Mike ScruggsOpinion

Find the Alabama: Thunderous Naval Combat—Valor and Honor: Part 4 of 5

The Kearsarge waited until she was within a thousand yards, and then she began to fire. Because the Kearsarge was faster and more maneuverable, the Alabama was unable to get in close. Now the ships were firing starboard broadside to starboard broadside, circling clockwise around a common center. The range tightened from 900 to 400 yards, but the Alabama could not close on the Yankee warship. They circled seven times in this dance of death, booming away the whole time. The echoes reverberated for seventy miles across the English Channel, even as far as Bristol.

The eleven-inch Dahlgren guns began to take a heavy toll on the Alabama, splintering and slicing its wooden bulwarks and causing many casualties. A direct hit to the aft pivot gun, one of the two most potent Confederate weapons, killed or wounded all but one of its gun-crew.

A shell from the Alabama’s Blakely ripped through the Kearsarge’s aft quarter, causing an explosion that shook the entire ship. Another shell pierced the Union warship’s funnel and exploded but did no damage to the steam equipment. Yet another shell zipped through the engine room but fell harmlessly on the other side of the ship. Two sailors and a gunner were wounded when a shell passed through the starboard bulwark and exploded just below the main rigging. Yet the Union gun crews kept firing with cool, mechanical discipline.

As Semmes feared, the Alabama’s damp powder charges resulted in weakened shell impact. Several of her shells bounced off the enemy’s ironclad hull. Many shells failed to explode, and one shell that could have seriously crippled the Kearsarge lodged in the rudder post without exploding. Another shell hit the rail of the Kearsarge’s forward pivot gun, but failed to explode.

Meanwhile, the big Dahlgrens wreaked havoc on their target. A flying splinter wounded Semmes in the right hand, but he wrapped the wound and continued to command his ship. One eleven-inch shell crippled the Alabama’s rudder, making the ship difficult to steer. Another Dahlgren shell hit near the waterline and exploded in the engine room. When the ship rolled, water poured into a hole nearly three feet in diameter

At noon, seeing his situation was hopeless, Semmes set his fore-and-aft sails in an attempt to get the Alabama back into French waters. But Winslow easily positioned the Kearsarge to cut him off. Rising water soon disabled the Alabama’s boilers and pumps. As the ship began to settle perceptibly at the stern, Kell went below to assess the damage and reported that she would founder within ten minutes. The Kearsarge continued to rake the Alabama with volley after volley.

As the bow began to rise, Semmes ordered the colors to be struck, but before the forward gunners got word, two unauthorized shots were fired. In outrage, the Kearsarge pounded the Alabama with another five shots. Two Alabama crewmen managed to raise a white flag and the firing stopped. Kell ordered all hands to abandon ship and swim away to avoid being sucked under as the ship went down. Only two of the Alabama’s lifeboats remained intact. One, under the command of George Fullam, was sent to the Kearsarge with the Confederate wounded.

With her fore-and-aft sails still set, the Alabama began to drift away. At ten minutes past noon, as seawater began to pour through the gaping three-foot Dahlgren wound in her starboard side, she began to sink by the stern. Within minutes her bow, with fore-and-aft sails still spread from her bowsprit, rose to a near vertical position. Her mainmast snapped in two, and then she hesitated a few groaning moments before plunging straight down beneath the bone-chilling waves of the English Channel. She was about six miles off the coast of Normandy, near Cherbourg.

A few minutes following this appalling spectacle, the British steam yacht Deerhound came up from behind the victorious Kearsarge and asked if they could help rescue the Confederate sailors struggling in the numbing waters. The Kearsarge had already launched its two surviving lifeboats, so they readily agreed to the assistance. “For God’s sake do what you can to save them,” was their answer.

George Fullam’s lifeboat, filled with wounded Confederates, reached the Kearsarge shortly thereafter. Fullam announced the surrender of his ship and requested permission to go and rescue more men. This was also readily granted, and Fullam returned to the dreadful and chaotic scene and picked up as many additional shipmates as he could find. He did not return these men to the Kearsarge, however. He took them to the Deerhound.

A lifeboat from the Deerhound picked up a number of survivors in the water including the Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, and his executive officer, John Kell. But she did not return her rescued Confederate seamen to the Kearsarge. The Deerhound immediately steamed off for Southampton. She arrived there several hours later with 41 crewmen of the Alabama including Semmes, Kell, and 12 other officers, a substantial proportion of the Confederate raider’s crew of 145.

The Alabama had lost 10 men killed in action or died of wounds and another 16 drowned or lost at sea, a total of 26 dead. Another 21 had been wounded, bringing her combat casualties to 47, nearly a third of her company. In addition, approximately 57 of her rescued crew became Union prisoners of war. The 41 men rescued by the Deerhound were returned to Confederate service after a comfortable recuperation in England. Several of these men became officers and sailors aboard the Alabama’s Liverpool-built sister ship, the Shenandoah, launched in October 1864.

Only one of the Alabama’s officers was lost, Assistant Surgeon David Llewellyn, who had heroically refused to leave the ship until he was certain that all wounded men had been put aboard a lifeboat. Llewellyn, who could not swim, was a British subject dedicated to the Confederate cause.

The Kearsarge sustained only moderate damage during the battle. Of the three wounded seamen, one later died of wounds. The Kearsarge’s victory has been attributed to her recent boiler maintenance and consequently superior speed and maneuverability, her partial ironclad protection, and of course, to the enormous destructive power of her 11-inch Dahlgren guns. But we must also add the superior gunnery and remarkable discipline of her crew. Additionally, it must be said of her captain and officers that they showed gallant compassion in allowing the pro-Confederate British steam yacht Deerhound to rescue many of the Confederate seamen struggling in the frigid waters off Cherbourg.

After a good rest and stay with close friends in England, Raphael Semmes returned home to his family in Mobile and much public acclaim as the Confederacy’s most famous naval war hero. He had captured or destroyed 19 U.S. ships as captain of the Sumter and 65 as captain of the Alabama. Semmes was made a Rear Admiral and an honorary member of the Confederate Congress and the Virginia legislature.

Confederate Navy Captain James D. Bulloch, the Confederate government agent who coordinated and supervised the building and launching of the Confederate cruisers Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah in Liverpool is not a household name among Civil War buffs, but his accomplishments in building a formidable Confederate fleet of commerce raiders in England must be ranked among the most remarkable achievements for the Southern cause.

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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