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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
Aboard the Kearsarge Captain Winslow stood atop an arms chest on the starboard side of the quarter-deck, half of his body exposed above the rail as he overlooked his own deck while scrutinizing the enemy. He repeatedly gave the order, “Faster, sir! Faster! Four bells!” to Henry McConnell, third engineer, while holding up four fingers signifying “Full speed ahead!” He gave orders in the same manner to Quartermaster William Poole at the helm. In addition to his other duties, Winslow watched the oncoming shells, directing the men near him when to dodge them. Men would drop flat, supporting themselves on hands and toes until the shot had struck or gone “howling” by, then spring up to resume action. Drenched in sweat and covered with powder stains, they were alternately laughing, talking, and cheering. The sponger of one gun was so stained with a “thick coating of burnt powder that it was hard to tell where blue undershirt ended and skin began.”
Kell’s counterpart on the Kearsarge —Executive Officer James S. Thornton—passed from one gun to another advising the crews: “Don’t fire unless you get good aim; one shot that hits is better than fifty thrown away.” There was a brief pause in the action at one of the pivot guns as both vessels became enveloped in smoke. To an officer’s anxious inquiry as to the cause of the delay, the gun captain replied, “Nothing is the matter, sir. She is all ready to give him a dose.” “Then why in hell don’t you fire?” demanded the officer. “I’ll fire, sir, as soon as I get sight” came the unruffled reply. The smoke soon disappeared, and a missile from the gun struck the ocean close to the Alabama ’s water line, sending a shower of spray into the air. There was even comic relief for the Federals. To the amusement of their shipmates, two old sailors used up a box of ammunition firing a twelve-pound howitzer boat gun.
Among the many observers on shore was Captain Sinclair. Equipped with “splendid glasses,” Sinclair noted that, although the Alabama fired three shots for every two of her opponent, she usually fired too high. He also noticed a difference in the powder smoke of the two ships: that from the Alabama resembled “puffs of heavy steam,” while that of the Kearsarge was “much lighter.” It was obvious to those taking part in the action that there was a difference. As Kell later recalled, “The report from the Kearsarge ’s battery was clear and sharp, the powder burning like thin vapor, while our guns gave out a dull report, with thick and heavy vapor.” Thus was Kell proved correct in his earlier evaluation of the Alabama ’s powder and the extent of its deterioration. The situation was far more serious than Semmes had believed when he challenged Winslow.
There was no question, moreover, as to the superiority of the gunners on the Kearsarge . Kell would admit that the Yankee guns were “served beautifully, being aimed with precision, and deliberate in fire.” Captain Winslow noted in his official report: “The firing of the Alabama from the first was rapid and wild. Toward the close of the action her firing became better.” An Alabama sailor admitted: “Our guns were too much elevated, and shot over the Kearsarge . The men all fought well, but the gunners did not know how to point and elevate the guns.” Austin Quinby, a marine corporal on the Kearsarge , noted the effect of this on the Federals. He later wrote in his journal:
When the battle commenced it made our hair stick right up strait but after we had got settled down to work and saw by their rapid and haphazard fire that they were not doing us much damage we took it easy; they would fire when they were in their smoke and when we were enveloped in ours. …
The corporal also observed that in their haste and excitement the Alabama s gunners fired off about six of their ramrods, resembling “black meteors with their long tails.” Of the more than three hundred shot and shell fired by the Alabama during the hour-long engagement, only twentyeight struck the Kearsarge . On the Federal side, the Kearsarge fired 173 shot and shell (mostly shell), a large number finding their mark and accounting for the “fearful work” of destruction. No grape or canister was used, although Winslow had a large quantity on hand.