By: Kevin Ray, Archival Technician
This post is the second of three posts in a week-long series describing the history of the CSS Alabama and the resources available in the Division of Special Collections on both this ship and the naval history of the Confederacy. June 19, 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the battle between the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge, which resulted in the sinking of the Alabama. Read the first post in the series.
Alabama left Cape Town and sailed on to Cherbourg, France, where she docked on June 11, 1864. The ship was in serious need of repairs and supplies and the men were in need of rest. Time, however, was running short for Alabama and her crew. On June 14, USS Kearsarge, commanded by Captain John Winslow, arrived off Cherbourg. Semmes weighed his options and decided to take his chances in battle.
Alabama and Kearsarge met in battle on Sunday, June 19, 1864. They fired at one another several miles off Cherbourg, while a crowd of witnesses watched the battle unfold from any vantage point available. Englishman John Lancaster and his family watched the battle aboard their yacht, Deerhound. This private vessel would play a key role in the battle. Alabama fired first, apparently missing. Over the course of the battle Alabama fired more rounds, but either missed, or hit to little or no effect. Alabama’s ammunition was old and faulty and the crew had taken little gunnery practice while at sea in an effort to conserve the ammunition that they had. The crew of Kearsarge fired more slowly, more carefully, and more accurately. The damage to Alabama mounted. Realizing his ship was sinking, Captain Semmes sent up a white flag of surrender and gave orders to abandon ship. Survivors plunged into the English Channel. Some were picked up by French boats, others by Kearsarge. However, about 40 officers and crew were rescued by the yacht Deerhound and taken to Southampton, England, thereby avoiding capture by Captain Winslow. Among those saved by Deerhound were Captain Semmes and his first officer, Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell. In all, some 40 crewmen aboard Alabama perished in the battle, while only 1 crewman was killed aboard Kearsarge.
As the battle ended, CSS Alabama sank to a depth of nearly 32 fathoms. Within a year, the Civil War itself ended. Then a new battle ensued. This battle was waged not on the high seas, but in courts of law. The United States government brought claims against Great Britain for losses caused by CSS Alabama and other Confederate commerce raiders which had been built in England. The United States claimed that ships had been built in violation of Britain’s official policy of neutrality, and that the British were responsible for damages caused by the vessels. The claims were settled by an early means of international arbitration. Britain agreed to pay a settlement of over $15 million. Afterwards, the United States and Great Britain became steadfast allies.