The Seacoast's Civil War Star
By John Hirtle, Atlantic News Staff Writer
Beach Guide, 2004
One hundred forty years ago, one of the most celebrated naval battles of the American Civil War was fought not in the South, but on the other side of the Atlantic. It was a long awaited duel at the end of a long frustrating chase held off the coast of France. Two ships - the notorious Confederate commerce raider Alabama faced the Portsmouth-built U.S.S. Kearsarge for a fight to the finish.
The Kearsarge took shape on the building ways of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in the spring of 1861 without even a name - it was just another warship being rushed to completion to deal with the crisis of the Civil War. Kearsarge - or Kearsage as she was sometimes refered to - was chosen, taking the name from a New Hampshire mountain. The question was - which mountain? A Mountain named Kearsarge exists in Warner, and another exists in North Conway. It would become an ongoing feud between the two communities once the warship became famous.
Modeled on the Mohican class steam sloop of war, the Kearsarge was just over 214 feet long, had a beam of 33 feet, and displaced 1,550 tons. While fitted with masts, she had steam propulsion that could muster 400 horsepower, and by some reports could reach a speed of 13 knots. She was fitted with an arsenal of two eleven inch smooth bore Dahlgren cannons, one 30 pounder Parrott rifle, and four thirty two pounder cannons. It took a crew of 162 men to handle her. She was commissioned in January 1862, less than a year after construction started.
Rather than send the Kearsarge to aid with the blockade of Confederate ports, she was sent to European water to hunt for Confederate commerce raiders. Her speed and armament made her ideal to outrun and outfight any raider she might meet. At the start of the Civil War, the United States had a merchant marine second in size only to that of Great Britain- and unarmed merchantmen proved ripe pickings for lone commerce raiders. With only a handful of vessels, what passed for the ocean-going Confederate Navy would decimate Union shipping.
The Kearsarge's first quarry was the CSS Sumter, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. Under his command, the "pirate" Sumter had captured 18 vessels before she was bottled up in the Spanish port of Algesiras by the USS Tuscarora. The Kearsarge joined her there and waited for Semmes to venture out.
He never did.
After three months of waiting under blockade Semmes sold the Sumter in 1862, and departed taking his officers and crew with him to England. Their most famous assignment awaited them there.
While the Kearsarge continued to patrol European waters for Confederate commerce raiders, the Confederacy's chief naval agent in Europe, James Bulloch was purchasing a navy in England, in defiance of that country's neutrality laws. Strong ties between the British and Southern states led to lax enforcement of those laws for a time. British shipyards would build unarmed raiders, send them out and they would receive their cannon on the high seas or in the Azores.
Trying to counter the wily Bullock was Charles Francis Adams, United States Minister to Britain, the son and grandson of the two President Adams. He used every ounce of his cunning to counter the Confederate efforts in England wherever he could.
The Commerce raider Florida had left England by the time attention was brought to bear on another vessel being built by the Laird Brothers in Liverpool. Known as "Hull 290", the future Alabama was launched in May 1862 under the spotlight brought to bear on it by Minister Adams. Adams presented proof that she was pierced for cannon to the British authorities, and was undoubtably being built for the Confederacy.
British officials did little, as Bulloch had the vessel fitted out with festive flags and had a party of sight seers on board as he took the vessel out for a short trial run. Once she had cleared the harbor though, the party of guests were let off on a tug, and the Alabama set sail for the Azores where she would be armed and fully crewed.
The British, for their part, issued an order to hold the Alabama almost two days after she had left.
As built, the Alabama was a close match to the Kearsarge. She measured 220 feet long, with a beam of just under 32 feet, and displaced 1,050 tons. With sails and her engines, she could muster 600 horsepower and make 13 knots. Her armament included one 68 pounder cannon, one 110 pounder rifled cannon, and six 32 pounder cannons. She sailed with a compliment of 148 men. As built, and on paper, the Alabama and Kearsarge were closely matched.
Captain Semmes was assigned to command the Alabama, and left a trail of sinking burning Union merchantmen in his wake from the West Indies to the Far East. Nearly sixty merchant ships in all, many of them from New Hampshire were lost to the Alabama. Another ten were released on bond, loaded with survivors of her victims.
In all, the Alabama caused some five million dollars in damage to Union commerce - an immense sum at the time. Union papers villified Semmes as a pirate, even as Confederate papers viewed him as a hero. Papers in Britain and France offered mixed views of Semmes, who viewed himself as much as a patriot and soldier to his cause as John Paul Jones did during the American Revolution.
Time was catching up to the Alabama though.
On June 11, 1864, the Alabama put in in Cherbourg, France, in need of a major overhaul. Aside from a few short stops at friendly ports, she had been at sea twenty two months, her crew making due with food and goods seized from their prizes. The crews of her last two victims, the New Hampshire owned Rockingham and the bark Tycoon were released in Cherbourg as Semmes made ready to repair his ship.
The Rockingham's Captain Edwin Gerrish remained at Cherbourg to pass along vital intelligence to the United States vice-consul, even as word of the Alabama's appearence spread across Europe like wildfire. The Kearsarge, now under the command of Captain John A. Winslow, a veteran of battles along the Mississippi River, was then at anchor off of Holland. When word came that the Alabama was in Cherbourg, three hundred miles to the south, the ship sprang into action and set sail.
During the three day voyage to Cherbourg, all was made ready for the impending battle. They had waited two years for this moment. Cutlasses were sharpened as the men drilled, readying for action against the dreaded Southern raider. Winslow had already made some preperations to the Kearsarge himself. He had seen ironclad vessels in action on the Mississippi, and had iron chain installed along the sides of the warship as a sort of armor.
The Kearsarge arrived in Cherbourg on June 14, and found the Alabama in port. Winslow then sailed out, and took position three miles off the coast in international waters, to wait for the raider to venture out.
The Alabama was trapped.
Semmes knew this as his crew rushed to repair his ship. For the better part of a week, the suspense built onshore and at sea as the waiting game continued.
On the clear morning of June 19, 1864, the Alabama was escorted out of Cherbourg by the French ironclad Couronne, to ensure that the battle would take place in international waters. Spectators lined the shores and cliffs to watch, as did a small flotilla of boats filled with more spectators. It would be one of the most widely watched sea battles in history.
The two warships approached on another. The Alabama took her first shots at the Kearsarge while the two were less than a mile apart. The Alabama would fire two more times before the Kearsarge replied. A lucky shot lodged itself in the Kearsarge's sternpost, but its fuze was defective. Had it gone off, the Kearsarge's steering might have been destroyed, and the course of the battle might have been very different.
The two vessels circled each other seven times, firing their starboard batteries into each other. Semmes sought to board the Kearsarge for hand to hand combat, but Winslow kept his distance. More manuverable than the Alabama, the Kearsarge's gunnery soon took its toll. While the Kearsarge's shells tore apart the Alabama's hull and machinery spaces, the Alabama's shot was rendered almost useless by Winslow's chain-armor and the Alabama's own stale gunpowder.
Semmes, sensing that the battle was lost, tried to sail for the French coast under sail, the engine having been rendered almost useless, and the ship taking on water. He soon realized he would not make it, and sent a boat to the Kearsarge to surrender to Winslow. Once the offer to surrender was made and the colors struck, two final shots were fired from the Alabama, causing Winslow to open fire again. This time, a white flag went up on the raider.
Mortally wounded and sinking fast, the Alabama recieved aid from an unusual source. The British yacht Deerhound, which had gone out to view the battle, and rescued Semmes and forty two crewmen and officers even as the Kearsarge and other pilot boats watching the battle closed to rescue the survivors. As a result, the exact number of casualties of the Alabama are unknown.
The Alabama vanished beneath the waves just before 1:00 pm. Semmes though had made good his escape on the Deerhound. Soon, Semmes was in England again a celebrity, and safely out of the hands of the Union. He would never command a warship again. The Kearsarge and her crew became celebrities in their own right, despite Semmes escape - they had vanquished the mighty Alabama. With so many witnesses to the battle, it passed from news into song, painting and poetry. After the battle, Napoleon III, Emperor of France paid the vessel a visit. Even England took note, for while the Alabama was operated by the Confederacy, she was British built, armed and crewed.
The first word of the victory arrived in Baltimore on July 5, and spread like wildfire across the Union, boosting morale after a series of setbacks on the battlefields of Virginia. The Kearsarge would soon be recalled to Boston, arriving in time for the 1864 presidential election. It was also the first election where soldiers and sailors were permitted to vote while they were on the field.
After the war, the Kearsarge became an icon of American seapower, and was sent abroad on numerous missions to show the flag. Along with the Constitution and the Hardford, she was considered one to the three most important ships in the United States Navy. There was even some talk of preserving her as a historic vessel.
Any hope of saving the Kearsarge for future generations was dashed in February 1894. On her final mission from Haiti to Nicaragua, she ran aground at Roncador Reef. All efforts to save her failed, and she was slowly pounded to bits like many other vessels before and after her.
Her memory survived. In 1900 the name Kearsarge was given to fifth battleship built by the U.S. Navy - and the only one not named for a state. While this vessel, and later an aircraft carrier carried on the name of the Kearsarge, they never achieved the same sort of fame as their namesake.
Around Portsmouth, memories of the Kearsarge remain, if all but faded away. The Kearsarge House next to the Portsmouth Music Hall is home to small shops. A painting of the ship is on display in the Portsmouth Atheneum in the center of Market Square.
But the largest Seacoast memorial to the Kearsarge and the Civil War era stands between Islington and State Streets in Portsmouth in Goodwin Park. The Soldiers & Sailors Monument rises up in a blueish-grey mass of Victorian imagery and inginuity. Dedicated on July 4, 1888, the huge cast zinc memorial features the Kearsarge on one of its four base panels and a sailor.
Until recently the memorial was slowly decaying - zinc, the wonder metal of its day did not last as well as it was hoped. Thanks to a HUD grant, both the memorial and the park have been restored and improved upon, making it a pleasant place to pause on a lazy summer day.