The Battle of Cherbourg Controversey

on July 7, 2014 in American Civil War, Battles, Naval Warfare, Strategy and Tactics

When Captain John Winslow took USS Kearsarge to patrol the mouth of Cherbourg harbor and force CSS Alabama into battle, he did so having armored his ship by wrapping heavy iron chains around his midships. After his defeat, the celebrated Confederate raider Raphael Semmes claimed the improvised armor was ungentlemanly, and that he never would have ventured out to fight Kearsarge if he had known about the chains.

As Semmes is a romantic and popular figure, then and now and especially in Southern circles, his claim has been taken at face value by many. To me, it has always been fishy.

I’m a fan of Age of Sail fiction, such as the Master and Commander and Hornblower novels, and consequently I have studied quite a bit of the history of the period. As in so many things, the Civil War was a transition period in naval affairs. At age 56, Semmes was as much a product of the Age of Sail as Winslow was, so holding him up to those standards is very fair, and by those standards his claims are pure sour grapes!

Anglo-American Seamanship
First is Semmes’ claim that he knew nothing about the chains. Although there is no proof disproving his claim, placed into context it is highly dubious. Kearsarge blockaded Cherbourg for five days, and much of the time the vessel was within sight of land. The idea that an officer as savvy as Semmes would not take his telescope out and look over his enemy with all that time on his hands is ridiculous, so either Semmes knew about the chains or he was negligent.

Semmes’ assertion that there was something ungentlemanly about Winslow armoring his warship is also dubious. Winslow’s actions were in keeping with the Anglo-American naval tradition. I could easily see every fighting sea dog from John Paul Jones to Edward Pellew nodding in approval.

It’s The Gunnery
Finally, it seems that while Winslow’s extra armor helped him, it did not help him enough to change the course of the battle, and to that I point to the style and effect of the gunnery on the two warships. Alabama is known to have fired over 370 shots at Kearsarge, and scored several hits. Only two of these hits were known to have struck the chains, smashing the links where they hit, but not penetrating into the hull. Without the chains those shots would have done some damage and produced casualties, but neither would have crippled or sunk the Kearsarge.

By contrast, Kearsarge fired much more slowly and deliberately, scoring several highly accurate hits below Alabama’s waterline. It was there hits that sank the Confederate warship were scored, an important point when one realizes Kearsarge suffering no damage whatsoever below the waterline. If the Alabama had scored the same kind of hits as Kearsarge, the chains wouldn’t have mattered.

I’ve read a little about the career of CSS Alabama, and think both the record and the Alabama’s performance suggest that the gun crews were trained “dumb show” style. Alabama did not have access to ample resources for restocking its ammunition, which would have limited the crew’s ability to conduct live fire drills. In the Royal Navy, when a captain wished to train the crews without using up gunpowder and roundshot, he had them go through the motions of loading and firing without ammunition, the “dumb show.” The result improved a crew’s handling time, but did nothing to improve their accuracy.

By contrast, Kearsarge‘s gun crews were fully trained, and her armament very well handled. Winslow’s tactics also reflected the transition being made at the time from having lots of cannon to fewer, much heavier cannon. Both ships were sloops of war, which only 20 years before would have been armed with approximately 20 six-pounder cannon, yet in 1864 were armed with seven or eight cannon as heavy or heavier than the battleship guns of HMS Victory. Semmes’ tactics were those of the bygone era, where the fast, volume shooting mattered quite a bit because each hit mattered less.

Ultimately, Semmes lost because of the way he fought, and not because Kearsarge was wearing chains into the fight.

2 Responses to “The Battle of Cherbourg Controversey”

  1. Ed says:

    Semmes rules! Yankees only win through numbers or trickery!

  2. Hale Cullom says:

    Being southern, I’m of course much more sympathetic to Capt. Semmes and CSS Alabama, but I must say this analysis pretty much hits the mark.

    CSS Alabama was a raider targeted at US commerce, and engagement of warships, unless this could be done with a considerable superiority of force, should have, at all costs been avoided. Perhaps Capt. Semmes’s fundamental mistake was to fight Kearsarge at all, rather than make some attempt to evade her. Alabama was just refitted and had one or two knots speed advantage over the US warship. Perhaps he should have at least tried to use that.

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