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The Fight Between the Alabama and the Kearsarge off Cherbourg

The Illustrated London News, vol. 44, no. 1265, p. 607.

June 25, 1864

Kearsarge Off Cherbourg.

One of the most interesting naval engagements that has ever taken place near our shores was that of Sunday morning, between the Confederate cruiser Alabama, commanded by Captain Semmes, and the United States war-steamer Kearsarge, Captain Winslow. The Kearsage it has been usually called; but the Morning Star, which assumes to speak with authority upon all that concerns the Federal party, says that the correct spelling is Kearsarge, which name is derived from "a range of mountains in free New England." After an hour's fighting, the Alabama sank, and the victory remained with the Kearsarge, which was armed with two 11-inch (120-pounder) smoothbore columbiads, besides six 32-pounders; while the Alabama had one 7-inch bore rifled pivot-gun forward, one 8-inch smoothbore pivot-gun at the stern, and six 32-pounders. It seems that the Alabama arrived in Cherbourg on the 11th inst., for the purpose of extensive repairs, after two years' service, latterly in the East Indies. Our readers may perhaps recollect that we published in our Number of April 2 an Engraving, from a sketch by Captain Allen Young, representing the Alabama in Malacca Straits on the day before Christmas Day, when she captured and destroyed the merchant-vessel Martaban, or Texan Star. A day or so after her arrival at Cherbourg the Federal steamer Kearsarge arrived there also, and, instead of coming to anchor, continued to cruise backwards and forwards just outside the breakwater at Cherbourg, challenging the Alabama to fight. The Alabama immediately accepted the challenge thus given, only asking for a few days to complete her arrangements. About ten o'clock on Sunday morning the Alabama left Cherbourg harbour, and the Kearsarge was then several miles out to seaward, with her steam up ready for action. The French plated ship of war Couronne followed the Alabama out of harbour, and stopped when the vessels were a league off the coast; her object being to see that there was no violation of the law of nations by a fight taking place within the legal distance from land. The English steam-yacht Deerhound, belonging to Mr. John Lancaster, of Hindley Hall, Wigan, Lancashire, and the schooner-yacht Hornet, belonging to Mr. James Bryant, of the Royal Western Yacht Club, followed at a safe distance to witness the conflict. We are indebted to Mr. Bryant for the sketch from which our Engraving is made. The action is thus narrated by Captain Semmes, in his official report to Mr. J. M. Mason, the agent of the Government of the Confederate States in London:--

Southampton, June 21, 1864.

Sir,--I have the honour to inform you that, in accordance with my intention, as previously announced to you, I steamed out of the harbour of Cherbourg, between nine and ten o'clock on the morning of the 19th of June, for the purpose of engaging the enemy's steamer Kearsarge, which had been lying off and on the port for several days previously. After clearing the harbour we descried the enemy, with his head off shore, at a distance of about seven miles. We were three quarters of an hour in coming up with him. I had previously pivoted my guns to starboard, and made all my preparations for engaging the enemy on that side. When within about a mile and a quarter of the enemy he suddenly wheeled, and, bringing his head in shore, presented his starboard battery to me. By this time we were distant about one mile from each other, when I opened on him with solid shot, to which he replied in a few minutes, and the engagement became active on both sides.

The enemy now pressed his ship under a full head of steam; and to prevent our passing each other too speedily, and to keep our respective broadsides bearing, it became necessary to fight in a circle, the two ships steaming around a common centre, and preserving a distance from each other of from a quarter to half a mile. When we got within good shell-range we opened upon him with shell. Some ten or fifteen minutes after the commencement of the action our spanker-gaff was shot away, and our ensign came down by the run. This was immediately replaced by another at the mizenmast-head. The firing now became very hot, and the enemy's shot and shell soon began to tell upon our hull, knocking down, killing, and disabling a number of men in different parts of the ship.

Perceiving that our shell, though apparently exploding against the enemy's sides, were doing him but little damage, I returned to solid-shot firing, and from this time onward alternated with shot and shell.

After the lapse of about one hour and ten minutes our ship was ascertained to be in a sinking condition, the enemy's shell having exploded in our sides and between decks, opening large apertures, through which the water rushed with great rapidity.

For some few minutes I had hopes of being able to reach the French coast, for which purpose I gave the ship all steam, and set such of the fore and aft sails as were available. The ship filled so rapidly, however, that before we had made much progress the fires were extinguished in the furnaces, and we were evidently on the point of sinking. I now hauled down my colours, to prevent the further destruction of life, and dispatched a boat to inform the enemy of our condition.

Although we were now but 400 yards from each other, the enemy fired upon me five times after my colours had been struck. It is charitable to suppose that a ship of war of a Christian nation could not have done this intentionally.

We now turned all our exertions towards saving the wounded and such of the boys of the ship as were unable to swim. These were dispatched in my quarter-boats, the only boats remaining to me--the waist-boats having been torn to pieces.

Some twenty minutes after my furnace fires had been extinguished, and the ship being on the point of settling, every man, in obedience to a previous order which had been given the crew, jumped overboard and endeavoured to save himself.

There was no appearance of any boat coming to me from the enemy after my ship went down. Fortunately, however, the steam yacht Deerhound--owned by a gentleman of Lancashire, England, Mr. John Lancaster, who was himself on board--steamed up in the midst of my drowning men and rescued a number of both officers and men from the water. I was fortunate enough myself thus to escape to the shelter of the neutral flag, together with about forty others, all told.

About this time the Kearsarge sent one, and then, tardily, another boat.

At the end of the engagement it was discovered by those of our officers who went alongside the enemy's ship with the wounded that her midship section on both sides was thoroughly iron-coated; this having been done with chain constructed for the purpose, placed perpendicularly from the rail to the water's edge, the whole covered over by a thin outer planking, which gave no indication of the armour beneath.

This planking had been ripped off in every direction by our shot and shell, the chain broken and indented in many places, and forced partly into the ship's side. She was most effectually guarded, however, in this section from penetration. The enemy was much damaged in other parts, but to what extent it is now impossible to tell; it is believed he was badly crippled.

My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly; and, though they have lost their ship, they have not lost honour.

Where all behaved so well, it would be invidious to particularize; but I cannot deny myself the pleasure of saying that Mr. Kell, my First Lieutenant, deserves great credit for the fine condition in which the ship went into action, with regard to her battery, magazine, and shell-rooms, and that he rendered me great assistance by his coolness and judgment as the fight proceeded.

The enemy was heavier than myself, both in ship, battery, and crew; but I did not know until the action was over that she was also iron-clad.

Our total loss in killed and wounded is thirty--to wit, nine killed, twenty-one wounded.

I have the honour to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. Semmes, Captain.

The Deerhound brought to Southampton Captain Semmes, thirteen officers, and twenty-six men of the Alabama, who have thus escaped the fate of their comrades taken on board the Kearsarge and made prisoners of war. The crew of the Alabama was about 120 at the time she went out to fight. The Kearsarge returned to Cherbourg and anchored there in the afternoon. She had on board sixty-two of the Alabama's crew, and nine more were saved by a French pilot-boat. Ten wounded Confederates and three wounded Federals were taken to the Cherbourg hospital.

We shall be able, in our next week's Number, to present some additional Illustrations of this naval duel in the English Channel. The sketch taken by Mr. Bryant on board the Hornet is engraved on another page. It was received by us on Tuesday, accompanied with the following note from that gentleman, to whom we owe our best thanks for his prompt assistance so courteously offered:--

Ryde, Isle of Wight, Monday, June 20, 1864.

Sir,--Having witnessed the fight between the Alabama and the Kearsarge yesterday morning off Cherbourg, I inclose a sketch done at the time the Alabama went down. If you will kindly put it in your Paper I shall feel obliged. Yours, truly, James Bryant.

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