Echoes From Cherbourg

640px-Édouard_Manet-Kearsarge-Alabama2150 years ago today, Captain Raphael Semmes’ CSS Alabama sailed out from Cherbourg Harbor in France to do battle with Captain John Winslow’s USS Kearsarge. After an hour of fighting approximately 12 miles offshore (and in full view of a French crowd on shore including the artist Eduoard Manet), Alabama sank. An excellent brief overview of the action (with images) can be found here:

This battle and its ships have left traces that can still be discovered today. Collectively they add an international dimension to the Civil War and its legacy that is often overlooked. Here are some of the major ties:

CHERBOURG LEGACIES. The Alabama’s wreck lies 12 miles north of Cherbourg; many artifacts have been brought up since her discovery about 30 years ago. One of her Blakely guns is in the front lobby of the Cite de la Mer Museum on the waterfront, marked with a plaque from the Civil War Trust placed in 2004. Two Confederates killed on June 19 are buried in the city cemetery in an area known to locals as Tombe de l’Alabama. They overlook the harbor, and are reached by walking past dishearteningly dense rows of graves dated 1914-1918. Today the heights where people watched the battle are studded with old German bunkers from 1944, captured by U.S. forces 70 years ago at the end of this month.

INTERNATIONAL LAW. In 1865 the United States filed claims against Britain (the Alabama Claims) for the damage and destruction that Semmes and his fellow Confederate commerce raiders wreaked on the high seas. Settled in 1872 by an arbitration panel representing neutral countries, the claims set a precedent in international law for this type of mechanism for settling disputes. This precedent later made possible the Hague Convention, the Geneva Conventions, the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations.

KEARSARGE. Since the Civil War, three other ships have carried the name of Winslow’s ship to sea, taking part in all major U.S. wars since World War I. The first one was a battleship that participated in the Great White Fleet cruise and World War I. Two aircraft carriers in World War II were named Kearsarge; one was renamed Hornet and is now a museum ship, while the other entered service in 1945 and fought  in Korea and Vietnam. Today USS Kearsarge is an amphibious assault ship based out of Naval Station Norfolk; she is most famous for her activities off Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, including the recovery of downed pilot Scott O’Grady.

Top picture: Edouard Manet’s depiction of the battle between Alabama and Kearsarge, today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

For an image of the Confederate graves as seen in 1954, see link here:


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