The loss of the Alabama.account of the fight from on board the Confederate ship — the damage to the Kearsarge — Why Captain Semmes fought the Kearsarge.
The Yankee papers even as late as the 9th are still full of accounts of the fight between the Kearsarge (not Kearsarge, as it has been spelled) and the Alabama. More has been published about it than about any land battle since the opening of the war. The Yankees attempted to deny that the Kearsarge was chain plated over her boilers; but, unfortunately for that lie, Captain Winston himself, in a letter to the London News, admits the fact, and the further fact that the plating was concealed by plank, though this he says was done to keep out the dirt. A Cherbourg correspondent of the New York Herald, who has visited the hospitals and conversed with the Confederate and Federal wounded, sends that paper the following:
Account of the fight from a Sailor on the Alabama.We came to Cherbourg from Cape Town to be paid off and for the purpose of making repairs. --The greater part of our copper was off the bottom. Our boilers were in a very leaky state. Our pay as able seamen was four pound ten a month, and we were paid off yesterday. We had received permission to go into the dock to repair, when we heard that the Kearsarge was outside. We came in here ship-rigged, and so disguised that had we met the Kearsarge outside we intended to take her by surprise. We fully expected having a fight with her. As soon as we saw her outside Capt Semmes ordered the after yards to be sent down and the vessel turned into her usual rig as a bark. This was immediately done. He sent ashore at the same time for permission to coal, and intended to go outside and commence the fight without delay. We commenced coaling immediately, and were occupied three or four days in this. We coaling on Saturday afternoon, the 18th. Capt Semmes then prepared to go out the next day.--We went to general quarters twice while in port, as a general drill, and the ship was put in a order. About nine o'clock on the morning of Sunday we weighed anchor and stood outside. After getting clear of the break water we cast loose our starboard battery and ran out the guns loaded for action. The order was then passed for all hands to lay aft. Captain Semmes handed the clerk a written paper, which was read us. The substance of it was that we were going into action; that we were to fight in the English Channel, the seal of so many important naval engagements, and recalled the acts we had already performed; said the eyes of all Europe were upon us, and that he expected every man to do his duty. The men were enthusiastic, and cheered considerably. The men had no idea but that they would gain the victory, and an easy one. The crew fully expected Gom. the beginning that they would be led by Capt. Semmes close alongside the Kearsarge, so as to commence the action at close quarters and finish by boarding her. It was expected that Semmes would lead the boarders in person; for though we had as fine a crew as any ship afloat, yet we had not a single competent gunner on board, excepting the captain of the forward pivot, a hundred pound rifle gun. He was an old English men of war man, trained in the British navy. The captains of the other guns were not competent gunners, though brave men. We came in sight of the Kearsarge, and she steamed towards us. We closed as rapidly as possible. The men were all lying down at their guns, smoking and testing, the order having been passed to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and reserve our strength till the commencement of the action. When the Kearsarge was within about one thousand five hundred yards of us we opened fire, each gun firing as soon as it was pointed and properly elevated. We fired three broadsides before the Kearsarge returned a shot. The first shell she sent came through near the forward rifle port, at which I was stationed. It caused many splinters, and struct a man at our gun. He leaped away with his leg smashed, and another man at the next gun fell dead. The shell caught our slide rack, and I think the man was killed by one of our own shot, which was thrown against him by the shell of the Kearsarge. The firing here became continual on both sides, we firing at least two shots to their one--we fired shells almost altogether. But a few solid shot were fired. At the after pivot gun, shortly after, two or three men were cut right in two, besides others being wounded. Then the crew of our after guns were ordered by Semmes to fill up the vacancy at the pivot gun, which was the second gun from the stern; we were consequently then only fighting six guns. For some time after there was very little damage done by the Kearsarge's guns, their elevation being rather high, the shot passing over, and though not injuring our bull, greatly damaging our spars. About twenty minutes after the commencement of the action the spanker gaff, on which our colors was set, was shot away and the colors thus brought down nearly to the deck, the spar hanging and the colors hanging about twenty feet from the deck, the colors still remaining in sight. About the same time our forward pivot gun sent two well-detected shells, one of which struck the chains which protected the Kearsarge's boilers, penetrating the chain but doing no such damage as was expected. We supposed then that her engines were knocked to pieces, and that the Kearsarge would soon go down. We gave three cheers. This shell was fired from our hundred- pound forward rifle pivot, and would certainly have penetrated the chain and entirely disabled the Kearsarge had our powder been good, as this gun would have carried the shell and taken effect at five miles with dry powder. Our powder had been a long time on board, and was dampened. The night before the action we threw seven barrels of damaged powder overboard, and had frequently thrown powder over. The next shell we sent struck the sternpost of the Kearsarge without exploding. Had this exploded the Kearsarge would have been blown to pieces. At this time we had received no serious damage. This was about half an hour after the fight commenced. After that the shooting on our part became worse, and that of the Kearsarge better. Our guns were too much elevated, and shot over the Kearsarge. The men all fought well; but the gunners did not know how to point and elevate the guns. Capt Semmes, during all this time, was standing just forward of the forward legging, with an opera glass in his hand, and leaning over the ball. The gunners were left to themselves to fight the guns, and no particular orders were given to the gunners during the fight. Capt. Semmes directed the manœuvring of the ship. The shellman belonging to our gun was cut right in two by one of the Kearsarge's shots while he was bringing a shell to our gun. His name was James Hart. He was blown all to pieces, and nothing was found of him which could be recognized except the collar of his shirt. Several men were wounded and carried below. The first serious disaster we met with was from a shell which carried away our rudder. About the same time more shell came into our coal bunkers and penetrated the boilers, putting out the fires and burying several of the firemen under the coal. Some were killed, and others dug out alive. The vessel was filled with smoke and steam. All our power of movement then was over. The Kearsarge then gradually began to edge round on our port quarter. When she reached this position the order was given to lie down, as we expected to be raked fore and aft. A few minutes afterwards the sail trimmers were called away to loose the fore trysail and head sails so that she could be steered. She was then standing into shore. We then considered ourselves done for, as the Alabama was rapidly setting. I do not think our screw was damaged. The Kearsarge kept up a continuous fire on our port side, and we shifted over our guns to that side. Our men were then very fatigued and many disabled and wounded. We still fired as well as possible from the port side, though we knew the day was last. When the headsails were loosed the loader of our pivot gun, John Roberts, a young Welshman, while engaged in the work, had the lower part of his body cut open, which caused his entrails to protrude. With his entrails hanging out he walked towards his gun and fell dead on deck without uttering a word. Mr. Anderson, a midshipman, stationed in the after division, was knocked overboard, his leg, which was shot off, remaining on board. He was from Savannah, and was a son of Major Anderson. Capt. Semmes about the same time was wounded in the hand by a splinter. He tied his handkerchief round his hand, but never left his post. The dead, of whom there were about eight, and the wounded, numbering perhaps twelve, instead of being carried below, were lying about the deck. The carnage was awful, some of the men being literally cut to pieces. There was much confusion on board, though nothing like a panic, excepting on the part of one or two, who were not Englishmen. One young Prussian, stationed at a gun, having ran below and stated to the doctor that he was wounded, was ordered on deck, he not being wounded, and was immediately shot in the back by an old man named Hicks, an English seaman, who had been long in the English navy. He shot him with his revolver. He died soon afterwards. Our first lieutenant, Mr. Kell, seeing the battle was lost, ran to Semmes and told him he must strike the colors, as the vessel was sinking fast. Semmes merely replied, "Try to get a little more headway on her;" and to the fast would not order the colors to be struck. The color halliards about this time were shot away, and the colors fell to the deck. The report was circulated fore and aft that they were down, and for a moment the Kearsarge ceased firing. When our men saw our colors were down they were enraged, and most of them turned round on their officers. Several of them ran aft to Captain Semmes with drawn cutlasses. One of them told him that if he did not immediately hoist the colors he would cut him down. At the same time Mr. Sinclair, the fourth lieutenant, pointed a revolver at this man's head to shoot him dead in case he made an attack on the Captain. Capt Semmes was perfectly cool, and did not even draw his sword. He said he admired the courage of the men, but the colors were down, the vessel was sinking, and he did not wish that any more lives should be lost. It was for their own benefit that he refused to raise the colors. As soon as the colors were shot away, by the order of Mr. Kett, a white flag was held up as a signal of surrender. A man jumped up on the spanker boom and held it up the best way he could in his hands. This caused the officers of the Kearsarge to imagine that it was one of our men still persisting in holding up the Confederate flag. They continued firing, and poured at least three broadsides into us after the white flag was held up. We had also at this time fire a lee gun in token of surrender, but seeing the Kearsarge still firing on us the word was passed along the deck among us, "there's no quarter for us." Some of our guns were then fired again, particularly our foremost thirty-two, while the men were cutting away the boats. Capt. Semmes gave orders for the wounded to be put in the boats as quickly as possible and taken away, refusing everything in the shape of a boat himself. The men were to be taken to the yacht Deerhound if possible, if not, to the Kearsarge. At this time the wardroom was full of water, and the ship rapidly setting. The chief engineer did not leave the engine room till he was up to his waist in water. While the men were cutting away the boats and putting in the wounded, Captain Semmes walked down into his cabin without saying a word. His cabin was then partly filled with water. Two of our boats pulled off, carrying the wounded — the Kearsarge having ceased firing — the remainder of our boats (we had six) being all seriously damaged. One of these boats took the wounded on board the Kearsarge, on which she left them, and then receiving permission to go and pick up more drowning and wounded men, instead of doing so pulled off to the yacht. This may not have been exactly right; but we were justified in anything after the Kearsarge had fired three broadsides at us after our colors were down. I was ordered down by the First Lieutenant to carry the wounded, and went away to the Kearsarge. In that boat were a few wounded men; Mr. Howell, nominally occupying the rank of captain of marines (we had no marines on board;) Mr. Wilson, third lieutenant; Mr. Bullock, master, and a few others. This boat went to the Kearsarge. The Alabama at this time was just going down and Mr. Kell passed the order for the men to save themselves if they could. The greater part of them jumped overboard. Among them was Dr. Llewellyn, our assistant surgeon. He was an Englishman, and had long been on the sick list with a sore leg, consequently not depending upon his swimming powers, he had lashes himself to a box; but the box turned, and, putting him under, he was drowned. Mr. Robinson, the carpenter, seeing that the fight was lost, drew a revolver and shot himself through the breast. He was afterwards picked up in the water by one of the Kearsarge's boats, and died soon after arriving on board. This makes three officers who were lost. Capt. Semmes secured what papers he had not already sent ashore; and, coming up from his cabin, came on deck as the vessel was just sinking and was advised fly a man named Mars to pull off his coat and uniform cap, so that he would not be recognized, and fasten himself to two life buoys. After asking the man how best to use the life buoys, he went overboard with them, with his cap on, but turned inside out, striking out towards the yacht, and in an opposite direction from the Kearsarge, his determination not to be taken being proven by his giving his papers to Mars, with orders to Mars to save himself and the papers, and to deliver them to the first Confederate authority that he should encounter. The principal papers and the chronometers had been sent off the night before. The papers given to Mars were dispatches from the Confederate Government and the ship's accounts Mars, on swimming toward the yacht, was cut off by a boat from the Kearsarge, and was taken in. He had the papers in his shirt, and while putting him in he sent to the officer in command of the boat that he should like another swim, and leaped back into the water.--The same man Mars had already saved the lives of two men who had fallen overboard on our passage here, and was a bold and determined man. He was picked up by a French pilot boat and brought on shore, and delivered the papers to Captain Sinclair. Captain Semmes was picked up by one of the yacht's boats. On board the Kearsarge the crew were very much dispirited because they had not taken either Semmes or the Alabama. Capt Semmes had never told us that we would be badly treated if takes prisoners. Capt. Winslow came forward among us and gave us dry clothing, and gave orders to treat us with every possible kindness. When we came to anchor we were called aft and paroled. We promised not to serve in any manner against the interest of the United States until honorably exchanged as prisoners of war. We then were sent on shore. We went to M. Bonafile, the Confederate agent, and he sent us to boarding houses. We saw Capt. Sinclair, a Confederate officer who had come from Paris, and who is acting in place of Capt. Semmes. We were yesterday paid off by M. Bonafile and Surgeon Galt. Most of the men belong to the original crew. There has never been any regular payment before, and on an average from a hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars apiece were due them. They have had liberty two or three times since the Alabama first went out and on these occasions have received a little liberty money.
Captain Semmes's official report to Mr. Mason.
R Semmes, Captain.