Battles and campaigns

Eyewitness: Alabama v Kearsage, June 1864

By Charles Priestley

 

(From his article 'the US Minister's Son Sees the Fight Off Cherbourg' which appeared in Crossfire No 96, August 2011).

 

Alabama v Kearsage

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The William Lewis Dayton Papers at Princeton University contain a number of documents relating to the sinking of the CSS Alabama by the USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg on 19 June, 1864. Among these are four letters to the U.S. Minister to France from his son, William L. Dayton, Junior, known to the family as Willie. The younger Dayton, who was 2nd. Secretary at the U.S. Legation, had gone to Cherbourg with a dispatch for Captain Winslow of the Kearsarge, but stayed to see the battle. While the three letters written from Cherbourg itself are relatively brief and informal, the fourth, written after Willie Dayton's return to Paris, is a detailed, 30-page account of the battle and its aftermath.

 

Although addressed, like the others, to the writer's father, it is much more formal in tone and was therefore presumably intended, despite its numerous abbreviations, as the basis for an official report. In transcribing it for publication, I have made no changes beyond the occasional adjustment, where the sense of the passage demanded it, to Willie Dayton's somewhat inconsistent system of punctuation. It will be noticed that the writer consistently misspells the name of the Kearsarge until near the end of his account (1).


Paris, June 22,1864

 

Sir,

 

On Friday last June 17th. A.M. I left Paris for Cherbourg with a dispatch for Capt Winslow of the U.S.S. Kearsarge which was lying off that port.

 

Upon my arrival at 9 1/2 PM the U.S. Vice Consul (2) informed me that no one, not even he, was allowed to communicate with the K. I insisted upon seeing the Admiral-Prefect (3) of the port. The Admiral had retired to his room when we arrived. I sent word by Vice Consul that I had been sent by U.S. Minister at Paris in consequence of a conversation had the day before with the French Minister of Foreign affairs (4), to communicate and bear a dispatch to Capt. Winslow of the Kearsarge. The Admiral said to Consul that he would be glad to see me the next day. Consul said that I, as well as he, feared the Alabama might leave that night. The Admiral said I might go to my hotel and sleep that night, intimating that he knew the Alabama would not leave. At 7 1/2 the next morning I called again at the Prefecture, when the Admiral gave me a written permit to leave the port, saying at the same time that he hoped what I was doing was all regular and that he supposed he would see me upon my return. I of course promised to report myself.

 

The permit I found was altogether necessary to leaving the port. I was called upon to show it several times and I saw two other young men who endeavored to go with Alabama stopped by the police (5). The Kearsarge was not in sight when I left the harbor. After sailing about 2 or 3 miles outside the breakwater, she hove in sight. We came up to her in about two hours and a half. She was about 8 or 9 miles 18 out. I remained on board of her about one hour and a half, delivering my letters and consulting with Capt. Winslow. Capt. Winslow asked me to request Consul at Havre (6) to send out to him off Cherbourg about 75 or 80 tons of coal and some machine oil - and a few men if he could send them.

 

I returned to Cherbourg and at once reported myself to the Prefect and told him I expected to leave Cherbourg early the next morning. He then informed me that the Alabama would leave Cherbourg in 24 hours. I decided therefore for many reasons to remain and see the result.

 

The next morning about 8 o'clock I went to Querqueville (?) a little village 2 or 3 miles from Cherbourg (7) and with the Consul took my position on an elevated spot of ground (8) to await the result. We could see the harbor perfectly and had a fine view seaward. The spot was a little to the west of Cherbourg and we had a finer and more extensive view than from the city. We were of course provided with a telescope. About nine o'clock the English yacht Deerhound (carrying the flag of the Royal Yacht Club and owned by John Lancaster, Esq., near or of Liverpool) (9) got up steam and ran a little out towards the breakwater. After apparently observing for a few minutes she returned and went alongside of the Alabama. She then stood out again straight through the western pass to sea; about two miles out she changed her course heading more towards the Kearsarge. The Alabama then came out by the same pass and stood straight out to sea the yacht running up near and apparently communicating with her. About this time the Kearsarge made her appearance to the ordinary naked eye. This must have been between ten and half after ten in the morning. The relative position of the vessels at this time and afterwards was as follows:

 

Sketch Map of Battle off Cherbourg

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The dark line represents the route of Kearsarge & the other that of Alabama.

 

The Kearsarge at first instead of running directly towards the Alabama headed out to sea and ran a few miles in a line parallel with the Alabama in order as the Capt said to get as far out of french waters as to prevent any chance to the Alabama of ever reaching them again. When about 9 miles from shore the K. turned and directed her course towards the A. each vessel coming up on the starboard. Capt. W. had ordered the two port guns over to the starboard where they remained during the entire engagement. It was found however that one of them could not be used to advantage.

 

While the K. was coming down on the A. having her starboard quarter exposed the Alabama fired 18 shot at her without receiving any answer. The guns of the K. were not in exact range. When at about 800 yards the K. veered a little to port and gave the A. a broadside. From that moment the fight continued incessantly until the surrender. The A. turned to starboard and commenced running in a circle, the K followed on the same circle. The A. was to the windward at the beginning but in this manoeuvre they each had the wind in turn.

 

They passed each other as seen from shore I should think about five or six times for about three quarters of an hour. The Alabama then made sail forward and soon left the circle and seemed to be disposed to take refuge in french waters but the Kearsarge pursued her keeping on a line nearer shore. In about ten minutes she had gained up to her. By that time the firing had ceased, the Alabama having run up a white flag.

 

Both vessels stood still. A boat then came on board Kearsarge containing as I was informed the Master's mate an officer from the Alabama (10). Capt. of K. asked if the Alabama had surrendered. He said they had, that the ship was in a sinking condition, and he asked Capt W. to send boats to rescue the men. Capt. W. ordered all boats fit for service (being two) to go to their aid. Before they reached the Alabama she went down straight while you could count three, settling first at the stern. The Capt. of K. seeing an English yacht near and fearing a great loss of life asked it to go and pick up some of the men. They said they would. The officer who came on the K. and surrendered the A. asked permission to go with his boat to the rescue. He received the permission and after having picked up a number he went with them on board of the yacht, who had already picked up a number of men and officers among whom was Capt. Semmes and 1st Lieut. Kell. The English yacht then left the Kearsarge and stood direct for England. When it was reported to Capt. W. that the yacht was standing off he says he supposed she was looking for floating men. He says he could not believe that an Englishman carrying the Royal Yacht club flag could be so dishonorable as to run away with the Kearsage's lawful prisoners whom he had picked up at the request of Capt W. who made it for the sake of humanity. About 9 men were rescued by a small french boat (11) and taken to Cherbourg.

 

There were 147 men on board the Alabama. 63 men, 5 officers & one dead man and two wounded who died afterwards on board K. were picked up by K. It was supposed about 20 were saved by the yacht and 9 by a small french pilot boat (there may have been more saved by the yacht) which would leave about 45 men unaccounted for (12). Only three seamen were wounded on board the Kearsarge, one man most severely with a compound fracture of the leg (13). Another had his arm so shattered as to make amputation necessary which was done during action, a third had his leg injured - broken I think (14). He had perhaps also his arm injured. All three I understood were wounded by the same shell which pierced the bulwarks near the large pivot gun and exploded on deck. The Kearsarge was not seriously injured at all. 8 shots struck in her hull - 4 of them lodged; 2 shot struck the aft port boat,1 went through the smoke stack, 1 tore through the engine sky light room, the halyards were cut away. All the rest struck in the rigging. 28 shot struck in all. One shell entered the rudder post without exploding and is there still. Two shot struck against a double row of chains which had been hung over the side of the vessel for a few yards in length in order to protect the machinery. These two shots fell harmlessly in the water. The K. is now perfectly ready for service.

 

62 minutes elapsed from the firing of the 1st. gun of the K. until her last gun. She fired 173 shots. The A. fired much more quickly but her firing was very wild. The practice on board the K is said to have been very fine; their second shot I was afterwards informed killed and wounded 15 out of a gun crew of 19. 4 were killed immediately. The last two or three shots from the K. were I am informed very effective. One shot I am told carried away her rudder, another went into her coal bunker and let the coal down into her boilers.

 

About two hours after the end of the fight the K. came in and anchored in the harbor. Mr. Badlam, 2d. Assist. Engineer of K. came on shore. I met him at the stairway of the dock and went with him to see the Admiral Prefect of the port.

 

He asked in the name of the Captain of K. if they could send their wounded and prisoners on shore. He said as soon as they came on shore they would cease to be prisoners, said that the French Govt, had just obliged the Alabama to set free the Federal prisoners which she had taken from the ships Tycoon & Rockingham and had brought to Cherbourg. In this case the prisoners had been sent ashore voluntarily. Mr. Badlam said, suppose we go immediately out to sea. He said in that case he would do nothing and they might go if they wished. As to the case of the prisoners he said he would not in any event use force to set them free. Finally he said he could not give definite answers to the questions put, that if Capt. W. chose to remain in port, he would refer the question to the Govt, at Paris and inform Capt. W of the answer received. In the meantime he advised Capt. W. not to send either his wounded or prisoners on shore. Mr. Badlam asked if his remaining in port until the answer was given would affect the question. Admiral said he could not compromise the Govt, by giving any answer but advised Capt. W. to remain. He finally said he wished the condition of things to be considered as that of a question having been asked and no answer as yet given. Mr. Badlam returned on board ship and I accompanied him. He reported to Capt. W.

 

Capt. W. had already telegraphed to Paris, U.S. Minister, to know whether he should parole his prisoners. No answer had yet been received. About two hours afterwards I understood that the three federal wounded and also about 15 Confederate wounded as well as all the prisoners had been sent ashore after having been paroled.

 

The wounded were sent to the hospital. The 5 Alabama officers were kept to await the answer to the telegram sent to Paris.

 

About 11. o’clock an answer came and was received by Mr. Hartwell the Captain's Clerk who was then on shore. The telegram said No, by no means; to parole them would be to acknowledge the Alabama as a man of war &c &c. The next day Capt. Winslow said he wished me to explain to Mr Dayton at Paris that he was forced to parole the prisoners as he had not room enough to keep them aboard, that his vessel was small and scarcely accommodated his crew. I said to him that the St. Louis would be at Cherbourg soon. He said he had telegraphed her not to come. The necessity for her had disappeared with the sinking of the Alabama. The 5 officers he retained as prisoners, although he allowed them to go on shore upon their promise to return whenever he should demand them.

 

A Mr. Galt who reported himself as surgeon & late acting paymaster of the Alabama was paroled at once as being a non-combatant. 3d. Lieutenant Wilson was the highest officer of the Alabama on board the Kearsarge as a prisoner.

 

The A. officers as well as the crew were treated with greatest politeness & kindness on board the K. They evidently did not expect it. I heard Lieut. Wilson when on shore afterwards say that they expected to be treated like dogs, put in chains and sent forward. He said that on the Alabama they did not think they were gentlemen. But he now said they were all gentlemen, that the fight was an honorable one and the A. had been whipped. He bore no malice and only asked to meet them again on equal terms &c.

 

The day after the fight I went with Doctor Brown of the K. and U. S. Vice Consul, Mr. Liais, to call upon the chief surgeon of the hospital at Cherbourg, Dr. Dufour. We then went to the hospital to see the wounded. The federals and Confederates were treated alike in the hospital. The federals seemed all three cheerful, still elated apparently with their victory.

 

The Doctor of the K. spoke very highly of the heroism of one of the wounded federals named Gowan (15). He was wounded at the large aft pivot gun, wounded very severely - a compound fracture of the leg. Instead of falling down and crying out to be carried below, he dragged himself forward to the companion way when he was so weak he was obliged to be carried down. As he was brought in he said to the doctor with a smile on his face - you see doctor I have come to you. The doctor spoke sympathisingly to him, when he said oh! I don't care; I am ready to lose my life if we can sink the Alabama. His mind seemed still with his comrades fighting on deck; he would raise his hand and cry out when a gun was fired - give it to them boys! The doctor wanted to go on deck to cheer before it was certain the fight was ended when Gowan caught hold of him and held him back, saying it was not his post and he might get hit and then what would they do. Finally when the victory was won and the Dr. started again for the deck he told him to go and cheer for him too. In the hospital the next day when I spoke to him sympathisingly he said oh! I don't mind it now, meaning since they had gained the victory.

 

The coolness of two old seamen, who had charge of a little 12lbs boat howitzer during the fight, was particularly amusing, each one was swearing at the other because he could not get his gun's crew to work right. One of them was pulling a chest of something, ammunition I believe, along the deck tugging and perspiring under the weight when a shell from the Alabama burst near him, some of its small contents grazing his hands, when he inquired rubbing his hands, "what are these peas flying around here."

The general coolness of the men on board was said to have been remarkable. They seemed no more excited than if they were practising. This was particularly striking as I understood the majority of all hands had never before been under fire.

 

The Captain is said to have been very cool, explaining to his men the object of his manoeuvres &c. Both officers and men are said to have behaved admirably.

 

When the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg about a week before she landed 37 individuals whom she had taken about 50 days previously from the federal merchant ships the Rockingham and the Tycoon, Capts. Garrish and Ayres. Among them was the wife of Captain Garrish, her maid and a little girl of perhaps 4 years old. These prisoners had been thus far taken care of by the U S. Vice Consul at Cherbourg. He now wished to send them to Havre supposing that from thence transportation might be furnished them to America. He requested me to take charge of them to Havre which I agreed to do. I left Cherbourg with them by steamboat on Tuesday the 21st. inst. Upon arriving at Havre I put them under the care of Mr Putnam U.S. Consul at that port.

 

I then returned immediately to Paris where I arrived about 11. O’clock that night, June 21st. 1864.

 

William L Dayton Jr.

Assist. Secy, of Legation, Paris.

 

P.S.

The tonnage of the Kearsarge and Alabama was about the same (1100 tons). The Kearsarge carried 7 guns. Two large 11- inch Dalgreen pivot guns, 137 pounders, and five broadside battery guns of 32 lbs. The Alabama carried 8 guns. One Whitworth rifle 110 lbs. 16 One 68 pounder and six broadside 32 pounders.

 

The crew of the Kearsarge consisted of 165 men, that of the Alabama of 147 men.

 

D jr.

To. William L. Dayton

En. Ex. & Min. Plen. of the U.S.

at Paris, France.

 

Endnotes

 

1 The original document is in Box 3, Folder 2, William L. Dayton Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

 

2 This was Édouard Liais, from a prominent local family, who also represented Denmark. His brother, Eugène, looked after the interests of the Netherlands and of several of the German states, while their friend and neighbour Amédée Bonfils was consular agent for the Confederate States. See Paul Ingouf-Knocker: Coulez l'Alabama! (Cherbourg, 1976, reprinted with additions Saint-Lô, 2002), p. 24.

 

3 Vice-Admiral Augustin Dupouy had been appointed Préfet Maritime at Cherbourg one month earlier (Ingouf-Knocker, op. cit., p. 23).

 

4 This was Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys.

 

5 These were probably the two Prussian master's mates, Maximilian von Meulnier and Julius Schroeder, who were eventually allowed to rejoin the Alabama.

 

6 James O. Putnam was U.S. Consul at Le Havre at this time.

 

7 Querqueville is just under five miles from Cherbourg.

 

8 This was in front of the tenth-century Chapel of St. Germain, on a hill above Querqueville.

 

9 Lancaster lived at Hindley Hall, Wigan.

 

10 This was the Englishman George Townley Fullam, from Hull.

 

11 This was the pilot boat DeuxSoeurs, commanded by Antoine Mauger (lngouf-Knocker,op.cit.,p.85).

 

12 William Marvel (The Alabama and the Kearsarge, Chapel Hill, 1996) states that Mauger saved in all ten men, including 2nd. Lieutenant Richard F. Armstrong and 2nd. Assistant Engineer William P. Brooks. Constant Gosselin on the sloop Lutin saved one or two more, but a third pilot, Auguste Doucet of the Alphonsine Marie, was apparently forced to hand over the two men whom he had rescued to a boat-party from the Kearsarge; once on shore, he lodged a complaint against this "act of piracy" (Ingouf-Knocker, op. cit., p. 85).

 

13 This was Ordinary Seaman William L. Gowen or Gowin.

 

14 The report of John M. Browne, surgeon of the Kearsarge, names these as John W. Dempsey, quarter gunner, and James Macbeth, ordinary seaman, respectively (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 3, p. 60).

 

15 Browne's report (see above, note 14) spells the name "Gowin", as does Marvel (op. cit.), who lists the crews of both vessels. The name on the tomb in Cherbourg's Old Cemetery, however, is Gowen.

 

16 It was in fact a Blakely rifle. It is now on display in the entrance-hall of the Cité de la Mer at Cherbourg.

 

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(Webmaster: Picture credit - Gregory Manchess ' The Confederate CSS Alabama During the Battle with the Union USS Kearsarge - Fine Art America)