150 Years Ago This Week: CSS Alabama sunk

June 1864

By June 18, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant realized that the Union assaults against Petersburg were accomplishing very little besides losing large numbers of soldiers in the fighting. He came to a decision: Petersburg could not be taken by assault; it would have to be invested, and the railroads cut off. The siege of Petersburg was on, and was to last until April 1865.

The Federals controlled two of the five railroads into Petersburg, and now Gen. Lee had some 50,000 Confederate troops facing some 110,000 Union troops. A new style of warfare had been undertaken. The following day, after many months of searching for the elusive and highly successful Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, the Federal navy had cornered her in the French port of Cherbourg.

Commanded by Adm. Raphael Semmes, the Alabama had been taken to the French port for a major refit. Adm. Semmes had an impressive record of taking 82 Union ships in his career with the Confederate Navy — 65 of them on the Alabama. Now, on Sunday, June 19, the USS Kearsarge, commanded by Capt. John Winslow, had arrived off the French coast and waited for Alabama to come out.

Around 11 a.m., in fine weather, Alabama emerged from Cherbourg harbor and, reaching the three-mile limit of international waters, opened fire on Kearsarge. The Union ship returned fire, and for the next hour, the two combatants exchanged broadsides, gradually growing closer to one another in tightening circles.

The Alabama’s hull was wrecked by shells and at about noon, Adm. Semmes ceased firing as his ship started to take on water. Adm. Semmes headed for shore, but had to strike his colors as the ship went down. An English yacht, Deerhound, had been a witness to the contest, and took on a number of the survivors, including Adm. Semmes. The contest had been the greatest ship-to-ship combat of the war in open seas, and had also been witnessed by a large crowd on the cliffs overlooking the sea.

Fighting in the lines at Petersburg and in Georgia was abated for the moment, as the armies of Gen. Grant and Maj. Gen. William Sherman found defiant Confederate defenders. President Abraham Lincoln visited Gen. Grant and his army on the James River; before leaving Washington, he wrote to the governor of Ohio to watch the leading Copperhead and former Congressman Clement Vallandigham closely, and if he should see any danger to the military, the governor should have Vallandigham arrested.

While the President visited with Gen. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade aboard his river steamer at City Point, Va., there was considerable fighting around Tunstall’s Station as the two opposing armies probed each other. In Georgia, Gen. John B. Hood moved his Confederate Army of Tennessee from the right to the left of his defensive lines, and the Confederates probed Gen. Sherman’s army for areas of weakness.

Gen. Grant’s drive against the Weldon Railroad south and west of Petersburg resulted in a major engagement, in which the Union forces lost 1,700 men as Confederate prisoners. Cavalry of the opposing armies clashed at Ream’s Station when the Union troopers attempted to cut the railroad near Burkeville. The Union horsemen were driven back.

As the week drew to a close, Gen. Sherman was preparing for a major assault on the Confederate lines northwest of Atlanta. In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate troops advanced to the west from Lynchburg, unaware that Maj. Gen. David Hunter had withdrawn his Union troops across the mountains into West Virginia.

During the week, Christopher G. Memminger resigned as the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury; he told President Jefferson Davis that he was mindful of the extreme difficulty of conducting his department.

The Maryland Constitutional Convention voted to abolish slavery on June 24. At Fort Sumter, Confederate defenders there replaced yet another shot-torn flag while under fire; and at Petersburg, Union engineers began constructing a tunnel toward the Confederate lines for the purpose of blowing apart the Southern earthworks.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.