LOUIS LEBRETON, Naval Engagement between the U.S.S. "Kearsarge & the Alabama" off Cherbourg, c. 1865.
Naval Engagement between the U.S.S. "Kearsarge & the Alabama" off Cherbourg, on Sunday 19th of June 1864
Paris: F. Sinnett & New York: W. Schauss, c. 1865
Lithograph with original hand-color
Paper size: 16 1/2" x 21" (visible), 22 1/4" x 28" (with matting)
The Battle of Cherbourg, or sometimes the Battle off Cherbourg or the Sinking of CSS Alabama, was a single-ship action fought during the American Civil War between a United States Navy warship, USS Kearsarge, and a Confederate States Navy warship, CSS Alabama, on June 19, 1864, off Cherbourg, France.
After five successful commerce raiding missions in the Atlantic Ocean, CSS Alabama turned into Cherbourg Harbor on June 11, 1864. The Confederate States sloop-of-war was commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes, formerly of CSS Sumter. It was Captain Semmes' intention to drydock his ship and receive repairs at the French port. The Confederate Navy vessel was crewed by about 170 men and armed with six 32-pounder (15 kg) cannon, mounted broadside, three guns per side, and two heavy pivot guns, mounted on the centerline and able to fire to either side: one 8-inch (203 mm), 110-pound (50 kg) smoothbore gun and one 7-inch (178 mm), 68-pound (31 kg) rifled gun. Alabama had been pursued for two years by the screw sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge, under Captain John Winslow. Kearsarge was armed with two 11-inch (279 mm) smoothbore Dahlgren guns which fired about 166 pounds of solid shot, four 32-pound guns and one 30-pounder Parrott rifle. She was manned by around 150 sailors and officers.
Kearsarge had a form of makeshift armor-cladding, medium-weight chain cable triced in tiers along her port and starboard midsections, basically acting as the equivalent of chain mail for vulnerable sections of her hull, where shot could potentially penetrate and hit her boilers or steam engine. This armor protection potentially gave the Union warship a definitive advantage over the Confederate raider; however, the armor was only capable of stopping shots from Alabama's lighter 32-pound balls; either of her heavier guns could easily penetrate such light-weight protection. In the event, it was a moot point, as Alabama only managed to score two hits in this area, both of which were well above the waterline and the vulnerable engineering areas, and would have done little lasting damage even if they had successfully penetrated the hull. On June 14, Kearsarge finally caught up with Alabama as she was receiving repairs. Kearsarge did not attack, as Alabama was in a neutral port; instead, she waited, initiating a blockade of CSS Alabama in Cherbourg. Union Captain Winslow telegraphed USS St. Louis to request her assistance, but the fighting began before she could arrive. Confederate Captain Semmes used the time to drill his men for the coming battle. On June 19, CSS Alabama, with nowhere else to go, ran up the Stars and Bars and exited the harbor to attack Kearsarge. She was escorted by the French Navy ironclad Couronne, whose mission was to ensure that the ensuing battle occurred outside the French harbor.
Men aboard USS Kearsarge spotted the incoming Confederate raider, so they turned their ship around to take the impending battle out of French territorial waters. Once out, Kearsarge turned about again, hoisted the United States Navy Jack, and lined up for a broadside. Captain Winslow ordered his gunners to hold their fire until the range closed. CSS Alabama fired the first shots. They are not known to have hit. Eventually Kearsarge was under way, and the range closed to within 1,000 yards (910 m) when she fired her first shot. The two warships maneuvered on opposite courses throughout the battle. Kearsarge and Alabama made seven spiraling circles around each other, moving southwest in a 3-knot (5.6 km/h; 3.5 mph) current. Both Captain Semmes and Captain Winslow attempted to cross each other's bow, hoping to inflict heavy raking fire. The battle continued in this manner for several minutes; in the meantime, on the French coast, hundreds watched the battle. Kearsarge's armor cladding sustained two hits during the engagement.
The first shell, a 32-pounder, struck within the starboard gangway. The shot cut part of the chain armor and dented the wooden planking underneath. The second shot was again a 32-pounder that exploded and broke a link of the chain. Both hits struck the chain five feet above the waterline and therefore did not threaten the boilers or machinery. The gunnery of USS Kearsarge was reportedly more accurate than that of the Confederates. She fired slowly with well-aimed shots, while Alabama fired rapidly. CSS Alabama fired a total of over 370 rounds during the fighting; it is not known how many Kearsarge fired, but it is known that she fired many fewer than the Confederates did. Eventually, after just over an hour of exchanging artillery fire, Alabama had received shot-holes beneath the waterline from Kearsarge's Dahlgren guns and began to sink. Captain Semmes struck the Confederate colors, but still Kearsarge continued firing until a white flag was seen, raised by one of the Confederate sailors with his hand. The battle was over, so Captain Semmes sent his remaining dinghy to Captain Winslow, to ask for aid.
During the battle, 40 Confederate sailors were casualties (19 killed in action or drowned and 21 wounded). Another seventy or so were picked up by Kearsarge. Thirty or so were rescued by Deerhound, a British yacht, which Captain Winslow asked to help evacuate Alabama's crew, and three French pilot boats. Captain Semmes and fourteen of his officers were among the sailors rescued by Deerhound. Instead of delivering the captured Confederates to Kearsarge, Deerhound set a course for Southampton, thus enabling Captain Semmes' escape. This act severely angered Kearsarge's crew, who begged their captain to allow them to open fire on the British yacht. Captain Winslow would not allow this, so the Confederates got away and avoided imprisonment. Three men were wounded aboard the United States' vessel, one of whom died the following day.