On the 5th day of February 1862, the Sloop-of-War Kearsarge, commanded by Captain Charles W. Pickering, sailed from Portsmouth Navy Yard down the Piscataqua river, past the Isles of Shoals, out to sea.
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The course was set to the southward and eastward, and in a short time we ran into the Gulf Stream, and came into rough weather, which lasted for three days, making things wet and uncomfortable. Our hatch combings were low, and the seas that came aboard would strike them and pour down the hatches, until it became necessary to batten down, and put on the storm hoods. The captain's gig was swept out of the davits by a large sea, and lost overboard.
After this experience we proceeded on our way to Madeira, and had fairly good weather. We lay at anchor, at Funchal, two or three days, and then proceeded to Cadiz, Spain, where, on our arrival, we learned that the Confederate Steamer Sumter was anchored under the guns of Gibraltar, guarded by the United States Steamer Tuscarora, which was lying at anchor in the port of Algesiras, a Spanish town across the bay from Gibraltar.
We relieved the Tuscarora and kept a sharp lookout on the Sumter for some months, ready to go out in case she made a move. By lying in Spanish waters we were free to go out without waiting twenty-four hours after the Alabama had departed, which we should have been obliged to do, if we had lain at Gibraltar, in English waters.
In the latter part of the summer of 1862, we spent considerable time in the Atlantic waters around the Azores, looking for the Alabama, which had been reported as destroying American whalers in that vicinity. Not finding the Alabama, we returned to watch the Sumter, until she was finally sold and all hands left her.
The winter of 1862-1863 was spent at La Carraca, Spain, at the Spanish Navy Yard, repairing our stern bearing, which had worn down to such an extent that it was not safe to continue cruising under steam. It took from the 1st of December, 1862, until the middle of March 1863, to have the work finished, a job that ought not to have taken more than three weeks at the longest, had it been done in the United States.
On April 8th, 1863, Captain Pickering and our Executive Officer were relieved by Captain John A. Winslow, and Lieutenant Commander James S. Thornton. Soon after this change of officers, and while lying at anchor in the bay of Horta, Fayal, about May 1st the plan of protecting the engines and boilers, with the spare cables hung in bights over the sides, as suggested by Lieutenant Commander Thornton, was decided upon. The engineers' department made the iron work, and the ship's carpenter hung the chains. After the chains were hung, the whole surface was covered with inch boards to prevent the sea from washing it adrift, some parts being lashed together only with marline; the ends and bottom being finished with beveled pieces so as not to reduce our speed. After six days' work, we had the job completed, and on painting the new wood covering, the change was scarcely distinguishable at a short distance.
The Kearsarge was a fast steamer for those days, and had made an average of thirteen and a half knots with moderate head wind and sea.
On September 7th, 1863, we left Madeira for the English Channel, touching at Lisbon, Portugal, and Ferrol, Spain. Here we heard that the Confederate Steamer Florida was at Brest, France. We immediately proceeded there, looking in at Bordeaux, where two ironclad Rams were being built for the Confederates. We found the Florida at Brest, where we remained lying off and on for about five months. The Florida was a two funnel steamer, a little smaller than the Alabama, and carried eight rifled guns.
October 30th, we heard that the Georgia was off the coast of Ireland. We proceeded to Queenstown in a very severe gale, but found that she had gone to Cherbourg. Back again we went to Brest, to continue our watch on the Florida.
December 5th, we started for Queenstown again, this time to land some stowaways that had come aboard when there before. These stowaways were the cause of considerable diplomatic correspondence, and we returned them to their native soil as soon as we dared to leave the Florida touching at Cherbourg and at Plymouth on our return to Brest.
On January 17th, 1864, being short of coal and stores, we were obliged to go to Cadiz to replenish, and returned on the 18th of February to find that the Florida had departed during our absence. It was rather a difficult task for one vessel to blockade four or five of the enemy's cruisers, from one to six hundred miles apart.
In the English Channel we performed considerable police duty, visiting ports in England, Ireland, France, Belgium, and Holland, looking after the Rappahannock, Georgia, and other vessels fitting out for the Confederate Government, as fast as we heard of their whereabouts.
April 17th, when going into the port of Ostend, Belgium, under charge of a pilot, through his stupidity we were run on the pier, a massive granite structure, where we hung for twelve hours before we could get off. We at first thought it was premeditated, but finally came to the conclusion that it was through the pilot's ignorance. We came off with only the loss of a few sheets of copper from our bottom.
That the reader may realize what a scourge the Alabama was to American Commerce, I will proceed to follow her destructive course from her departure from England. In October 1861, the Confederate Agents in England made a contract with the Lairds, of Liverpool, to build a war vessel. In May 1862, the vessel was launched and called the "290," this being the 290th vessel built by that firm. She Cost $255,000. On July 29th, 1862, the "290" was finished, and sailed from Birkenhead, out of the Mersey river, ostensibly for a trial trip, with a large party of ladies and gentlemen aboard, and anchored in Moelfra Bay. Here a tug met her, took off the guests and landed them on shore, when the "290" proceeded on her voyage, passing around the north coast of Ireland, then set her course for the Island of Terceira, one of the Azores, where she arrived on the 10th of August. In the diary of one of the officers of the Alabama, he says: "No sooner had our departure become known than the United States Steamer Tuscarora received news of it through the American Consul at Liverpool. Every exertion was made by her Commander to seize us, but without avail, for by the time the Tuscarora arrived in Moelfra Bay, we had been gone two days."
On the 18th of August the English barque Agrippina arrived at Terceira, having on board guns, ammunition, coal, stores, etc., for the "290," which cargo was transferred aboard. On the 20th, the English steamer Bahama arrived, with Captain Raphael Semmes and other officers of the Confederate Navy as passengers. More guns and stores were transferred from her to the "290." On Sunday, August 24th, the "290" was put into commission and named the Alabama by the authority of the Confederate States Government.
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About eighty men were shipped from the three vessels, and formed the nucleus of the crew until others could be found willing to sign the articles. The Alabama was built for great speed, and had a hoisting propeller, so that under sail alone, she could cruise about, thus economizing fuel, which was a very important item with her.
On September 5th, the eleventh day after going into commission, the Alabama captured her first prize, a whaling ship, which was burned.
After cruising about the Azores for some days, the Alabama's course was shaped toward New York, capturing on her way twenty vessels. Then steering in a southerly direction toward Martinique, she captured two more vessels previous to her arrival there on the 18th of November.
She was here blockaded by the United States Steamer San Jacinto, but escaped out of the harbor, at night, on the next day, the 19th. - The Alabama went from Martinique to the southward to the Island of Blanquilla, arriving there on the 21st, where she met her store ship, the Agrippina, from which vessel she took coal and stores.
After coaling and taking on stores, the Alabama headed northward, going through the Mona Passage, to the north of Hayti, capturing two more vessels; thence passing through the Windward Passage she captured and ransomed the Pacific mail steamer Ariel, bound from New York to Aspinwall. After lying in the track of the mail steamers for a few days, the Alabama went to the Areas Rocks, where she took on more coal from the Agrippina, which was there waiting for her. The Confederate cruiser finished taking coal on January 5th, 1863, and hoisted anchor.
From the mails captured on the Ariel, Semmes obtained the information that an expedition was about to leave New York to make an attack on Galveston, Texas. Semmes had calculated the time for the arrival of the transports at Galveston, and was intending to surprise them at night, while lying at anchor, and then to steam through the fleet, pouring in shot and shell from both batteries as he went. But on Sunday, January 11th, when he approached the anchorage, instead of finding the transports there, five vessels of war were made out. Soon one of them was reported to be standing out towards the Alabama, and after dark came up with her. Answering her hail, the Alabama replied, "Her Britannic Majesty's Steamer Petrel. What vessel is that ?" and the answer came back - "The United States Steamer Hatteras." At the same moment Semmes replied, "This is the Confederate Steamer Alabama," and before the Hatteras had fully heard, a broadside from the Alabama's starboard battery was given her at a distance of only fifty or sixty yards.
After twelve or fifteen minutes of rapid firing from both vessels, the Hatteras was reported to be sinking, and the firing ceased. Semmes lowered his boats, and soon after, the Hatteras went down stem first. The officers and crew were taken aboard the Alabama, and paroled at Port Royal, Jamaica. The Hatteras, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Blake, was a small iron, sidewheel gunboat, formerly a merchant vessel, and carried a very light battery.
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After repairing and coaling ship at Port Royal, the Alabama proceeded to the eastward, in the track of vessels bound to and from the East Indies, the Pacific and the United States, capturing seven vessels. She then headed in a southerly direction and along the coast of Brazil, touching at Fernando de Noronha, capturing seven vessels, one of which, the Louisa Hatch, was loaded with one thousand tons of coal. This was a very fortunate capture for the Alabama, as she was short of fuel.
Semmes had ordered the Agrippina to meet him here, so that he might fill up with coal and stores, but he decided to hold on to the Hatch until he made sure that the Agrippina had arrived.
On entering the harbor he did not find the Agrippina there, and had the Hatch brought in, hauled alongside, and filled his bunkers from her. Just after finishing taking coal, two American vessels were sighted in the offing. The Alabama got up steam and went out to them. They proved to be two American whalers, one of which was burned and the other brought in to anchor.
Semmes waited a few days longer for the Agrippina, but she not arriving, he went out, taking his prizes with him, and burnt them off the island. On the Alabama's way from there to Bahia, she captured four vessels.
After leaving Bahia, she proceeded in a northeasterly direction, then headed south, to a little south of Rio de Janeiro, capturing seven vessels, one of which, the barque Conrad, was commissioned as the Tuscaloosa, and officered as a tender to the Alabama. From here her course was set to the eastward for the Cape of Good Hope, capturing a vessel en route. On July 29th, she anchored in Saldanha Bay. After remaining at this port one week, she put to sea, and captured the bark Sea Bride. She next went to Table Bay, and then to Simons Bay, where she captured, in sight of the town as she went in, a bark named the Martha Wenzell. It was finally decided that this prize was inside the three mile line, and she was released.
On the 28th of August, the Alabama anchored at Angra Piquina, where the prize, Sea Bride, was sold. It was about September 25th, when the Alabama left the Cape for a cruise still farther to the eastward. After steering south for a short distance her course was set for the Straits of Sunda, by the way of St. Paul's Island. At the entrance of the Straits she captured a vessel, and after passing through them she captured two more. The Alabama next sailed as far as the Island of Condor in Siam, arriving at Singapore on December 21st, 1863. In the Straits of Malacca she captured three vessels, and off the coast of India, another.
Passing westward, toward the coast of Africa, the Confederate ship passed through the Mozambique Channel, to the Cape of Good Hope, thence up towards St. Helena, west, to the coast of Brazil, then northerly again, capturing the Rockingham April 23d, and the Tycoon on April 27th. She continued her course to the northward, passed the Azores, then stood away to the northeast for the English Channel, and on the 11th day of June, 1864, arrived at Cherbourg, France, having cruised less than two years. Of the sixty-six vessels captured by the Alabama, fifty-two were burned, ten released on bond, the Hatteras sunk in action, the Conrad commissioned as a Confederate tender to the Alabama, one was sold, and one released as an unlawful capture.
The damage inflicted on American shipping by the Confederate cruisers, which were allowed to be fitted out in England, cost the English government fifteen million, five hundred thousand dollars ($15,500,000) which sum was paid to the United States in settlement of the so-called Alabama claims.
On Sunday afternoon, June 12, 1864, while the Kearsarge was lying at anchor in the Scheldt, off Flushing, Holland, a gun was fired from on board, and the signal was hoisted for everybody ashore belonging to the ship to return, at once; orders were also given to spread the fires, and to get up steam preparatory to getting under way. The anchor was hoisted and we proceeded to sea, when Captain Winslow called all hands to muster on the quarter deck, and informed them that he had received a telegram from Mr. Dayton, the American Minister at Paris, that the Alabama was in the harbor of Cherbourg, where we were going, and he hoped to have the opportunity of meeting her, and of being able to capture or destroy her.
This information was received with three rousing cheers from the crew, and the men's eyes glistened with excitement and animation, at the prospect of having a chance to show of what they were made. They were all eager for the fray.
On the way to Cherbourg, the crew were occupied in getting swords and cutlasses sharp, and ready for action; the grindstones being kept in constant use. On the 14th of June we steamed into the harbor of Cherbourg at the eastern entrance, taking a good look at the Alabama as she lay at anchor. We then proceeded out through the western passage, and without anchoring, stood off and on, outside the breakwater; keeping a sharp lookout, and waiting for the Confederate to come out. This was kept up for five days; the crew meantime drilling at the guns, and seeing that everything was in working order. On Sunday, June 19th, at 10.20 A.M., all hands being at muster on the quarter deck, and while the Captain was reading the Church service, the lookout, on the fore-top-sail yard, reported to the officer of the deck that the Alabama was coming out. The Captain took the trumpet, called all hands to quarters, an ordered the ship cleared for action.
Orders came to the engine room to start all the fires (we had been running under half steam) and to prepare for action. Our bow was turned away from the shore, and we steamed out toward the middle of the English Channel, so that the engagement should take place outside of the three mile limit, and also that the Alabama might not be able to run inshore in case she attempted to get away.
The Alabama was convoyed to the distance of three miles from the French coast by the French ironclad frigate, La Couronne. The Alabama then continued on her course out, while the French frigate returned inshore.
After Captain Winslow was satisfied that the Alabama was well outside French waters, the Kearsarge was put about, and headed straight for her enemy. At very long range the Alabama commenced firing, thinking that she might do us some damage by raking shot; but they mostly fell short, or went clear, some passing over us.
As we approached her, we sheered off, giving her a broadside from our starboard battery at a distance of about one thousand yards, intending to run under her stern and rake her; but, perceiving our intention, Semmes wisely kept his broadside to us, using his starboard battery. The tide was setting to the westward, and our manoeuvering commenced a little to the eastward of the harbor, on a circle, each vessel being on opposite sides. The engagement took place on a panoramic plan, directly in front of Cherbourg, about six miles distant, in plain view of thousands of people that had come to witness the fight; it having been reported in Paris Saturday evening that we were to meet on Sunday morning.
During the early part of the fight, it did not seem to Captain Winslow that our shot or shell were doing much damage, and he decided to fight at closer quarters. We accordingly shortened the distance between us, and could then see, by the confusion on the enemy's deck, that we had not wasted our ammunition.
After an hour's fighting, the Alabama attempted to set sail and run inshore. The order of four bells ("ahead fast") was given to the engine room; we forged ahead, and were soon in a position to rake the enemy fore and aft; but she was too far gone, and had commenced to settle when she hauled down her colors, soon showing a white flag over her stern. Semmes then sent a boat alongside of us to say he had surrendered. She was now about five miles from shore.
The engagement lasted one hour and two minutes, each vessel using her starboard battery, and moving in a circle around a common centre.
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When we brought her port side into view, we saw that where our shell had made only small holes in entering, on exploding within, they had opened large gaps in her port side. Then the Alabama sank, going down stern first, with her bow high in the air, leaving the crew struggling in the water. The Deerhound, an English steam yacht, which had been lying at a safe distance inshore, now steamed under our stern, and Captain Winslow requested her commander to assist him in saving the crew, as most of our boats were disabled. (We had only two that would float, and they were sent to pick up the men.) While thus engaged, it was observed by the officers of our vessel that the Deerhound was steaming towards the English coast, and evidently going away with our prisoners. Permission was asked by some of our officers to heave her to. Winslow refused, saying that the commander of an English yacht would not do such a thing as to carry our prisoners away, but was only steaming about, and would return with them to our ship; but it was not so. The Deerhound went off with Semmes and a number of his officers and crew, landing them at Southampton, England.
I will say that our boats' crews were out, and it might have been possible that the rescued men would have overpowered them; and it would certainly have been a very grave error to have followed the yacht and left the men under such circumstances.
After we had picked up all the men we could find in the water, and had taken them from one of the French pilot boats that had brought them alongside (making in all seventy men and officers), we steamed into the harbor of Cherbourg and came to anchor.
Captain Winslow sent an officer ashore to visit the Admiral of the Port, in order to obtain permission to land the prisoners on parole, and also to be permitted to send the wounded of both vessels to the Marine Hospital; which was granted.
Virtually, the Alabama was an English ship, with English guns, manned by an English crew, sunk in the English channel, and Semmes and other officers were run away with by an English yacht.
During the engagement, a 110-lb rifle shell entered the bulwarks and exploded, wounding three of our after pivot-gun's crew; but everybody was working with such coolness and precision that no more notice was taken of the casualty than to have them taken below to the surgeon on the berthdeck, for medical attendance. No other casualties befell our crew during the engagement.
We never ascertained the losses on the Alabama, but judged them to have been twenty or more.
We were struck twenty-eight times in hull and rigging, which caused the following damages: A 110-lb rifle shell struck the roof of the engine house, cutting it completely through and across, knocking the splinters and glass in all directions into the engine room below; and it became necessary to set the men to sweeping them up to prevent them from getting into the machinery.
A shell entered the smoke-pipe and exploded inside, tearing out a space on the port side about three feet in diameter, cutting a boat hanging on the davits, full of small holes with the fragments.
Another 110-lb shell struck a glancing blow under the counter and deflecting, entered the rudder post and remained there, but did not explode : nor did it jam the rudder so that it could not be used; situated as this shell was, it would have done us very serious damage had it exploded.
One shot carried away the starboard life-buoy.
Three 32-lb shot went through the port bulwarks forward of the mizzen mast.
A shell exploded at the after end of after-pivot-gun port. Another shell exploded at the after end of chain plating. Two shot struck below the plank-sheer abreast of the boilerroom hatch, one in the plank-sheer of the forward-pivot-gun port, one forward of the fore rigging, two through the port quarterboat, and a number in the shrouds and rigging, doing more or less damage.
To illustrate the effect of discipline aboard a man-of-war, I will relate an incident that occurred during the fight.
John W. Dempsey, a quarter-gunner who was wounded, received a compound comminuted fracture of his right arm. As he went from the after-pivot-gun to the hospital, forward, with his arm dangling by his side and bleeding freely, he took his cap from his head and held it under his hand to prevent the deck from being stained with his blood.
Before we went into the fight, an American flag was sent to the main truck in a stop: at the end of the fight, the Alabama's last shot struck the halyards, and breaking the stop, let the flag loose to the breeze.
The crew of each vessel was as follows: Kearsarge, one hundred and sixty-three, all told; the Alabama, about the same number, as near as could be ascertained at the time, although her crew had numbered as high as one hundred and seventy, a short time before.
The Alabama had been in Cherbourg a week preparing, and had taken aboard three hundred and fifty tons of coal, which brought her down in the water; while the Kearsarge had only one hundred and seventy tons aboard, making her very high out of water. The size of the two vessels was as follows:
ALABAMA KEARSARGE Length of Keel 210 feet 199 feet Beam 32 feet 33 feet Depth 17 feet 17 feet Tonnage 1040 1031
Kearsarge: 4 short 32-pounders, 2 11-in. smooth bores (Dahlgrens), 1 30-lb rifle; Total 7 guns.
Alabama: 1 7-in. Blakely rifle, 110 lbs, 1 8-in. smooth bore, 64 lbs, 6 long 32-pounders; Total 8 guns.
The total number of shot and shell fired by the Kearsarge was one hundred and seventy-three, while it was stated that the Alabama fired about three hundred and seventy.
The repairs were all made by our own men, and we continued cruising in the English Channel.
On August 11th, 1864, we left Dover, England, on our way home, stopping at Fayal; then running due south to the St. Paul Rocks which are situated about one degree north of the Equator and almost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, without any light or beacon, in fact nothing to mark their location.
We proceeded to the southward to the Island of Fernando de Noronha, a penal settlement belonging to Brazil, and then to off Rocas Islands, northwest to Barbadoes where we arrived October 23d; thence to St. Thomas, remaining three days.
While lying here two steamers were sighted in the offing showing the American colors. We proceeded out of the harbor and found the U.S. Steamer Wachusett on her way to the United States with the Confederate Steamer Florida which she had captured by boarding, and had taken out of the harbor of Bahia, in Brazil. We relieved her of part of the Florida's crew and brought them home with us.
We arrived at Boston at five minutes after twelve o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, November 8th, 1864, having been two years and nine months away from the United States. We were given a reception and banquet by the city government in Faneuil Hall, it being the second time its doors had been thrown open for a like occasion. The first was in 1812, when Captain Hull, commanding the frigate Constitution, came into Boston Harbor with the crew captured from the English frigate Guerriere, which she had destroyed in an engagement on the high seas.
We were also banqueted at the Revere House by the merchants of Boston, receiving a most enthusiastic welcome from all. On the 28th of November 1864, the crew were discharged and the officers were detached. Thus ended the first cruise of the Kearsarge, one of the most famous of American naval steamers.
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Massachusetts Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States
Source: Suggestions for Additional Study: USS Kearsarge (1862-1894) CSS Alabama (1862-1864) CSS Florida (1862-1864) USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864 Sinking of C.S.S. Alabama by U.S.S. Kearsarge, 19 June 1864 Rear Admiral John A. Winslow, USN (1811-1873)
Badlam, W.H. 1900. THE FIRST CRUISE OF THE KEARSARGE. Civil War Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Massachusetts, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Printed by the Commandery, Boston, Massachusetts. Volume 1, pp 11-24.
DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY - NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER:
Suggestions for Additional Study:
USS Kearsarge (1862-1894)
CSS Alabama (1862-1864)
CSS Florida (1862-1864)
USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864
Sinking of C.S.S. Alabama by U.S.S. Kearsarge, 19 June 1864
Rear Admiral John A. Winslow, USN (1811-1873)
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