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USS KEARSARGE

One hundred forty years ago, 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 USS Kearsarge for a fight to the finish.

The Kearsarge  was commissioned in January 1862, less than a year after construction started.  Her 13 knot speed and armament made her ideal to outrun and outfight any raider.  She was sent to European water to hunt for Confederate commerce raiders. 

The Kearsarge arrived in Cherbourg on June 14, and found the Alabama in port.  Captain Winslow then sailed out three miles off the coast in international waters to wait for the raider to venture out.

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 each another. The Alabama took her first shots at the Kearsarge while the two were less than a mile apart.  The Alabama fired two more times before the Kearsarge replied.  A shot lodged itself in the Kearsarge's sternpost, but its fuse was defective.  Had it gone off, 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 manueverable than the Alabama, the Kearsarge's gunnery soon took its toll.  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.

Semmes, sensing that the battle was lost, tried to reach for the French coast under sail, the engine having been rendered almost useless, and the ship taking in water.  He soon realized he would not make it and sent a boat to the Kearsarge to surrender.  When 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 received aid from an unusual source.  The British yacht Deerhound, which had gone out to view the battle, rescued Semmes and forty two crewmen.  The Alabama vanished beneath the waves just before 1:00 pm.

The Kearsarge and her crew became celebrities in their own right - 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 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. 

After the war, the Kearsarge became an icon of American seapower.  She was sent abroad on numerous missions to show the flag.   She was considered one to the three most important ships in the United States Navy, along with the Constitution and the Hartford. 

In February 1894.  On her final mission from Haiti to Nicaragua, Kearsarge  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.  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.

The largest Seacoast memorial to the Kearsarge  stands between Islington and State Streets in Portsmouth in Goodwin Park.  Dedicated on July 4, 1888, the huge cast zinc memorial features the Kearsarge on one of its four base panels and a sailor.

 
 
 
 

This 41" x 25" x 9" model reflects the USS Kearsarge at the battle with the CSS Alabama. 

 
$2,500    (S & H is $150)  Sold out