The Kearsarge-Alabama Battle

The Story as told to the writer by James Magee of Marblehead, Seaman on the Kearsarge.

By Francis B. C. Bradlee

[Reprinted from the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, Vol. LVII, 1921.]


"After cruising the English Channel for some time, there was a report that the Alabama was expected in some part of England, and as the English press made a great deal of talk about the Kearsarge, the Captain proposed to go to Belgium; arriving the 27th of May, 1864, ran into Flushing [Holland] and went into dry dock on the following day, more for a blind than for anything else, as we were never in better repair and running order than at that time. The 29th of May the Captain gave liberty to all on board to go where they pleased, with instruction if they heard a gun and saw the colors at our foremast head, to report on board as quickly as possible, as that would be the signal for sailing orders. All went well until the 10th day of June, when the signal gun was fired. All hands made for the ship, and in less than twenty minutes all the crew were ready for duty. The Captain had all hands called to lay aft. He then told us that the Alabama had arrived at Cherbourg, France, for repairs, and now was the time for us to strike. Then we gave three cheers, `spliced the main brace,' and the next tide we hauled out of dry dock and put to sea, put another `splice in the main brace' and shaped our course for Dover, England. Arriving there the 11th, at 10 o'clock A.M., took in fresh supplies, and at 12 o'clock weighed anchor and put to sea, shaping our course for Cherbourg.

"Arriving there early on the 12th, we ran into the mouth of the harbor, had a good look at our antagonist, and fired a blank shot, out of politeness, for Semmes to come out, but he did not come out that day. Here we lay off and on, running off by day and standing in by night, close enough to see all that went in and out of the harbor. We had no communication from Cherbourg up to the 16th of June; then three men pulled out from the shore in a boat, about six miles, to where we lay, came alongside, gave a note to the Captain, and then pulled back into port.

"The Captain told the boatswain to pipe all hands aft. He then produced the note, which reads thus:

Captain Winslow:
Sir:--I am undergoing a few repairs here which, I hope, will not take longer than the morrow. Then I will come out and fight you a fair and square fight.
Most respectfully yours,

Three days after, Sunday, June 19th, the lookout at masthead espied two steamers coming out of Cherbourg harbor, one a long, black, rakish-looking craft, looking very much like the Alabama. The officers and men jumped into the rigging, took a good look at both vessels, and pronounced one the Alabama; at the same time the other tacked-ship and put back into port. The Captain gave orders to beat quarters, clear ship for action, and man the starboard battery. (We were laying off about six mile from shore.) Captain Winslow gave the chief engineer orders to go ahead slowly, at the same time putting the ship's head off shore. The Alabama gaining on us all the time, they thought we were afraid and were trying to get away from them, but it was not so, we only ran two miles farther out; then, the Captain calling us in neutral waters, `put about,' and stood to receive her. When within about a mile of her, she fired her bow chaser, the shot dropping very carelessly alongside our forward pivot port within about four feet of our ship's side, and doing no damage. The next shot she fired struck us in the port bow and glanced off, doing no harm. She fired some two or three shots very wildly, that went whistling above our mastheads. During this time we did not fire one shot, but when within half a mile we hove round and gave her a broadside. Here we had it, broadside and broadside, both ships under a full head of steam, the Alabama firing two or three shots to our one. We engaged her at seven hundred yards, and as we fought in a circle we `closed in' to about five hundred yards, and held this position for about half an hour. Then, finding that we were getting the best of the fight, the Captain, desiring to bring the thing to an end, closed into about two hundred and fifty yards, and discharged a full broadside.

"The men seemed to be getting demoralized; they ran the white flag up in the main rigging and the `secesh' flag in the for rigging. The Captain gave orders to cease firing, and on doing so we found that they thought we were off our guard, as they let fly another broadside. One of the shots went through our smoke pipe, and a sixty-eight pounder lodged in our stern post, doing no other damage as it did not explode. We then had orders to engage her; so we began to decorate her again with our eleven-inch shell. After exchanging two or three broadsides on the second part of the fight, we found that they began to show us the cold shoulder by jumping overboard, not caring to communicate with us any longer, at the same time striking their flag and firing a lee gun as a surrender. They lowered a boat and manned it with three men and pulled toward our ship. They fired one more shot, very wildly, which struck our main-top-gallant mast and checked the halliards, and the flag flew to the breeze. The flag was run up in a ball to the masthead, and orders given to one of the men that if we should go down, to pull the halliards and go down colors flying. We did not fire on them after they struck their flag. The boat from the Alabama came alongside, and Lieutenant Wilson delivered up his sword and surrendered the ship, and told the Captain that if he did not make haste and get out boats to save life, that there would be a good many go down in the Alabama.

"All our boats were disabled but two. They were lowered and manned. Just as the boats left the ship, the Alabama gave two surges forward and down she went. I was in one of the boats that went to pick up the prisoners. As we began to pick them up, we heard them say that they had rather drown than to be hanged on board of that ship. Some of the men we tried to save would throw up their hands and sink down, so we were obliged to take the boat-hook and reach down three or four feet and hook them up, and some were so far gone that they died in the boats. While we were picking up the men, the Deerhound, one of the Royal Yacht Squadron, teamed up to within hailing distance of the ship, and the Captain asked him if he would be kind enough to assist in picking up the men and deliver them up to him, as they were his prisoners. He said he would, and steamed in among them and picked up quite a number, and among them was Captain Semmes. He then steamed off as fast as he could, taking advantage while a good part of our men were off in the boats; but if some of the rest on board at the time had had their way, I think one of those eleven-inch shells would have stopped his headway, and perhaps moored him alongside the Alabama. We spent about half an hour in picking up the prisoners, then we `stood in' for the land, and piped for dinner, and for all hands to `splice the main brace,' after which we sat down to grub, and feeling pretty well satisfied began to talk over the fight with the Rebs. I heard one of them say he thought if they had boarded us, the result might have been different, as they were so well drilled with small arms. As they continued to boast of what they could do at boarding, we `turned the tables' by telling them that we still had a reserve force by which we could give them an extra dose if necessity demanded, or, in other words, that we had an appliance by which we could throw scalding water to the distance of sixty feet, and we also told them if at the same time we discharged a whole broadside from our inch guns of grape and canister (as we could do), the probability is, to say the least, that they would be shaken from stem to stern.

"Here we arrived in port, and all hands called to bring ship to anchor, and not till we had arrived here did we learn how it was that the Alabama's men were so willing to drown. The crew told us that Captain Semmes told them if they were taken prisoners by us that every man would hang to the yard arm; and when our boats left our ship to go and pick them up, it chanced that at the same time a man was sent aloft to reef off a whip on the main yard with which to rig the accommodation ladders, so as to enable visitors to get on board, as we ere going into port. When they saw the man up there they thought that what Semmes had told them was correct, and a great many went down with that impression.

"We dropped anchor about two cable lengths astern of the French frigate Napoleon, and the gangway dressed to receive visitors on board. Those who came on board told us that the excitement in Cherbourg was great, that there were about forty thousand people who witnessed the fight, and that there was great betting among them as to which should be the victor--ten to five on the Alabama, and hard work to get anybody to take a bet at that, all odds being bet on the Alabama. The officers and crew of the American ship Rockingham also told us of the intimacy of the Deerhound. They said that this yacht had brought men from England here who had volunteered their services to help destroy us, and were drilled in Her Majesty's ship Excellent as experienced gunners. Not crediting all that these men told, some of our officers went on shore and found from good, reliable sources, that this yacht had brought twenty-five men, twelve of whom had joined the Alabama. The Rockingham belonged in Maine. She was the last vessel the Alabama destroyed--twelve hours previous to her going in to Cherbourg. These men also told us that what added to the excitement of the battle was, that we were fighting in a circle and apparently got mixed; that it was impossible to tell which one had gone down, even after the fight was over, as the wind was off-shore, so that when we stood in for the land our colors trained aft, and it was impossible to tell who the victor was. We laid here three days, in which our carpenter repaired all of our damage without any assistance from shore, with the exception of a boiler-maker, who put a patch on our smoke pipe. We got up steam at 3 o'clock P.M., weighed anchor and put to sea. escorted by out by a little steam yacht chartered by a party of American gentlemen and their ladies, with a band on board and the American flag flying. The band gave us a number of national airs, and when about three miles off, outside the breakwater, steaming at about six miles an hour, they struck up the "Star Spangled Banner" and gave us three cheers. We then gave her an extra turn ahead that sent us through the water about fifteen knots, leaving them behind us. We dipped our colors, manned the yard, gave three rousing cheers, and bad adieu and a hasty farewell to the coast of France.

"We arrived at Dover, England, early on the 24th, amidst cheer after cheer that went echoing through the lofty cliffs of Dover from a Highland Regiment and a number of others, whose acquaintance we had made while cruising in the Channel. All were anxiously waiting to learn the correct news of our loss. It had been reported that we had lost twenty-seven men and the Alabama had lost eight. This was the first news that the English press gave of the fight, and of course they must have known better, as the Deerhound brought the news and Captain Semmes, too.

"That English yacht, one belonging to the Royal Yacht Squadron and flying the white ensign, too, during the conflict, should have assisted the Confederate prisoners to escape after they had formally surrendered themselves, according to their own statements, by firing a lee gun, striking their colors, hoisting a white flag and sending a boat to the Kearsarge, some of which signals must have been seen on board the yacht, is most humiliating to the national honor. The movement of the yacht early on Sunday morning was, as before shown, most suspicious, and had our captain followed the advice and reiterated request of the crew and officers, the Deerhound might have been lying not far distant from the Alabama. The captain could not believe that a gentleman who asked by himself to save life would use the opportunity to decamp with the officers and men, who, according to their own act, were prisoners of war. There is a high presumptive evidence that the Deerhound was at Cherbourg for the express purpose of rendering every assistance possible to the corsair, and we may be permitted to doubt whether Mr. Lancaster, the friend of Mr. Laird and a member of the Mersey Yacht Club, would have carried us to Southampton if the result of the struggle had been reversed and the Alabama had sent the Kearsarge to the bottom. The Deerhound reached Cherbourg on the 17th of June, and between that time and the night of the 18th a boat was observed from the shore passing frequently between her and the Alabama. This I got from men taken from different merchant ships by the Alabama and landed in Cherbourg.

"The ship was open for visitors at Dover, and at 8 bells they were shown on board. In less than ten minutes our decks were full of people. Here we lay for several days, with beautiful weather, and our ship thronged with visitors from morning till night. Boats and yachts of all descriptions and steamers from London and bands of music playing `Yankee Doodle' and other airs for the occasion, all packed to their utmost with ladies and gentlemen, came to visit us, and everybody seemed to be having a good time. We had fiddling and dancing on board and some games of amusement, which gave the whole thing a lively appearance. The poor boatmen wished the thing would hold on three months, for they never made so much money by boating in their lives as they had since we had come. One of our visitors was the Lord Warden. In the course of conversation he said the toone of the old salts `I suppose you credit our noble Armstrong guns for the victory you have won, do you not?' The old salt said, `My good man, we have no such guns aboard here, nothing but good old Yankee guns, and between you and me they are d---d headstrong guns!' We lay here till July 9th, 1864, all enjoying a good time as before stated, when the captain's gig or boat came alongside and he came on board. He then gave orders to the boatswain to pip all hands to get anchor for the United States and all visitors to leave the ship. Why, my friend, you can just imagine our feelings. Here we were bordering on the fourth year of our cruise, and the last news we had from home was the we should not be called home till the career of the Alabama was ended. For some reason or other, this was the first time during the whole cruise that I ever heard anything that sounded musical in our boatswain's voice. The visitors all out of the ship, steam up, and all ready to heave away, and at 11 o'clock A.M. we ben on our long streaming pennant and cat-headed the anchor, manned the yards and gave three cheers, dipped our colors, squared away, steaming about twelve knots an hour, bidding adieu to the people of England and France, homeward bound.

"Such are the facts relating to the memorable action off Cherbourg on the nineteenth of June, eighteen hundred and sixty-four. The Alabama went down, riddled through and through with shot and shell, and as she sank beneath the green waves of the English Channel, not a single cheer arose from us the Kearsarge. Our noble Lieutenant Commander James S. Thornton, gave the command, `Silence boys!' and in perfect silence this terror of our American commerce plunged forward twice or thrice and down she went forty fathoms deep in her own waters, and amidst the hideous howls of her officers and crew."

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