June 19, 1864 Single Combat

USS Kearsarge steamed further to sea as the Confederate vessel approached.  There would be no one returning to port until the issue was decided.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862. She sailed in secret to the Terceira Island in the Azores, where she was met by Raphael Semmes, her new captain. Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, the Enrica was transformed into the 220′, 1,500-ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

CSS Alabama
CSS Alabama

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two-year career as commerce raider, Alabama claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.  She was the most successful, and most notorious, commerce raider of the Civil War.

portsmouth nh-uss kearsarge-civil war steam sloop
Civil War Steam Sloop USS Kearsarge

Alabama was in sore need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg France, on the 11th of June, 1864. The Mohican-class Union steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, then on patrol near Gibralter, hurried to Cherbourg, arriving on the 14th.

Captain_Raphael_Semmes_and_First_Lieutenant_John_Kell_aboard_CSS_Alabama_1863
Captain Raphael Semmes and 1st Lieutenant John Kell aboard CSS Alabama 1863

Seeing himself blockaded, Alabama’s Captain challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel, saying “my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain“.  That suited Winslow just fine, who took up station in international waters, and waited for Alabama to come out.

h86059CSS Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg harbor on the morning of June 19, 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained nearby to ensure that the combat remained in international waters. Kearsarge steamed further to sea as the Confederate vessel approached.  There would be no one returning to port until the issue was decided.

Kearsarge v AlabamaCaptain Winslow put his ship around and headed for his adversary at 10:50am. Alabama fired first from a distance of a mile, and continued to fire as the range decreased.

Sinking_of_the_CSS_Alabama, by Andy Thomas
Sinking of the CSS Alabama, by Andy Thomas

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.  One ball from Alabama lodged in Kearsarge’s sternpost, but failed to explode.  Within an hour, Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannons reduced the most successful commerce raider in history to a sinking wreck. Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off as rising water stopped her engines.

Kearsarge Stern Post
USS Kearsarge Sternpost

Semmes struck his colors and sent a boat to Kearsarge with a message of surrender and an appeal for help.

For those rescued by Kearsarge, the Civil War was over. These would spend the rest of the war as prisoners of the Federal government.  Captain Semmes escaped along with 41 others, being plucked from the water and taken to neutral ports by the British steam yacht Deerhound, and the private sail yacht Hornet.

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June 19, 1864 Ship’s Duel

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil.

Maryland native Raphael Semmes was a career Naval officer, having served in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1860.  There was an extended leave of absence following the Mexican-American war, in which he settled in Alabama and practiced law.  Semmes was offered a Confederate naval appointment in 1861, following the secession of his adopted home state.  He resigned his commission, the following day.

Following a fruitless assignment to purchase arms from the North, Semmes was ordered to New Orleans, to convert the steamer Habana into the commerce raider CSS Sumter.  Semmes breached the Union blockade in June of 1861, outrunning the sloop of war USS Brooklyn.  So began the most successful commerce raider, in naval history.

Captain_Raphael_Semmes_and_First_Lieutenant_John_Kell_aboard_CSS_Alabama_1863
Captain Raphael Semmes standing by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled cannon. His XO 1st Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell, stands by the ship’s wheel.

His was a war on the economic might of the Union.  Sumter would eliminate 18 Union merchant vessels from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, constantly eluding the Union warships sent to destroy her.  In six short months, CSS Sumter was laid up in neutral Gibralter, her boilers too spent to go on.

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” in the American Civil War, prohibiting the sale of ships of war. Vessels were permitted neither to alter or improve their equipment while in British waters, but were permitted to enter.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862.   Enrica left Liverpool that July on a “trial run”, a party of ladies and customs officials on board to allay suspicions that the trip was anything but ‘neutral”.

The ruse was a success.  Passengers were transferred to a tug only a short distance from Liverpool and returned to port, while the ship itself continued on to the Terceira Island in the Azores.  There she met her new captain.  Raphael Semmes.

Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, Enrica was transformed into the 220’, 1,500 ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

CSSAlabama, artist unknown
CSS Alabama, artist unknown

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two years as commerce raider, Alabama destroyed the Union warship USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.

Alabama was badly in need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg, France, on the 11th of June. The Mohican-class Union sloop of war USS Kearsarge was then on patrol near Gibraltar, making it to Cherbourg by the 14th.

Seeing that he was blockaded, Semmes challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel.  “My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain”.

That suited Winslow just fine.  Kearsarge took up station in international waters, and waited.

USS_Kearsarge
USS Kearsarge

Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg on the morning of June 19, 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained nearby to ensure that combat remained in international waters.  Kearsarge steamed further out to sea as the Confederate vessel approached.  There would be no returning to port, until the issue was decided.

Captain Winslow put his ship around and headed for the enemy at 10:50am. Alabama fired first from the distance of a mile, firing furiously as the range decreased.

Heavy, overlapping rows of chain armor allowed Kearsarge to be more deliberate, and she chose her shots, carefully.

Kearsarge Stern Post
Kearsarge Stern Post

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.

Alabama’s forward 7-inch Blakely pivot rifle scored an early success, lodging a 56lb shell in Kearsarge’s exposed sternpost.  With its rudder thus bound, Kearsarge’s mobility was sharply limited.  It could have been far worse for Captain Winslow, however, had that shell not failed to explode.

One of Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannon found its mark, tearing Alabama’s hull open at the waterline and exploding her steam boiler.   Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off.  Within an hour of the first shot, the most successful commerce raider in history was reduced to a sinking wreck.

sinking_alabama
“Sinking of the CSS Alabama” by Xanthus Smith (1922)

Wounded in the battle, Semmes hurled his sword overboard, denying the Union captain that symbol of surrender.  He ordered the striking of his ship’s Stainless Banner and a hand-held white flag of surrender, as Alabama went down by the stern.

For those Confederate sailors rescued by Kearsarge, the Civil War was over. They would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.  Raphael Semmes escaped with 41 others, being plucked from the water and taken to neutral ports by the British steam yacht Deerhound, and the private sail yacht Hornet.

Battle_of_Kearsarge_and_Alabama_(1892)_by_Xanthus_SmithSemmes would recover from his wounds, returning to the war ravaged South via Cuba in February, 1865.  That April, he would supervise the destruction of all Confederate warships in the vicinity, following the fall of Richmond.  Semmes’ former command fought on as “the Naval brigade”, Semmes himself appointed Brigadier General, though the appointment would never be confirmed.  The Confederate Senate had ceased to exist.

Elements of the Naval Brigade fought with Lee’s rear guard at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, before their surrender at Appomattox, only days later.  Semmes himself was surrendered with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army near Durham Station, North Carolina.

Semmes returned to Mobile after the war, where he resumed his legal career.  There were those who wanted to try the man for piracy, but it never happened.  Raphael Semmes died an untimely death in 1877, as the result of eating some bad shrimp.

His 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States has been described as one of the “most cogent but bitter defenses ever written”, about the “lost cause”, of the South.