On 25 June 1864, John Winslow, captain of the Kearsarge, prepared an updated report on the Union screw sloop’s battle with the CSS Alabama outside Cherbourg Harbor six days earlier. In the account, which was forwarded to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, he lauded Sailors who had distinguished themselves during the recent fight. Winslow had good reason to be pleased. His men had performed superbly in an engagement that had lasted just over an hour.
The Kearsarge’s impressive victory off the coast of France had finally brought an end to a notorious Confederate sea raider that had eluded Union pursuers for almost two years. During that time the Alabama had destroyed 52 U.S. merchant and whaling vessels, bonded and released ten others, and fought and sunk a U.S. Navy warship, the Hatteras. Although Welles was unhappy that the Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, had escaped capture and that Winslow had paroled all but four of his prisoners, he readily approved that officer’s promotion to commodore, Executive Officer James Thornton’s advancement in grade, and the awarding of Medals of Honor to 17 Kearsarge Sailors.1
The Kearsarge’s two powerful Dahlgren XI-inch pivot guns had played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the battle, as an officer on the losing side acknowledged. Thirty years after the battle, the Alabama’s executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, wrote: “The 11-inch shells of the Kearsarge did fearful work, and her guns were served beautifully, being aimed with precision, and deliberate in fire. She came into action magnificently.”2
Kell, a native of Georgia who had served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years before the Civil War, made another telling observation. When asked about the qualities of the American Sailor, he replied: “The thoroughbred down-easter is the best seaman that sails the ocean. He is handy and trusty and has little dread of storms or shells.” Kell’s comment could well have described many of the Sailors on board the Kearsarge. One of those “down-easters” was John Bickford, first loader of the First Division’s XI-inch pivot gun and a recipient of the coveted Medal of Honor. In recommending Bickford’s appointment as master’s mate, Winslow praised “John F. Bickford, who, during the engagement and from long example and good conduct, and also education, is entitled to this reward.”3
Kearsarge Sailor . . . and Spy?
John Fairfield Bickford was born on 12 March 1843 at Bass Harbor in rugged coastal Maine’s Hancock County. He was the sixth of eight children of John and Abigail (Kiff) Bickford. The elder Bickford is listed in the 1850 federal census for Tremont, Maine, as a mariner, as is his eldest son, Daniel. John Jr. would have spent his early years fishing with family members along the Maine coast, with a true down-easter’s affinity for the sea. At age 19 Bickford left Maine for Boston and on 4 January 1862 enlisted in the U.S. Navy for two years as an ordinary seaman. He was recorded as being 5 feet 11 inches (although he later claimed to be an inch and a half taller) with hazel eyes, a light complexion, and black hair.4 Bickford sailed on board the receiving ship Ohio when she left Boston for the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Navy Yard carrying Sailors who would man the newly commissioned Kearsarge. The captain of that vessel, Charles Pickering, was under orders to locate and destroy the Confederacy’s “piratical” commerce raiders.
The official log of the Kearsarge’s three-year cruise refers to John Bickford only occasionally, and there is no record of his having been reprimanded or punished for even a minor offense, let alone any as serious as those of many of his shipmates. Years later Bickford jokingly described himself during those early years as being “young and smart,” as indeed he was.5 On 17 December 1862, he was rated an able seaman, and other promotions soon followed: captain of the top, coxswain of the captain’s gig, and eventually acting master’s mate.
Months at sea searching for the elusive enemy commerce raiders became frustrating, and officers and Sailors alike grew increasingly impatient to see action. When they located the Confederate cruiser Sumter in port at Gibraltar, the Rebel vessel’s usefulness as a raider had already come to an end. Another raider, the Rappahannock, was found docked at Calais undergoing repairs, and Winslow, who had assumed command of the Kearsarge in April 1863, badly wanted information about her. He hired a small steamer to keep the Rappahannock under constant observation and to signal him if she was seen leaving. In official reports written in April and May 1864 Winslow expressed “great anxiety” about the possibility that the raider might escape him.
The information he was receiving about the ship came from “consular agents” and from “detectives.” Could one of Winslow’s own Sailors have been one of these unnamed detectives? Winslow never said, but years after the war, Bickford related a daring exploit of his, which, however, cannot be verified by any other source. Determined to obtain information about the Rappahannock for his captain, he came up with a bold plan that he kept to himself. (“I didn’t volunteer because I knew they wouldn’t let a kid like I was then take it on.”)6
During one of the numerous times the Kearsarge was anchored off Dover, Bickford claimed he was granted shore leave, and from Dover he took a passenger boat across the English Channel to Calais. There, he enlisted on board the Rappahannock, receiving $50 in bonus money and a month’s pay, all in gold. That was the easy part. Getting away would be more difficult. After gathering information about the ship, Bickford made his getaway the next morning.
He explained: “I went ashore with a party, ostensibly to get my clothes. I went into the shop I had planned, gave the shop keeper a five-dollar gold piece to let me jump out of his rear window and got aboard the Dover boat.” Bickford also had a plan to avoid capture. “I stood near the captain with my arms folded and, though he didn’t know it, I had my revolver hidden so that if he had been summoned to turn back I could have laid it gently against his side.” Safely back on board the Kearsarge, Bickford explained his absence to Executive Officer Thornton—who “turned pale as a ghost”—and then reported to Winslow. According to Bickford, Winslow “took his facts” but informed him there could be no recognition for his surreptitious mission because it was “irregularly done, without authority, and by breaking leave.” Still, Bickford would later wonder if the “little affair” had been a factor in his receiving the Medal of Honor.7
Prelude to Battle
It was while the Kearsarge was at Flushing, Netherlands, that Winslow was alerted to the Alabama’s arrival at Cherbourg. The captain took his ship there with all due haste, arriving on 14 June 1864. Semmes, who had arrived three days earlier intending to have repairs made to his ship, decided to fight rather than remain in port, believing the two ships were about evenly matched. As it turned out, however, much of the Alabama’s gunpowder and many of her fuses had deteriorated from dampness during months at sea. When Lieutenant Kell reminded Semmes that only one-third of the fuses they had detonated during their most recent target practice had been effective, the captain replied, “I’ll take the chance of one in three.”8
The Confederate ship’s largely English crew, although eager to fight, was at a disadvantage, having only infrequently been drilled at the guns. And, according to an Alabama Sailor who survived the battle: “We had not a single competent gunner on board, excepting the captain of the forward pivot. He was an old English man-of-war man, trained in the British navy. The captains of the other guns were not competent gunners, though brave men.”9
Although the Alabama had easily defeated the Hatteras, a converted side-wheel steamer, months earlier, that vessel was vastly inferior to the Kearsarge, with her two powerful XI-inch pivot guns. Semmes would rely heavily on his Blakely rifled pivot gun that was captained by the “old man-of-war man.” Before the battle he ordered his gun crews to fire rapidly and aim low while closing with the Kearsarge, hoping to inflict a mortal blow before his adversary could respond. Winslow, on the other hand, cautioned his men against rapid firing, instructing that the heavy guns be aimed below the waterline and the lighter guns aimed at the deck.10
The Duel off Cherbourg
During the 19 June fight, the Kearsarge’s gunners fired 173 times, mostly scoring hits, while their opponents fired some 370 shots and shells. But their firing was so rapid and their aim so haphazard that only 28 of those actually struck the Kearsarge, 14 in her hull and the others in her rigging. As the previously quoted Alabama Sailor later explained: “Our guns were too much elevated, and shot over the Kearsarge. The men all fought well, but the gunners did not know how to point and elevate the guns.” No time was spent even in sponging the guns. “We fired shells almost together,” the Sailor added. Firing was done in such haste that several ramrods were inadvertently fired off, resembling “black meteors” as they soared through the air.11
As first loader of the Kearsarge’s forward pivot gun, Bickford worked calmly and deliberately. During the battle a shell passed by him so closely that the air suction made him gasp. When queried by his gun captain, Quartermaster William Smith, why he had not dodged it, Bickford replied: “Haven’t got time, sir. I’m busy.” A fellow shipmate, officer’s cook Charles Fisher, felt shells passing so close “that the hot wind from them would puff in our faces.”12
The two ships moved in a circle as they fought, in a manner that Bickford later compared to “two flies crawling around on the rim of a saucer.” A shell from the Alabama’s pivot gun struck the counter of the Kearsarge, scored the planking for ten feet, and then passed through the air another ten feet before lodging in the sternpost without exploding. Following his defeat, Semmes tried to explain what had gone so terribly wrong. That one shell’s faulty fuse, he contended, was all that had saved the Kearsarge from being sunk or badly crippled. He also accused Winslow of deception for having chains slung over the sides of his ship and then covered with boards to protect his engines, thereby converting his ship into an “ironclad.” Semmes denied having known about the chains before the battle, although that was disputed by one of his officers in later years.13 Other charges and countercharges were leveled by both Semmes and Winslow.
Years later, in interviews published in Boston newspapers in 1894 and again in 1922, Bickford related his own version of the battle. For all his basic integrity—“I don’t like anything but the truth”—Bickford’s two accounts contain errors that were most likely the result of faulty memory after the passage of so many years. In 1894 he told a reporter:
In action my station was at the forward eleven-inch pivot gun. It was my duty to take the patch off the shell every time it was put into the bore. The patch covers the fuse primer, and if it wasn’t taken off before the gun was fired that shell wouldn’t explode. So I know the number of shots I fired, because I’d put the patches in my pocket. I didn’t feel excited a mite.
Later in the interview, however, Bickford confused the Blakely shell that lodged in the sternpost with a 32-pounder shell that “struck the water close by the ship, glanced up and lodged in the plank and shivered the waterway inside and did not explode.” Embedded close to Bickford’s forward pivot gun, it was found to have a defective fuse when it was later removed.14
In his 1922 interview Bickford stated that “almost all the unexploded [Confederate] shells still had their lead caps on when they struck and they didn’t explode for that reason.” He claimed to have personally loaded 35 shells, based on the number of patches taken from his pocket after the battle. According to the postbattle inventory, a total of 55 XI-inch shells were fired during the fight. So if Bickford’s figure, 35, is correct, it would mean that the second pivot gun fired only 20 shells. Confederate reports, however, credited that gun with doing such damage that Semmes offered a reward to silence it.15
An 1864 naval gunnery instruction manual mentions the lead, or “safety,” patch as being necessary to protect the priming and fuse from moisture and accidental ignition. After being removed, the patches were to be “preserved and accounted for after the firing.” It seems odd that no other account of the battle besides Bickford’s mentions the lead caps. Frederick Edge, an Englishman who worked for the American Legation in London, conducted an intensive investigation soon after the engagement and made no reference to them. Instead Edge wrote: “The fuses employed by the Alabama were villainously bad, several shells having lodged in the Kearsarge without taking effect.”16 Edge personally witnessed the removal of the 32-pounder shell from the plank-sheer, the same projectile Bickford mistakenly identified as the Blakely shell that had lodged in the sternpost.
Although Bickford’s account, based on his personal experience with the caps, seems highly plausible in light of the rapid firing by the Alabama’s gunners, it should be noted that only eight shells (along with six shot) actually struck the Kearsarge’s hull, of which six turned out to be duds.17 One of the two shells that did explode, a 68-pounder from the Alabama’s Blakely, wounded three men serving the Kearsarge’s second pivot gun, possibly accounting for that weapon firing fewer shots than the forward XI-inch gun. One man lost an arm and another died later from his injuries.
Following the sinking of the Alabama, Semmes and several other officers and Sailors were saved from drowning by rescuers in an English yacht, the Deerhound, which took them to England. Bickford was among the Kearsarge’s Sailors sent to rescue other survivors. He, along with his fellow officers and crew members, believed that Semmes had acted dishonorably by not surrendering himself following his defeat. By contrast, one of Semmes’ lieutenants, Joseph Wilson, had surrendered his sword after coming aboard the Kearsarge with a boatload of wounded men, requesting assistance. Badly shaken from having had most of his gun crew blown to pieces by an XI-inch shell, Wilson was one of only four prisoners, all officers, who were taken back to the United States on board the Kearsarge. Unable to handle 63 other prisoners, Winslow paroled them.18
Final Months of Service
Promoted to acting master’s mate on 12 August 1864, Bickford had added responsibilities as the cruise of the Kearsarge was in its final weeks. An entry in the ship’s log for 28 October 1864 notes a duty he would have found pleasant: “Acting Master’s Mate J H [sic] Bickford employed raffling [conducting a lottery] among the crew, for Eleven pounds sterling, by order of the Captain.” When the officers and crew of the Kearsarge were honored with a banquet at Boston’s Faneuil Hall on 10 November, three days after their arrival in that city, Bickford was left in charge of the vessel. In addition to the four prisoners from the Alabama, the Kearsarge had also brought back to the United States 17 sailors from the commerce raider Florida, captured in Bahia Harbor, Brazil, after being rammed by the Union screw sloop Wachusett. With no other American officers on board, Bickford had no qualms about leaving a prisoner, Lieutenant Wilson of the Alabama, with whom he had become friendly, in charge of the deck while he went below to eat by himself. Bickford noted the irony of his having placed a Confederate officer in command of a Federal warship even for such a brief period.19
The final brief entry in the ship’s log, for 28 November 1864, was signed “Jno F Bickford Actg M Mate.” On that day the Kearsarge was officially decommissioned at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Bickford would have been one of the last men to leave the ship. He had already decided to re-enlist. Detached from the Kearsarge with the rest of the crew, Bickford enjoyed a well-earned leave with his family in Maine. It was while at home that Bickford received by mail his Medal of Honor along with “General Order No. 45,” which noted his achievement and was dated 31 December 1864.20 On the reverse of his medal was etched:
Capt of Top
Destruction of the Alabama
June 19, 1864
Having re-enlisted for another two years, Bickford was next assigned to the newly commissioned Lenapee, a wooden side-wheel steamer attached to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and commanded by Lieutenant Commander Samuel Magaw. The vessel was principally used for reconnaissance along North Carolina’s Cape Fear River. Many years later, the ship’s paymaster still remembered Bickford as having been “the best and most faithful junior officer on board the Lenapee. He could always be relied upon to execute his orders exactly as he received them.” The same officer remembered Bickford as having been “an exceedingly robust and strong man—exceptionally so in fact.”21
But his excellent health did not last. In April 1865, many of the Lenapee’s crew, including Bickford, contracted malaria, which, along with typhus, reached epidemic proportions. After several weeks in a hospital on shore, Bickford submitted his resignation and was discharged from the Navy at Wilmington, North Carolina, on 10 June 1865, still “a very sick man.”22
Despite continuing health problems, Bickford coped amazingly well over the next six decades. In 1867 he left Maine and settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he found work as a foreman at the Seth Stockbridge Fish Company. In 1869 he married Stockbridge’s daughter, 17-year-old Elsie, and the couple had five children, two of whom died as infants. By the time Bickford applied for a disability pension in 1891, he had given up working for Stockbridge, claiming to be “totally disabled” and unable to work. “It is not safe for me to be alone,” he contended.
In 1908 a Gloucester doctor confirmed that Bickford was in no condition to perform any type of manual labor. Nevertheless, he was still capable of operating a boat rental concession from his home at Rocky Neck, taking out parties for fishing and pleasure excursions. In June 1922, a reporter from the Boston Evening Transcript found the 80-year-old veteran “robust and smiling, at his float, while clustered about him is the little fleet of pleasure boats of which he is now admiral.” Bickford was receiving a monthly pension of $72, plus an additional $10 as a Medal of Honor recipient.23
Bickford was an active member of Union veteran organizations: the Grand Army of the Republic’s Colonel Allen Post No. 45 in Gloucester as well as the Kearsarge Naval Veterans Association. Over the years the former shipmates held annual reunions on or close to 19 June, recalling their great triumph of 1864. The last meeting was in 1925 at Bickford’s home, with only Bickford and fellow Gloucester resident William Giles present. Bickford outlived his wife, Elsie, by 14 years, dying from heart disease at age 84 on 27 April 1927.24 Only two other Kearsarge survivors outlived him: Giles and William Alsdorf in far-off New Mexico.
John Fairfield Bickford was buried at Gloucester’s Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, where today he has two gravestones—the origin al granite marker as well as the standard veteran’s marker later placed beside it. His prized Medal of Honor can be seen at the Cape Ann Museum.
2. John McIntosh Kell, “Cruise and Combats of the ‘Alabama,’” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York: Century, 1884, 1887, 1888), vol. 4, p. 612.
3. W. J. Scott, “An Hour’s Talk with a Sea Captain” unidentified newspaper, date unknown, Blanche Kell Scrapbook, private collection; ORN, Series I, vol. 3, p. 68.
4. Sixth United States Census (1850), Hancock County, Maine, National Archives and Records Administration (hereinafter cited as NARA); information abstracted from USS Kearsarge muster rolls. Textual Reference Division, NARA.
5. “Fought on the Kearsarge; Men Who Helped Sink the Alabama Tell Their Stories,” Boston Journal, 11 February 1894.
6. ORN, Series I, vol. 2, pp. 632, 633, vol. 3, pp. 17, 18, 19; “A Survivor Recalls the Kearsarge Fight,” Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1922.
7. Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1922.
8. Letter from Blanche Kell to Wingfield Nisbet, 7 Dec. 1910. Nisbet Papers, Duke University.
9. New York Herald, 9 July 1864.
10. ORN, Series I, vol. 3, p. 79.
11. New York Herald, 9 July 1864; Journal of Austin Quinby. Peabody Museum, Salem, MA.
12. Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1922; Diary of Charles B. Fisher, ed. and transcribed by Paul E. Sluby Sr. and Stanton L. Wormley (Washington, DC: Columbian Harmony Society, 1983), p. 85.
13. Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1922; ORN, Series I, vol. 3, pp. 650, 651, 663; Arthur Sinclair, Two Years on the Alabama (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), p. 261.
14. Boston Journal, 11 Feb. 1894 (Austin Quinby interview); Frederick Milnes Edge, An Englishman’s View of the Battle Between the Alabama and the Kearsarge (New York: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1864), p. 28. Also, Quinby journal.
15. Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1922; ORN, Series I, vol. 3, pp. 64, 68.
16. J. D. Brandt, Gunnery Catechism as Applied to the Service of Naval Ordnance (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864), pp. 25-26; Edge, An Englishman’s View of the Battle, p. 28.
17. ORN, Series I, vol. 3, p. 63.
18. ORN, Series I, vol. 3, pp. 75, 78.
19. Log of the Kearsarge, 1862-64, NARA; Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1922.
20. Kearsarge log; Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, MA.
21. Declaration for Original Invalid Pension, NARA.
23. Ibid.; Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1922; Declaration for Pension.
24. Gloucester Daily Times, 28 April 1927; Certificate of Death, John F. Bickford, State Department of Public Health, Boston, MA.