Confederate raiders were at work along the trade routes of the world in '63, doing much harm by capture and destruction, and even more by shaking the security of the American mercantile marine. American crews were hard to get when so many hands were wanted for other war work; and American vessels were increasingly apt to seek the safety of a neutral flag.
Slowly, and with much perverse interference to overcome in the course of its harassing duties, the Union navy was getting the strangle-hold that killed the sea-girt South. By '64 the North had secured this strangle-hold; and nothing but foreign intervention or the political death of the Northern War Party could possibly shake it off. The South was feeling its practical enislement as never before. The strong right arm of the Union navy held it fast at every point but three--Wilmington, Charleston, and Mobile; and round these three the stern blockaders grew stronger every day. The Sabine Pass and Galveston also remained in Southern hands; and the border town of Matamoras still imported contraband. But these other three points were closely watched; and the greatly lessened contraband that did get through them now only served the western South, which had been completely severed from the eastern South by the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The left arm of the Union navy now held the whole line of the Mississippi, while the gripping hand held all the tributary streams--Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee--from which the Union armies were to invade, divide, and devastate the eastern South this year.
Several Southern raiders were still at large in '64. But the most famous or notorious three have each their own year of glory. The Florida belongs to '63, the Shenandoah to '65. So the one great raiding story we have now to tell is that of the Alabama, the greatest of them all.
The Alabama was a beautiful thousand-ton wooden barkentine, built by the Lairds at Birkenhead in '62, with standing rigging of wire, a single screw driven by two horizontal three-hundred horse power engines, coal room for three hundred and fifty tons, eight good guns, the heaviest a hundred-pound rifle, and a maximum crew of one hundred and forty-nine--all ranks and ratings--under Captain Raphael Semmes, late U.S.N. Semmes was not only a very able officer but an accomplished lawyer, well posted on belligerent and neutral rights at sea.
For nearly two years the Alabama roved the oceans of the Old World and the New, taking sixty-six Union vessels valued at seven million dollars, spreading the terror of her name among all the merchantmen that flew the Stars and Stripes, and infuriating the Navy by the wonderful way in which she contrived to escape every trap it set for her. She was designed for speed rather than for fighting, and, with her great spread of canvas, could sometimes work large areas under sail. But, even so, her runs, captures, and escapes formed a series of adventures that no mere luck could have possibly performed with a fluctuating foreign crew commanded by ex-officers of the Navy. Her wanderings took her through nearly a hundred degrees of latitude, from the coast of Scotland to St. Paul Island, south of the Indian Ocean, also through more than two hundred degrees of longitude, from the Gulf of Mexico to the China Sea. She captured "Yankees" within one day's steaming of the New York Navy Yard as well as in the Straits of Sunda. West of the Azores and off the coast of Brazil her captures came so thick and fast that they might have almost been a flock of .sheep run down there by a wolf. Finally, to fill the cup of wrath against her, she had sunk a blockader off the coast of Texas, given the slip to a Union manof-war at the Cape of Good Hope, and kept the Navy guessing her unanswered riddles for two whole years.
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.