situation.
Fullam delivered his message; then, looking up and down the deck, he asked where the dead and wounded were. When told that only three men had been wounded, he exclaimed, “My God, and it’s a slaughter house over there!” (He would later be astonished to learn that actually only nine men had been killed on the Alabama during the combat.) When Lieutenant Wilson came on board the Kearsarge, his appearance and statements seemed to confirm FuIlam’s account of the “slaughter”: he was covered with blood from the casualties at his gun early in the fight, and he still believed that sixteen of the seventeen men of his gun crew had been killed. Wilson offered Winslow his sword, but Winslow graciously refused it.
Aboard the sinking vessel Kell gave the order to abandon ship and directed the crew to find a spar or whatever else might assist them in keeping afloat. As the men stripped to their underwear, Kell urged them over the side. He then returned to the stern, where Semmes, his steward Bartelli, and a few other sailors were preparing to abandon ship. They were almost level with the ocean. Seaman Mars assisted Semmes as he removed his coat and boots, while the sail maker, Henry Alcott, helped Kell to pull off his boots. Semmes still wore his cap (turned inside out), trousers, and vest, while Kell had stripped to his shirt and underdrawers. The Luff was able to save only his watch, which he had tied to his waistband with a lock of his wife’s hair. Both men had unceremoniouslydiscarded their swords while undressing. Seaman Mars—one of the best swimmers on the ship—was entrusted with Semmes’s dispatches and accounts. Unfortunately, no one knew that Bartelli, who remained at his captain’s side, could not swim.
It was now every man for himself. Wearing a life preserver, Semmes slipped into the sea, followed by Kell, who held onto a grating for support. Kell later wrote that the water “was like ice, and after the excitement of battle it seemed doubly cold.” The men swam off as best they could to escape the vortex of the sinking ship. As the Alabama “settled stern foremost, launching her bows high in the air,” Kell turned for a final look. Years later, in an interview for the Atlanta Constitution, he recalled his feelings at the sight:
As the gallant vessel, the most beautiful I ever beheld, plunged down to her grave, I had it on my tongue to call to the men who were struggling in the water to give three cheers for her, but the dead that were floating around me and the deep sadness I felt at parting with the noble ship that had been my home so long deterred me.
Kell’s grating was not adequate, and he found the waves breaking over his head “distressingly uncomfortable.” Noticing a makeshift float of empty shell boxes, Kell shouted to a sailor, a strong swimmer, to examine it. The man called out: “It is the doctor, sir, and he is dead.” Llewellyn, like Bartelli, had been unable to swim, a fact of which his shipmates were unaware. Eight others also drowned before help came. Even good swimmers like Kell found it difficult to remain afloat. Seeing his senior officer weakening, Midshipman Eugene Maffitt began to disengage his own life preserver, gasping out, “Mr. Kell, you are so exhausted, take this life preserver.” Kell, knowing that the boy was prepared to sacrifice himself, refused. After what seemed like hours, but actually was only about thirty minutes, Kell heard a voice cry out, “Here’sour Luff!” An Alabama sailor in one of the Deerhound’s small boats had recognized the expansive beard floating on the water. Kell was seized by the back of his neck and lifted into the boat.
Together with several of his crew, Semmes had already been rescued by the boat from Lancaster’s yacht. Stretched out in the stern sheets “as pallid as death,” he opened his eyes and gave his uninjured hand to Kell, who inquired, “Are you hurt?” “A little,” came the answer. The hand injury was indeed slight, but he was suffering from exhaustion. They were brought immediately to the Deerhound, where Kell learned the identity of the yacht and its owner. To Kell’s surprise, he found Fullam aboard. Winslow had allowed him to help pick up survivors, and by not returning to the Kearsarge, the master’s mate had cheated the Federals of several prisoners, including the brother-in-law of the Confederate President. From Fullam came the report that the Kearsarge had been protected by “chain armor.” He had seen the places where the Alabama’s shot had torn the cover planking away, indenting and breaking the chain beneath.
The rescued men were made comfortable. Semmes had the jacket of an English lieutenant loaned him by Lancaster, while Kell was given that gentleman’s carpet slippers and a pair of his trousers. Lancaster asked Semmes to what part of France he wished to be taken. He smiled at the reply, “Oh, any part of Great Britain.”
As the Confederate raider settled stern first, Lieutenant Thornton aboard the Kearsarge passed the word, “Silence, boys.” Seaman Bickford told his gun crew that one could yell when licking a man “but not when you had him down.” Meanwhile, the survivors from the Alabama continued to be picked up, and they were told that they were prisoners of war and would be treated humanely. One of them, mistaking Winslow for the Kearsarge’s steward, asked him for whiskey. Identifying himself, Winslow gave him some whiskey and added, “My man, I am sorry for you.” And pointing to his colors, he said, “That is the flag you should have been under.”
Suddenly, the Deerhound was observed to be “stealing away.” Bob Strahan, captain of a thirty-two-pounder, turned his gun directly upon her. However, Winslow sent an officer to order him not to fire. As the Deerhound steamed away, the men waited in vain for the order to stop her. Years after the war, Executive Officer Thornton told an interviewer:
I was waiting impatiently for the order to come to fire on the English yacht which had rescued Semmes from his sinking ship. I never for a moment doubted that such an order would be given. But it was not, and I felt so indignant that I almost lost self-control. I felt for awhile that it was a barren victory and that we had spent our powder all for nothing.
Winslow later claimed he did not know the Deerhound was escaping; he refused at first to believe “she could be guilty of so disgraceful an act. …” Although there is no reason to doubt Winslow’s statement, the ship’s surgeon declared, “Probably not another person on board the Kearsarge was of the same opinion. … Captain Winslow alone is responsible for the escape of Semmes.”
Winslow was generous in victory. Calling his sailors to muster, he read them a prayer and announced: “We have won the battle without loss of life; God must have been on our side. The Alabama’s men have been in the water, and you are requested to give them some of your clothing and report any expense to me. These men have surrendered, and I want you to use them as brother shipmates. Your dinner will be served out to you. Share it with them.” When the grog tub was brought up, all were allowed to refresh themselves.
Meanwhile, as the Deerhound steamed toward Southampton, the Confederates on board were grateful to have escaped death or imprisonment. When the officers tried to thank Lancaster, he merely told them, “Gentlemen, you have no need to give me any special thanks; I should have done exactly the same for the other people if they had needed it.”
Semmes’s career as a captain on the high seas ended with the sinking of the Alabama. He returned to the Confederacy early in 1865 and—promoted in rank to admiral—commanded the ironclad vessels of the small James River Squadron during the last weeks of the war. When the capture of the Confederate capital appeared imminent, he ordered his ships to be destroyed, and then—appointed a brigadier general—he led his sailors as a military unit following the evacuation of Richmond. After the war he was imprisoned by Federal authorities but was released after four months without being brought to trial. Before his death in 1877 he produced his memoirs of the war years—Service Afloat—intended to vindicate himself and his cause from his enemies’ charges of treason and piracy.
Winslow received promotion to commodore from a government long embarrassed by its failure to apprehend and destroy the Alabama. The victory was the zenith of a long naval career, and it assured Winslow of his place in history. He died in 1873, three years after his promotion to admiral.
The battle off Cherbourg was refought with pen and ink—often with great vindictiveness—during the succeeding decades. Accusations and counteraccusations by the survivors would all but obscure the truth of what happened on that June day when the Alabama steamed out to meet the Kearsarge—and her destiny.
Mr. Delaney, who teaches history at Del Mar College, Corpus Christi, Texas, adapted this article from his biography of John McIntosh Kell, which is to be published by the University of Alabama Press.