- Historic Sites
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
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: