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Showdown at Cherbourg: The death of the Alabama, June 1864


Following my TCW blog on how the British-built Confederate commerce raider Alabama was spirited out of England in July 1862 to wreak havoc on the US merchant fleet during the American Civil War, here is the equally enthralling story of how the sea wolf finally met its end …   

AS the morning sun burned the haze off the sea around Cherbourg, crowds stood in their thousands gazing out across the water – straining their eyes, or peering intently through telescopes.   

Hundreds jostled for space along the breakwater that shielded the entrance to the French port. Scores more were jammed into window spaces on the upper storeys of harbourside houses. The energetic and the daring climbed on to roofs, or shinned up the masts of berthed vessels.   

Those who could afford it hired fishing boats to take them out into the English Channel. And on the heights above the town, thousands of onlookers were gathered.   

It was Sunday June 19, 1864, and every vantage point in Cherbourg that overlooked the sea was at a premium. Because the spectacle that was about to unfold was truly awe-inspiring … a setpiece duel between two warships.   

Fifteen thousand people had flocked from all over France and many other parts of Europe to witness one of the pivotal naval battles of the American Civil War, three thousand miles from that divided nation.   

Down in the harbour, the Confederate commerce raider Alabama prepared to set sail, her men keyed up for action. Out beyond the breakwater, the United States sloop-of-war Kearsarge awaited the rebel vessel, her crew equally prepared for the forthcoming encounter.   

It was almost two years since the Alabama, built at the Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, England, had been spirited out of British waters to wreak havoc on the US merchant marine. Crewed mainly by Englishmen, the sleek, fast cruiser had roamed 75,000 miles, sinking, burning or ransoming 66 vessels and virtually wiping the American trading fleet from the oceans.   

But by the summer of 1864, the Alabama – commanded by the enigmatic Captain Raphael Semmes – was a shadow of the dashing raider she had once been. Her hull was fouled, its copper plating peeling. Her engines were in need of service, her coal and stores were depleted, and she was leaking badly. And she was being hunted by US warships.   

‘She was like the wearied foxhound, limping back after a long chase, footsore and longing for quiet and repose,’ Semmes later wrote. ‘Her commander, like herself, was well-nigh worn down.’   

Because of the success of the Alabama and a handful of other Confederate commerce raiders, mostly British-built or supplied, there was little left for the South’s sea rovers to prey on.   

So as Semmes sailed east across the Atlantic that June after a sparse sweep for Northern shipping, he decided to go into Cherbourg to carry out much-needed repairs.   

On Saturday June 11, the French allowed the Alabama into the port. But seeking refuge in Cherbourg proved to be a mistake by Semmes. Because it was a naval station, the French government was in charge and permission for the Confederate ship to be dry-docked and overhauled was withheld until a ruling could be made by the emperor, Napoleon III. But he was in Biarritz and could not immediately be contacted.   

As neutrals, the French were reluctant to be seen to be giving long-term succour to a Southern vessel, especially now that the war was going badly for the Confederacy. Semmes should instead have made for Le Havre, just 50 miles further east, where private docking facilities might have been readily available.   

However, the die was cast. Semmes claimed later that if his ship had been admitted into dry dock straight away, he would have given his 149-strong crew leave of absence for a couple of months while he made repairs.   

But he well knew that a protracted stopover would almost certainly be the end of the Alabama, because US warships would simply stand off Cherbourg in overwhelming strength, ready to destroy her if she ventured out.   

That was exactly what had happened with Semmes’s previous command, the commerce raider Sumter. In April 1862, he had been forced to abandon her in Gibraltar as Northern ships blockaded her.   

It is possible that he was planning to painstakingly refurbish the Alabama in Cherbourg and then make a dramatic all-or-nothing break for the open sea no matter how many US opponents were waiting.   

But, with the French prevaricating, that option was now closed to him. His best hope was to make what repairs he could and get out of the port as quickly as possible before the net closed – because news of the Alabama’s arrival had already been telegraphed to US political and military chiefs, who had alerted their navy.   

So 54-year-old Semmes ordered his men to do as much as they could to get the Alabama shipshape. But as they worked frantically to repair and refuel her, nemesis arrived in the shape of the Kearsarge.   

On Tuesday, June 14, she bore down on Cherbourg from the east and cruised slowly across the inner harbour. Seeing the Confederate flag flying from the Alabama, the captain of the Kearsarge, 52-year-old John Winslow, knew he finally had his quarry at bay. He then took his ship out beyond the breakwater and waited.   

Semmes also realised the moment of truth was at hand. He could now either abandon the Alabama in Cherbourg, or take her out and fight the Kearsarge before more Northern warships arrived.   

He chose to fight. Like a knight of old accepting an opponent’s challenge, he sent a message via intermediaries to Winslow – a former shipmate from their early days in the US Navy – that he would give battle ‘as soon as he could make the necessary arrangements’.   

The Kearsarge’s officers were surprised by Semmes’s decision. But, on paper, it was not such an audacious gamble. The two ships were almost evenly matched in speed, crew numbers and the quantity of their guns. Both could move under steam or sail.    

But probably the overwhelming factor in the decision to give battle was the complicated, contradictory character of Semmes himself.   

He professed to be a champion of liberty and justice, yet saw no conflict in the fact that he was fighting for a cause that held millions in slavery. He saw himself as a man of honour and principle, yet would never concede that his enemies could genuinely embrace the same feelings.   

Despite having served as a US naval officer for 34 years, he despised the Yankees with an all-consuming passion, depicting them as denizens of greed and corruption.   

To him, the North was a viper’s nest of Puritan hypocrites, driven by self-interest and a love of money. By contrast, the South was a fair land of chivalrous, industrious citizens who yearned only for peace and freedom. So for Semmes, refusing to do battle with the Kearsarge was unimaginable.   

The Alabama’s motley crew, made up of sailors from many nations – but mainly Englishmen – were also spoiling for a fight after two years of hardly firing a gun. A song composed by the men as they waited in Cherbourg summed up their feelings:   

We’re homeward bound   

We’re homeward bound!   

And soon shall stand on English ground;   

But ere our native land we see,   

We first must fight the Kearsargee!   

But while the Alabama had no shortage of fighting spirit, the ship was no match for the Kearsarge in other vital respects. After almost two years, the Alabama’s little-used gunpowder and fuses – stored near the damp heat of the ship’s seawater condenser and often exposed to humid climates – had decayed.   

And while the Kearsarge, like the Alabama, was made of wood, the Union warship had a hidden asset – improvised armour plating. Rows of spare anchor chains had been draped over her sides to protect her vulnerable engine compartments. The chains were concealed beneath planking which dovetailed neatly on to the existing structure of the hull.   

And, as it turned out, the trained and disciplined Yankee sailors had the edge in the most important area of all – the quality of their gunnery.   

But all this was yet to become apparent. And on the eve of battle, the officers and men of the Alabama were calm and confident as they made their final preparations. However, as a precaution, Semmes sent the ship’s documents, cash and valuables ashore, including a collection of chronometers taken from vessels he had destroyed. Being a Catholic, he is also said to have attended evening Mass in Cherbourg.   

Sunday dawned bright and fair. The deck of the Confederate cruiser was spread with sand to stop men slipping on spilled blood. Buckets of water were strategically placed to help fight fires. Cutlasses and boarding spikes were sharpened. The crew manned their battle stations.   

Then, around 10am, watched by milling crowds on the quayside, the Alabama got up steam and slowly moved out of the harbour. The French wanted to ensure she travelled beyond the three-mile maritime territorial limit before hostilities opened, so she was escorted into the Channel by one of their ironclad frigates, the Couronne.   

In the wake of the two ships, there followed a host of smaller vessels, mainly fishing boats and pleasure craft carrying sightseers eager to witness the dramatic duel.   

Among this impromptu flotilla was a handsome steam yacht, the Deerhound, owned by a wealthy English industrialist, John Lancaster, of Wigan. After a holiday in France, he and his family had travelled by train to Cherbourg to rejoin their vessel, finding it berthed close to the Alabama when they arrived on the Saturday evening.   

Hearing of the battle scheduled for the following day, the younger members of the family clamoured to be allowed to see it. But Lancaster and his wife were reluctant, planning instead to go to church.   

Finally, the matter was put to a show of hands – and the casting vote of the tycoon’s nine-year-old daughter Catherine carried the day. They would sail out after the Alabama. It was to prove a momentous decision.   

And if onlookers saw something familiar in the lines of the graceful Deerhound, it was not surprising. Like the Alabama, the yacht had been designed and built at the Laird yard in Birkenhead, launched just four years before the commerce raider. Lancaster sailed the Deerhound under the banner of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club and was also a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes.   

Now, outside the breakwater, the Alabama and her French escort headed north towards the waiting Kearsarge. Winslow and his men were taken by surprise at the sight of the Southern cruiser finally appearing – the captain was conducting Sunday service – but they acted swiftly.   

Calling his 163 crew to quarters, Winslow steamed further out into the Channel, drawing the Alabama after him. At the three-mile limit, the Couronne dropped away, leaving the Confederate raider to continue alone in pursuit of the Union warship.   

But Winslow kept going until the Kearsarge was almost seven miles outside Cherbourg. He aimed to ensure that the battle would take place indisputably in international waters. And he wanted to make certain that if the Alabama tried to run back to the safety of the three-mile limit, she would have a long way to go.   

Aboard the rebel cruiser, Semmes tried to rally his men with a rousing speech. He mounted a gun carriage and told them: ‘The name of your ship has become a household word wherever civilisation extends. Shall that name be tarnished by defeat? The thing is impossible!   

‘Remember that you are in the English Channel, the theatre of so much of the naval glory of our race and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you!’   

The Alabama was armed with six 32-pounder smooth-bore guns, plus two larger pivot guns set amidships. One fired 100lb rifled shells, the other fired 68lb solid shot.   

The Kearsarge had seven guns – four 32-pounders, a 30-pounder rifled gun and two 11in smooth-bore cannon. Despite having one gun fewer than its rival, it could throw a heavier broadside than the Alabama.   

Semmes had ordered the Alabama’s guns to be trained to starboard, the side from which he planned to engage the Kearsarge, and the ship listed slightly as she made her way through the calm waters.   

Finally, after about 45 minutes, they came within shooting distance of their enemy. Suddenly, the Kearsarge wheeled to starboard and turned towards the Alabama. The Confederate  cruiser opened fire with shot. But there was still a mile between the ships and the volley did no serious damage.   

Then, as each captain tried to cross his opponent’s bows to deliver a deadly, raking fire, the ships started pivoting in a series of circles, like two wrestlers stalking one another around the ring. But neither could get broadside on.   

The Alabama  unleashed three more volleys before the Kearsarge closed the gap to half a mile and replied with its guns. Almost immediately, the Confederate ship’s ensign was shot from the mast where it flew. The flag was quickly replaced, but the Union sailors cheered at what they saw as a lucky omen.   

Drifting westwards with the current, the two vessels continued their slow pirouette, steaming around a central axis as they slugged it out with shot and shell.   

Directing the battle from a raised platform at the stern of the  Alabama, Semmes nursed a fantastic hope. Instead of sinking the Kearsarge, he would board and capture her. He would then turn her into a Confederate commerce raider – a new Alabama. It was a stupefying prospect, one that would astonish the world.   

However, as the artillery duel raged with greater intensity, all such dreams vanished in the smoke and flame. There would be no boarding parties. This was a fight to the death and it would end here in the Channel.   

Aboard the Alabama, the gun crews frantically fired volley after volley at the Kearsarge across the ever-narrowing gap. But luck, which had served the commerce raider so well throughout her cruise, now deserted her.   

A shell from the Confederate ship roared in through one of the Union vessel’s gun ports, miraculously missed every man in the crowded space and exited harmlessly through the opposite port. It passed so close to one gunner that he was knocked down by its buffeting slipstream.   

Another shell exploded amidships, setting the crew’s hammocks alight – but the fire was swiftly tackled. A third shell detonated inside the Kearsarge’s funnel, doing little damage, while yet another exploded on the quarter-deck, wounding just three crewmen.   

Because of its decayed munitions, the Alabama’s volleys lacked punching power. Instead of giving off a sharp crack, blasts from its guns sounded muffled and dull, sending out grey smoke instead of searing jets of flame.   

But for the faulty ordnance, the Confederate cruiser might just have won the day. One of its shells landed near the Kearsarge’s aft pivot gun, which was doing most damage to the Alabama. But it failed to explode.   

Then another shell slammed into the Union warship’s rudder post and lodged there. Had it detonated, it could well have crippled the Kearsarge, leaving her to be captured or sunk by the commerce raider. But it failed to explode.   

Solid shot from the rebel ship blasted the sides of the Kearsarge, some exposing the protective anchor chain. But the Union vessel was not holed.   

As the firefight continued, the Kearsarge gradually gained the upper hand. Her gun crews aimed calmly and accurately, having been told to pick their targets.   

They scored a direct hit on the Alabama’s aft pivot gun, killing most of its crew. It was a scene of horror as bloodied corpses and pieces of bodies littered the deck. But one seaman calmly took a shovel and heaved the mangled remains of his shipmates overboard before continuing the fight.   

Below decks, Assistant Surgeon David Llewellyn – an Englishman – had a wounded sailor laid before him on a table in the wardroom and was about to operate. Next second, an 11in shell burst through the ship from one side to the other, sweeping patient and table away.   

Despite the bravery of the Alabama’s crew, the Kearsarge’s shells were now wreaking terrible destruction. Men were torn apart by explosions or speared by wooden splinters. Semmes was struck in the hand by a flying shard of metal.   

Then a shell knocked out the Alabama’s rudder. Another blasted into the coal bunkers and exploded in the engine room. The ship was holed below the waterline and as the sea poured in, the fires in her boiler were extinguished, robbing her of steam power.   

And now, as the two ships entered the seventh circle of their series of spirals, the end was near for the Alabama. Semmes desperately tried to turn for Cherbourg under sail. But Winslow steamed in front of the crippled Confederate cruiser and raked her with fire at close range.   

The Alabama began to settle by the stern, but her crewmen kept sending over broadside after broadside till the last. In all, they fired 370 rounds compared to just 173 from the Kearsarge.   

Finally, Semmes sent his first lieutenant John McIntosh Kell to assess the damage to the ship. Kell returned to tell him the Alabama would not last another ten minutes.   

Semmes immediately ordered the raider’s colours to be struck – hauling down the flag as the signal of his surrender. His one thought now was to save as many men as possible, especially the wounded. In the confusion, further volleys were exchanged, but at last the guns fell silent.   

Just over an hour after firing the first shot, the mighty Alabama had been destroyed.   

The order was given to put the wounded in the ship’s boats and for every man to save himself. Creaking and groaning, the Confederate vessel began slowly heaving upwards and backwards. As his crewmen leapt overboard, Semmes stripped to his underwear and prepared to join them.   

But even now, his deep hatred of his enemies dominated his thoughts. Taking his sword, he hurled it into the Channel rather than face having to hand it over to Winslow as a token of capitulation. Then he jumped.   

The water was filled with sailors clinging to spars, boxes and gratings, desperately swimming away from the doomed Alabama to avoid being sucked down in the vortex as she sank.   

Semmes and Kell managed to distance themselves from the ship. Then they turned to get a last look at her as ‘like a living thing in agony’ her bow reared out of the water. Next second, the Alabama disappeared stern-first into the deep.   

The Confederate captain watched with grim satisfaction. As well as being denied his sword, the enemy would not have his beloved ship. ‘A noble Roman once stabbed his daughter rather than she be polluted by the foul embrace of a tyrant,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘It was with a similar feeling that Kell and I saw the Alabama go down. We had buried her as we had christened her and she was safe from the polluting touch of the hated Yankee!’   

By a quirk of fate, ‘the hated Yankee’ would also be denied the capture of Semmes. One of the Alabama’s officers had made his way by boat to the Kearsarge to ask for help in saving the dozens of crewmen wallowing in the sea.   

But Winslow had only two serviceable boats – the others had been damaged during the fighting. So he hailed the Deerhound, which had steamed nearer the battle scene, and told John Lancaster: ‘For God’s sake, do what you can to save them!’   

Lancaster’s crew immediately lowered the yacht’s boats and began picking up survivors. A French pilot boat and a few other vessels also came to the men’s aid.   

Semmes, Kell and 39 other crew from the Alabama were taken aboard the Deerhound. Asked by Lancaster where he wanted to go, Semmes told him that as he was aboard an English ship, he would like to be landed in England. Soon after, the Deerhound got up steam and powered away towards Southampton.   

Aboard the Kearsarge, Winslow watched in astonishment as the yacht left. He had expected Lancaster to hand over the Confederates to him as prisoners. Some of his officers urged him to fire on the Deerhound, but he wisely refused.   

The death toll aboard the Alabama was nine killed in action and 17 drowned or died of wounds. One of those drowned was Assistant Surgeon Llewellyn, who heroically helped wounded men on to an overloaded rescue boat, but refused to board it himself for fear of capsizing it. The casualty toll on the Kearsarge was just three sailors wounded, one of whom later died.   

At 3.10pm, the Union warship berthed in Cherbourg with 70 prisoners from the Alabama. Because there was no room to keep them aboard, all were freed on parole except six officers. Nine more rescued Confederate crew were landed in the port by a French pilot boat.   

Thus the final death-or-glory sortie of the Alabama ended, some 690 days after she had left Birkenhead. But while the shooting had stopped, a war of words broke out in the ensuing days and weeks.   

John Lancaster faced a barrage of vilification from US naval chiefs. He was accused of having plotted with Semmes before the Alabama left Cherbourg, pre-arranging to rescue the Confederates if they were sunk. He was also condemned by Winslow for ‘a disgraceful act’ in not handing over the survivors he had taken aboard the Deerhound.   

The claim of collusion with Semmes was ludicrous and Lancaster calmly dismissed it in a letter to a newspaper. He said there had been no contact of any kind with the Alabama before the battle. The captain of the Deerhound also denied any such plot.   

As for the rescue, Lancaster said: ‘My own opinion is that a man drowning in the open sea can not be regarded as an enemy at the time to anybody, and is therefore entitled to the assistance of any passer-by.’   

He said Winslow had asked him to save the Alabama sailors, but had not stipulated that he should deliver them up as prisoners. And Lancaster made it clear that if he had been asked to hand over the survivors, he would have refused, because ‘it would have been inconsistent with my notions of honour as a gentleman’.   

Semmes also vehemently denied any prior contact with Lancaster or any arrangement for the Deerhound to be a rescue vessel. He also argued that he and his men had not been obliged to hand themselves over to Winslow, because the Union captain had failed to take them into custody following their surrender.   

Instead, they had been left to the mercy of the sea until the Deerhound picked them up. And, from the moment the survivors boarded the yacht, they were on British territory. Had Winslow tried to interfere with them thereafter, it would have been piracy and could even have been viewed as an act of war against Britain.   

The accusations against Lancaster were a sign of the Union’s frustration at Semmes slipping from its grasp. The Secretary of the US Navy, Gideon Welles, wanted to see the Confederate captain brought back in chains and put on trial for piracy, facing a possible death sentence.   

For Winslow, the defeat of the Alabama was a two-edged sword. He was congratulated by his superiors for sinking the ship and later promoted to commodore. But he was sharply reprimanded for having let Semmes escape and for paroling most of the ship’s crew.   

However, when it came to blustering, Semmes was equally guilty. After the battle, he claimed that if he had known the Kearsarge was an ‘ironclad’ – that is, she had anchor chains draped over her sides – he would not have fought her. The implication was that Winslow had somehow cheated and won the battle unfairly.   

But it is unlikely that Semmes had no knowledge of the chains, either directly or indirectly. Some of his senior officers later claimed that he had definitely known beforehand about the improvised armour.   

He is said to have been told about the hidden chains either by a French pilot who had been aboard the Kearsarge, or via Confederate sources who had been on the Union warship when it was stationed elsewhere.   

In any case, using such protection was not a new idea dreamed up by Winslow. It was well known that other Union warships had used it in the past. And there was nothing to have stopped Semmes deploying his own spare chains in a similar fashion.   

As it turned out, the Kearsarge’s chains made no difference to the outcome of the battle – they were struck only a few times by the Alabama’s shot and always above the waterline.   

So it was ridiculous for Semmes to claim that it had been an unequal battle between a wooden ship and an ironclad. Nonetheless, he stuck doggedly to his story – it fitted neatly with his view of Yankee deviousness.   

After landing in Southampton, the Confederate captain was feted by English sympathisers. Later, Navy and Army officers at the Junior United Services Club in London presented him with a specially-made sword to replace the one he had thrown overboard from the stricken Alabama. They hailed his ‘unflinching patriotism and naval daring’.   

In October 1864, Semmes made his way back to the dying Confederacy and was promoted to admiral, commanding a boat squadron on the James River in Virginia. But as Union troops advanced, he was forced to destroy his vessels and transfer his men to Army command, taking the rank of brigadier general.   

After the Confederate surrender in April 1865, Semmes and thousands of other rebels signed a parole pledging not to take up arms against the government in return for a guarantee that they would not be disturbed by the authorities. He returned to civilian life in Mobile, Alabama.   

But in December 1865, he was arrested and imprisoned as the Union tried to make a case of treason against him. Four months later, however, Semmes was freed without any charge being brought.   

In 1873, John Winslow – who had risen to the rank of rear-admiral – died in retirement at the age of 61. The battle flag of the Kearsarge covered his coffin.   

Raphael Semmes died in 1877 at the age of 67, mourned as a hero of the lost Southern cause. But towards the end of his life, although still an unreconstructed white supremacist, he seemed to soften his stance over his erstwhile Yankee enemies.   

In 1874, speaking in Mobile at the unveiling of a memorial to the Confederate dead, he formally accepted a floral tribute from the local detachment of the US Army, saying: ‘It comes from the victor to the vanquished in a spirit worthy of our age and of our history and is indicative that the strife between brethren is over.’   

In 1900, a statue of Semmes was erected in Mobile with the inscription: ‘Sailor, patriot, statesman, scholar and Christian gentleman.’ It was removed from its plinth during the George Floyd protests in 2020. In 2011, a small township named after Semmes was incorporated near Mobile.    

With the passing of two of its key participants, the seaborne saga of the Alabama gradually faded into history, although the political ramifications of its cruise would reverberate for decades.   

As an epic of tenacity and daring, the story of the Confederate cruiser and its wily old commander is enthralling. But the Alabama was launched on its remarkable commerce-raiding career to defend a cause that ultimately was tainted by slavery.   

More than 120 years after the ship was sunk off Cherbourg, there was an interesting postscript. In November 1984, a French naval minesweeper carrying out sonar exercises discovered the badly decomposed wreck of the Alabama lying 200ft down on the Channel seabed.   

Since then, divers have raised many artefacts, including cannon, the ship’s bell and its wheel – which is engraved with the motto Aide-Toi Et Dieu T’Aidera (God helps those who help themselves).   

Because the maritime territorial limit now extends to 12 miles, the vessel lies in French waters. But the wreck and everything it contains is legally the property of the American government, as the successor state to the Confederacy.   

So, in a roundabout way, the United States finally got its hands on the ship that had evaded it for so long and caused it so much grief. The ship whose name once echoed around the world … the  Alabama.   

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Michael Yoller
Michael Yoller
Michael Yoller is a maritime history enthusiast.

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