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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
Suddenly Winslow sheered off, presenting his starboard battery. The men responded instantly to his order: “All the divisions! Aim low for the waterline! Fire! Load and fire as rapidly as possible!” The thirtypound rifle gun on the topgallant forecastle, manned by the marine detachment, was the first fired. A shell struck the Alabama near her forward port, throwing out splinters and wounding a man at a gun. Another sailor later recalled: “He leaped away with a leg smashed, and another man at the next gun fell dead. The shell caught our slide rack, and I think the man was killed by one of our own shot, which was thrown against him by the shell of the Kearsarge .” The Alabama next received a full broadside. Winslow had intended to run under the Alabama ’s stern, but Semmes’s keeping his broadside exposed prevented this. At five hundred yards both ships were forced into a circular track under full steam, moving in opposite directions and each fighting her starboard side. The positions of the ships reminded one Yankee sailor of “two flies crawling around on the rim of a saucer.” They would make seven complete circles before the end of the action, gradually lessening the distance between them by about a hundred yards.
The action was now continuous on both sides. An assistant engineer on the deck of the Kearsarge was able to see shot and shell from the Alabama “skip like stones … thrown to ricochet until they burst to windward with a hollow roar, sending aloft a shower of glittering spray.” The Alabama fired at least two shots for every one of the Kearsarge . Although Kell believed that his men “handled their guns beautifully,” he would also give due credit to his adversary: “She came into action magnificently.” He was standing near the eight-inch pivot gun commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Wilson when an eleven-inch shell exploded through the gun port and—as Kell later recalled—wiped out “like a sponge from a blackboard one-half of the gun’s crew.” A second shell killed one man and injured others. Then a third shell from the Kearsarge struck the breast of the gun carriage and spun around on deck without exploding. Seaman Michael Mars, compressor man, quickly picked it up and threw it over the side. Lieutenant Wilson, in a state of shock at being struck by blood and limbs, was in no condition to continue his command. Mars signalled to Kell, requesting permission to clear the deck. Kell bowed his head in assent, and the remains were shovelled into the sea. After the deck had been resanded, the places of Wilson and the dead and wounded were filled on Kell’s order by Midshipman Edward Anderson and eight men from a nearby thirty-two-pound gun. They worked coolly and methodically.
About twenty minutes after the action began, the spanker gaff that flew the Alabama ’s, colors was shot away, and the flag fell to just above the deck. Another flag was immediately raised at the mizzenmast head. At about the same time, a shell from the Alabama struck the hull of the Kearsarge . The men on the Alabama cheered, believing they had “knocked her engines to pieces,” before they realized there was little damage.
Positioned on the horse block to best direct the maneuvering of the Alabama , Semmes left his gunners with “no particular orders” during the action. However, it was later claimed by his sailors that he offered a reward to the men who could silence the two 11-inch Dahlgrens that were causing such havoc aboard his ship. Semmes is reported to have said of his opponents during the fight: “Confound them, they’ve been fighting twenty minutes, and they’re cool as posts.”
Kell distinguished himself throughout the battle, and the captain later praised his “coolness and judgment.” Lieutenant Sinclair in his Two Tears on the Alabama , written many years later, recalled “the Luff’s” behavior:
From point to point of the spar-deck in his rapid movement he was directing here, or advising there; now seeing to the transfer of shot, shell, or cartridge; giving his orders to this and that man or officer, as though on dress-muster; occasionally in earnest conversation with Semmes, who occupied the horse-block, glasses in hand, and leaning on the hammock-rail; at times watching earnestly the enemy, and then casting his eye about our ship, as though keeping a careful reckoning of the damage given and received. Nothing seemed to escape his active mind or eye, his commanding figure at all times towering over the heads of those around.