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 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
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.
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
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
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.
41" x 25" x 9"
the USS Kearsarge at the battle with the CSS
(S & H is $150)