Because the war was going badly, the South had fewer open friends. Under U.S. pressure, British ports were beginning to be less open to Confederate ships. Semmes decided to head to the French port of Cherbourg in Normandy. Emperor Louis Napoleon was sympathetic to Southern independence, and the Florida and the Georgia had recently found refuge and repair facilities at French ports.
On June 10, the Alabama entered the port of Cherbourg. There was little chance of it remaining a secret. Within hours the U.S. minister in Paris, William Dayton, sent a telegram to the Union gunboat Kearsarge, cruising off the Dutch port of Flushing. By late morning of June 14, the Kearsarge, commanded by Captain John A. Winslow, had also arrived at Cherbourg. The rules of neutrality forbade combat in French waters, but Winslow intended to engage and sink the Alabama if she attempted to leave Cherbourg.
At the time she arrived in Cherbourg, the Alabama had burned 52 Yankee merchant ships and whalers and had bonded, ransomed, sold, or put into Confederate service 12 more. She had also sunk the Union gunboat Hatteras off Galveston. Because of the increased risks and costs she posed to U.S. merchant shipping, over 900 U.S. merchant ships were sold to foreign owners, mostly British. She had also seized more than $5 million dollars worth of U.S. shipping cargos (a vast amount of money back then). Along with other Confederate cruisers—especially the Florida who took 60 prizes—she helped reduce the effectiveness of the Union blockade of Southern ports by about 50 percent.
When the CSS Alabama arrived at the French port of Cherbourg for repairs on June 11, 1864, she had traveled 75,000 miles in the 22 months since her launch in Liverpool. On Monday the 13th, Semmes wrote to his superior in Paris that the Alabama needed more than two months of extensive repairs, including recoppering her hull, refastening some of her beams, and overhauling her boilers. Many of Semmes’s crew were in marginal health. Exhausted from nearly three years of almost continuous hard duty at sea, first on the Sumter and then the Alabama, Semmes himself was suffering from a cold and fever. Consequently, he asked to be relieved of command. The arrival of the Union warship Kearsarge at Cherbourg on June 14 changed all that.
Hostilities were unlawful within the three-mile territorial limits of a neutral nation, but the Kearsarge was now in a position to intercept and destroy the Alabama if she left Cherbourg and crossed into international waters. The Kearsarge steamed into Cherbourg harbor and passed within yards of the Alabama, allowing both crews to eye each other and compare their ships. Rather than anchoring, the Kearsarge then steamed out of the harbor and took up a position beyond the breakwater.
Semmes knew that if he did not face the Kearsarge now, she would be reinforced by other Union warships in a few days or weeks. He and his officers resolved to come out fighting.
The two ships were remarkably similar. They were both long and narrow and about the same size. Each had three masts, a black-painted hull, a single funnel, steam machinery, and a screw propeller. The Alabama had eight guns to the Kearsarge’s seven, but two of the Union warship’s guns were the giant Dahlgrens that threw eleven-inch diameter shells weighing 164 pounds each—about twice the size and penetrating power of the Alabama’s two pivot guns. However, the bottle-shaped Dahlgrens were, smooth-bored, more unwieldy, and less accurate than the Alabama’s rifled, pivot mounted Blakely. About a third of the Kearsarge’s hull was ironclad (protected by sheet anchor chains hung over the sides and covered with black-painted boards). The Alabama had no such additional protection.
The Kearsarge had just undergone an overhaul in London. With a clean hull, two new sails, and a refurbished boiler, she was in peak shape and ready for action. The Alabama would have to join battle still needing serious repairs to her boiler and structure. A major concern to Semmes and his officers was that after 22 months at sea, much of their gunpowder and fuses had become unreliable. In April, the Alabama had practiced her gunnery on a captured Union prize, the Rockingham. During that practice, one-third of the Alabama’s shells had failed to explode.
The Alabama’s poor condition and unreliable ammunition and the Union ship’s better protected hull and two huge Dahlgren guns made the contest somewhat uneven except in the eyes of the dauntless Semmes. Semmes hoped that by out-maneuvering the Kearsarge he could avoid serious damage from the Dahlgren guns. If he could disable her cannons on one side, Semmes planned to take the Kearsarge by boarding her and subduing her crew by pistol and cutlass in hand-to-hand combat. Then he might switch ships and go back to sea with a combat ready vessel. It was a bold, perhaps desperate plan, but it fit the Southern tradition and necessity for daring invention and improvisation.
Semmes decided to fight exclusively from his starboard (right) side, so he had his three port (left) guns moved to that side, doubling his effective firepower. This caused the ship to list to starboard, presenting a smaller target on his combat side. He also had his ship loaded with extra coal to help protect his steam machinery. Meanwhile, his crew practiced combat-boarding techniques.
On the evening of Friday, June 17, the British steam yacht Deerhound, anchored at Cherbourg. She was owned by Confederate sympathizer John Lancaster of Lancashire. Built in Liverpool by Henry Laird, she looked like a small unarmed version of the Alabama. Captain Evan Jones and other officers on the Deerhound met several times Saturday with Semmes and his officers aboard the Alabama. Several boats transferred records and valuables from the Alabama to the Deerhound. Other valuables were carried to the British yacht Hornet also at Cherbourg. A British publishing agent arrived to secure Captain Semmes’s records and personal journal. The Alabama’s last payroll, bonding documents on Yankee prizes not destroyed, and five bags containing 4,700 British gold sovereigns were left with French officials for safekeeping.
By Sunday, June 19, more than 1,300 spectators had arrived from Paris in anticipation of witnessing a great naval battle. The Alabama’s executive officer, John Kell, had his ship ready for combat. The decks were scrubbed, and the brass was polished. Sand was spread on the deck to absorb blood and prevent slipping. On the lower deck surgeons stood by with their instruments. The crew were dressed in their muster uniforms.
At 9 AM, the Deerhound left the harbor and ran near the Kearsarge. Then she returned and passed near the Alabama, apparently exchanging some signals. At 10:30 AM, the Alabama steamed out of the harbor and headed straight for the Kearsarge. With the French ironclad Couronne patrolling nearby, Winslow took his Union warship farther out in the Channel to make certain that he was beyond the French three-mile territorial limit. Behind the Couronne trailed the Deerhound at a safe distance. As the Kearsarge turned back toward shore, she was heading straight for the oncoming Alabama.
To be Continued…
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist
a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs
Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.
He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.
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