The most celebrated and reviled ship in the Confederate Navy, the Alabama had, in just two years, captured 64 American merchant ships worth $5.1 million. Showing the wear of such hard duty, the vessel sailed into Cherbourg for repairs in June 1864. But Capt. Raphael Semmes met with a technicality: All berths were reserved for the French Navy; any waiver would have to come directly from Emperor Napoleon III, who was—Quelle dommage!—on vacation in Biarritz. Semmes applied, but before the emperor could return to Paris, the USS Kearsarge appeared on June 19. The Union ship had been draped in anchor chain, turning it into a homemade ironclad. Painted black, the chain disappeared against the hull.
Semmes gave battle right then, before Kearsarge Capt. John Winslow could summon reinforcements.After 9 that morning, the Alabama left the harbor, trailed by civilian boats and an English yacht eager to catch the spectacle. Semmes opened fire around 11 a.m., and the ships exchanged fire without effect for about 15 minutes—until a shot from the Kearsarge disabled the Alabama’s rudder. Winslow poured on the fire, and Semmes raised the white flag. As his ship sank, the Kearsarge captured almost half his crew of 145, but Semmes and several others escaped aboard a British ship. Two Confederates (of 21 who died as a result of the battle) are buried, along with the lone Union fatality, in the Cherbourg Old Communal Cemetery.
The U.S. government’s claims against Britain, where the Alabama was built in violation of the Neutrality Act, were not settled until 1871, but a longer-lasting effect of the duel was a painting by Édouard Manet. For years it was believed that Manet had been in one of the civilian boats. Not so; The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama” was based on news reports. Dominated by swirling smoke and a roiling sea, the painting, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, captures the terror of combat at sea