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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
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.