The war between the Northern and Southern States of the North American Continent had been in progress for three years when the legendary 230-foot, three-mast, sail-and-steam Confederate warship, the CSS ALABAMA, arrived at the entrance to Cherbourg harbour on the 10th of June 1864. Having spent months at sea, destroying Federal shipping and costing the Union’s war and domestic treasury untold millions of dollars, the ALABAMA’S skipper Captain raphael Semmes, decided that his vessel required urgent repairs–writing in his journal: ”We are like a crippled hunter limping home from a long chase.”
However, the French port admiral informed the Captain that he could not allow the warship into dry-dock without the permission of the French emperor (currently en vacances!) as Cherbourg was a naval station, and France (like England) was observing a policy of neutrality toward the warring American North and South. But news of the ALABAMA’S arrival had reached Captain Joh Winslow of the USS KEARSARGE, itself in the English Channel, and ready to swoop on its Confederate enemy.
Semmes, perhaps, could have waited for the emperor’s permission, but the 54-year-old captain was a fighter to his bones, and decided that instead of being blockaded, he would meet the KEARSARGE in open battle in the Channel. And so, accompanied by a French warship and many rather brave sightseeing craft, the ALABAMA headed out to sea to face her adversary. When the ships were a mile apart, they opened fire–broadside to broadside, a remarkable spectacle for the many onlookers. The battle raged on, but the KEARSARGE began to gain the advantage. Astonishingly, the ALABAMA scored a direct hit upon Captain Winslow’s ship, but the shell failed to explode–sure one of the luckiest escapes of all naval history!
Eventually, the Federal gunnery began to batter Semmes’s beloved vessel, and the magnificent ocean-going veteran of the maritime American Civil War (and scourge of the North) began to sink. Various boats edged closer in a bid to rescue the survivors, including an English yacht, the DEERHOUND. Captain Semmes was rescued, along with just over 40 crewmen–the Kearsarge picking up the remainder of the Confederate crew as prisoners of war. It is said that when the skipper of the DEERHOUND asked Semmes where he would now like to go, the defiant Southerner spluttered: ”Any part of Great Britain!” And so, much to the great irritation of Winslow and the Union side, the Confederates escaped–arriving in Southampton (our nature and character tends to make us sympathise with the underdog) and the escape of the ALABAMA’S men gave the British public a moment of tremendous drama and excitement.
But a year later, it would be all over for the Confederacy–her cities in ruins, army and navy defeated, and much of the South’s agricultural land destroyed by the pillaging Union army. Yet the chivalrous conduct of Captain Semmes (and indeed his opponent) remind us today that even in the grim midst of war, pride and loyalty to a cause can bring out the best in men.
Written by Stuart Millson and published in the ST GEORGE FOR ENGLAND December publication. I was pleased to read this as I had never heard of the SEA BATTLE IN THE ENGLISH CHANNEL between the North and the South. Interesting.
Thomas Moore email: TMooreSr@me.com Telephone: 801.791.9918