June 19, 1864 saw one of the most significant naval battles of the Civil War, which took place, surprisingly, off the coast of Cherbourg, France.
The Union Navy had been hunting the Confederate cruiser Alabama for years. Commanded by Raphael Semmes, and manned by an English crew, it had captured 68 U.S. merchant vessels, and was had “a career of commerce destruction that may remain unparalleled in the annals of history” (Ellicott). On June 12, John A. Winslow, the commander of the Kearsarge, a U.S. sloop of war, learned that the Alabama had put in at Cherbourg for repairs. In port at Flushing, in the Netherlands, Winslow immediately sailed to meet the Alabama.
John A. Winslow was a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, but was a New Englander at heart. His father was part of an old Massachusetts family, but had moved to Wilmington for business. When John was 14 he was sent back to Massachusetts for his education and lived there for the rest of his adult life, when he was not at sea. He joined the navy in 1827, at the age of 16, and settled into a lifelong naval career. Ironically, while serving on the Cumberland during the Mexican War, he became friends with Raphael Semmes, the Alabama’s commander, and the two would become bunkmates while later serving on the Raritan.
At the start of the Civil War, Winslow had risen to the rank of commander. Early on, he was assigned to the Western Gunboat Flotilla on the Mississippi and participated in the Battle of Memphis with fellow Massachusetts naval officer Charles Henry Davis. In April of 1862, he was given command of the Kearsarge, with the task of blocking, capturing, or destroying Confederate cruisers. Now, after more than a year in this command, he finally had a chance to capture the Alabama.
When the Kearsarge steamed into Cherbourg Harbor, Semmes knew that the Alabama didn’t have much of a chance. The war was not going well for the Confederacy at this point. It was likely that France would not be quite as welcoming to Confederate ships as they had been and may not allow the full repairs that the Alabama needed. Semmes decided to take his chances fighting the Kearsarge rather than get trapped in the port, and sent a challenge to Winslow.
Early in the morning on June 19, the ships met in open sea, about seven miles off the coast of Cherbourg. Wealthy Parisians had traveled to the coast to watch the battle, and boats sailed out with spectators as well. The battle began shortly before 11:00 a.m., with the Alabama opening fire on the Kearsarge from a mile away. For the next hour, they circled each other, moving closer and exchanging fire. By noon, the Alabama was badly damaged by shells that had hit along her waterline, and she was sinking. Semmes surrendered and requested assistance. Winslow sent lifeboats to save the Alabama’s crew, as did the Deerhound, an English yacht that had been observing the battle. Semmes and 40 others were taken aboard the Deerhound, which took them to England, protecting them from capture. At 12:24 p.m., the Alabama went underwater.
Although the ships seemed equally matched, the Kearsarge suffered little damage and only a few of the men were wounded, while the crew of the Alabama lost 30 to 40 men. Back home, the victory caused great celebration. Admiral David Dixon Porter wrote of Winslow: “There was no occurrence during the war more grateful to the Northern people. Winslow became the hero of the hour, for he had not only disposed of a most troublesome enemy, but he had demonstrated the superiority of a United States ship, crew, and guns over an English built, English armed, and English manned vessel of equal if not superior force.” Winslow was promoted to commodore and eventually became a rear admiral. He ended his career commanding the Pacific Squadron and died in 1873, soon after retiring from active service.
Ellicott, John Morris. The Life of John Ancrum Winslow. New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1905.
Gallman, J. Matthew, ed. The Civil War Chronicle. New York: Agincourt Press, 2000.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Massachusetts in the army and navy during the war of 1861-65. Boston: Wright & Potter, 1896.
Long, E.B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War Day By Day: An Almanac 1861-1865. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.
“Rear Admiral John A. Winslow, USN (1811-1873)”. Naval History and Heritage. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/pers-us/uspers-w/j-winslw.htm.
“Ships Named “Kearsarge” and the Mountain for Which They Were Named.” Warner, New Hampshire. http://www.warner.nh.us/ships.htm.
“The Kearsarge and Alabama: Captain Winslow’s Detailed Official Report”. New York Times 12 July 1864. http://www.nytimes.com/1864/07/12/news/kearsarge-alabama-captain-winslow-s-detailed-official-report-his-opinion.html.
“USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864”. Naval History and Heritage. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/civilwar/cw-cru/kear-ala.htm.