The Civil War scorched battlefields in both the North and the South, from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to New Mexico. When USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama battled in a ship-to-ship duel 150 years ago, however, they did so thousands of miles away from North America in a most unusual theater for the Civil War—the English Channel.
The morning of June 19, 1864, dawned beautiful and bright over Normandy, and a light breeze fluttered the sails of the boats dotting the harbor of Cherbourg, France. The most fearsome ship afloat, CSS Alabama, weighed anchor. For nearly two years, the Confederate commerce raider had prowled the seven seas in search of nautical prey as part of a guerrilla war at sea against Union merchant shipping. Alabama had captured or destroyed more than 60 U.S. ships and inflicted more than $5 million worth of losses to the Union’s merchant marine trade. Finally, however, a Union warship, USS Kearsarge, had the elusive vessel cornered.
It was a glorious day for a naval battle, and thousands of festive gawkers, including hundreds who had arrived by excursion train from Paris, lined Cherbourg’s sun-splashed shoreline to watch the impending spectacle. A band on the deck of a French warship played “Dixie,” and sailors raised a chorus of cheers from the flotilla of spectator ships that tailed behind Alabama as it steamed out to meet its foe, waiting beyond French waters.
From the day its bow first touched salt water, Alabama had managed audacious escapes from Union clutches. Built in secrecy in neutral Great Britain ostensibly as a commercial vessel, the steamer known as Enrica was in actuality a rebel warship whose construction was arranged for by James Dunwoody Bulloch, the Confederacy’s chief foreign agent in Great Britain. When the United States learned of the ship’s true identity, it pressed the British government to detain the completed vessel. A secret Confederate sympathizer inside the British government, however, alerted Bulloch of the pending seizure, and the ship sailed from Liverpool on July 29, 1862, disguised as a merchant vessel on a trial run with civilians on board and a Cunard steamship veteran at the wheel. Once out in the harbor, the guests boarded a tug to return to Liverpool as the clandestine warship headed to the Azores, where it received new weapons, a new captain and a new name.
On August 24, 1862, Rapahel Semmes, known as “Old Beeswax” for his finely waxed mustache, formally took command of the ship, now CSS Alabama, and hoisted the Confederate Stars and Bars to its peak with an English flag at the fore. The pair of standards reflected the dual nature of the crew—half Southerners, half Englishmen. The state-of-the-art, 230-foot vessel was fast, well-armed and, with freshwater condensers on board, capable of remaining away from port for long periods of time, which made it well-suited for hunting Union shipping on the open seas.
After Alabama claimed its first victim, a whaler from Martha’s Vineyard, near the Azores, it terrorized Union shipping lanes around the world, from Newfoundland to Sumatra, the West Indies to the Indian Ocean. Newspapers trumpeted Alabama’s exploits, and it soon became the most formidable and famous ship in the world. Pushing the limits of endurance, however, both the crew and ship grew weary after logging 75,000 miles by the spring of 1864. “We are like a crippled hunter limping home from a long chase,” Semmes reported as he sailed for Europe as seams opened on the ship and gunpowder supplies dwindled. He dropped anchor in Cherbourg on June 11, 1864, and sought permission from Emperor Napoleon III to enter the dry dock for repairs. With the emperor on vacation, however, Alabama sat in limbo.
As soon as the notorious ship was spotted, the United States minister in Paris telegraphed an urgent message to Captain John Winslow, commander of USS Kearsarge, to leave the Netherlands at once for Cherbourg. The Union warship arrived on June 14, and this time Alabama was the prey.
Semmes welcomed the fight. After all, in January 1863, his ship had sunk USS Hatteras, which was blockading Galveston, Texas, the only time a Confederate raider had ever bested a Union warship. After a few days of preparation, Alabama left port on June 19 and sailed directly toward Kearsarge nine miles out to sea. Before manning their battle stations, Semmes reminded his men of their exploits. “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 theater of so much of the naval glory of our race, and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you.”
The ships closed within a mile of each other and turned broadside to broadside. The rebels fired first, but the opening volley missed its mark. The battle quickly turned against Alabama, whose deteriorated gunpowder and shells failed to penetrate the anchor chain that Winslow had draped over Kearsarge’s hull for protection. Less than an hour into the battle, a fatal shot tore through the engine room of the wooden-hulled Alabama. With his ship listing, Semmes ordered his flag lowered and the ship abandoned. Only one Alabama gun scored a direct hit, and even in that case the shell failed to explode.
Alabama plummeted beneath the surface of the English Channel as nearby boats rescued its crew who clung to debris for survival. The English pleasure yacht Deerhound rescued Semmes and 41 others and brought them back to neutral Great Britain where they eluded capture and received a hero’s welcome. The loss of Alabama was worldwide news, and the vivid accounts of the battle allowed French Impressionist Edouard Manet to paint depictions so realistic that it was mistakenly thought he had been among the thousands of seaside witnesses. After years of American protests, an international arbitration panel in 1872 ordered Great Britain to pay the United States $15.5 million in damages caused by British-built Confederate raiders, including more than $6 million inflicted by Alabama.