Ensign Struck off Cherbourg

Second National Confederate Flag from the C.S.S. Alabama, held by family tradition to be the flag struck during the 19 June 1864 battle with the U.S.S. Kearsarge. Given by Captain Raphael Semmes to Hugh Rowland Beaver in 1864.
Second National Confederate Flag from the C.S.S. Alabama, held by family tradition to be the flag struck during the 19 June 1864 battle with the U.S.S. Kearsarge. Given by Captain Raphael Semmes to Hugh Rowland Beaver in 1864.

Some ten or fifteen minutes after the commencement of the action our spanker gaff was shot away, and our ensign came down by the run. This was immediately replaced by another at the mizenmast-head. Official Report of Captain Semmes.

It was the boast of Admiral Semmes that nothing was saved, when the Alabama was sunk off Cherbourg by the Kearsage, that might be a trophy for the victors. In fact his boat’s flag was saved and that he presented to Rowland Beaver in return for his hospitality at Singapore. The flag still exists, probably the only tangible relic of one of the great raiders in naval history. It is a large white flag, the top corner next the flagstaff being red with a St. Andrew’s cross of blue imposed on it. On the cross are thirteen white stars, representing the original thirteen United States. An Anglesey Sea Captain by Hugh Beaver, Anglesey Antiquarian Society Transactions (1928).

To the Editor of the London Times:

SIR: I send herewith a copy of the official report of Capt. SEMMES of his late engagement with the United States ship Kearsarge, which you may, perhaps, think worthy a place in your columns.

I avail myself of the occasion to note one or two inaccuracies in the letter of your correspondent, dated at Southampton on Monday, and published in the Times of Tuesday. The crew of the Alabama is there stated at 150 men; she had, in fact, but 120, all told.

Again, as to her armament: that of the Kearsarge may be correctly given by your correspondent. I do not know what it was. The Alabama had one 7-inch Blakely rifled gun, one 8 inch smooth-bore pivot gun, and six 32-pounders, smooth-bore, in broadside.

I am, Sir, very respectfully your obedient servant,



SOUTHAMPTON, June 21, 1864,

SIR: I have the honor to inform you that, in accordance with my intention, as previously announced to you, I steamed out of the harbor of Cherbourg between nine and ten o’clock on the morning of the 19th of June for the purpose of engaging the enemy’s steamer Kearsarge, which had been lying off and on the port for several days previously. After clearing the harbor we descried the enemy, with his head off shore, at a distance of about seven miles. We were three-quarters of an hour in coming up with him. I had previously pivoted my guns to starboard, and made all my preparations for engaging the enemy on that side. When within about a mile and a quarter of the enemy he suddenly wheeled, and, bringing his head in shore, presented his starboard battery to me. By this time we were distant about one mile from each other, when I opened on him with solid shot, to which he replied in a few minutes, and the engagement became active on both sides.

The enemy now pressed his ship under a full head of steam, and to prevent our passing each other too speedily, and to keep our respective broadsides bearing, it became necessary to fight in a circle, the two ships steaming around a common centre, and preserving a distance from each other of from a quarter to half a mile. When we got within good shell range we opened upon him with shell. Some ten or fifteen minutes after the commencement of the action our spanker gaff was shot away, and our ensign came down by the run. This was immediately replaced by another at the mizenmast-head. The firing now became very hot, and the enemy’s shot and shell soon began to tell upon our hull, knocking down, killing and disabling a number of men in different parts of the ship.

Perceiving that our shell, though apparently exploding against the enemy’s sides, were doing him but little damage, I returned to solid shot firing, and from this time onward attended (alternated?) with shot and shell. After the lapse of about one hour and ten minutes our ship was ascertained to be in a sinking condition — the enemy’s shell having exploded in our sides and between decks, opening large apertures, through which the water rushed with great rapidity.

For some few minutes I had hopes of being able to reach the French coast, for which purpose I gave the ship all steam, and set such of the fore and aft sails as were available. The ship filled so rapidly, however, that before we had made much progress the fires were extinguished in the furnaces, and we were evidently on the point of sinking. I now hauled down my colors, to prevent the further destruction of life, and dispatched a boat to inform the enemy of our condition.

Although we were now but 400 yards from each other, the enemy fired upon 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.

We now turned all our exertions toward saving the wounded and such of the boys of the ship who were unable to swim. These were dispatched in my quarter-boats, the only boats remaining to me, the waist-boats having been torn to pieces.

Some twenty minutes after my furnace fires had been extinguished, and the ship being on the point of settling, every man, in obedience to a previous order which had been given the crew, jumped overboard and endeavored to save himself.

There was no appearance of any boat coming to me from the enemy after my ship went down. Fortunately, however, the steam yacht Deerhound, owned by a gentleman of Lancashire, England, Mr. JOHN LANCASTER, who was himself on board, steamed up in the midst of my drowning men, and rescued a number of both officers and men from the water. I was fortunate enough myself thus to escape to the shelter of the neutral flag, together with about forty others all told.

About this time the Kearsarge sent one, and then, tardily, another boat.

Accompanying you will find lists of the killed and wounded, and of those who were picked up by the Deerhound; the remainder, there is reason to hope, were picked up by the enemy and by a couple of French pilot-boats, which were also fortunately near the scene of action.

At the end of the engagement it was discovered by those of our officers who went alongside the enemy’s ship with the wounded, that her midship section on both sides was thoroughly iron-coated; this having been done with chain constructed for the purpose, placed perpendicularly to the water’s edge, the whole covered by a thin planking, which gave no indication of the armor beneath.

This planking had been ripped off in every direction by our shot and shell, the chain broken and in dented in many places, and forced partly into the ship’s side. She was most effectually guarded, however, in this section from penetration. The enemy was much damaged in other parts, but to what extent it is now impossible to tell; it is believed he was badly crippled.

My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly, and though they have lost their ship they have not lost honor.

Where all behaved so well it would be invidious 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 coolness and judgment as the fight proceeded.

The enemy was heavier than myself, both in ship, battery and crew; but I did not know until the action was over that she was also iron-clad.

Our total loss in killed and wounded is 30 — to wit: 9 killed, 21 wounded.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. SEMMES, Captain,


Author: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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