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Farragut & Our Naval Commanders

By J. T. Headley
Comprising the early life and public services of the prominent naval commanders who, with Grant and Sherman and their generals, brought to a triumphant close the great rebellion of 1861-1865. (First edition 1867)

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Often a man devoted to a single calling or profession passes through life without being known but little outside of the particular sphere in which he moved. The most untiring industry, faithfulness to duty, and signal ability, can, at the utmost, only slowly lift him in mere nominal rank or position. It is only rarely that circumstances so combine as to allow him in one single effort to show to the world what he has been preparing for, or what he is capable of doing. This is more especially true of those whose studies and training look to outward physical results.

Winslow is an illustration of the truth of this statement. Although, for nearly thirty years in the naval service-an accomplished officer—a thorough commander, and a man of great mental ability, yet, but for the fortunate event that brought him in contact with the Alabama, his real worth would not have been known outside of the naval profession.

John A. Winslow is a southerner by birth, having been born in Wilmington, North Carolina, November 19th, 1811. On the mother’s side, whose name was Sarah E. Anerim, he came from the celebrated Rhett family of Charleston, but, on the father’s, from the best Massachusetts stock, being the seventh generation from John Winslow, brother of Edward Winslow, Governor of Massachusetts Bay, and consecrator of Plymouth Rock. Edward Winslow, the common ancestor of the family which bore such an important part in the early history of the Plymouth colony, was from Droutwitch, England, ten miles from which the family seat is still found. Edward, his son, and afterwards Governor of Massachusetts Bay, joined the pilgrims at Leyden. He had been just married, but his young wife, true to the convictions of duty as himself, left a luxurious home and her native land, to encounter the perils and hardships of a wilderness, whose solitudes were broken only by the cries of wild beasts, and the still more fearful war-whoop of the savage.

Four brothers joined him in Plymouth colony, one of whom was the ancestor of the present renowned commodore. The father of John Winslow was sent from, Boston, in 1807, to establish the commercial house of J. Winslow & Co., which was located at Wilmington. This was the way the subject of the present sketch came to be born on southern soil.

When fourteen years of age, he, with his elder brother, was sent North to be educated, and placed under charge of Rev. Mr. Sewall, of Dedham, to prepare for college. The elder brother subsequently entered college; but John’s taste inclining to the navy, he, after two years of study, entered the service. He was now only sixteen years old, but was immediately ordered on active duty to the West Indies in the Falmouth. He remained here for nearly three years, being frequently sent on boat expeditions from Cuba against pirates. The excitement and adventure of this kind of life exactly suited him, and showed that he had chosen the right profession. In 1829 he brought Poinsett home from Mexico. The next year he returned, and the year following was ordered, in the same ship, to the Pacific Ocean, where for some two years or more he was engaged in the ordinary duties of a cruise. He returned in 1833, and was examined and promoted to passed midshipman.

For a year and a half he was now employed on naval stations. From 1835 to 1837 he served on the coast of Brazil in the Ontario and Erie. In 1839 he was promoted to lieutenant, and again sent to the coast of Brazil in the brig Enterprise. Returning from this station, he was, in 1842, ordered to the steam-frigate Missouri, Captain Newton commanding, which, after being employed for some time on the coasts of Cuba and Mexico, was sent to convey Mr. Cushing, minister to China, with dispatches from President Tyler.

This unfortunate vessel, it is well known, caught fire in the harbor of Gibraltar, and was burned up. Winslow was sent back by Cushing with dispatches to the Government, announcing the catastrophe. He was ordered by the Navy Department to return and assist in the removing of the debris, etc. The wreck was finally destroyed by being blown up with gunpowder.

He was afterwards employed on shore stations, till December, 1845, when he was ordered on board the Cumberland, which soon after sailed, as Commodore Connor’s flagship, for Mexico. The Mexican War breaking out, he was sent, after the battle of Palo Alto, in a boat expedition up the Rio Grande, to prevent the Mexican army from crossing the river, but which failed to accomplish its object, as the retreating force effected a passage higher up.

Some time after, he was one of a boat expedition sent on shore, fourteen miles from Vera Cruz, to get water for the fleet. The boats were attacked, when the vessels in the distance opened a heavy fire, which drove the assailants back, so that water was obtained.

Soon after, he was drafted with two divisions of the flotilla for Tobasco. Caught in a tremendous gale of wind, the expedition lay for three days at the mouth of the river, unable to enter it. On the 3d, Frontera, three miles up the stream, was captured with two steamers and some other vessels. The next day, Tobasco was reached, and some fourteen vessels captured. Winslow landed with his division, and, advancing to the plaza, was met with a shower of musket-balls. A sharp contest followed, without material advantage to either side. At night he was ordered to retire, and take down the river one of the captured vessels. The next day, the Mexicans opened from every battery and fort of the city, and a general bombardment followed, which resulted in the fleet dropping back to Frontera.

Winslow’s bearing was so fine, and his gallantry so conspicuous on this occasion, that Perry publicly complimented him, and as a token of his high appreciation of his conduct, gave him the choice of vessels. He selected the Morris, and sailed to join the fleet at Vera Cruz.

He was next drafted with a division, to sail for Tampico and capture it. The city, seeing the boats advancing, capitulated. Here he remained for six weeks, guarding the arsenal, until the arrival of troops from New Orleans. He then returned to the fleet at Vera Cruz, and there found Raphael Semmes—whose vessel, the Somers, had been capsized in a squall, and all but thirty of the crew lost—occupying his room. The two afterwards shared it together, until other arrangements could be made. Under what widely different circumstances the same men are sometimes brought together! Today, a young officer, having lost his vessel and crew, without any assigned place, occupies the room of his brother officer and friend, until his return. Fighting under the same flag, they have a common feeling and sympathy. Winslow especially feels for the unfortunate lieutenant, whose vessel, with all her armament, is sleeping at the bottom of the Gulf.

Twenty years pass by, and those two officers meet off the coast of France as deadly enemies, sailing under different flags. A fierce conflict follows, and when it is over Semmes is again swimming for his life, not towards the flag of his country, to find shelter in his friend’s room, but away from it, and from that former friend, to seek protection under a foreign flag. The two meetings stand in strange and striking contrast to each other.

In February, 1847, Winslow was drafted into the Mississippi, Commodore Perry commanding, and not long after returned home. All hands being detached from the vessel, as she was ordered to be altered for a flagship, he was sent to Boston on ordnance duty. In March, the following year, he sailed as first lieutenant in the Saratoga for Mexico. The vessel stopping at Haiti, where the revolution was then in progress, he landed at night in a boat to bring off the refugees, which he succeeded in doing, marching unmolested through the town, though dark visages crowded around his little band. These being sent to Jamaica, he sailed for Yucatan, where he was actively engaged in supplying the inhabitants with arms, etc., to enable them to repel an invasion of the. Mosquito Indians. Having completed this task, he went to Tampico, Vera Cruz, and other ports, to gather up and send home what belonged to the United States, and which had been left there at the close of the war.

Returning in the summer of 1849, he had a rest; of two years, and was then ordered to the frigate St. Lawrence, and sailed on a cruise in the Pacific. Visiting the various ports of South America, the islands of the Pacific, San Francisco, &c., he was absent three years and five months, engaged in active duty all the while. Returning in the spring of 1855, he was ordered on recruiting duty to Boston. In the following September, he was promoted to commander. From that time till the breaking out of the rebellion, he performed various duties along the coast, acting, in the mean time, as light-house inspector. With that patriotism and devotion to duty which have always distinguished him, the moment he heard that the flag he loved so well had been fired upon, he hastened to Washington, and applied for active service. He was ordered to join Foote at St. Louis, where the latter was fitting out a flotilla. To extemporize, equip, and man a fleet on the Mississippi, in the short time required, was no ordinary task, yet the whole work was put on him, and a half dozen other officers. Not only were the vessels to be constructed out of such material as they could at once lay hands on, but gun-carriages had to be made, guns cast, and cordage and anchors procured, and then western boatmen taken and drilled into "men-of-war’s men." Foote had great confidence in him, and when the fleet was ready, he directed him to make an experimental trip with it.. He did so, and reported the result to the former, who expressed great gratification with it. He then took the first division of the flotilla down the river, and joined Grant at Cairo, Foote remaining in charge of the second division. Having performed this duty, he was ordered back to St. Louis to relieve Foote, and bring down the second division also. While in charge of this, and in command of the flagship Benton, which had got hard aground, he met with an accident, which came near depriving the country of his valuable services. While superintending the work of getting the unwieldy monster off shore, the chain attached to it parted with the tremendous strain put upon it, and the broken link, flying with the force of a cannon ball, struck his left arm, tearing out the tendons, and making a frightful wound. Crippled and bleeding, he was carried to his couch, where he lay helpless for some time. As soon as he was able, he went home to recover; but, just as Foote was leaving for Fort Pillow, he joined him again. After the action at this place, he was ordered up to hurry down the rams, and did not rejoin the fleet till after the action at Memphis. He was then ordered to relieve the officer in command of the division at St. Charles, White River, where the Mound City had been blown up, in the capture of the place. The object of this expedition, aided by one regiment under Colonel Fitch, was to succor General Curtis. But the enemy was in too great force, and attacked the fleet with rifles every day, keeping the shores aflame with their fire. In the mean time, the river began to fall rapidly, and, in order to detain the fleet until it would be left aground, the enemy sunk vessels in the channel. For awhile, it seemed probable that Winslow would be caught as Porter was up the Red River, but by great effort he succeeded in destroying the sunken hulks, and reached the Mississippi in safety. He now took the Cincinnati, and joined the fleet en route for Vicksburg. Effecting a junction with the lower fleet, in the action that followed he covered the mortar boats. Remaining here two weeks, he was sent back to Memphis to cooperate with Sherman and take charge of the river above. While he was engaged in sending out various expeditions against the guerillas, and moving backward and forward to keep the river free of obstructions from the pestilent gangs, Davis was relieved from command of the fleet. Winslow now applied to the Department to be transferred to sea-service, as one more congenial to his tastes. The pilots and volunteer officers, hearing of this, waited upon him, and informed him that they were about sending a delegation to Washington, to request the President to give him command of the fleet, and to say that, if he refused, they should in a body resign. They also informed him, to his surprise, that a similar application had been made after the battle of Fort Pillow, and now, if their request was not granted, they should leave the service. Though gratified at this voluntary, strong testimonial of the attachment of the officers to him, he was grieved at the action they contemplated. In the first place, he wished no promotion obtained in this way. In the second place, a true patriot, himself, he desired that the country should have the services of these gallant men, no matter what became of him. He told them so, and that they must on no account let any personal matter come between them and their country that had the first and last claim on them. Inspiring them with his own unselfish and patriotic spirit, he succeeded in dissuading them from their purpose.

Fortunately for his own fame, and the honor of his country, and especially of the navy, his request to be transferred to sea service was granted, and he was shortly afterwards ordered to take command of the Kearsarge. He joined the vessel in the early part of the year 1863, and was ordered to the coast of Europe to watch rebel cruisers. It was with a sense of relief and freedom he found himself once more on the broad bosom of the ocean, which had been his home for so many years. A man, who, all his life, had been accustomed to the deck and armament of a man-of-war, felt ill at ease in the cramped-up, nondescript craft that composed the western flotilla. Besides this dodging about up crooked narrow streams, fighting guerillas on shore, and raking for torpedoes on the bottom of rivers, is to the thorough-trained sailor and commander very much what bushwhacking and guerilla fighting is to a brave and able commander on shore.

In command of a fine vessel, with a noble crew under him, and out on the open sea, Winslow lacked nothing to complete his happiness but to meet a rebel cruiser, his equal in size and armament, in a fair sea-fight.

The rebel vessel Florida, having been heard of off the coast of South America, he was sent in search of her.

Subsequently, he cruised in the channels off the coast of England and France. Here he was constantly kept in hot water by the French and English Governments, which complained of his violations of the neutrality laws. The French, petulant and complaining, ordered the French pilots not to serve him, and he had to become his own pilot, which, fortunately, he was perfectly able to be, showing these gentlemen that he knew the waters that washed their coast quite as well as they did. Finding the Florida in Brest, and about to sail, he blockaded the port, and, though it was midwinter, the stormiest season of the year, he boldly carried his ship into intricate bays, along lee shores, through races where the eddying currents swept at the rate of seven knots an hour, and where ships had never been before, with a skill and daring that made the French pilots stare with surprise. They could not comprehend what to them seemed the recklessness of the American commander, who without a pilot, would undauntedly steam through channels along which the sea ran like a torrent, the breakers foaming and thundering on each side of him, and where a vessel had never before been known to go. In any commander but one who knew the ground thoroughly, it would have been madness; for he was more than once caught in these dangerous channels in gales that strewed the shores of England with wrecks.

In the presence of such a bold and vigilant enemy the Florida dared not leave port. The duty that Winslow performed was, in this cold and stormy season, a most trying one. Yet the crew, inspired with his own energy and enthusiasm, cheerfully seconded all his efforts.

At length, however, he got short of provisions, and was reluctantly compelled to set sail for Cadiz, to obtain supplies. Taking advantage of his forced absence, the Florida slipped out of port and put to sea. Winslow, however, was soon back, and steamed in search of the fugitive. Overhauling one vessel after another only to find them French vessels, he was compelled at last to acknowledge that the enemy which he had watched so long and faithfully was beyond his reach.

Having been foiled in his efforts to capture the Florida, he proceeded to Calais, where he had learned that the rebel steamer Rappahannock was. He lay off this port for two long months, watching and waiting in vain for the rebel to put to sea.

At length, one day on running into Ostend—a short trip, which would not interfere with his keeping the Rappahannock from putting to sea—a pilot in the employ of the rebels ran the vessel plump ashore, breaking through the piers. Winslow saw at once that it was done on purpose, and, divining the object, was roused by it into tenfold energy and determination. He sternly ordered every pilot from the ship, resolved to be his own pilot, and, summoning all hands, went to work, and by great efforts hove off his ship before morning.

The commander of the Rappahannock, who was waiting for this calamity to befall Winslow, the moment he heard of it accepted the French terms that had been dictated to him, and prepared to put to sea. Winslow, however, who was kept informed of his movements, heard of it, and immediately hoisted anchor, and, without waiting for some of his officers and crew who were on shore to come on board, steamed out of the harbor. When the morning sun broke over the sea, the rebel commander, to his astonishment, saw his enemy once more off the port of Calais. He H now gave it up, and taking everything out of the ship finally dismantled her.

Seeing this enemy disposed of, Winslow went to Flushing to repair in dock. He had scarcely completed his repairs when he received a telegram stating that the Alabama had arrived in Cherbourg. This was exciting news—all hands were called, and the bow of the Kearsarge was quickly cleaving the waves towards Cherbourg. Two days after, he lay off the port.

Semmes, the commander of the Alabama, when he was informed of the arrival of the Kearsarge, sent Winslow the following challenge:



CHERBOURG, June 14th, 1864.


Sir,—I hear that you were informed by the United States Consul that the Kearsarge was to come to this port solely for the prisoners landed by me, and that she was to depart in twenty-four hours. I desire you to say to the United States Consul that my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than till to-morrow evening, or next morning, at the farthest. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. SEMMES, Captain.


Semmes may have heard that the mission of the Kearsarge was the peaceful, timid one he represents, but we do not believe he, for one moment, credited the rumor. He knew perfectly well that his old friend had been chasing him half round the globe to get a fight out of him, and had heard too that he had said that, if they ever met, one ship or the other would go to the bottom, and the introduction of this pretended "hearsay" was meant as a taunt. Irritated at being so long chased and held up to the world as a pirate, and now confronted by his old messmate and present foe, he thought he would irritate in turn, by hinting that the Kearsarge would hasten to get out of harm’s way. He knew better—he knew that he had got to remain a prisoner in that port, or sneak away clandestinely, which would be a confession of weakness and fear or fight. Winslow quietly waited for five days, perfectly willing to give the Alabama ample time to complete all her arrangements.

The Sabbath morning of the 19th of June was a lovely one. No strong wind lashed the sea into waves, but a gentle breeze came drifting in from the ocean, bringing a slight haze, through which the summer sun shone with a softened radiance upon the deep. Semmes had made no concealment of his intended fight, nor of the time it would come off, and the news that it was expected to take place on this Sunday morning had spread over the surrounding country, so that an excursion train was sent down from Paris, loaded with passengers to witness it. A photographer perched himself with all his apparatus in a church tower that overlooked the neighboring sea, in order to obtain a sketch of the approaching combat. The port swarmed with boatmen offering their boats to those who wished to go out and witness it, and the quiet town of Cherbourg looked as if some great fête was about to come off. There were two, however, who did not feel so—Captains Semmes and Winslow. Each knew the other well—his bravery and resolution—and that the approaching struggle would be a desperate and decisive one. Semmes was determined to fight his ship to the last, and was well aware that the proud American flag swaying far out to sea would never go down before his guns, except it went to the bottom. The night before, he had told M. Bonfils, the agent of the Confederate government in port, that he was a Roman Catholic, and, as he would not be able to attend divine service the next day, requested him to attend mass and have it offered up for him. He did so, but the prayers, it seems, were unanswered.

Winslow was equally serious, for, notwithstanding his confidence in his ship, the crew, and himself, he knew how often the fate of a battle turns on a chance shot. His life, his reputation, and the honor of his flag, he was well aware, were in jeopardy, and were all to be cast at once on the doubtful issue of an even-handed fight. Of only one thing he was certain, that, ere that Sabbath sun touched the western waves, his fame would be secure, his flag victorious, and the scourge of the ocean no more, or he and his good ship would be lying together on the bottom of the deep. But quietly making all his preparations, he seriously committed himself and the flag of his country to Him who lifts up or casts down, according to His sovereign pleasure. The Alabama bore the motto, "Aide toi et Dieu t’aidera," “Help yourself and God will help you."

Semmes, in his plundering career, had accumulated sixty chronometers, which he took the precaution to send ashore, that they might be saved in case of disaster to his ship.

Spectators, in the mean time, crowded every spot that commanded a view of the neighboring sea, and the most intense excitement prevailed among the vast throng. A little after nine, as the church bells were ringing, calling people to the house of prayer, the Alabama cast loose, and began to steam out of the harbor. As the graceful vessel slowly drifted past the mole, black with the eager crowd, a mighty shout rent the air, and "God speed you!" rolled over the quiet waters of the bay. For a response, came back the stern roll of drums beating to quarters. About ten o’clock, Winslow, through his glass, saw the head of the steamer coming round the end of the mole, some three miles distant, and immediately beat to quarters. The French steamer Couronne accompanied the Alabama, till she reached the limits of French waters, and then steamed back without waiting to witness the combat. The English yacht Deerhound also followed after—the owner of which, having received a telegraph at Caen, informing him of the expected fight, had hastened down with his wife and family to witness it. Determined to be a close spectator, at the risk of receiving a random shot, he kept on after the Couronne had turned back. By a singular coincidence this yacht was built by the famous, or rather infamous, house of Laird & Co., that had also built the Alabama, with which the rebels had driven our commerce from the ocean. She was now to witness what the handiwork of these rebel sympathizers would do.

Winslow, as soon as he descried his antagonist approaching, turned his vessel and steamed slowly seaward, for the double purpose of avoiding the question of jurisdiction, and to have the battle take place so far from shore that his adversary, if crippled, could not take refuge in port, before he had time to finish him. The Alabama followed after, and for awhile it looked from shore like a chase, rather than a fight. But when Winslow had got about seven miles out, he turned short about, and, putting on steam, steered straight for his enemy, intending to run him down. Semmes, discovering his design, slowed his engines and sheered off, thus presenting his starboard battery to the Kearsarge. The latter was now about a mile off and was moving steadily ahead, when there suddenly came sharp puffs of smoke from the side of the Alabama, followed by the deep thunder of her guns rolling over the tranquil sea. The shot and shell flew over the Kearsarge, cutting up her rigging, but effecting no serious damage. Like the gallant Hull, in the first sea-fight of the war of 1812, Winslow made no reply, but sternly ordered the engineer to put on more steam, and the noble steamer the next moment was dashing the foam from her bows, as she pressed forward for a death grapple. In two minutes came another broadside, and then another, yet not a gun replied. Silently and sternly Winslow kept on his way, but, as he approached, bows on, he saw that he was in danger of being raked, and therefore, when about a half a mile distant, he sheered, so as to bring his own broadside to bear, and fired his first gun. The crashing shot and bursting shell, that made the rebel ship tremble, showed Semmes that his adversary intended to throw away no shot in this deadly encounter. Wheeling, Winslow again pressed on under a full head of steam, in order to get in close range, but soon sheered and poured in another broadside. In about ten minutes, the spanker gaff of the Alabama and the ensign came down on a run. These were immediately replaced, and the fight went on. The two vessels were now steaming at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour—and every few minutes sheering so as to bring their broadsides to bear, they were forced to fight in circles, swinging steadily around an ever changing centre. The firing, when within a quarter of a mile of each other, was rapid and terrible. Two guns of the Kearsarge, carrying eleven-inch shells, did fearful damage, making great gaps in the hull of the enemy. The former, in the mean time, received but little injury from the wild firing of her antagonist. But, about twenty minutes after the conflict began, a sixty-pound Blakely shell passed through her bulwarks, and, bursting with a terrific explosion on the quarter-deck, wounded three of the crew of the pivot-gun. One of them was named William Gowin, who, though pale and suffering acutely, was carried to the surgeon with a smile on his face "It is all right," said the brave fellow, "we are whipping the Alabama. I willingly lose my leg or life, if necessary;" and, as the heavy broadsides shook the deck, he would comfort his two wounded comrades by telling them that "victory was certain." And as ever and anon the cheers of the crew were borne to his ears, when they saw the shell and shot planted in a vital part of the Alabama, he would wave his hand over his head, and give a faint cheer in reply. A true hero to the last, when the battle was over, and he found himself dying, he exclaimed, "I am willing to die, for we have won a glorious victory!" With a crew composed of such men, a commander can never suffer defeat.

The difference between the firing of the two vessels was very marked. The Alabama fired rapidly —almost two guns to the Kearsarge’s one—but very wild. Now a shot would enter the starboard gangway, a shell here, and another there, cut away planking, or crash through the engine house, while the rigging seemed alive with the hissing, exploding missiles, yet none of them doing but little damage. Winslow, on the contrary, fought his ship as coolly as though engaged in mere practice. To the different officers he said, "Don’t let the men fire too rapidly. Point the heavy guns below rather than above the water-line, and sweep the decks with the lighter ones"‘ It is astonishing to see how the character and bearing of a commander affect the conduct of the crew. Receiving their inspiration from him, the gunners pointed their pieces with the coolness and precision they would have done if firing at a target, the only evidence of excitement being the cheers that rose over the thunder of the guns, as they saw a huge gap open in the side of the Alabama, where an eleven-inch shell entered at her water-line. Besides her regular armament, the Kearsarge had a twelve-pound howitzer, which was wholly useless in the fight, unless the vessels came to such close quarters that grape could be used. This piece was put in charge of two old quartermasters, "the two Dromios" of the ship, as they were laughingly called, with orders not to fire until directed to do so The jolly old salts, however, had no intention of remaining idle, while their messmates were having, as they said, "all the fun." So when the combat thickened, and the enemy’s shells and shot came bursting and tumbling about their ears, they forgot their orders, and loaded and fired their howitzer, as though the battle rested solely on their exertions. They knew perfectly well that it was a mere waste of ammunition, yet they greeted each discharge with a loud cheer, and between the shots would curse and swear at each other, for not making better hits, in the most approved man-of-war style. This droll exhibition drew peals of laughter from the crew, that sounded strangely amid the din and uproar of the awful cannonade that shook the deep. The officers saw at a glance in what excellent condition for cool, effective fighting this jolly humor kept the men, and, amused themselves at the ludicrous picture which these old privileged favorites of the ship presented, did not interfere, and let them fire on until their entire box of ammunition was exhausted.

On the Alabama, a very different scene presented itself. Stripped to their shirts and drawers, the heated gunners worked their pieces with desperate energy; for the ripping planks and shuddering hull, and splintered masts, and bloody decks, told them that this mode of fighting could not last long. One shot alone disabled a gun, and killed and wounded eighteen men. Another exploded in the coal bunks, completely blocking up the engine-room, while on every side the ship seemed to be incessantly struck with Titanic sledge-hammers. Thus round and round in their fiery, cloudy circles, the well-matched steamers swept—the Kearsarge edging nearer and nearer as she moved on her pathway of flame, Winslow straining every nerve to get to closer quarters, where he could sweep the decks of his adversary with grape. At the seventh rotation, as the American commander was just getting warmed to his work, or rather when, as he said, he "supposed the action for hot works had just commenced," he saw the Alabama set her fore trysail and two jibs, and turn her head towards the shore. He knew at once that it was all up with her, for she limped heavily on her way, and, steaming after her, poured in shot and shell with such destructive power, that in a few moments the rebel flag came down, and a white flag was run up. He at once ordered the firing to cease. But, in less than two minutes, the enemy opened again with two guns, when the Kearsarge suddenly belched forth flames, and, steaming grandly ahead, was laid across her adversary’s bows for raking, just as the white flag was a second time run up.

In a few moments, boats were seen lowering into the water, and an officer in one of them rowed quickly alongside, saying that the ship had surrendered and was sinking, and that with Winslow’s permission he would return and bring off the prisoners.

But scarcely twenty minutes passed, when the Alabama threw her bows high out of the water, like some huge drowning animal making a last struggle for life the mainmast, which had been half cut in two by a shot, breaking off in the effort—and then with one heavy lurch went to the bottom, with all her armament and a part of her crew, leaving only the swirling waters to tell where she had gone down. Amid the eddying waves that clashed above her descending form, a crowd of human heads were seen struggling for life. Winslow immediately ordered the only two boats he had left, to be lowered, and hasten to the rescue of the drowning men. Observing the yacht Deerhound steaming towards the scene of disaster, he called out, "For God’s sake, do what you can to save them!" She immediately began to pick up the swimmers, and soon the boats of the Kearsarge were on the spot engaged in the same humane work. Semmes, nearly exhausted, was picked up by the Deerhound. The moment he was on board, he begged not to be delivered up to Winslow, and was placed in the bottom of the boat and covered with hammock cloths. As soon as she had got her load, the Deerhound steamed rapidly away for the English coast. Mr. Lancaster knew that in doing this he was carrying off our prisoners, and had Winslow anticipated such faithlessness, or want of honor, he would have brought the Englishman to with a shot.

Captain Semmes, in his report, written while smarting under his defeat, said, "The enemy fired on me five times after my colors had been struck. It is charitable to suppose that a ship-of-war of a Christian nation could not have done this intentionally." Why, then, does he mention it at all, or in a way that clearly shows that he wants the reader believe it was done on purpose? A man of any sagacity would have left this out, for he would have known that so preposterous a supposition would not be believed by any one, and would damage nobody but himself.

The disparity of loss in this engagement was very remarkable—the Kearsarge, though receiving twice as many shots as she gave, had only three killed and wounded in all, while, according to Semmes’ own report, his loss was thirty, or ten times as great as that of his adversary. If the same proportion had been preserved, under an equal number of shots, the loss would have been as one to about twenty.

This naval engagement, which lasted only a little over an hour, and resulted in such a triumphant victory, created a most profound sensation in Europe, and the English papers discussed it in a manner and spirit that at this time only provokes a smile of derision. One said that the Alabama, having just returned from a long voyage, was not in a condition to fight-forgetting that this reflected quite as severely on Semmes as his defeat, for he was not compelled to fight till he was prepared. He could have staid in Cherbourg a month, if he liked, or until he was in a condition to go to sea. An officer who knowingly and unnecessarily takes his ship into action, when she is not in a seaworthy condition, is not fit to command one.

Another, apparently seeing the dilemma in which this placed the rebel commander, said that it was probable that Semmes knew that his ship was not only in a dilapidated condition, but that she was too far gone ever to be rendered fit for service again, and, in the true spirit of chivalry, resolved to give her a glorious death, and so go out and sink her alongside with her colors flying. This is a worse explanation than the other, for it makes Semmes a barbarian. Rather than his ship should rot in the port of Cherbourg, he would destroy all that gallant crew which had followed him so long. Besides, the ship did not go down with her colors flying, but with the white flag of surrender alone fluttering in the breeze. But the great explanation of the defeat was the disparity between the two vessels. It was affirmed, without the least knowledge of the facts, that the Kearsarge was the heavier vessel, with heavier armament, and a larger crew. This was the stereotyped excuse offered by Englishmen for those astounding victories in almost every single-handed sea fight that occurred between the national vessels in the war of 1812.

Although this attempt to pluck away Winslow’s well-earned laurels was owing in some measure to the sympathy generally felt in England towards the South, it is, doubtless, mainly to be attributed to the fact that the Alabama was an English ship, armed with English guns, and fought by an English crew, so that they felt it was a combat between an English and American ship-of-war. It was this that made them feel so sore. If the Alabama had been victorious, it would have been claimed really as an English victory. But, unfortunately, the English vessel having gone to the bottom, there was nothing left them but the old absurd cry of an unequal fight.

Again, Semmes and his English friends endeavored to lessen the victory, by saying that the Kearsarge was iron-plated, the former asserting that he did not know, till the action was over, that she was iron-clad. Now this iron-plating was simply some spare chain cable, hung over the vessel amidships, and boxed over with planking. Its main object was to protect the engines, as the Kearsarge was lightly loaded with coal, while the Alabama was so deeply loaded, that her engines were protected without it. This, doubtless, is the reason Semmes did not resort to the same expedient, for it had become a custom among all vessels to do so, ever since Farragut had set the example at New Orleans.

Semmes exhibits his own character in a painful light in his report, which abounds in transparent falsehood, either direct or implied. He was perfectly aware of the existence of these chains, for he said, some days previous to the fight, "that they were only attached together with rope-yarn, and would drop into the water with the first shot." If these chains were really of such vast service, and he neglected to put them on his own ship, it would have been much better for his reputation had he said nothing about it.

The following figures show how much reliance can be placed on Captain Semmes’ statements. He says, "The enemy was heavier than myself, both in ship, battery and crew:"


                                                                Alabama                                Kearsarge

Length over all,                                    220 feet                                  214 feet
Length in water-line,                            210   "                                    198  "
Beam,                                                       32   "                                     33   
Depth,                                                      17   "                                     16   
Horse-power-two engines,                 300 each.                                400
Tonnage,                                               1150                                        1031


Thus, it will be seen that the Alabama was the longest vessel, deepest vessel, possessing greater engine power, and the heaviest vessel. Besides, she had one more gun than the Kearsarge, although the latter, by her large guns, threw the heaviest broadside. But, during the engagement, the Kearsarge fought only five guns, while the Alabama fought seven. The latter also fired nearly double the number of shots that the former did. Hence, so far as the amount of metal thrown, the Alabama had clearly the best of it. It is true the Kearsarge had one great advantage, which we cheerfully concede: she carried American guns, chiefly Dahlgrens, while the Alabama’s armament was wholly English. Thus much as to Semmes’ statement that the Kearsarge was heavier both in ship and battery.

We will now examine the captain’s statement that his antagonist outnumbered him in the crew. It is a matter of small moment, however, in an engagement like this, which was fought by shot and shell alone; for in such an encounter, any more men than are necessary to work the guns and handle the ship, are in the way. It is only in boarding, or close quarters, where the numerical superiority of the crew gives any advantage.

But be that as it may, the Kearsarge’s vast superiority in crew consisted of just sixteen men. Winslow reports his crew, including officers and sick, one hundred and sixty-three. Many of the English papers made the crew of the Alabama to consist of only about one hundred persons. Mr. Mason, Confederate representative in London, declared, over his own signature, that it numbered just one hundred and twenty. But three days after, the Liverpool Mercury published a complete list of the crew of the Alabama, giving the names of all, except those picked up by the Deerhound, and this list sums up one hundred and three. Now, the latter picked up forty-four, thus making in all one hundred and forty-seven against one hundred and sixty-three. The simple truth is, that there never was, and probably never will be, a naval duel between two vessels more equally matched than these. The secret of success lay here, as it did in the single-handed fights between British and American frigates in the war of 1812, not in superior bravery, or seamanship, or vessels, but in superior gunnery. Dahlgren’s guns here vindicated themselves.

The Constitution was ready to go again into action in a few hours after the Guerrière went to the bottom—so, subsequently, every spar was standing in her, while the Java lay a helpless wreck on the ocean. So now, the Kearsarge had hardly begun to fight, when the Alabama went down with all her dead on board.

A great deal of noise was made over Semmes’ chivalrous character, because he threw his sword into the sea, rather than surrender it to his enemy—on which the London News sarcastically remarks, "he had better thrown over his trumpet with the sword."

The conduct of Mr. Lancaster, owner of the yacht, met with universal condemnation on both sides of the water. Urged by Winslow to help those who he knew had surrendered themselves prisoners of war, he no sooner got Captain Semmes and some forty more aboard his vessel, than he steamed away, at the rate of thirteen knots an hour, for Southampton. He dared not return to Cherbourg, for he knew he was acting the part of a thief, and so made haste to get into an English port. So hard was he scourged for his dishonorable conduct, that he found it necessary to publish a defence, which only made the matter worse. He says, "Captain Winslow’s request to help save the crew was not accompanied with any stipulation, to the effect that I should deliver up the rescued men to him as prisoners. If it had been, I should have declined the task, because I should have deemed it dishonorable—that is, inconsistent with my notions of honor—to lend my yacht and crew, for the purpose of rescuing those brave men from drowning, only to hand them over to their enemies for imprisonment, ill treatment, and perhaps execution."

What a confession is this for a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron to make? Because Winslow made no stipulation that he should deliver up to him men who had surrendered and were prisoners of war, and hence just as much his, by the laws of nations and the laws of honor as though they were on board his vessel, he therefore felt justified in running away with them! That is, if Winslow saw a large amount of his own property floating about, and in danger of being lost, and should ask Mr. Lancaster to help him save it, the latter, after picking up a good boat-load, would run away with it, because the request to save it was not accompanied with a stipulation that he should return it to the lawful owner!

One hardly knows which to admire most in this barefaced statement—its morals or its logic. Again he says: "I should have deemed it inconsistent with my notions of honor to lend my yacht and crew for the purpose of rescuing those brave men from drowning, &c." His sense of honor would have forced him to look stolidly on and see those men drown, rather than save them, if they were to be held as prisoners. This certainly is a most extraordinary exhibition of honor, and exists nowhere, we apprehend, except in the British Isles. One would think that a proper feeling of honor, not to say of humanity, would prompt a man to consult the men struggling for life, to know whether they preferred to go to the bottom, or be saved as prisoners. They had already taken their choice, and surrendered rather than sink with the ship, and now asked to be saved. But this Englishman, with his notions of honor, thinks that they did not know what was best for themselves, and rather than save them on the very terms they had accepted, he would have allowed them to drown.

One can imagine this pompous Englishman moving off with his yacht, while the half-drowning crew is despairingly calling on him to save them, with the reply: "Captain Winslow has ordered me to give you up as prisoners, and it is inconsistent with my sense of honor to save you on those terms—and you had better go to the bottom."

If Captain Winslow had dreamed how little sense of honor the man possessed, he would have wakened him up to the sense of it with shot and shell, in a manner that would have taught him better logic and better manners.

We venture to say that it will be the last time a vessel of the Royal Yacht Squadron will be a close spectator of a naval engagement in which one of the combatants is an American ship of war. Captain Winslow received the following highly complimentary letter from the Secretary of the Navy, who did not attempt to conceal his great delight at the summary destruction of this vessel, which almost alone had driven our commerce from the seas.


NAVY DEPARTMENT, July 6, 1863.

Sir;—Your brief dispatches of the 19th and 20th ultimo, informing the Department that the piratical craft Alabama, or "290," had been sunk, on the 19th of June, near meridian, by the Kearsarge, under your command, was this day received. I congratulate you on your good fortune in meeting this vessel, which had so long avoided the fastest ships, and some of the most vigilant and intelligent officers of the service, and, for the ability displayed in this combat, you have the thanks of the Department.

You will express to the officers and crew of the Kearsarge, the satisfaction of the Government at the victory over a vessel, superior in tonnage, superior in number of guns, and superior in the number of her crew. The battle was so brief, the victory so decisive, and the comparative results so striking, that the country will be reminded of the brilliant actions of our infant Navy, which have been repeated and illustrated in this engagement, "The Alabama represented the best maritime efforts of the most skilful English workshops. Her battery was composed of the well-tried thirty-two pounders, of fifty-seven hundred weight, of the famous 68-pounder of the British Navy, and of the only successful rifled 100-pounder yet produced in England. The crew were generally recruited in Great Britain, and many of them received superior training on board her majesty’s gunnery ship, the Excellent.

The Kearsarge is one of the first gunboats built at our Navy Yards, at the commencement of the rebellion, and lacks the improvements of vessels now under construction. The principal guns composing her battery had never been previously tried in an exclusively naval engagement, yet, in one hour you succeeded in sinking your antagonist, thus fully ending her predatory career, and killed many of her crew, without injury to the Kearsarge, or the loss of a single life on your vessel. Our countrymen have reason to be satisfied, that in this as in every naval action of this unhappy war, neither the ships, the guns, nor the crews, have been deteriorated, but that they maintain the abilities and continue the renown which ever adorned our naval annals.

The President has signified his intention to recommend that you receive a vote of thanks, in order that you may be advanced to the grade of Commodore. Lieutenant Commander James S. Thornton, the executive officer of the Kearsarge, will be recommended to the Senate for advancement ten numbers in his grade, and you will report to the Department the names of any others of the officers and crew, whose good conduct on this occasion entitle them to especial mention.

Very respectfully,


Secretary of the Navy.


commd’g. U. S. Steamer Kearsarge, Cherbourg, France.


But if the Government was delighted and Europe excited over the result of this naval conflict, the people of this country were filled with unbounded enthusiasm. This vessel had seemed as ubiquitous as the Flying Dutchman—so erratic were her movements, and rapid her transitions, that the most experienced officers that were sent in pursuit of her invariably returned baffled. The swiftest steamers scoured the ocean in search of her, but always failed to find her. Yet she did not hide away in obscure places, but boldly stood along the track of our commerce, and made the ocean lurid with the flames of our merchantmen, which she burned because there was no port that dared to receive the prizes. One day she would be on the Atlantic seaboard—the next, lost in the intricate mazes of the West India Islands, and, when the search for her was about to be abandoned, news would come that she was flaunting her flag in the Indian Ocean, sending terror amid our vessels in that remote part of the world. The people were irritated, indignant, and mortified, that this bold rover should so put to defiance our fleetest steamers and best commanders. But now her career was ended—not by the storms of heaven, or hidden sea-rocks, nor yet by being ignominiously shut up in a neutral harbor-but in fair. open combat had been sent to the bottom by a vessel inferior in size-in a fight, too, not forced on her by circumstances, but one of her own choosing. Her commander had sent an open challenge, thus inviting spectators to come and witness our defeat. The national feeling was satisfied, and the name of Winslow was mentioned with pride by every tongue.

Yet, right on the top of this, the Secretary of the Navy wrote to Winslow: "I notice by the last mail from England that it is reported that you have paroled the foreign pirates captured on board the Alabama. I trust you have not committed this error of judgment." And again: “In parolling the prisoners, however, you committed a grave error." How did the Secretary of the Navy know this, for he had never yet received Winslow’s report of his proceedings? What right had he to censure a gallant officer on mere rumor? It never occurred to him that this brave commander, whose whole life had been spent in the naval service, knew vastly better what was proper and right under the circumstances than he could who had been but three years or so in the Navy Department. It always has been a source of annoyance to our naval commanders that they are under the orders of an officer wholly ignorant of the naval profession. A lawyer, or editor, or politician, is placed at the head of the navy, and, seemingly thinking that all necessary qualifications come with the office, conveys or gives orders or proposes measures that a. naval officer would never think of doing. That the War and Navy Departments of this great country should, every four years, be put under a new man, to whom the duties of both are wholly unknown, is an error that has cost us and will cost us in the future millions of treasure and oceans of blood.

Winslow, in reply to this censure, said that his decks were crowded with the bedding of the wounded and prisoners under guard; moreover, the ship was damaged both in rigging and hull. A shot had entered the sternpost, raising the transom frame and binding the rudder so hard as to require four men at the helm. It was therefore important that an examination should be made of the damages sustained. This, of course, could not be done without clearing the ship. This was the more important, as he continued, “I received information from our consul, in London, that the Florida was in the channel on the French coast, and at the same time information came that the Yeddo was out, and the Rappahannock was expected to follow." He had heard that the sea around him was alive with rebel cruisers, with no vessel but the Kearsarge to take care of them. "It therefore became," he says, "in my mind, of the utmost importance that the Kearsarge should at once be put in a state to meet these vessels and protect our commerce. This could not be done with prisoners on board equalling half of our crew, and the room occupied by the wounded, to the exclusion of our own men; to have kept them would have required a quarterwatch as guards, and the ship would have been wholly ineffective as a man-of-war to meet this emergency which threatened. Under these circumstances, and without an American vessel in port, by which arrangements could be made for transshipping the prisoners outside, I felt it my duty to parole them." Of course it was his duty to do so—not to act as jailor to thirty or forty men, but strip his vessel for another fight, and keep rebel cruisers from these waters.

Commodore Winslow has all the qualities that go to make up a great naval commander—a naturally strong intellect, cultivated by careful training and long practical experience. Quiet in his manner, he is yet capable of intense excitement, but which shows itself only in increased energy and determination. Apparently destitute of fear, he is, notwithstanding, never rash. When once fairly roused, no obstacles can stop him, no dangers daunt him. Of great powers of endurance, and a courage that never flags, there seems no limit to his exertions. Rock-fast in his resolution he moves to his purpose with a firmness before which everything must give way. His remark that he was just getting ready for "warm work" when the Alabama surrendered, reminds one of Paul Jones, who, when asked if he had surrendered, replied that he had just begun to fight, and throws a flood of light on the character of the man. Without being vain, he has a supreme confidence in himself—a self-reliance growing out of the consciousness of power. Scorning cant, trickery, and humbug, in others, he never blows his own trumpet, and, instead of overestimating, underrates his own actions. He sees only the simple performance of duty where others are dazzled with the heroism of his conduct, and hence did not fully appreciate the enthusiasm of the people at his victory over the Alabama. His fame is secure, and his name, which in one hour he made known the world over, will go down to posterity on the same historic roll with Hull and Bainbridge, and Perry and McDonough, and other naval heroes of the nation.

Chapter XV

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