DOCUMENT 1

From an 1883 interview with John McIntosh Kell, Executive Officer for the Alabama

The Sinking of the Alabama.

"On Sunday, the 19th of June, we weighed anchor and steamed out to meet the Kearsage. The hills above Cherbourg were crowded with people from Paris--some came from distant parts of Europe--to witness the fight. A number of French pilot boats went out with us, as also did a French ironclad frigate, the Couronne, which went out to see that the neutrality of French waters was not violated. Another vessel, the English steam yacht, Deerhound, belonging to Mr. Lancaster, also went out with us . . . This vessel afterwards rescued Admiral Semmes, myself, and a number of the Alabama's crew."

"We began to fight when within about a mile of the Kearsage by opening with solid shot. The two vessels rapidly approached each other, and the remainder of the fight occurred at a distance of not more than 500 yards. The vessels circled around each other as the fight progressed, in order to keep their broadsides towards each other. A few minutes after the fight began, Admiral Semmes, who was standing on the horse block, said to me, 'Mr. Kell, our shells strike the side of the enemy's ship but they fall into the water. Try solid shot.' This I did, but with no better effect. The hidden armor of the Kearsage prevented the Alabama's shot from doing serious damage."

"One shell from our eight-inch gun was buried in the stern of the Kearsage, but poor powder and a defective fuse prevented the shell's exploding. If that shell had exploded, the Kearsage, instead of the Alabama, would have gone to the bottom of the deep blue sea. Without boasting, I may say that no other crew ever fought as bravely as did that of the Alabama. My position was near the eight-inch gun. An eleven-inch shell from the Kearsage entered a port hole and killed eight of the sixteen men serving that gun . . ."

"The places of the dead were instantly filled, and not a single survivor exhibited the slightest fear. At the expiration of the time I have mentioned, one hour and ten minutes, the engineer came on deck and reported that the water let in by the wounds in the ship caused by the enemy's shells, had put out the furnace fires. Admiral Semmes ordered me to go below and see how long the vessel would float. I went below and examined the damage. The holes in the side of the poor old Alabama were large enough to admit a wheelbarrow. I returned to the deck and reported to the Admiral that the vessel could not float ten minutes longer. 'Strike the colors, Mr. Kell,' he said; 'it will not do in the nineteenth century to sacrifice every man we have on board.' . . ."

As soon as the Kearsage ceased firing, I went over the decks and ordered every man to secure what he could cling to and then jump overboard. This order was issued to prevent any of the crew being carried down in the vortex made by the sinking ship. But two men went down with her. One was a man who had deserted from a Yankee vessel, and the other was a carpenter, who, poor fellow, could not swim. He jumped overboard, but afterwards climbed back into the ship. In all the last sad and dangerous moments before the Alabama sank, there was no fear nor hurry-up on the part of the men. Everything was done quietly, as if the crew were preparing for an ordinary ship inspection. The Alabama's total loss in the action was nine killed and twenty-one wounded. Ten others were drowned after the ship sank."


In your discussions, consider:

1. This interview was conducted in 1883. The events Kell describes happened 19 years earlier in 1864. Why is this important?

2. How might Kell's memories of the battle be different from that of a crewman on the USS Kearsarge?

3. How might it be different from the description of a sailor in a nearby boat that was not involved in the action?

4. Which do you think would be most accurate, the account of a USS Kearsarge sailor, a CSS Alabama sailor, or a bystander? Why?