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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
Although the shells of the Kearsarge were taking a heavy toll in killed and wounded, the Alabama remained on the offensive, her captain waiting for the lucky shot that would cripple his opponent. At length, his forward pivot-gun crew sent a hundred-pound shell smashing under the counter of the Kearsarge , glancing along until it lodged in the rudderpost. As the Kearsarge trembled from the shock, the sailors on the Alabama cheered loudly. Here was their lucky shot. However, their cheers died when the anticipated explosion failed to occur. For Semmesand Kell, the failure was bitter. To his dying day each would believe that faulty powder or a defective fuse had prevented the shell from exploding. They were convinced that this shell alone could have sunk the Kearsarge . At the very least, they believed, it should have made the rudder inoperable and thus influenced the outcome, since the Alabama was still very much in the action. Actually, however, if the shell had exploded at first contact—when it was supposed to—it would have damaged the ship’s counter, some twenty feet from the sternpost.
John Bickford, a first loader at one of the Kearsarge ’s pivot guns, had a different version of the failure of so many shells to explode: “It’s true that quite a number failed to explode, but it wasn’t the fault of the shells. It was the fault of the excited men who fired them.” According to Bickford, almost all of the unexploded shells from the Alabama still had on the lead caps that should have been ripped off by the gun loaders. As he explained in articles published years later in the Boston Journal and the Boston Evening Transcript , unless the lead cap was removed to expose the fuse primer—set to explode in so many seconds—it was impossible for a shell to explode. The Yankee from Gloucester, Massachusetts—afterward awarded the Medal of Honor for “marked coolness and good conduct” during the fight—told of his experience with one such shell:
I was standing on the starboard side of the gun, with my foot directly on the planksheer, when all of a sudden I heard the whir of a shell, a Blakely, and instantly my foot got a jar that seemed to fill it with pins and needles. That … shell had struck the planksheer and gone way through it, at least so far that it exposed its primer, or where it should be, but I saw that the patch was still there on the shell. …
Well, of course all the gun crew j umped back, looking for an explosion. I just turns round and says to ’em, “Never mind that, boys, it won’t go off, because they forgot to take the patch off.” I stayed where I was, loading the gun, and all the fellows jumped right to work again.
A shell from the Alabama s Blakely gun caused the only casualties on the Kearsarge . It passed through the starboard bulwarks below the main rigging, exploding on the quarter-deck and injuring three sailors at the after pivot gun. William Gowin, the most seriously injured, refused assistance and dragged himself to the forward hatch, where he was helped below by the surgeon. Gowin—who had an arm amputated—died within the week, becoming the only fatality aboard the Kearsarge .
The twenty-eight shot and shell which struck the Kearsarge did no major damage. Twelve struck the hull, while eight were believed to have damaged the rigging. Two of the boats were put out of commission and one of the sails was badly torn. A shell entered the funnel of the Kearsarge and exploded, tearing out a space about three feet in diameter and throwing metal about the deck. A piece of the shell passed through a water dipper that a thirsty fireman had just raised to his lips. A hundred-pound shell ploughed across the roof of the engine-room skylight, coming within fourteen inches of Engineer McConnell before passing harmlessly overboard through the port rail.
During the latter part of the fight, the Alabama received the full effect of accurate and deadly fire. Seaman James Hart, carrying a shell to his gun, was blown to pieces. The “first serious disaster” to the ship was the destruction of her rudder. For the remainder of the action, steering could be done only by using tackles. At about the same time—forty-five minutes after the battle had commenced—an eleven-inch shell passed through the starboard side, emerging and exploding on her port side and tearing great gaps in her timbers and planking. To the delight of the Kearsarge sailors, it “raised the very devil.” A coal-bunker bulkhead caved in, filling the fire room and almost burying the men there under coal. With only two boilers left working, the Alabama ’s steam pressure was greatly reduced.