Imagine, then, the keen elation with which all hands aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge heard at their berth off Flushing that the Alabama was in port at Cherbourg on the Channel coast of France, only one day's sail southwest! And there she was when the Kearsarge came to anchor; and every Northern eye was turned to see the ship of which the world had heard so much. The Kearsarges hardly dared to hope that there would be a fight; for they had the stronger vessel, and now the faster one as well. The Alabama had been built for speed; but she had knocked about so much without a proper overhaul that her copper sheathing was in rags, while she was more or less strained. in nearly every other part. The Kearsarge, on the other hand, was in good order, with mantlets of chain cable protecting her vitals, with one-third greater horse power, with fourteen more men in her crew, and with two big pivot guns throwing eleven inch shells with great force at short ranges. Moreover, the Kearsarge, with her superior speed and stronger hull, could choose the range and risk close quarters,. The Alabamas were also keen to estimate respective strengths. But the French authorities naturally kept the two ships pretty far apart; so the Alabamas never saw the chain mantlets which the Kearsarges had cleverly hidden under a covering of wood that appeared to be flush with the hull.
The Kearsarges had a second and still more elating surprise when they heard the Alabama was coming out to fight. Semmes was apparently anxious to show that his raider could be as gallant in fighting a man-of-war as she was effective in sinking merchant vessels; so he wrote his challenge to the Confederate Consul at Cherbourg, who passed it on to the U. S. Consul, who handed it to Captain Winslow, commanding the Kearsarge. Still, four days passed without the Alabama; and the Kearsarges were giving up hope, when, suddenly, on Sunday morning, the nineteenth of June, just as they had rigged church and fallen in for prayers, out came the Alabama. The Kearsarge thereupon drew off, so that the Alabama could not easily escape to neutral waters if the duel went against her. Cherbourg, of course, was all agog to see the fight; and many thousands of people, some from as far as Paris, watched every move. An English yacht, the Deerhound, kept an offing of about a mile, ready to rescue survivors from a watery grave. Its owner, with his wife and family, had intended to stay ashore and go to church. But, when they heard the Alabama was really going out, he put the question to the vote around the breakfast-table, whereupon it was carried unanimously that the Deerhound should go too.
When the deck-officer of the Kearsarge sang out, "Alabama!" Captain Winslow put down his prayerbook, seized his speaking-trumpet, and turned to gain a proper offing, while the drum beat to general quarters and the ship was cleared for action, with pivot-guns to starboard. The weather was fine, with a slight haze, little sea, and a light west breeze. Having drawn the Alabama far enough to sea, the Kearsarge turned toward her again, showing the starboard bow. When at a mile the Alabama fired her hundred-pounder. For nearly the whole hour this famous duel lasted the ships continued fighting in the same way-- starboard to starboard, round and round a circle from half to a quarter mile across. Each captain stood on the horse-block abreast the mizzen-mast to direct the fight. Semmes presently called to his executive officer: "Mr. Kell, use solid shot! Our shell strike the enemy's side and fall into the water" (after bounding off the iron mantlets Winslow had so cleverly concealed). The Kearsarge's gunnery was magnificent, especially from the after-pivot, which Quartermaster William Smith fired with deadly aim, even when three of his gun's crew had been wounded by a shell. These three, strange to say, were the only casualties that occurred aboard the Kearsarge. But at sea the stronger side usually suffers much less and the weaker much more than on land. The Alabama lost forty: killed, drowned, and wounded.
The Kearsarges soon saw how the fight was going and began to cheer each first-rate shot. "That's a good one! Now we have her! Give her another like the last!" The big eleven-inchers got home repeatedly as the range decreased; so much so that Semmes ordered Kell to keep the Alabama headed for the coast the next time the circling brought her bow that way. This would bring her port side into action, which was just what Semmes wanted now, because she had a dangerous list to starboard, where the water was pouring through the shot-holes. Kell changed her course with perfect skill, righting the helm, hoisting the head-sails, hauling the fore-trysail-sheet well aft, and pivoting to port for a broadside delivered almost as quickly as if there had not been a change at all. But at this moment the engineer came up to say the water had put his fires out and that the ship was sinking. At the same time a strange thing happened. An early shot from the Kearsarge had carried away the Alabama's colors; and now the Alabama's own last broadside actually announced her own defeat by "breaking out" the special Stars and Stripes that Window had run up his mizzenmast on purpose to break out in case of victory. A cannon ball had twitched the cord that held the flag rolled up "in stops."
Semmes sent his one remaining boat to announce his surrender; threw his sword into the sea; and jumped in with the survivors. The Deerhound, on authority from Winslow, had already closed in to the rescue, followed by two French pilot boats and two from the Kearsarge; when suddenly the Alabama, rearing like a stricken horse, plunged to her doom.
Long before the Alabama's end the Navy had been preparing for the finishing blows against the Southern ports. Farragut had returned to New Orleans in January, '64, hoping for immediate action. But vexatious delays at Washington postponed his great attack till August, when he crowned his whole career by his master-stroke against Mobile. Grant was equally annoyed by this absurd delay, which was caused by the eccentric, and therefore entirely wasteful, Red River Expedition of '64, an expedition we shall ignore otherwise than by pointing out, in this and the succeeding chapters, that it not only postponed the overdue attack on Mobile but spoilt Sherman's grand strategy as well as Farragut's and Grant's. Banks commanded it. But by this time even he had learnt enough of war to know that it was a totally false move. So he boldly protested against it. But Halleck's orders, dictated by the Government, were positive. So there was nothing for it but to suffer a well-deserved defeat while trying to kill the dead and withering branches of Confederate power beyond the Mississippi, in order to "show the flag in Texas" and say "hands off!" to Mexico and France in the least effective way of all.
During this delay the Confederate ram Albemarle came down the Roanoke River, hoping to break through the local blockade in Albemarle Sound and so give North Carolina an outlet to the sea. Two attempts against Newbern, which closed the way out to Pamlico Sound, had failed; but now (the fifth of May) great hopes were set upon the Albemarle. At first she seemed impregnable; and the Federal shot and shell glanced harmlessly off her iron sides. But presently Commander Roe of the Sassacus (a light-draft, pair-paddle, double-ender gunboat) getting at right angles to her, ordered his engineer to stuff the fires with oiled waste and keep the throttle open. "ALL HANDS, LIE DOWN!" shouted Roe, as the throbbing engines drove his vessel to the charge. Then came an earthquake shock: the Sassacus crashed her bronze beak into the Albemarle's side. Both vessels were disabled; a shell from the Albemarle burst the boilers of the Sassacus, scalding the engineers. But the rest fought off the attempt made by the Albemarles to board. Presently the furious opponents drifted apart; and the Albemarle, unable to face her other enemies, took refuge upstream. There, on the twenty-seventh of October, she was heroically attacked and sunk by Lieutenant W.B. Cushing, U.S.N., with a spar torpedo projecting from a little steam launch. Cushing himself swam off through a hail of bullets, worked his way through the woods, seized a skiff belonging to one of the enemy's outposts, and reached the flagship half dead but wholly triumphant.
Between the Albemarle's two fights Farragut took Mobile after a magnificent action on the fifth of of August. There were batteries ashore, torpedoes across the channel, the Tennessee ram and other Confederate vessels waiting on the flank: three kinds of danger to the Union fleet if one false movement had been made. But Farragut's touch was sure. He sent his ironclads through next to the batteries, which were only really dangerous on one side. This protected the wooden ships against the batteries and the ironclads against the torpedoes; for the Confederates had to leave part of the fairway clear in order to use it themselves. Through this narrow channel the four strongly armored monitors led the desperate way, a little ahead and to starboard of the wooden vessels, which followed in pairs, each pair lashed together, with the stronger on the starboard side, next to Fort Morgan.