The Sinking of the CSS Alabama

June 19, 1864 (Sunday)

“An enemy is outside. If she only stays long enough, we go out and- fight her. If I live, expect to see me in London shortly. If I die, give my best love to all who know me.” – D. H. Llewellyn, Surgeon, CSS Alabama.

Semmes aboard the Alabama
Semmes aboard the Alabama

Raphael Semmes had been with the Confederate Navy since its early inception, before there was really even a Confederate Navy. For a time, in 1861, he commanded the CSS Sumter, a blockade runner that was, for a short time, a terror on the seas. In August of 1862, he accepted the command of the CSS Alabama, a British-built screw steamer equipped with eight guns, including a massive 7-inch Blakely.

Through the remainder of 1862, Semmes and the Alabama spent their time in the eastern Atlantic, New England, and the West Indies, preying upon Northern commerce. The next year was spent in the Gulf, cruising around South America, and once more crossing the Atlantic. There, she plied her trade off the coast of South Africa, and then finally to the East Indies.

For the Alabama, 1863 was the year she was dogged by the Union Navy. She and her captain had risen in infamy and all eyes were upon them. Still, she could not be caught, let alone destroyed. And while any Northern vessel that crossed her path was raided, destroyed and sunk, none of the opposing crew members were harmed.

In late 1863, she turned to the Indian Ocean and then the South Pacific. The wear upon her was showing, and Captain Semmes decided that she be taken to Cherbourg, France to be refitted. But in her wake followed the USS Kearsarge, who arrived three days after the Alabama.

Robert Semmes was well aware of the Kearsarge, and through diplomatic means, he made sure that her captain, John Winslow, understood that “my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to morrow evening, or after to-morrow morning at furthest. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out.”

Winslow received the message on June 15th, the day after the arrival of the Kearsarge. For the next few days, both captains and crews waited and readied themselves. Finally, on the morning of this date, the Alabama rolled out of Cherbourg.

june19map

From the log of the Kearsarge:
“At 10.20 discovered the Alabama steaming out from the port of Cherbourg, accompanied by a French iron-clad steamer, and a fore-and-aft rigged steamer showing the white English ensign and a yacht flag. Beat to general quarters and cleared the ship for action. Steamed ahead, standing offshore. At 10.50, being distant from the land about two leagues, altered our course, and approached the Alabama.”

The alteration of the course was to bring the fight into international waters. The Kearsarge had been waiting close to shore, in French territorial waters, and Winslow assured the French that if any engagement took place, it would be at sea.

Seven minutes after steaming to sea, the Alabama attacked, but at a distance of 1,800 yards. The volley cut some rigging, but the Federal ship received no damage. Winslow was at this range defenseless. Hoping for close-in fighting, he had loaded short-range charges into his gun. The Alabama fired several more volleys as the Kearsarge pulled closer.

John M. Browne, Surgeon for the Kearsarge related after the war:

‘The action was now fairly begun. The Alabama changed from solid shot to shell. & A shot from an early broadside of the Kearsarge carried away the spanker-gaff o£ the enemy, and caused his ensign to come down by the run. This incident was regarded as a favorable omen by the men, who cheered and went with increased confidence to their work. The fallen ensign reappeared at the mizzen. The Alabama returned to solid shot, and soon after fired both shot and shell to the end. The firing of the Alabama was rapid and wild, getting better near the close; that of the Kearsarge was deliberate, accurate, and almost from the beginning productive of dismay, destruction, and death. The Kearsarge gunners had been cautioned against firing without direct aim, and had been advised to point the heavy guns below rather than above the water-line, and to clear the deck of the enemy with the lighter ones. Though subjected to an incessant storm of shot and shell, they kept their stations and obeyed instructions.

The effect upon the enemy was readily perceived, and nothing could restrain the enthusiasm of our men. Cheer succeeded cheer; caps were thrown in the air or overboard; jackets were discarded; sanguine of victory, the men were shouting, as each projectile took effect: “That is a good one!” “Down, boys!” “Give her another like the last! “Now we have her!”and so on, cheering and shouting to the end.’

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Semmes, according to his own recollection of the affair, “wished to get within easy range of his enemy, that he might try this weapon [the Blakeley rifled gun] effectively; but any attempt on his part to come to closer quarters was construed by the Kearsarge as a design to bring the engagement between the ships to a hand-to-hand conflict between the men. Having the speed, she chose her distance, and made all thought of boarding hopeless.”

Just as was feared by the Kearsarge, it had indeed been Semmes’ plan to board, knowing that his Alabama would probably not win in a straight forward duel.

Though unable to board, Semme’s crew did some damage to the Kearsarge. The Union surgeon, Browne, continued:

“After the Kearsarge had been exposed to an uninterrupted cannonade for eighteen minutes, a 8-pounder Blakely shell passed through the starboard bulwarks below the main rigging, exploded upon the quarter-deck, and wounded three of the crew of the after pivot-gun, With these exceptions, not an officer or man received serious injury. The three unfortunate men were speedily taken below, and so quietly was the act done that at the termination of the fight a large number of the men were unaware that any of their comrades were wounded. Two shots entered the ports occupied by the thirty-twos, where several men were stationed, one taking effect in the hammock-netting, the other going through the opposite port, yet none were hit. A shell exploded in the hammock-netting and set the ship on fire; the alarm calling for fire-quarters was sounded, and men who had been detailed for such an emergency put out the fire, while the rest staid at the guns.”

“The firing now became very hot,” wrote Semmes in his report, “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.

U.S.S. Kearsarge, "Winslow," the gun that sank the Alabama. Photographed in the early 1890s.
U.S.S. Kearsarge, “Winslow,” the gun that sank the Alabama. Photographed in the early 1890s.

“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 a 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, however, 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.”

Semmes then wrote that the Kearsarge of firing five shots into her after her colors were run down. Some held that after the Rebel flag was lowered, some of the Alabama‘s crew commandeered two guns in an attempt to continue the battle.

This was asserted by the Federal surgeon, who continued:

‘Captain Winslow, amazed at this extraordinary conduct of the enemy who had hauled down his flag in token of surrender, exclaimed, “He is playing us a trick; give him another broadside.” Again the shot and shell went crashing through her sides, and the Alabama continued to settle by the stern. The Kearsarge was laid across her bows for raking, and in position to use grape and canister.’

But it was then that Semmes finally produced a white flag, and the firing ceased for a second time. “My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly,” wrote Semmes in his report, “and thought they have lost their ship they have not lost honor.” The Alabama sank, twenty-six were killed and twenty-one wounded. On the Kearsarge, one was killed and two were wounded.

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The Sinking of the CSS Alabama by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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