Ship boat

The extraordinary hunt for the Confederacy’s most feared ship

BBeginning in the summer of 1862, the CSS Alabama, a Confederate ship commanded by Raphael Semmes, scoured the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans to find, capture, and burn Union naval vessels. In this endeavor, the Southern ship was a resounding success. Sailing 75,000 miles around the globe and back, “that pirate Semmes”, as the newspapers called him, sent over 60 ships to the bottom of the ocean. Their precious cargoes would never support the military campaigns of the North.

As a last resort, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, instructed the USS Kearsarge and her hitherto undistinguished captain, John Winslow, to “travel to the ends of the earth, if necessary, to find and destroy Alabama”. After months of hunting down the rebel raider, Winslow trapped Semmes and his crew in the port of Cherbourg, France. The Confederate captain refuses to surrender. Instead, he would reverse the roles: the “pirate” swore that on the morning of June 19, 1864, he would destroy the Kearsarge and its captain who had dared to corner it. The following is an excerpt from a new book To the Ends of the Earth: The Epic Hunt for the South’s Most Feared Ship and Civil War’s Greatest Naval Battle.

To the Edge of the World by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin

Phil Keith and Tom Clavin

Sunday, June 19, 1864: Off Cherbourg, France

At 8:30 a.m. on Kearsarge, With the morning meal over and the dishes washed and put away, the crew worked on their final pre-battle tasks: cutlasses were sharpened, pistols readied, and the Marines cleaned their rifles. A first round was carefully loaded into each chamber. No one knew if a boarding party would be called or if it might be necessary to fend off the boarders, but the crew would be prepared for either scenario. The gunners sorted their shots and shells and the powder monkeys carefully placed buckets of water near all the guns in case they were needed to put out the fires. Each gun was loaded with a shell and primed.

Then the wait began. Would there even be a battle that day? Despite Captain Semmes’ bravado, no one really knew if he was bluffing. Perhaps this whole drill would turn into nothing more than another standoff, like the ones the crew had experienced with the Sumter, Floridaand Rappahannock. Men with pipes were told they couldn’t smoke them. There was too much loose powder and ammunition on deck.

The temperature began to rise, and the heat beat down on the men and the freshly stoned bridge. There was little chatter. The predominant sound was that of the sea rolling down the sides of the Kearsarge as she prowled back and forth.

There was no reason to delay any longer. Finally, Semmes gave the order. Moments later, the Alabama was under light steam and was gliding through the harbour. He could see not only the Kearsarge beyond the entrance to Cherbourg but the Crown also, ready to escort the rebel raider beyond the three-mile limit. Also, moving across the harbor was the Bloodhound. Captain Jones would keep a safe distance while giving the Lancaster family a good view of the action.

As the Alabama Departing from Cherbourg, her officers and crew could see the tops of buildings and nearby hills lined with those people who hoped to witness a unique event.

Either way, the captain of the Southern ship aimed to be the best-dressed entrant. Just before the start of the journey away from the French town, Semmes had descended. He returned dressed in his Confederate States of America uniform, which he had hardly ever worn, the gold epaulettes and brass buttons shining in the June sun. The captain had even allowed his steward, Bartelli, to wax his mustache. As the Alabama moved through the harbor in an almost stately fashion, those with keen eyes on the shore noticed the proud captain’s bearing and posture.

When he passed the berth of the French warship Napoleonthe Alabama received three cheers. The French frigate band followed this by getting as close as possible to playing “Dixie”. As Arthur Sinclair noted, “We were surprised and pleased. This was much appreciated by us and no doubt drew our brave lads to the center.

At the same time, Captain Winslow was slowly pacing the quarterdeck of the Kearsarge. He had his head down, his hands clasped behind his back, his eyebrows furrowed deeply. What if it doesn’t come out today? where the fuck is Saint Louis? What’s Welles gonna do with me if I let another raider get away?

Lieutenant Cdr. Thornton quietly approached his captain, trying not to disturb his private thoughts too much. As he approached, he cleared his throat and whispered to his boss: It’s time, sir.

All right, Mr. Thornton.

According to Sunday tradition, all non-critical crew members would come to the main deck in their best uniforms to hear the Captain read the Bible, possibly a homily and, hopefully, a few words about the situation they were facing. Winslow took his usual position between the two long rows of his officers and ratings lined up port and starboard, stiff at attention. Almost his entire crew was there. Two engineers were below deck now KearsargeThe chief steamer and a band of coal shovelers fed the furnaces. The normal quarter-deck was posted and on alert.

Winslow cleared his throat and began, Comfortable, men. Today I want to read you a few passages from…”

Captain! a boatswain high above the main deck shouted from his mizzenmast perch, She comes ! She goes out !”

It was as if a flash of St. Elmo’s fire had passed through the crew. Each man stiffened, awaiting the order to Take the stations!

Winslow closed his Bible and handed it to Thornton. My glass ! he barked.

The captain’s yeoman ran to the foc’le, grabbed his leader’s spyglass, and rushed to his commander’s side.

Winslow strode to the port rail and raised the mighty brass-optical instrument to his one good eye and stared at a large ship, belching gray smoke, coming out of the mouth of the harbour. He couldn’t help saying, And so there you are, you bastard. At last!”

The crew, overhearing, burst into wild cheers, waved their hats and jumped in place. They were on a trigger, some even on tiptoe, waiting for the captain’s next order.

He lowered his glass, turned to his manager and said simply: Combat posts, Mr. Thornton.

All Thornton had to do was turn to the crew and shout, To go!”

The Battle of Cherbourg by Louis Le Breton depicts the fight between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama, June 19, 1864, nine miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France. The infamous Confederate blockade runner and trade robber had taken 65 ships during his Civil War career.

Louis LeBreton/Everett

Each sailor knew his place, and the mass of men dissolved in a wild rush to his assigned posts. Some rushed to the engine room, others headed for the guns. The loaders began to sweat through the ammunition racks, firing more pellets and shells. The surgeon and his staff have prepared a medical station in the saloon, with combat dressings and bone saws. The hospital stewards began spreading sand around the guns to soak up the blood that needed to be spilled. The gunner’s companions seized rammers, lanyards, sponges and fire locks. Stokers pushed more coal into the fires and engineers lifted rags and cans of oil. Earthlings, sailors and powder monkeys distributed powder bags, round balls and shells. The Marines positioned their rifles, grappling hooks, pistols, and even cutlass while supporting the front Parrot gun.

As each man settled down, the sturdy form of the Alabama is getting bigger. She had a bone in her teeth and she was heading straight for the Kearsarge.

Helmsman!” shouted Winslow, Point it towards the sea!

Winslow would not fight this battle in French territorial waters. He would take up position six miles away, then turn and face the enemy. He was a careful man, a careful man. Thirty-seven years in the Navy, many of them at sea, had taught him that preparation and practice beat boldness and impetuosity. He would make sure his men were fully prepared, then reverse course and head straight for his old friend and former shipmate, intent on blasting him and his cursed ship to Kingdom Come.

To the Ends of the Earth: The Epic Hunt for the South’s Most Feared Ship and Civil War’s Greatest Naval Battle is available now.