When CSS Alabama was Sinking
by Gordon Thorsby
A sailor-poet on Alabama wrote as his ship steamed out from Cherbourg harbor:
“We’re homeward, we’re homeward bound
And soon we shall stand on English ground.
But ere that English land we see,
We first must fight the Kearsargee.”
On June 19, 1864, the sea battle between the Kearsarge and CSS Alabama fired on each other for seventy minutes until Alabama’s Captain Raphael Semmes concluded his vessel could not continue. Fifteen thousand spectators looked on from the distant French shores as the ships went in and emerged from their cannon smoke. French impressionist Edouard Manet observed from a nearby English yacht as the two ships banged away at one another. Captain Raphael Semmes, his right hand was cut by a shell fragment and was bandaged and in a sling. The Confederate raider that had captured or sunk 64 vessels in its short cruising life was quickly becoming a wreck. A shell from an XI inch Dahlgren gun ripped through the mid-section at the waterline and rushing water put out the boilers and flooded the compartments below.
Semmes looked about the deck, at dead and dying sailors strewn about the deck. Semmes recounted, “our ship was deemed to be in a sinking condition, the enemy’s shells having exploded in our side, and between decks, opening large apertures through which the water rushed with great rapidity.”
Alabama struck its colors in the midst of smoke, and ordered a boat to cross to Kearsarge to request assistance. It was then that Kearsarge fired five additional rounds into Alabama. Commander John Winslow of Kearsarge saw two open ports on port-side guns run out and so he continued to fire. Semmes was incensed at the continued cannon fire on a ship in obvious distress.
A hand-held white flag was seen from Alabama’s stern, now lower than the bow. Alabama was now taking water and heavy guns were beginning to shift on the deck. Semmes ordered all sailors to save themselves. The men, mostly of British, and other foreign nationalities grabbed debris and jumped overboard. Some knew that the living never survive long in the channel but others had hope. Others accepted their fate to die and simply slid over the side.
Temperatures off Cherbourg could sometimes reach as high as 50 degrees F in June but heavy winds and waves made surviving difficult. Once in the water, men swam away from Alabama looking for crafts and boats coming for them. One of Alabama's boats was at Kearsarge pleading for assistance. Another had been lowered and could not take more. All other boats from the ship were smashed in the duel. Some men survived from the flotsam, others treaded water, others could not swim and went under.
The British yacht, Deerhound observing the action from a distance was requested by Winslow to assist in picking up survivors. The yacht came on and pulled sailors from the channel as the Kearsarge prepared to send out boats. Semmes was one of the survivors picked up by Deerhound. Forty-one men and was eventually rescued by Deerhound.
A man looking on from Kearsarge reported the Alabama was “suddenly assuming a perpendicular position caused by the falling aft of the battery and the stores she went down…. As she disappeared to her last rest in peace, there was no cheer, all was silent.” Alabama’s bow suddenly rose straight up vertical for all to witness, then sank below in only fifteen minutes, at 12:24PM. Of the 170 souls aboard Alabama, nine were killed in the action, 21 were wounded and 82 were picked up mostly by Kearsarge. Ten men were drowned in the channel.
Deerhound proceeded to the English coast and all aboard escaped imprisonment by Winslow and the Union Navy.
Before Semmes abandoned the ship, he threw his sword into the channel.
Note: Today, several artifacts from the Alabama are displayed including the ship’s bell and one of its guns at La Cité de la Mer in France, the Museum of Mobile in Alabama, and the National Museum of the U.S. Navy on the Washington Navy Yard, DC.
Blue and Gray Navies, Tucker, Spencer C., Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD.Pp. 291-292.
https://www.history.navy.mil/research/underwater-archaeology/sites-and-projects/ship-wrecksites/css-alabama.html , Naval History and Heritage Museum
"Roll, Alabama Roll!– The Sinking of the CSS Alabama," by John V. Quarstein, August 21, 2021, https://blog.marinersmuseum.org/2021/08/roll-alabama-roll-sinking-of-css-alabama/