Story of the Sinking of the Alabama
The Famous Confederate States Cruiser
Excerpt from an Interview With Captain John McIntosh Kell
Executive officer of the Alabama,
Given to Alfred Iverson Branham,
Forty-Six Years Ago,
The Interview was Published in The Eatonton, Georgia, Messenger, and The Atlanta Constitution, and in a London, England, Periodical, over the Nom de Plume, “Wood Holt.”
The Sinking of the Alabama.
After a bountiful and elegant dinner, such a one as used to grace the boards of Southern homes before the war, I cornered Captain Kell on the front porch of his house and said to him:
“Now, Captain, tell me about the Alabama’s last fight.”
“After a cruise of two years,” the captain said, “during which the Alabama had driven the commerce of the United States from the seas, our ship was sadly in need of repairs. Such being the case, Admiral Semmes determined to run into a French port, dock ship, and repair her. We anchored in the port of Cherbourg a few minutes past noon, on the 11th day of June, 1864. The next day, the Admiral went on shore to obtain permission of the port Admiral to dock the Alabama and repair her. The port Admiral said-that as all the docks at Cherbourg were government property, he could not grant the request until he could gain the Emperor’s consent. The Emperor was then at Biarritz and would not be back in Paris for several days. While we were waiting the Emperor’s return to Paris, the Kearsarge, which had been lying at Flushing, steamed into Cherbourg and took her station at breakwater, just outside the harbor. Immediately after the Kearsarge arrived, Admiral Semmes sent for me. I went to his cabin.
” ‘Take a seat, Mr. Kell,’ he said. ‘I have sent for you to discuss the advisability of fighting the Kearsarge. As you know, the arrival of the Alabama at this port has been telegraphed to all parts of Europe. Within a few days, Cherbourg will be effectually blockaded by Yankee cruisers. It is uncertain whether or not we shall be permitted to repair the Alabama here, and in the meantime, the delay is not to our advantage. I think we may whip the Kearsarge, the two vessels being of wood and carrying about the same number of men and guns. Besides, Mr. Kell, although the Confederate States government has ordered me to avoid engagements with the enemy’s cruisers, I am tired of running from that flaunting rag!’ He referred to the United States flag flying at the peak of the Kearsarge.
“I fully agreed with Admiral Semmes. There are those who have censured him for engaging the Kearsarge, but there was nothing else that could be done. The two vessels were both of wood. The Alabama had a crew of 149 men, all told, and the Kearsarge had 162. The Alabama mounted eight guns–one 8-inch, one rifled 100 pounder, and six 32 pounders. The Kearsarge mounted seven guns– two 11-inch Dahlgrens, four 32 pounders, and a rifled 28 pounder. The bore of the shell guns of the Kearsarge gave her an advantage of three inches in size of shells. The crew of the Alabama were in splendid condition, and were anxious to fight. There were but two things that prevented our whipping the Kearsarge; our powder, which had been exposed to all kinds of weather for two years, was bad, and the Commander of the Kearsarge, a Southern man, by the way, resorted to a miserable trick to prevent injury to his vessel. He iron-plated her with heavy cable chains and covered the armor with a thin sheeting of plank to hide the deception.
“As soon as it was determined that we should fight the Kearsarge, Admiral Semmes sent Captain Winslow, the Commander of that vessel, a message to the effect that if he would wait outside until the Alabama could take on board a supply of coal, we would go out and fight him.
“On Sunday, the 19th of June, we weighed anchor and steamed out to meet the Kearsarge. The hills above Cherbourg were crowded with people from Paris–some came from distant parts of Europe–to witness the fight. A number of French pilot boats went out with us, as also did a French ironclad frigate, the Couronne, which went out to see that the neutrality of French waters was not violated. Another vessel, the English steam yacht, Deerhound, belonging to Mr. Lancaster, also went out with us. It was charged by the Yankees that the Deerhound went out to assist us. This was untrue. Mr. Lancaster, himself, told me that on the day we steamed out to engage the Kearsarge, he wanted to go to church, but when the question as to whether his party should go out to witness the fight or go to church was put to a vote, his wife and children outvoted him in favor of witnessing the fight. This vessel afterwards rescued Admiral Semmes, myself, and a number of the Alabama’s crew. The first intimation I had that the Deerhound was anywhere near was after I had jumped into the water. After I had jumped into the water I heard somebody exclaim, ‘There is our First Lieutenant,’ and soon after I was pulled into one of the Deerhound boats. Considering the innumerable lies told about the Alabama, it is fortunate that Admiral Semmes lived to write his ‘Service Afloat.’
“When we discovered the Kearsarge, as we steamed out, Admiral Semmes ordered me to send the crew aft. Mounting a gun-carriage, he addressed the men for the second and last time since the Alabama was put in commission. I quote his words literally:
” ‘Officers and seamen of the Alabama! You have at length another opportunity of meeting the enemy–the first that has been presented to you since you sank the Hatteras! In the meantime, you have been all over the world, and it is not too much to say that you have destroyed and driven for protection under neutral flags one-half of the enemy’s commerce, which, at the beginning of the war, covered every sea. This is an achievement of which you may well be proud, and a grateful country will not be unmindful of it. The name of your ship has become a household word wherever civilization extends. Shall the name be tarnished by defeat? The thing is impossible! Remember that you are in the English Channel, the theater of so much of the Naval glory of our race, and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you. The flag that floats over you is that of a young republic who bids defiance to her enemies whenever and wherever found. Show the world that you know how to uphold it! Go to your quarters !’
“The action between the Alabama and the Kearsarge, which was in progress one hour and ten minutes, may be described in ten minutes. We began to fight when within about a mile of the Kearsarge by opening with solid shot. The two vessels rapidly approached each other, and the remainder of the fight occurred at a distance of not more than 500 yards. The vessels circled around each other as the fight progressed, in order to keep their broadsides towards each other. A few minutes after the fight began, Admiral Semmes, who was standing on the horse block, said to me, ‘Mr. Kell, our shells strike the side of the enemy’s ship but they fall into the water. Try solid shot.’ This I did, but with no better effect. The hidden armor of the Kearsarge prevented the Alabama’s shot from doing serious damage. One shell from our eight-inch gun was buried in the stern of the Kearsarge, but poor powder and a defective fuse prevented the shell’s exploding. If that shell had exploded, the Kearsarge, instead of the Alabama, would have gone to the bottom of the deep blue sea. Without boasting, I may say that no other crew ever fought as bravely as did that of the Alabama. My position was near the eight-inch gun. An eleven-inch shell from the Kearsarge entered a port hole and killed eight of the sixteen men serving that gun. The men were cut all to pieces, and the deck was strewn with arms, legs, heads and shattered trunks. One of the mates nodded to me as if to say, ‘Shall I clear the deck?’ I bowed my head and he picked up the mangled remains of the bodies and threw them into the sea. The places of the dead were instantly filled, and not a single survivor exhibited the slightest fear. At the expiration of the time I have mentioned, one hour and ten minutes, the engineer came on deck and reported that the water let in by the wounds in the ship caused by the enemy’s shells, had put out the furnace fires. Admiral Semmes ordered me to go below and see how long the vessel would float. I went below and examined the damage. The holes in the side of the poor old Alabama were large enough to admit a wheelbarrow. I returned to the deck and reported to the Admiral that the vessel could not float ten minutes longer. ‘Strike the colors, Mr. Kell,’ he said; ‘it will not do in the nineteenth century to sacrifice every man we have on board.’ The colors were struck, but the Kearsarge fired five shots into us after they were hauled down. Captain Winslow tried to explain this infamous action by declaring that he could not see that the colors had been struck. Considering that we were within four hundred yards of him at the time, it is very singular that he did not see that our colors were down. We must, however, be charitable and try believe him. When the Kearsarge fired those last five shots into us, I said to the crew: ‘Stand to your quarters, men. If we must be sunk after our colors are down, we will go to the bottom with every man at his post. Upon hearing this order every man stood silently at his post. As soon as the Kearsarge ceased firing, I went over the decks and ordered every man to secure what he could cling to and then jump overboard. This order was issued to prevent any of the crew being carried down in the vortex made by the sinking ship. But two men went down with her. One was a man who had deserted from a Yankee vessel, and the other was a carpenter, who, poor fellow, could not swim. He jumped overboard, but afterwards climbed back into the ship. In all the last sad and dangerous moments before the Alabama sank, there was no fear nor hurry-up on the part of the men. Everything was done quietly, as if the crew were preparing for an ordinary ship inspection. The Alabama’s total loss in the action was nine killed and twenty-one wounded. Ten others were drowned after the ship sank.
“Admiral Semmes and I were among the last to leave the ship. I stripped myself to my underclothes and was about to pull off my boots, when a sailor stepped up to me and said, ‘Lieutenant, let me pull off your boots.’ I yielded to his request, and while examining the man, discovered that he was one whom I had been compelled to punish a number of times. Notwithstanding, he was anxious to do me a favor.
“A number of incidents similar to this, occurring both to me and to Admiral Semmes, serve to show how devoted the sailors of the Alabama were to their officers. When Admiral Semmes and I jumped into the water the ship was rapidly sinking. After swimming off a few yards, I turned to see her go down. As the gallant vessel, the most beautiful I ever beheld, plunged down to her grave, I had it on my tongue to call to the men who were struggling in the water to give three cheers for her, but the dead that were floating around me and the deep sadness I felt at parting with the noble ship that had been my home so long deterred me. In all the two years of the Alabama’s career, I was off the ship but twenty-two hours. Down she went–she had never had a home within the country she so gallantly served. She had been christened on the broad seas, and now she met her death and burial upon the same bosom that had quivered at the sound of the cheers uttered when she was named. A fitting end. No foe men ever trod her deck as victor.”
There was a perceptible quiver in the Captain’s voice as he concluded the account of the Alabama’s last fight. There was a silence of a few moments, broken only by the exclamation of an enthusiastic friend sitting near me: “If that eight-inch shell had but exploded–what a different tale Captain Kell could tell!” As far as I was concerned, I believe I uttered but a single sentence: “More, if you please.”
“More?” said the Captain, “There is but little more to tell. Some things occurred while I was in the water that I can never forget. Eugene Maffit, one of the Alabama’s gallant young officers, could not swim. He was supported by a life-preserver. The brave and unselfish boy, observing that I was much exhausted, cried to me to take his life-preserver and actually tried to take it off in order that he might give it to me. Of course, I would not permit him thus to sacrifice his life. Another incident, which occurred while the fight was in progress, was another example of the love of the men for their officers. A sailor had been terribly wounded and had been carried below to the surgeon’s quarters. As in the case of the sailor who pulled off my boots, this wounded man had been several times punished by my order. After he had been carried below, he sent several times, urgently requesting me to come and see him. Finally, I left the deck and went down to see the poor fellow. He could not speak, but, with his eyes full of affection, he grasped my hand, kissed it, and died. The Deerhound and the French pilot boats picked up the greater part of the Alabama’s crew. The Kearsarge sent out two boats after the Alabama had sunk. These boats saved a few of our men. The course pursued by the Kearsarge seems to have been suggested by W. H. Seward’s implied instructions to let the Alabama’s crew perish. When the Hatteras was sunk every man of her crew was saved. The Hatteras was sunk at night. When the Alabama was sunk, in broad daylight, the enemy made no vigorous effort to save life. The contrast, to say the least, is suggestive. The only thing I saved from the Alabama was my wife’s watch. I attached it by its chain–my wife’s hair–to my underclothes, and when I was rescued, I found it entirely uninjured. Everything else I had on the ship went down with her. After those of us who were rescued by the Deerhound’s boats had been transferred to that vessel, Mr. Lancaster and his wife treated us with the most distinguished kindness. At the suggestion of Admiral Semmes, Mr. Lancaster carried us to Southampton. When we reached that place, I borrowed a pair of trousers and a pair of carpet slippers from Mr. Lancaster and walked from the landing to the hotel in my shirt sleeves. The proprietor of the hotel treated the Admiral and me as if we were princes. In fact, he was at some pains to tell us that the room he had prepared for us had been but recently occupied by a prince. The next day the Admiral and I went to a tailor to buy some clothes. The tailor invited us back to his private apartments and insisted on our partaking of cake and wine. While we were enjoying the feast, the tailor, who had left the rooms, returned and said: “Gentlemen, I shall have to request you to return to your hotel. Your presence here has completely blocked business on this street.” When we went out we found that the street was packed with thousands of people who had come to catch a glimpse of us. Policemen had to clear a way back to the hotel for us. The English, at heart, were undoubtedly with the South. During our stay in England, they showed us distinguished attention in a thousand ways. Many young men from the very best families were anxious to join us in our ‘new ship.’
Return to the Confederate States.
“How did you get back to the Confederacy, Captain ? ” I inquired.
“I had some trouble in doing that,” he replied, “but the same kind Providence that had cared for me all my life brought me safely home. I embarked at Liverpool in an English mail steamer which ran to Canada and New York. On the steamer was an officer of the Kearsarge who was on his way to Washington with dispatches announcing the sinking of the Alabama. I am not sure that he relished my presence on board the ship. When I arrived in Canada, I embarked in a little mail steamer for the Bermudas. Arrived there, I embarked in a little flat-bottomed steamer; a blockade-runner, for Wilmington, N. C. After a perfectly smooth o voyage, we sighted the coast one evening about dusk. The officers of the blockade-runner, called the Flamingo, had made themselves altogether too well acquainted with grog, and in consequence, missed the reckonings and ran almost into the jaws of some United States War Vessels. We put about and ran out to sea.
“I, together with some Confederate Naval officers, who were on board, took charge of matters, found our bearings, and at night again made for Wilmington. This time we made the run safely, though we passed right under the guns of a United States man o’ war. Arrived at home, I reported to the Naval Department, and was ordered to duty on the James river. After the war, I returned to Georgia, where I have remained in the peaceful pursuit of whatever her old red hills may produce.”
Captain Kell’s splendid abilities as a Naval officer, and his quiet, unassuming, unimpeachable character as a gentleman, are too well known to render it necessary for me to say anything in his defense against the absurd and low flung charges of Yankee authors as to his ‘piracy.’ I may, however, be permitted to quote some words of Admiral Semmes’ concerning him. On page 123 of “Service Afloat” Admiral Semmes thus speaks of Captain Kell: “See how scrupulously neat he is dressed, and how suave and affable he is with his associates. His eye is now beaming gentleness and kindness. You will scarcely recognize him as the same man when you see him again on deck, arraigning some culprit ‘at the mast’ for a breach of discipline. When Georgia seceded, Lieutenant Kell was well on his way to the Commander’s list, in the old Navy, but he would have scorned the Commission of an Admiral, if it had been tendered him as a price of treason to his State…. When it was decided at Montgomery that I was to have the Sumter, I at once thought of Kell, and at my request, he was ordered to the ship, Commodore Tatnall, with whom he had been serving on the Georgia coast, giving him up very reluctantly.” In his official report of the sinking of the Alabama, Admiral Semmes thus spoke of Captain Kell: “Where all behaved so well, it would be invidious for me to particularize, but I cannot deny myself the pleasure of saying that Mr. Kell, my First Lieutenant, deserves great credit for the fine condition in which the ship went into action, with regard to her battery, magazine and shell rooms, and that he rendered me great assistance by his judgment as the fight proceeded.” Captain Kell was promoted to a Captaincy by reason of his gallantry in the action with the Hatteras, but his absence from the Confederacy and the close of the war prevented his receiving his Commission.
Since the stirring days of the Alabama, times are changed, but men still are men, and memory continues to hold her sway. So long as these two things remain as facts, the heroes of the Alabama will live.
It is related that in one of the far Northern States there is a lake of surpassing beauty. Upon the shores of that lake once lived a tribe of Indians. When the white man took possession of the country and forced the red man to follow the setting sun, this tribe refused to quit their home beside the placid lake. But the white man multiplied and coveted the beautiful dwelling place of the unfortunate children of the forest. Unable to drive the invader off, and still determined not to leave the home which had been theirs through countless ages, the tribe assembled late one calm lovely day in June, and singing a sad, sweet dirge, marched down into the smiling waters and forever disappeared. From that day to this, at nightfall of the quiet days of summer, plaintive music seems to issue from the waves of the lake as they gently lave the shore, thus serving as an eternal reminder of the fate of that Indian tribe. So there is a plaintive music which seems to issue from the heroic deeds of Southern soldiers and Southern sailors, and that music forever heard by every true man of the South will serve as an eternal reminder of the gloriously unselfish patriotism of those who wore the gray.