16. Semmes informed his Union counterpart of his intention to fight
Alabama arrived in Cherbourg, France, on June 11, 1864, badly in need of refitting and repairs. Three days later, USS Kearsarge arrived, trapping the Confederates in the French port. Unwilling to sit out the rest of the war in a neutral port, Semmes sent a message to Kearsarge’s commander, Captain John Winslow. Semmes informed him of his intent to come out and fight, including times upon which he hoped to sail. Accordingly, Winslow waited just outside the territorial limit. In Cherbourg, word of the coming naval battle spread quickly, and citizens staked out areas from which to watch the combat. Painter Edouard Manet went out in a yacht to paint the battle. Englishman John Lancaster accompanied Alabama in his private yacht, determined to observe the fighting. Alabama sortied to meet Kearsarge on June 19, opening fire first. Kearsarge proved a formidable adversary.
The Union sloop of war proved faster, better handled, and capable of more accurate, devastating fire. It also benefited from the iron chain cladding which partially armored the ship’s hull, protecting its boilers and machinery. Alabama was reduced to a sinking wreck. Nineteen of its crew were killed or wounded. Kearsarge rescued just over 100 of its crew, but Semmes and about 40 others eluded capture by boarding Lancaster’s yacht, and thus escaping to England. Semmes eventually made it back to the Confederacy via Cuba, and commanded the James River squadron. He later accompanied General Joseph Johnston’s army as a brigadier, surrendering with it in 1865. Following the war, legal claims against Great Britain for building Alabama and other commerce raiders continued for years. Eventually, the British paid the United States $15.5 million in reparations for the damage the raiders’ caused.