Battle of Cherbourg
From an article by Nick Jouault in his blog
One of the major naval battles of the American Civil War took place very close to Channel Island waters off the French port of Cherbourg in 1864. The encounter between the Confederate ship Alabama and the Union ship Kearsarge created some interest in Jersey and was reported in the British Press and Jersey Times in a letter by Captain T Saumarez, who lived in St Lawrence. The Confederate ship Alabama was built by John Laird and Sons at Birkenhead in 1862, which was highly controversial because Britain was supposed to be a neutral during the Civil War. The Americans eventually sued for compensation over this and other actions, in what was to be known as the "Alabama Claims", which were settled with a $15.5 million payment in 1872.
Alabama was at sea for 534 days out of 657, never visiting a single Confederate port. She boarded nearly 450 vessels, captured or burned 65 Union merchant ships, and took more than 2,000 prisoners without a single loss of life from either prisoners or her own crew. Her last port of call was Cherbourg which she left to face battlewith the Union ship Kearsarge, resulting in the sinking of Alabama.
[Editor's note: The correct spelling of the Union ship is Kearsarge. She was named after Mount Kearsarge in New Hampshire. Captain Saumarez used the incorrect spelling Kearsage, which may explain why a house at Beaumont bears that name to this day]
Captain Saumarez’ letter was published in the “British Press and Jersey Times” on 8 July 1864.
- Sir, – Having just returned from Cherbourg, the following account of the Kearsage and the damage done to her in her late engagement may prove of some interest to your naval readers:
- "The Kearsage is a vessel of 1,030 tons, and lies very low in the water. Her armament consists of two 11-inch Dahlgrens, four 32 pounders, and one rifled 30 pounder which she carries up on her gallant forecastle. Her engines are of 30 horse power, working up to 1,200, having 14 furnaces, the staff of which consists of 32 stokers, five engineers, and one chief engineer, and I never witnessed engines in more perfect and compact order, or kept so beautifully clean.
- Her two Dahlgrens throw shell and hollow shot of 138 lb. The gun weighs eight tons, and owing to the simplicity of the carriage and its slide, is most easily worked.
- Her officers and crew consist in all of 160. She is very lightly rigged, spars very small, and her boats very high above her bulwarks. Her speed is very great, having steamed at 13 knots for 48 hours consecutively, and her chief engineer informed me he has got 16 knots out of her.
- When I boarded her I found she had no armour plates or protection of any kind beyond having used her chain cable about 70 fathoms on each side in the wake of the engines, stopped up and down to the eye bolts driven in outside of the ship, and covered over by very thin planking. I found she had eight shots in her hull. Two had struck this on her starboard side, and had merely broken the links, but had not penetrated. A shell (3) had entered her starboard main chains, and exploded close to the 11 inch gun, but only wounding three men, one since dead; one (4) shot took of the top of her hurricane house, over her engine room, carrying away her port dead eye in the main rigging. A shot (5) struck her inboard near the mizzen mast, on the port side, passing outboard, and doing but little damage. A shot (6) struck her under the starboard counter, merely starting a deck plank . A shell (7) struck and now remains two feet above water in her stern post. Which they have merely covered over with a piece of painted canvas; and this is all the damage done to her beyond three shot through her funnel, and her rigging cut up a little aloft.
- She has not been into dock, nor does she require it, and need never have gone into port for repairs, so little effect has the Alabama’s fire had on her. The following account of the action I heard from an old friend, a French captain, who witnessed every manoeuvre from the centre fort of the breakwater; but I must premise by saying that a very strong feeling existed against the Northeners at Cherbourg during the late naval engagement:
- "The Kearsage some days previously entered at the east of the breakwater, and passed through the west end without anchoring, the Alabama being then at anchor, and anyone could see her outside protection. On the evening of Sunday the Alabama steamed straight out towards her enemy, who steamed down in tack, with the evident intention of forcing the Alabama to attack her on her starboard side, and kept her side towards her the whole action, working round in circles. The Alabama’s fire was very fast, but very bad shots going over and over her antagonist, and her shells seemed not to explode. Not so the Kearsage; nearly every shot told, and they saw terrific explosions from her shells, splinters being plainly visible. The fight in this way lasted one hour and ten minutes, when the Alabama struck her flag. To their astonishment they saw the Kearsage fire four or five shots after the ship had struck. The Kearsage then steamed past the Alabama and remained astern, not even lowering a boat until she was in the act of sinking, and it was exactly 18 minutes from the time the last shot was fired till she sank. The average speed was eight knots during the action".
- Such is my friend’s account. On convening with the wounded men we heard that the Alabama was very leaky and sadly required caulking – obliged to use the pumps even at anchor; that her powder was very bad and damp, a quantity of which they threw overboard, that the fuses to her shells were much the same, and proved so on former occasions; and after the first shot had struck the ship she made a quantity of water. The officers of the Kearsage state that they at once lowered their boats and saved 71 men. One French
- I am, Sir, your obedient servant
- T Saumarez, Captain RN, The Firs, St. Laurence, Jersey, 30 June
The Firs is a property off Mont Felard where the Hotel Cristina is now. The local papers also printed a letter from a resident at Gorey telling how he had invited some friends from St Helier for afternoon tea, but they had declined, and he said it was unfortunate as he had listened to guns of the distant battle.
Two houses on the front at Beaumont, St Lawrence still bear the names of the ships involved although unfortunately the spelling of Kearsage is incorrect.
Another connection with Jersey was a report in England in the Globe and the London Review in which the engineer of the Wonder relayed some gossip that he had heard in St Helier that someone had seen a telegraph from Gorey that a battle had taken place between the Kearsarge and the Confederate ship Florida which ended up with the Kearsarge putting into Gorey for shelter and repairs. The report was a total hoax as the Kearsarge was at the time at anchor off Dover.
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