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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
Together with several of his crew, Semmes had already been rescued by the boat from Lancaster’s yacht. Stretched out in the stern sheets “as pallid as death,” he opened his eyes and gave his uninjured hand to Kell, who inquired, “Are you hurt?” “A little,” came the answer. The hand injury was indeed slight, but he was suffering from exhaustion. They were brought immediately to the Deerhound , where Kell learned the identity of the yacht and its owner. To Kell’s surprise, he found Fullam aboard. Winslow had allowed him to help pick up survivors, and by not returning to the Kearsarge , the master’s mate had cheated the Federals of several prisoners, including the brother-in-law of the Confederate President. From Fullam came the report that the Kearsarge had been protected by “chain armor.” He had seen the places where the Alabama ’s shot had torn the cover planking away, indenting and breaking the chain beneath.
The rescued men were made comfortable. Semmes had the jacket of an English lieutenant loaned him by Lancaster, while Kell was given that gentleman’s carpet slippers and a pair of his trousers. Lancaster asked Semmes to what part of France he wished to be taken. He smiled at the reply, “Oh, any part of Great Britain.”
As the Confederate raider settled stern first, Lieutenant Thornton aboard the Kearsarge passed the word, “Silence, boys.” Seaman Bickford told his gun crew that one could yell when licking a man “but not when you had him down.” Meanwhile, the survivors from the Alabama continued to be picked up, and they were told that they were prisoners of war and would be treated humanely. One of them, mistaking Winslow for the Kearsarge ’s steward, asked him for whiskey. Identifying himself, Winslow gave him some whiskey and added, “My man, I am sorry for you.” And pointing to his colors, he said, “That is the flag you should have been under.”
Suddenly, the Deerhound was observed to be “stealing away.” Bob Strahan, captain of a thirty-two-pounder, turned his gun directly upon her. However, Winslow sent an officer to order him not to fire. As the Deerhound steamed away, the men waited in vain for the order to stop her. Years after the war, Executive Officer Thornton told an interviewer:
I was waiting impatiently for the order to come to fire on the English yacht which had rescued Semmes from his sinking ship. I never for a moment doubted that such an order would be given. But it was not, and I felt so indignant that I almost lost self-control. I felt for awhile that it was a barren victory and that we had spent our powder all for nothing.
Winslow later claimed he did not know the Deerhound was escaping; he refused at first to believe “she could be guilty of so disgraceful an act. …” Although there is no reason to doubt Winslow’s statement, the ship’s surgeon declared, “Probably not another person on board the Kearsarge was of the same opinion. … Captain Winslow alone is responsible for the escape of Semmes.”
Winslow was generous in victory. Calling his sailors to muster, he read them a prayer and announced: “We have won the battle without loss of life; God must have been on our side. The Alabama ’s men have been in the water, and you are requested to give them some of your clothing and report any expense to me. These men have surrendered, and I want you to use them as brother shipmates. Your dinner will be served out to you. Share it with them.” When the grog tub was brought up, all were allowed to refresh themselves.
Meanwhile, as the Deerhound steamed toward Southampton, the Confederates on board were grateful to have escaped death or imprisonment. When the officers tried to thank Lancaster, he merely told them, “Gentlemen, you have no need to give me any special thanks; I should have done exactly the same for the other people if they had needed it.”
Semmes’s career as a captain on the high seas ended with the sinking of the Alabama . He returned to the Confederacy early in 1865 and—promoted in rank to admiral—commanded the ironclad vessels of the small James River Squadron during the last weeks of the war. When the capture of the Confederate capital appeared imminent, he ordered his ships to be destroyed, and then—appointed a brigadier general—he led his sailors as a military unit following the evacuation of Richmond. After the war he was imprisoned by Federal authorities but was released after four months without being brought to trial. Before his death in 1877 he produced his memoirs of the war years— Service Afloat —intended to vindicate himself and his cause from his enemies’ charges of treason and piracy.
Winslow received promotion to commodore from a government long embarrassed by its failure to apprehend and destroy the Alabama . The victory was the zenith of a long naval career, and it assured Winslow of his place in history. He died in 1873, three years after his promotion to admiral.