National Geographic : 1994 Dec
On June 13, ominous news: The U.S.S. Kearsarge, a black-hulled, 1,030-ton Union warship, in fighting trim, was steaming for Cherbourg. Her captain, John Winslow, was ill with malaria and out of favor with his superiors but anxious to redeem himself. He remembered Semmes from the Mexican War, when they had been on the same side, had even roomed together. On June 14 the Kear sarge appeared off Cherbourg. Raphael Semmes had three options: He could attempt an escape, but the Alabama was in serious disrepair. He could abandon the ship at the French wharf, rationalizing that it had served its purpose. He could fight. Some historians argue that Semmes' deci sion to face the Kearsargewas a beau geste, a chivalrous gesture. "Semmes could at least strike a blow for the honor of the Confederate Navy," writes John Taylor in his new book, Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama. Others maintain he misread the hopelessness of his position and sacrificed his men and his ship frivolously. But on that day Semmes was spoiling for a fight. "Mr. Kell ... ," Semmes told his lieuten ant, referring to the Stars and Stripes, "I am tired of running from that flaunting rag!" The Alabama took on tons of coal. The crew scrubbed decks and polished brasswork, sharpened swords and cutlasses. The wharf rats from Liverpool, who had never even seen the American South, prepared to risk their lives for it, singing: We're homeward bound; we're home ward bound, And soon shall stand on English ground, But ere that English land we see, We first must fight the Kearsargee. The Kearsargelurked outside the Cher bourg breakwater to wait for reinforcements. In Cherbourg there was talk of the Union vessel's use of heavy chains, slung over the sides to protect the hull and engine parts. The chains were held in place by wooden slats, making the hull look normal from a distance. But the Kearsargehad thus become an armored warship. If Semmes heard the reports, and there is strong evidence that he did, he chose to ignore them. Instead, Semmes exhorted his crewmen: "The name of your ship has become a house hold word wherever civilization extends.