The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailor's Civil War

The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailor's Civil War

The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailor's Civil War

The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailor's Civil War

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Soldier life in the Civil War has been examined in all its aspects, from the rigors of camp, march, and battlefield to the details of diet, disease, and diversion. On the other hand sailors, especially the blue-water variety, have been largely ignored save for those who wore gold braid. Namelessly clad in dark, baggy uniforms, the seamen of either side led an uncomfortable, exhausting, and monotonous existence and returned home with little if any fanfare, often succumbing at an early age to ailments encountered aboard ship. They tended to be poorer than their rifle-toting counterparts, and their lives ashore more often ended in obscurity. Few of them left memoirs, and almost none of those manuscripts found print. the long, cold days and nights on deck or the sweltering, smokey watches in the engine rooms went undescribed, forgotten by those who showed such interest in the campaigns on land. Curiosity about the experience of the common sailor was one of the principal motives behind this book.

Another incentive lay in the absence of a judicious and thorough investigation into the history of either the css Alabama or the uss Kearsarge. Three memoirs written by Alabama officers offered biased interpretations (and in one instance dubious credibility), and one account by an alleged crewman proved perfectly fraudulent; most secondary works on the ship's career to date have been based on such sources. the Kearsarge enjoyed no book-length treatment save an imaginative work by a former Marine corporal. Even a recent book on the Alabama that appeared during the preparation of this manuscript provided almost nothing in the way of new source material--instead merely forwarding an uncritical repetition of the standard collection of postwar reminiscences and secondary works, replete with repetitions of old mistakes with a few new ones thrown in to muddle the tale.

As I discovered some years ago, the surest way to uncover the real story of a time past is to go straight to the contemporary manuscripts. Wartime diaries and letters have helped in the development of new and more dependable interpretations of certain characters and events, but the careers of the Alabama and the Kearsarge posed a significant problem because such truly primary sources were so few. the crew of the Kearsarge produced a handful of diaries, but some of those seem to have been revised or expanded after the war, while one--Austin Quinby's journal--was so heavily reworked as to challenge its reliability. Aboard the Alabama, only two officer's journals survive, and sometimes they contradict each other. a few letters also address . . .

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