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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
Filled with smoke and steam and with gaping holes in her hull, the Alabama —careening heavily to starboard—was in no condition to continue fighting. It was either escape, surrender, or be destroyed. The men were ordered to lie low, as it was feared that Winslow would now order a raking fire. But Semmes was not ready to surrender. He believed that by shifting the weight of his battery from starboard to port he might raise the shot holes above the water line. The ship was now five miles from the coast and with luck might make the three-mile limit. He gave the order: “Mr. Kell, as soon as our head points to the French coast in our circuit of action, shift your guns to port and make all sail for the coast.”
The helm was righted, the fore trysail sheets and two jibs hoisted, and the evolution executed successfully. At the same time, the pivot guns—after being cleared of the dead—were shifted to port with only a brief pause in the action. Kell appeared at the skylight above the engine room and in a “voice of thunder” shouted to the men below: “What is the matter in the engine room? Put on steam!” Engineers William Brooks and Matt O’Brien, covered with sweat and coal dust, answered that the Alabama carried all the steam she could manage without blowing up. Then reconsidering, O’Brien declared, “Let her have the steam; we had better blow her to hell than to let the Yankees whip us!” But it would take more than the extra twenty-five pounds of steam to save the Alabama . Winslow had anticipated Semmes’s intentions and steamed across his adversary’s bow. He was now in a position to rake her.
Aboard the Alabama none could doubt the seriousness of the situation. An officer, looking out a port and seeing the water rushing into the gangway at every roll, was certain that the Alabama ’s “last moments were close at hand.” A sailor later recalled: “Our men were then very fatigued and many disabled and wounded. We still fired as well as possible from the port side, though we knew the day was lost.” O’Brien came on deck to report that the rapidly rising water was almost flush with the furnace fires. He found Semmes on the horse block with a handkerchief tied around his hand to cover a painful although superficial wound. Semmes listened in silence, then ordered: “Return to your duty!” The engineers were now certain that they would go down with the ship. Engineer John Pundt said bitterly: “Well, I suppose ‘Old Beeswax’ has made up his mind to drown us like a lot of rats! Here, Matt! Take off my boots!” On deck there was some confusion, “though nothing like a panic, excepting on the part of one or two.”
Semmes ordered Kell to find out how long the ship could float. Going below, Kell found the sight “appalling.” The holes in the hull were “large enough to admit a wheel barrow.” Surgeon David Llewellyn was at his post, but the wounded man on his table had been swept away by a shell. Kell returned to the deck and reported that the ship could not remain afloat for more than ten minutes. Semmes, apparently unaware that his colors had again been shot down, gave the order: “Then, sir, cease firing, shorten sail, and haul down the colors; it will never do in this nineteenth century for us to go down, and the decks covered with our gallant wounded.” As there was no white flag available, a man on the spanker boom held up a makeshift one—the white portion of the Confederate ensign. The officers and men on the Kearsarge would later claim that when they observed the white flag and the firing of a lee gun they ceased firing, but that two more shots were then fired from the Alabama , one from the forward pivot gun. Unconvinced that his enemy had surrendered, Winslow cried out: “Give it to them again, boys; they are playing us a trick!” Each of his gun captains obeyed the order instantly, firing five volleys into the Alabama . Two 11-inch shells struck the coal bunker, throwing up coal dust as high as the yardarm. Aboard the doomed raider, Kell cried out: “Stand to your quarters, men. If we must be sunk after our colors are down, we will go to the bottom with every man at his post!” And among the sailors the word was passed, “There’s no quarter for us!” But when the white flag was again raised on the spanker boom, all firing ceased. Semmes then ordered Kell: “Dispatch an officer to the Kearsarge and ask that they send boats to save our wounded—ours are disabled.”