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

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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 [3] The offer was denied and the request withdrawn.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.

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[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 ACW – 3: Captain Semmes and the CSS Alabama

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Continuing from posts 1 here and 2 here, in this post I begin to examine what authors Juliet Wilson-Bareau and David C. Degener in their book Manet and the American Civil War call “one of the most celebrated naval battles of the American Civil War.”

Queen Victoria 1861

The authors adeptly set the scene by providing the reasons why an American Civil War naval battle would take place in European waters and capture the imagination of artist Edouard Manet. They chronicle the debate that led to “Lincoln’s blockade” of the south contending that the very word “blockade” ultimately gave the “Confederate organization” the status of a “quasi government” which would have “a position among nations.” [i] This ultimately led to both Queen Victoria (see bio here) of Great Britain (May 13, 1861) and Emperor Napoleon III of France (June 11, 1861) declaring the neutrality of their respective countries. “The evolving rules and policies of neutrality would eventually play a large role in determining the circumstances under which, in June 1864, U.S.S. Kearsarge – a ship originally built to enforce Lincoln’s blockade – engaged and sank the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of France…” [ii]

CSS Alabama Captain, Raphael Semmes

Captain Raphael Semmes on the CSS Alabama

Captain Semmes on the deck of the CSS Alabama

The Alabama, a six screw steamer, was built in Great Britain by John Laird Sons and Company and found its way into Confederate hands because the “British customs agents, port authorities, prosecutors, judges, and courts found ways of understanding England’s Foreign Enlistment Act and the Queen’s declaration of neutrality.” [iii] Enacted during the reign of George III, the Act “prohibited the outfitting of, or aid to, vessels that would be used to commit hostilities against a nation with which England was not currently at war.” [iv} But in a clandestine series of events surrounding the vessels shake down cruise, the ship, known initially as simply No. 290, was acquired by Confederate agent James Dunwoody Bulloch (1823 - 1901) [a fascinating fellow who deserves a post of his own] who saw it supplied and crewed sufficiently to sail to the Azores where its new captain, Southern “son” Raphael Semmes (1809 – 1877), would christen it the CSS Alabama on August 24, 1862. The “enterprising” and “abrasive” Semmes would become a celebrity for his raiding of Federal ships. His exploits would be enthusiastically covered by the London media, indicative of Great Britain’s sympathy for the “Confederate cause for almost the entire duration of the American Civil War.” [v]

"The Pirate 'Alabama,' Alias '290,' Certified to be correct by Captain Hagar of the 'Brilliant'"

[i - v] 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).

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