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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
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
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.”