June 19th: 1864: Battle
Off the land twelve miles. The morning is thick and hazy. The shore is scarcely distinguishable. There is all the preparations being made for our Sabbath Day devotions. Inspection at quarters at ten o’clock after which we are all waiting to hear the Church bell till. At ten minutes after ten the fore top man at the mast head sang out – Steamer under the land! Standing out! That’s the Alabama, said the quarter master. We were all anxious to catch a glimpse of her before going into battle. The bell sounded fire quarters and the boys were to be seen tumbling down the forecastle ladders – fore rigging Jacob’s Ladders & c trying who could be first at their quarters. She was coming straight out for us and we were all ready for the conflict in just three minutes. Decks sanded down. Batteries cast loose and manned. Magazines opened & all reported ready. Go ahead fast, said the Captain. The Alabama was now about two miles distant and coming on fast. Lay down! Every man, said the Captain, and down we all lay flat on the deck. And now as I lay down not knowing how soon I might be killed or maimed for life I thought of home and how I had been neglected by those who should have been all in all to me…
The Alabama had now opened fire with her starboard battery. Distance one thousand yards. The shell were flying screaming through our rigging and bursting far astern of us. She fired seven times. We keeping head on to her and going full speed. At the seventh shot the 30 pound rifle parrott on our forecastle paid our compliments to her and down came her flag. The gaff was shot away – we still going ahead – she broadside too. She fired five more shot. None of her shot had as yet struck us. We were not quite near her and our helm was put hard a starboard and our noble ship came up beautifully and showed her awful battery with no men but the Marines in the forecastle. “Ready.” “Fire,” and our two eleven inch three broadsides & rifle pivot sent death and destruction aboard her. We kept around in a circle and it seemed strange how coolly our men now faced her fire amidst the groans of the dying and cusses of the wounded. Around went the Kearsage – the Alabama keeping up a hot fire upon us. We could see the shell and solid shot coming and some of them would pass so close that the hot wind from them would puff in our faces. Still nobody hurt aboard of us. One shot had now struck our rudder post and another went through our smoke stack…
We were steaming fast around her in a circle all the time and they fired two shots to our one, but our boys were cool and took deliberate aim and then fired and we could see the shell pass clean through her and burst on the other side. Our second broadside. Every shell done its work – we could see the splinters and coal dust fly in every direction.
The battle had now lasted three quarters of an hour and she commended to set sail and try to escape to the French coast – seeing which our boys sent up cheer after cheer which made the ship fairly shake – and the battle rage fiercer than ever...
A shell from our forward pivot 11 inch now exploded right in her [Alabama] stern carrying away the stern – breaking her fan and killing the men at the wheel also wounding Capt. Semmes and great number more. She now became perfectly unmanageable and we came around on her port side and pound in a murderous fire of shot and shell and the sight was awful and sublime. The execution was terrible. We came up again intending to rake her decks fore & aft which would have killed or wounded every soul on her. But she fired three Sea Guns and haul[ed] down her flag. The order passed to Cease Firing. The battle had been fought and won in one hour and ten minutes. Her boat was not coming toward us but we noticed her settling down and made all haste to lower out boats to save the wounded and survivors. But before our boats could get to her she gave a wild leap forward, threw her bow high in the air and went down stern first. It was painful to see her men as they jumped into the sea to meet a watery grave or threw their arms wildly above their heads to cry for help.
We who one moment before would have cut them down to a man, now strained every nerve and made every effort to save them…
Charles B. Fisher, Excerpts from his diary entry June 19, 1864.
(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 205-210)
Cruise of the Alabama
Built secretively in Great Britain and slipped away from the United States ambassadors and agents’ prying eyes to finish outfitting as a Rebel warship, the CSS Alabama commissioned in August 1864. During her nearly two year adventuring, she never put in at a Southern port, instead boasting a successful career as a Confederate commerce raider on the international scene.
The Alabama – commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes – cruised the eastern Atlantic, capturing northern United States merchant vessels. Then she crossed the Atlantic causing a serious of disasters off the coast of New England and extending the voyage and fights into the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico. There, off the shore from Galveston, Texas, she sank the USS Hatteras. The cruise continued south of the equator, and the Alabama took most of her captured prizes off the coast of Brazil. Recrossing the Atlantic, she traveled along the African coast and captures of northern merchant ships before putting in at Cape Town in South Africa to refit. Ready for new waters and prizes, the Alabama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and headed for the East Indies where she destroyed seven ships before rounding the cape again and sailing for France.
In total, the Alabama burned 65 northern vessels (mostly merchant ships), boarded 450 ships, produced about $6,000,000 in damages, and took approximately 2,000 prisoners. The crews of the destroyed ships were held only until they could be put ashore at a neutral port or placed on a neutral ship. U.S. navy ships had been chasing the Alabama, but until 1864, she had evaded them. That part of the story changed in June 1864 off the shores of Cherbourg.
CSS Alabama vs. USS Kearsarge
The Alabama had arrived at Cherbourg, France on June 11, 1864, and received permission to refit in the harbor. The USS Kearsarge had been chasing the Confederate raider and closed on the port three days later, blocking the exit escape, but unable to take further action since France was – officially speaking – neutral.
Confederate Captain Semmes issued a challenge to Captain John Ancrum Winslow, declaring that he was going to the Alabama out of the harbor and intended to fight to Kearsarge.
The fight occurred on June 19, 1864, as Charles Fisher described it. Eventually, the hour’s combat ended with the surrender and sinking of the Alabama.
Charles Fisher had joined the USS Kearsarge in February 1862, one of 15 African-American sailors in the crew of about 160. During his time aboard, Fisher served as a novice seaman, officer’s cook, and steward. Educated and observant, he kept a journal about his experiences, including a detailed account about the fight and aftermath with the Alabama.
Interestingly, he and his comrades spent significant time rescuing the Confederate commerce raiders after the ship went down and making sure their injured received medical attention. It’s another story about compassion overcoming the expected hatred, a cease-fire of hostilities to save lives.