By William Marvel
On June 19, 1864, the Confederate cruiser Alabama and the USS Kearsarge faced off in the English Channel outside the French port of Cherbourg. The Kearsarge had seen little action, and its men greeted the battle with enthusiasm. The Alabama, on the other hand, had limped into the harbor with a near-mutinous crew after spending months sinking Union ships all over the globe. Commander Raphael Semmes intended to put the ship into drydock for a few months - but then the Kearsarge steamed onto the scene, setting the stage for battle. About an hour after the Alabama fired the first shot, it began to sink, and its crew was forced to wave the white flag of surrender. Marvel consulted the original muster rolls and logbooks for both ships, the virtually unknown letters of Confederate paymaster Clarence Yonge, and census and pension information. The letters and diaries of officers and crewmen describe the tensions aboard the ships, as do excerpts from the little-used original logs of Alabama commander Raphael Semmes. French sources also help to illuminate the details of the battle between the two ships. Marvel challenges the accuracy of key memoirs on which most previous histories of the Alabama have been based and in so doing corrects a number of long-standing misinterpretations, including the myth that the English builders of the Alabama did not know what Confederate officials intended to do with the vessel. Marvel's greatest contribution is his compelling description of the everyday life of the men on board the ships, from the Liverpool urchins who served as cabin boys on the Alabama to the senior officers on both of the warships.
- Chapel Hill, NC