Manet and the American Civil War – 5: The Sea Battle Between The Kearsarge and the Alabama

Continuing my series on “Manet and the American Civil War,” (see posts 1 here, 2 here, 3 here, and 4 here. In posts 3 and 4, I introduced the captains and vessels of one of the most famous naval engagements of the American Civil War, the sea battle between the C.S.S. Alabama and the U.S.S. Kearsarge. And now to the battle…

Juliet Wilson-Bareau with David C. Degener, in their fascinating book Manet and the American Civil War, do an excellent job of sifting through sources for a non-partisan view of the events of Sunday, June 19, 1864, a view without the “spin” of media. [2]

"The Fight Between the Alabama and the Kearsarge" [NH59354]
The Fight Between the Alabama and the Kearsarge. Contemporary line engraving, depicting an early stage in the battle. Alabama is on the right, with Kearsarge in the left distance. Courtesy of F.S. Hicks. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The C.S.S. Alabama anchored in the Cherbourg roads, “a huge sheet of calm water sheltered from Channel currents by a breakwater,” on June 11, 1864. It had stopped to disembark 40 captives taken during raids on U.S. merchant ships and to refuel. Captain Semmes asked permission of “Vice Admiral Adolphe-Augustin Dupouy, head of the naval district headquartered in Cherbourg,” to have the Alabama undergo repairs in the naval doc. [3] The offer was denied and the request withdrawn. Semmes was now well aware that Captain Winslow and his U.S.S. Kearsarge had come after the Confederate raider and was hovering offshore in wait. While the French attempted diplomatic maneuvers, Captain Semmes informed Samuel Barron, “his senior officer in Paris,” that he intended to fight Winslow. [4]

“On the morning of Sunday, June 19, Alabama left the Cherbourg roads followed by the French navy flagship, Couronne, and accompanied by a steam yacht flying the Union Jack and a British yach club flag. Alabama fired the first shot. Having elected to fight starboard to starboard, Alabama and Kearsarge then steamed in interlocking circles five to seven times as the current pushed them west. Alabama sank, and Kearsarge returned to anchor on the land side of Cherbourg’s breakwater.” [5]

This from George Terry Sinclair, a native of Virginia sent to Europe in 1862 to buy ships for the Confederate Navy, in a letter to his immediate superior, Samuel Barron.

“After some exchanges at long range, they passed each other, using their starboard batteries. They then passed & repassed, always using the same battery (which Semmes had told me was his intention) after passing the seventh eighth time, I observed Semmes make sail forward, and stand in, and I thought I saw smoke issuing from the ship.” [6]

He was told by another observer that “Alabama ‘went down with her colors flying…the Flag… was the last thing to disappear.’ Sinclair’s own view of the climactic moment had been obscured by a house.” [7]

Charles Longueville. Combat naval (L’Alabama coulant sous le feu de Kearsage [sic]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the next post, Edouard Manet’s painting, The Battle of the “Kearsarge” and the “Alabama,” 1864.

[1] Juliet Wilson-Bareau with David C. Degener, Manet and the American Civil War, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 31.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 28-29.
[4] Ibid., 31.
[5] Ibid., 28, 31.
[6] Ibid., 31-32.
[7] Ibid., 32.

Manet and the American Civil War – 2 The Artist

Continuing from post 1 here, in this post I explore the life of Edouard Manet, the artist. Born in 1832 to upper-middle class parents, Manet’s father was a magistrate who had hopes that his oldest son would follow him in his profession. But young Edouard had no interest in law and though attracted to art, decided to go to sea. But he couldn’t pass the French Navy’s entrance exam. Authors Wilson-Bareau and Degener provide a fascinating glimpse into the system by which young men could qualify for careers in the French Navy in their book Manet and the American Civil War which provides the reference for this series. A sixteen year old Manet would spend several months aboard the vessel, Le Havre et Guadeloupe on a trip for the sons of the wealthy who had failed the exam and could qualify to retake it if they sailed across the equator. The ship was staffed with teachers tasked with drilling the boys in the topics required for the naval exam. Manet failed the test again regardless but was exposed to the sea to a greater extent than most Frenchmen. (Wilson-Bareau and Degener, 12-13)

Manet had another tie to the military. His interest in drawing and art was sparked by an uncle who was “attached to the [Army] artillery school who spent a lot of his time sketching…” (Wilson-Bareau and Degener, 13-14)

“The schoolboy soon fell under the spell of blended lines and blurred cross-hatching. [Note: For a great glimpse of crosshatching, see a post at the blog, Big Time Attic here.) From that moment on, he had only one calling. He neglected his compositions and translations and filled the blank pages of his notebooks not with schoolwork but with portraits, landscapes, and fantasies.” (Ibid)

This diversion would lead Manet to produce arguably one of the most famous paintings of the naval engagement between the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama, that took place in June of 1864 off France’s Normandy coast.

The Battle of U.S.S Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama

Juliet Wilson-Bareau with David C. Degener, Manet and the American Civil War, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

In the next post, the ships engaged in the battle.