Tuesday, October 9, 2007

USS Kearsarge

Named after a mountain in New Hampshire, the 1,550-ton steam sloop of war USS Kearsarge was built at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Portsmouth, NH, and was commissioned on 24 January 1862. She was 201 feet long, had a beam of 33 feet and carried a crew of 163 officers and men. The Kearsarge was armed with two 11-inch guns, four 32-pounder guns and one 30-pounder gun. On 5 February 1862, the Kearsarge was sent to Europe to search for Confederate merchant raiders. Confederate commerce raiders had taken a heavy toll on Northern merchant ships and one of the highest priorities of the US Navy at that time was to hunt them down and sink them.

The Kearsarge soon reached Spain and her primary mission became searching for the new Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. For the next two years the Kearsarge hunted for the Alabama in a cat-and-mouse chase that took them all over the Mediterranean, around the northern coast of Europe and to the Canary Islands. During this time, the Alabama captured and destroyed more than 60 Northern merchant ships with an estimated worth of more than $6,000,000.

On 11 June 1864 the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France, for some badly needed maintenance and repairs. After two years of hard sailing and fighting, the Alabama was almost worn out and Captain Semmes knew that if he were to continue harassing Northern shipping he would have to overhaul his ship. The USS Kearsarge was in the area and received word that her nemesis, the Alabama, was in Cherbourg. The Kearsarge’s commanding officer, Captain John A. Winslow, had taken command of the ship in April 1863 and had always kept his crew well trained and prepared for battle. Captain Winslow took his ship outside of Cherbourg and waited for the Alabama’s next move. Winslow was careful to keep the Kearsarge in international waters since French warships were nearby to guarantee that no fighting took place within their neutral territorial waters. But Captain Semmes knew that the game was up. He could either surrender his ship to US authorities in France or he could fight. Captain Semmes wasn’t the type of person who would surrender to anybody, so he decided to fight.

After four days of drilling and preparing his men and his ship for action, Captain Semmes took his ship out of Cherbourg Harbor on the morning of 19 June 1864. The Alabama was escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which stayed in the area to make sure that the Confederate raider reached international waters before any shooting started. Captain Winslow on board the Kearsarge steamed further out to sea so as to lure his opponent away from the shore. This would prevent the Alabama from quickly returning to port in case of an emergency. The Alabama took the bait and headed for the Kearsarge.

What followed was one of those rarities in modern naval warfare, a duel between two warships. In theory, the two ships were about equal in strength, although the Kearsarge had a slight advantage in cannons and speed. But the biggest advantage the Kearsarge had over the Alabama was that Captain Winslow had ordered that layers of iron chains be draped in tiers over the sides of the Kearsarge, giving the Union warship a layer of armored protection against enemy shells. This precaution would have a huge impact on the course of the battle.

At 10:50 AM, Captain Winslow turned his ship around and headed for the enemy. Once the Alabama was about a mile away from the Kearsarge, Captain Semmes gave the order to fire. Captain Winslow on board the Kearsarge held his fire until he was about a half a mile away from the Alabama and then he gave the order to start shooting. Both ships were firing at each other while steaming in a large circle and maneuvering to get into a better firing position. The Alabama scored several hits on the Kearsarge, but because of the poor quality of its gunpowder and shells, the projectiles caused only minor damage to the Union warship. In addition, the iron chain armor that protected the Kearsarge deflected many of the Confederate shells, making them bounce harmlessly off the sides of ship. One shell even hit the Kearsarge’s sternpost and failed to explode. (The sternpost and unexploded shell are preserved at the Navy Memorial Museum at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC.)

The Kearsarge, however, was scoring numerous hits on the Alabama. After almost an hour of shooting, the Union warship’s accurate gunnery reduced the Alabama into a sinking hulk. Several crewmembers on board the Alabama were killed and many more were injured. Captain Semmes struck his flag and ordered his men to abandon ship. As the Alabama went down, the Kearsarge picked up most of the survivors in the water. But in one of those strange quirks of 19th century warfare, Captain Semmes and 41 members of his crew were rescued by the British yacht Deerhound which was in the area to observe the battle. Like many 19th century battles, this fight was treated like a spectator event, with people on both land and sea watching to see who would win. After picking up Semmes and some of his men, the Deerhound headed for England, preventing Semmes from being captured by Winslow and the Kearsarge (since Winslow couldn’t board a neutral ship, let alone stop it from heading to a neutral port). Semmes and the men with him made it to England and eventually escaped back to the United States to fight with what was left of the Confederate Navy. Although Semmes escaped capture and imprisonment, the CSS Alabama would never again attack another Union ship.

This was considered a major victory for the Union Navy, making Winslow and his men heroes back home. The Kearsarge spent the rest of the war looking for Confederate raiders in the Caribbean and in European waters. She wouldn’t return to the United States until August 1866, when she was placed out of commission.

From 1868 to 1894 the Kearsarge was placed in and out of commission on several occasions. She was used as a typical gunboat, showing the flag and protecting American lives and commercial interests all over the world. The Kearsarge sailed to such places as Chile, Peru, Samoa, the Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands. In 1874 she also spent three years as part of the US Asiatic Fleet, visiting Japan, China and the Philippines. From 1879 to 1886 the Kearsarge patrolled the North Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the waters off the coast of Africa. From November 1888 to January 1894, the Kearsarge protected American interests in the West Indies, off the coast of Venezuela and in the Atlantic off Central America. On 2 February 1894, the USS Kearsarge was wrecked on Roncador Reef off Central America. Although her officers and crew made it safely to shore, the ship was a total loss. Congress appropriated $45,000 to raise the Kearsarge and tow her home, but the salvage company hired to do the job discovered that the ship could not be raised and it was left where it was. The ship’s amazing 32-year career had come to an end.

Some ships never fight in battle, while others fight in many battles. Seldom has one ship become so famous for fighting in only one battle. But, sometimes, winning one important battle is enough for a ship to secure its place in naval history.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Kearsarge photographed in New York Harbor, circa 1890. Her rig had been reduced to a bark in 1886-88. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): "The action between the Ironclad Federal steamer Kearsarge and the Confederate steamer Alabama, off Cherbourg, June 19th 1864." Print after a painting by W.F. Mitchell. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Beverly R. Robinson Collection. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864. Painting by Xanthus Smith, 1922, depicting Alabama sinking, at left, after her fight with the Kearsarge (seen at right). Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. Click on the photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): USS Kearsarge (1862-1894). Ship's officers pose on deck at Cherbourg, France, soon after her 19 June 1864 victory over CSS Alabama. Her Commanding Officer, Captain John A. Winslow, is 3rd from left, wearing a uniform of the 1862 pattern. Other officers are generally dressed in uniforms of 1863-64 types. View looks aft on the port side. At left is Kearsarge's after XI-inch Dahlgren pivot gun, with its training tracks on the deck alongside. The original glass negative is held by the Library of Congress. Click on photograph for larger image.