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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
Finding the dinghy undamaged, Kell put Master’s Mate George Fullam in charge of her with instructions to surrender the ship and request assistance. Marine officer Becket Howell, a nonswimmer, was allowed to take an oar as one of the crew. When Kell discovered that another boat was only slightly disabled, he directed the removal of the wounded to it. Among these was Seamanjames King—“Connemara”—a troublemaker who had caused Kell many a headache since shipping on the Alabama at Singapore. As Kell stood briefly over the mortally wounded sailor, King seized his hand and kissed it. Amazed, Kell could not help thinking of the numerous times King had been punished on his orders. Lieutenant Wilson and Surgeon Francis Gait were placed in charge of the boat and the wounded taken away, for the ship was settling fast. Winslow—who remembered how the Hatteras had been lured to destruction by Semmes—was apparently uncertain whether the Alabama was actually sinking. He continued to wait for more evidence. Only after Fullam had come aboard (after first deliberately dropping his sword over the side of the dinghy) was Winslow aware of the situation.
Fullam delivered his message; then, looking up and down the deck, he asked where the dead and wounded were. When told that only three men had been wounded, he exclaimed, “My God, and it’s a slaughter house over there!” (He would later be astonished to learn that actually only nine men had been killed on the Alabama during the combat.) When Lieutenant Wilson came on board the Kearsarge , his appearance and statements seemed to confirm FuIlam’s account of the “slaughter”: he was covered with blood from the casualties at his gun early in the fight, and he still believed that sixteen of the seventeen men of his gun crew had been killed. Wilson offered Winslow his sword, but Winslow graciously refused it.
Aboard the sinking vessel Kell gave the order to abandon ship and directed the crew to find a spar or whatever else might assist them in keeping afloat. As the men stripped to their underwear, Kell urged them over the side. He then returned to the stern, where Semmes, his steward Bartelli, and a few other sailors were preparing to abandon ship. They were almost level with the ocean. Seaman Mars assisted Semmes as he removed his coat and boots, while the sail maker, Henry Alcott, helped Kell to pull off his boots. Semmes still wore his cap (turned inside out), trousers, and vest, while Kell had stripped to his shirt and underdrawers. The Luff was able to save only his watch, which he had tied to his waistband with a lock of his wife’s hair. Both men had unceremoniouslydiscarded their swords while undressing. Seaman Mars—one of the best swimmers on the ship—was entrusted with Semmes’s dispatches and accounts. Unfortunately, no one knew that Bartelli, who remained at his captain’s side, could not swim.
It was now every man for himself. Wearing a life preserver, Semmes slipped into the sea, followed by Kell, who held onto a grating for support. Kell later wrote that the water “was like ice, and after the excitement of battle it seemed doubly cold.” The men swam off as best they could to escape the vortex of the sinking ship. As the Alabama “settled stern foremost, launching her bows high in the air,” Kell turned for a final look. Years later, in an interview for the Atlanta Constitution , he recalled his feelings at the sight:
As the gallant vessel, the most beautiful I ever beheld, plunged down to her grave, I had it on my tongue to call to the men who were struggling in the water to give three cheers for her, but the dead that were floating around me and the deep sadness I felt at parting with the noble ship that had been my home so long deterred me.
Kell’s grating was not adequate, and he found the waves breaking over his head “distressingly uncomfortable.” Noticing a makeshift float of empty shell boxes, Kell shouted to a sailor, a strong swimmer, to examine it. The man called out: “It is the doctor, sir, and he is dead.” Llewellyn, like Bartelli, had been unable to swim, a fact of which his shipmates were unaware. Eight others also drowned before help came. Even good swimmers like Kell found it difficult to remain afloat. Seeing his senior officer weakening, Midshipman Eugene Maffitt began to disengage his own life preserver, gasping out, “Mr. Kell, you are so exhausted, take this life preserver.” Kell, knowing that the boy was prepared to sacrifice himself, refused. After what seemed like hours, but actually was only about thirty minutes, Kell heard a voice cry out, “Here’sour Luff!” An Alabama sailor in one of the Deerhound ’s small boats had recognized the expansive beard floating on the water. Kell was seized by the back of his neck and lifted into the boat.