Cherbourg, France, was the final crossroads for the frequently intersecting paths of Raphael Semmes and John Winslow—and the final battle for one of the war’s most famous ships.
The ship was state of the art, sleek and fast. Identified simply as “hull number 290,” it was built in Liverpool ostensibly for French clients, but its ultimate destination was no secret, and its construction created a diplomatic flap between the United States and Britain. To circumvent objections from Washington, the ship was unarmed. The builders could thus argue—and they did—that English neutrality laws, which stipulated that warships could not be built in England for belligerent nations, had been complied with. On July 29, 1862, the ship steamed out of Liverpool for a so-called trial run, complete with a civilian contingent to give the appearance of a holiday excursion. At some point the bewildered passengers were put ashore and the ship sailed on to the Azores, where it was armed and christened as the Confederate raider Alabama.
Raphael Semmes, newly promoted to the rank of captain, took command and began a maritime saga that perhaps surpasses anything in the annals of naval history. From August 1862 to June 1864, he took Alabama into the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the East Indies and then back again across the Indian to the Atlantic, this time to France for refitting. En route, incredibly, he sank the Union warship Hatteras and captured, depending on which account one believes, anywhere from 58 to 69 Union merchantmen, most of which he burned or sank.
To gain some idea of the magnitude of his deed, consider that Count Felix von Luckner, known as the “Sea Devil” for his exploits as captain of the commerce raider Seeadler on behalf of the Imperial German Navy in World War I, sank 14 Allied ships. Semmes had that beat with Sumter before he even set foot on Alabama. Semmes, quite simply, became a terror to Federal shipping, swooping in on his target with lightning speed, bagging it and then eluding all pursuers from one end of the globe to the other. To Confederates he was a hero, a welcome tonic for bad news in the land war. To the Federals he was a pirate who would one day receive his comeuppance for inflicting $6 million damage to their cause (which is anywhere from $105 million to $1.6 billion in 21st-century dollars, depending on which of four indices for measuring the value of an 1861 dollar is used). His derring-do drove insurance rates through the roof, effectively wrecked Union shipping for almost two years and inflicted a wound to American commerce from which it took almost a century to recover. Although some Federal seamen could not help admiring his skill and daring, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles put the capture or killing of Semmes, whom he referred to as “this wolf from Liverpool,” at the top of his wish list.
On June 10, 1864, Semmes anchored off Cherbourg, France, where he requested permission to put Alabama in dry dock. Port authorities turned him down, ostensibly because Emperor Napoleon III was not available to grant permission. So Semmes waited, confident of the emperor’s sympathy. It was a fateful, and fatal, pause. The lives of two intrepid mariners– countrymen who had fought under the same flag, shared a cabin during the Mexican War and almost died at the same time, in the same war and in the same waters 171⁄2 years earlier–were about to intersect again.
From March 9 to 27, 1847, off the coast of Mexico, the 37-year-old Semmes—nicknamed “Old Beeswax” because of his spiffy handlebar mustache—had shared a cabin with 35-yearold John A. Winslow as General Winfield Scott campaigned against Vera Cruz. Semmes was then a flag lieutenant under Commodore David Conner, who commanded the squadron in the Gulf. Winslow was a lieutenant. During the siege, Semmes was in charge of one of the on-shore naval batteries. It wasn’t his first encounter with Vera Cruz. In December 1846, he had commanded the brig USS Somers as part of the blockade of the Mexican coast. It capsized in a gale off Vera Cruz, a mishap that very nearly cost him his life. It wasn’t Winslow’s first encounter with the city either. At about the same time that Semmes was swimming for his life, Winslow lost his ship, Morris, on a reef in the same area.
But sharing a cabin and nearly losing their lives in the same place weren’t the only ironies that characterized their relationship. Another was that Semmes, who embraced the cause of the Confederacy, was technically a Northerner, born on September 27, 1809, in Maryland, a border state that remained in the Union, albeit under questionable circumstances. Winslow, who remained loyal to the Union, was a North Carolinian born in Wilmington on November 19, 1811.
After Mexico, Semmes practiced law in Mobile, Ala., while on extended leave from the Navy. In 1855 he was promoted to the rank of commander and was assigned to lighthouse duties until 1861. After his home state of Alabama seceded from the Union, Semmes took the same path. On orders from Jefferson Davis himself, he went north to persuade ordnance mechanics to support the Southern cause and, while there, to purchase munitions. He did very well, apparently because Northern arms merchants were more interested in profit than principle.
Semmes returned to Montgomery, and on April 4, 1861, he was commissioned a commander in the fledgling Confederate Navy, an arm of the new nation that was short on ships and materiel but long on talent. Having had experience with lighthouse duty in the U.S. Navy, he was placed in charge of that bureau by the Confederate Navy. But he quickly realized that the Confederacy had a greater need—commerce raiding. Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory agreed, and Semmes went to New Orleans to convert a steamer into the first Confederate commerce raider. It was christened CSS Sumter in honor of the Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter of South Carolina.
In June Semmes ran the Federal blockade, which Lincoln had ordered to take effect on April 19, 1861, from South Carolina to the Rio Grande, and on April 27, 1861, in North Carolina and Virginia, in accordance with Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Semmes spent the next six months in the West Indies and the Atlantic, hunting U.S. merchant ships. He captured 17 (some accounts say 18). “Captured” usually meant that he burned them after removing whatever he felt he could make use of and then paroled the prisoners. In January 1862, he brought his raider to Gibraltar for repairs. Two Federal cruisers learned of his presence and blockaded him there, whereupon he sold Sumter and made plans, along with many of his officers, to escape to England knowing that a magnificent cruiser was being built for him there.
While Semmes was making his way from Vera Cruz to Cherbourg, Winslow was also headed there, but by a different path. Following the Mexican War he remained in the Gulf, serving as executive officer of the sloop Saratoga from 1848- 49. After a year in the Boston Navy Yard (1849-50), he returned to active duty in the Pacific on the frigate St. Lawrence from 1851-55. Like Semmes, he was promoted to the rank of commander in 1855. In 1861 Winslow was assigned to duty on the Mississippi as executive officer of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. However, he had to leave the service for several months to recover from a disabling accident that occurred when he was commanding the ironclad gunboat Benton. He was promoted to the rank of captain in July 1862 and returned to service on the Mississippi. The following April, he was given command of USS Kearsarge (named for a mountain in New Hampshire) and spent the next year and a half in European waters looking for Confederate raiders, especially one particular raider. Never knowing where or when he might find one, especially that particular vessel, he kept his ship and crew ready for every eventuality, a bit of foresight that served him well.
On June 12, 1864, Kearsarge was anchored in the Scheldt, off Flushing, Holland. William L. Dayton, the American minister to France, sent Winslow a telegram advising him that Alabama was in Cherbourg Harbor. The presence of the Confederate raider had been reported in all the local newspapers. Winslow immediately called his officers and men to the ship and sailed to Dover for dispatches, arriving on June 13. He then sailed for Cherbourg, arriving there the next day with a ship and crew that were in top condition. Upon arrival, Winslow, his officers and men saw the Confederate flag flying within the breakwater—they had finally cornered the daring rover that had all but destroyed Union commerce for almost two years and left a trail of befuddled pursuers in its wake.
There were two entrances to Cherbourg Harbor. Winslow ordered both watched to assure that Semmes could not escape. He then positioned his own vessel a few miles off shore, and like a stalking cat waited for his quarry to make its move. Winslow had waited more than a year for this opportunity. He would not let it slip through his fingers.
Both ships were magnificent specimens of naval architecture. They were about equal in size: Kearsarge was 198 feet long, 33 feet in beam, 16 feet in draft and weighed 1,031 tons; Alabama was 210 feet long, 32 feet in beam, 17 feet in draft and weighed 1,150 tons. Though they were both well-armed, Kearsarge had more firepower, including two pivoting 11-inch Dahlgrens, each capable of firing 150-pound shells. It was these monsters that were largely responsible for tearing Alabama apart. It also had one 30-pounder rifle and four 32-pounder smoothbores, giving it a total of seven guns, of which five were used in the battle. Alabama had one pivoting 7-inch, 110-pounder Blakely rifle, one pivoting 8- inch, 68-pounder smoothbore and six 32- pounder smoothbores, for a total of eight guns, seven of which were used in the battle. Because of Kearsarge’s edge in firepower, and also because of the condition of his ship and crew, Winslow was confident that he could take Alabama in a fair fight.
When he learned of Kearsarge’s arrival, Semmes challenged the Union vessel. He sent word to the Confederate commercial agent in France, A. Bonfils, requesting that he inform Winslow through the United States commercial agent (a Mr. Liais) that if Winslow would wait until Alabama was coaled, he would come out and give battle. Winslow used the same channels of communication to inform Semmes that he was there to fight and had no intention of leaving. Semmes knew he had no time to spare because other Federal ships would soon make escape impossible. He prepared his ship for battle. In the process, his crew, most of whom were English, amused themselves and bolstered their courage by singing this ditty: “We’re homeward bound; we’re homeward bound and soon shall stand on English ground, but ere that English land we see, we first must fight the Kearsargee.”
The stage was now set for a titanic battle. June 19, 1864, dawned beautifully. It was warm, with a touch of haze. A slight westerly wind blew over the waves, causing the sails to pillow and the ensigns to snap and flap. At 9:45 a.m. that Sunday morning, Alabama and its 149 men raised anchor and headed for Kearsarge and its crew of 163. The Confederate raider was escorted by a French ironclad, Couronne, and several smaller French craft. Also escorting Alabama was the English yacht Deerhound, owned by English textile magnate John Lancaster. His ship stayed close to the action and played a pivotal role in the aftermath of the battle. Because of advance warning about the impending duel, a crowd of about 15,000 gathered to watch it from the shore, on the cliffs, on the breakwall and in ships. Some of them waved Confederate flags. A band aboard one French ship played “Dixie.” Among the crowd were the officers and men, and some of their families, of two U.S. merchantmen that had been waylaid and burned by Alabama on its way to Cherbourg.
On sighting Alabama, Winslow, who had been conducting a religious service, put down his prayer book and ordered the drum to beat General Quarters. The ship cleared for action. Believing that God helps those who help themselves, Winslow resolved to keep his end of the bargain. To assure that there would be no violation of French neutrality and also to make escape by Alabama into neutral waters less likely, he took his vessel farther out to sea. Semmes pursued him, making it appear that Kearsarge was running from Alabama. But both commanders knew better. They were seasoned veterans who had been around seas and ships all their lives. Semmes knew that Winslow wasn’t running, and Winslow knew that he knew it. When Kearsarge was about seven miles from shore, Winslow turned and headed for Alabama.
At 10:57 a.m., when the vessels were about a mile apart, the serenity of the scene was shattered by the roar of a broadside of solid shot from Alabama’s starboard guns. Kearsarge did not respond immediately, apparently intending to fight at closer range. Two minutes later a second and then part of a third broadside thundered from Alabama before Winslow, with the vessels now about a half-mile from each other, brought Kearsarge about, presented his starboard to his foe and then unleashed his own salvo of solid shot and shell, some of which found the mark. The action became hot and general, and the din was fearful—a mélange of booming, whistling, whooshing, crashing and exploding iron and powder, timbers splintering, sails tearing and rigging collapsing. Through it all came the deep-throated cheers, screams and groans of the combatants, all of which combined to form a hideous incongruity with the natural beauty of the setting and the promise of the oncoming day.
Some of Alabama’s initial fire cut Kearsarge’s rigging, but most of its shots went over and alongside the Union ship. Alabama continued its rapid but wild fire. Its gunners were not as well trained as those of Kearsarge, nor in particularly good condition after being so long at sea. They would find their range as the battle wore on. In the meantime, however, Kearsarge’s gunners, well rested, highly trained and ordered to fire below the waterline with their heavy guns and to sweep the deck with their lighter ones, took a fearful toll on Alabama—killing and maiming men, disabling guns, causing rigging to collapse and tearing gaping holes in its starboard hull and between decks. One shell exploded in a coal bunker, throwing a dense cloud of coal dust over the ship. Kearsarge fired fewer projectiles than Alabama, but nearly every one found its mark. The surgeon on Kearsarge recorded that his ship fired 173 projectiles, and Alabama about twice that number, but other accounts give figures that were considerably lower. Of all the shot and shell fired by Alabama, only a few struck Kearsarge, damaging little more than masts and rigging. To make matters worse for Alabama, many of its shells were duds because of the poor condition of its powder. Indeed, a 100- pounder lodged in the sternpost of Kearsarge but didn’t explode; if it had, Kearsarge might well have been finished. This sternpost, with its embedded shell, is on display at the Naval Memorial Museum, Building 76, Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
Semmes noticed that his solid shot appeared to do little damage to Kearsarge’s hull. Only later did he find out that it had a layer of chain armor around it, giving rise to claims of an unfair fight between an ironclad and a wooden ship. Kearsarge’s men responded by saying that they didn’t know how Semmes could have been ignorant of Kearsarge’s chain armor. They had made no attempt to conceal it. And it was known that Confederate spies had come aboard and been shown the ship. Moreover, the same French pilot had been employed by both ships and had visited each of them during their preparations for battle. Interestingly, the idea of protecting the ship’s midsection with chain armor came from Commander David G. Farragut, who had used it when he passed the forts below New Orleans in April 1862.
The two ships steamed through six (some accounts say seven) full circles around a common center, doing their best to destroy each other with starboard broadsides of shot and shell. Neither ship fired grape or canister, though both were in their arsenals. The superiority of Kearsarge’s armament, the élan of its crew and the chain armor around its hull all spelled doom for Semmes’ famous raider after an hour and two minutes of ferocious combat at distances as close as 400 to 500 yards. He tried to get the ship to shore, but it was too late; the sea was pouring in too fast. The fact that the bunkers were full of 350 tons of coal did not help matters. To his credit, Winslow kept his bunkers underloaded by 70 tons. Semmes knew that he had no choice but to strike his colors. He did so, raising the white flag in its place.
At this point accounts of the action differ. Semmes later wrote that after he had shown the white flag, Winslow poured another broadside of five shots into his stricken ship (some accounts say three or four shots), and he decried this breach of protocol.
But Kearsarge’s men told it differently. According to their account, Winslow ordered all firing to cease when Alabama struck its colors, without having yet raised the white flag. They claimed that two of Alabama’s junior officers, swearing that they would never surrender, opened fire on Kearsarge with the two port guns, prompting Winslow to order the broadside. Only then was the white flag shown over the stern and its ensign half-masted, causing Winslow to order, for the second time, a cessation of hostilities. In any case, Alabama, settling by the stern, slipped beneath the waves to its final resting place at 12:24 p.m., an hour and 27 minutes after firing the first shot in the only major battle between oceangoing ships in the war. No one cheered. There was only silence as the graceful craft that had wreaked havoc on Federal shipping for almost two years disappeared forever.
Winslow ordered his crew to save as many of Alabama’s men as they could, but he had only two undamaged boats, and accounts vary as to whether Alabama had one or two. Either way, there was no way to save everyone. A boat from Alabama pulled alongside Kearsarge with a few of the wounded. The officer in charge, a master’s mate, assured Winslow that Semmes had in fact surrendered and asked permission to return and save his drowning mates, giving his word of honor that when this had been done he would return to Kearsarge, come on board and surrender. Winslow permitted it, but the Confederate seaman did not keep his word. Instead, he rescued a few officers and then headed for Deerhound, leaving a number of his men behind in the water. Deerhound had previously pulled alongside Kearsarge. Winslow had then shouted to Lancaster: “For God’s sake, do what you can to save them.”
Lancaster did just that, pulling dozens of men out of the water, including Semmes and 14 of his officers. Winslow asked Lancaster about Semmes and was told that he had drowned. It was a lie. In fact, he was hiding under a tarpaulin. When the master’s mate had deposited his human cargo on Deerhound and set his boat adrift, Deerhound made sail for Southampton. Winslow’s officers pleaded with their commander to fire on Deerhound, but he refused, to his everlasting credit. Altogether, Deerhound rescued 39 men, including Semmes, who would make his way back to Richmond. It appears that Semmes’ interpretation of protocol did not prohibit lying, perfidy and deception. Casualties on Alabama were 19 killed (10 drowned), 21 wounded and 70 taken prisoner. The rest escaped. Kearsarge had three wounded, one of whom died from his injuries. Thus ended one of the most significant engagements in American naval history.
Neither Winslow nor Semmes, however, was finished. Winslow was honored throughout the North, receiving a vote of thanks from Congress and promotion to the rank of commodore, which was made retroactive to June 19, the day of the battle. Incredibly, despite Winslow’s risking his life and the lives of all of his officers and men in the service of their country (they had agreed to go down with the ship with flags flying rather than surrender), and despite the important victory they had achieved, some in Washington still found room for complaint. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles responded to Winslow’s official report by criticizing his “gross error” and “error of judgment” in paroling the “foreign pirates captured on board the Alabama.” Welles expressly disavowed the act, whatever that meant, inasmuch as the “pirates” were already paroled and therefore long gone to only God knew where. Despite Welles’ criticism, Winslow continued his service in the Navy for the duration of the war and after. This is testimony to his enormous dedication to his country and its cause; other commanders in such circumstances might have resigned in disgust. On March 2, 1870, Winslow was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. After his return from the Pacific, he lived in San Francisco for a time before moving to Boston. He died there on September 29, 1873.
Semmes suffered no loss of esteem or popularity in the Confederacy because of the defeat. Southerners argued that a battle between an “ironclad” and a wooden ship was an unfair fight. Arriving in Richmond after a circuitous and torturous journey, he was made a rear admiral and later a brigadier general in the army. He served on the James River for a time, protecting Richmond, and was present at the formal surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army at Greensboro, N.C., on May 3, 1865. After the war, he opened a law office in Mobile, but was later arrested and charged with treason. As with so many Confederates, this charge came to nothing, largely because of the extreme animosity between the Radical Republicans and President Andrew Johnson. Released under one of the president’s amnesty proclamations, he was tried for cruelty to prisoners later but acquitted in a dramatic trial when captain after captain testified that he had always treated his prisoners fairly and with dignity and kindness, in accordance with the rules of war. Later he was elected judge of the Probate Court of Mobile County, but President Johnson ordered that he not be permitted to carry out the functions of his office. Apparently, amnesty had its limits.
Semmes then became editor of a daily newspaper in Mobile for a time before accepting a professorship at the Louisiana Military Institute. He concluded his varied career by again practicing law in Mobile. Through the years he also published Service Afloat and Ashore During the Mexican War (Cincinnati, 1851); The Campaign of General Scott in the Valley of Mexico (1852); The Cruise of Alabama and Sumter (New York, 1864); and Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States (Baltimore, 1869).
And now for the final irony: This man with nerves of steel, this scourge of Federal merchantmen who strode across the world’s oceans weathering every storm and overcoming every obstacle with unheard-of cunning, daring and courage, died of food poisoning after eating spoiled shrimp at the home of his sister in Point Clear, Ala., on August 30, 1877.
John C. Fazio writes from Bath Township, Ohio. For additional reading, see Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States, by Raphael Semmes; and The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War by William Marvel.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.