Returning from the three-year voyage to a divided nation, Lee crewed in the former whaler Robin Hood, recently purchased by the Navy along with other hulks for service in the “Stone Fleet.” Loaded with stone, the aging ships were sailed south and sunk as blockships off Confederate ports. After the Robin Hood was scuttled in the main channel off Charleston, South Carolina, in December 1861, Lee and other crew members of the sunken vessels returned north on board the government transport Cahawba.4
Two weeks after Lee’s subsequent enlistment, the Ohio arrived at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the new men transferred to the Kearsarge, a recently launched wooden-hull screw steamer sloop-of-war with a battery of four 32-pounders and two XI-inch Dahlgren pivot guns. Under her first commander, Captain Charles W. Pickering, she was commissioned on 24 January 1862. Originally intended for blockade duty, the Kearsarge was diverted instead to Cadiz, Spain, to apprehend the Confederate commerce raider Sumter, commanded by Raphael Semmes. When cornered at Gibraltar, the Sumter was in disrepair and could no longer serve as a raider; she was later sold off. But Confederate agents in England clandestinely acquired other ships, and finding them would become the principal mission of the Kearsarge’s commanders, Pickering and then Captain John A. Winslow. Off the coast of France, Winslow blockaded the Rappahannock at Calais, while another Rebel raider, the Florida, was able to slip out of Brest. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the Confederate cruiser Alabama, with Semmes in command, remained a mystery.
James H. Lee proved to be an exemplary sailor who would receive the Medal of Honor for exceptional valor during combat. Moreover, he left a record of life on board the Kearsarge in the form of a journal that he began keeping on 5 May 1864. In it he wrote, “There are incidents [that] transpire in this ship . . . that if some master hand were here he could fill a volume.” A keen observer, Lee noted, “I am a silent spectator of all that is going on.”
The journal begins with a port arrival, always a welcome relief for sailors.
Thursday, 5 May:
Under steam bounding gaily over the placid waters of the North Sea. . . . We soon came to anchor off the city of Flushing [Vlissingen] in Holland. No sooner was it known that an American man of war was in the river than hundreds of people flocked down to the shore to see her and several of the more hardy ventured on board. The bum boat men were soon off with their stores and we found things quite cheap.5 At 9½ am inspection at quarters, the 3rd cutter was lowered, also the gig, several military officers were on board and paid their respects to our officers. The captain gave orders to give the men twelve hours liberty. This has been a lovely day, the weather is fine and warm and the boys have been lounging and reading in every available place, the donkey engine is going for they are condensing water.6 Everything is pleasant. There is a German from shore playing the violin for the boys to trip the light fantastic to the gratification of the lookers on.
Sunday, 8 May:
After hammocks were piped up and stowed, the bosins [boatswain’s] mate piped to sweepers, the deck was soon put in good [order], rigging flemished down and all of a Sunday routine.7 At 10 am general inspection at quarters but they made a very poor muster. Out of a hundred and sixty men, eighty were absent. At 10½ the bell tolled for church which was held on the quarter deck. By this [time] the people had commenced coming on board and we were soon crowded to suffocation.
At 1½ pm, the word was passed to clear the ship of visitors and I can tell you it was no small task to do, but in 30 minutes the ship [was] clear and everything in order to receive the [French] Admiral. The marines were drawn up in file and at the third roll of the drum he stepped on board of the first American man of war in Flushing. He is a very smart looking man of about 60 years. He visited all parts of the ship with Capt. Winslow, examined all the guns and seemed to be well pleased with his visit.
Monday, 9 May:
. . . At 4 pm the word was passed that any of our men that was found outside of the gate after sundown would be put in the calaboose but it was no use, go they would, although it was raining quite fast.8 What [won’t] rum do, when it makes a man act like a beast it’s time for him to reform. Evening is very disagreeable and rainy. . . . I’m tired for the excitement is too much for me or any other sick man.
Lee was seriously ill at the time. Two months earlier, he had caught a cold during a downpour while waiting in one of the ship’s cutters for officers to return from a visit ashore, and developed a respiratory infection. A former shipmate would recall, “He was very sick at times but would not give up to it.”9 Lee’s illness, which later would develop into tuberculosis and cause his death at age 37, was the occasion of his complaining about fellow crew members.
Tuesday, 10 May:
I turned out this morning after passing a sleepless night. . . . Quite a number of men had come on board and they were nearly all intoxicated, fighting, cursing, screaming, and singing was the order of the night. . . . I think it would shame any man to look at . . . the ship in the condition she is now, and I never want to see her so again. All the men that are ashore have been put in the lock-up and several of the men have been put in irons on board the ship to keep them quiet. The boys are pretty well tired out and I guess I can get a little sleep tonight.
Wednesday, 11 May:
. . . Rum, it would be useless to try and compute the numbers of gallons that have been drunk since we have been in the dock. The Kearsarge has been a deserted ship for the last few days. . . . They have had what they call a good time. They have had the sweet now let them chew the quid of bitterness at their leisure. So ends the liberty in Flushing.
Thursday, 12 May:
The word was passed to get up the holystones and sand and after 3 hours hard work some of the dirt disappeared and the decks began to assume their usual nice appearances. At 8 am all hands were piped to loose sails. The bum boat woman is on board with her stores to sell. The 3rd cutter and gig was lowered for boat duty. The men are busy in getting things to right. At 9½ am inspection at quarters. The weather is fine with a light breeze. A large number of the vessels have passed down the river bound to all parts of the world. The Captain has gone ashore to settle up the calaboose bills etc. It amounted to one hundred and twenty dollars.
Lee then paraphrased a lecture Winslow delivered to the crew upon his return to the Kearsarge:
The Captain said he was very sorry to see the men behave so bad, but they were not altogether to blame. They had had examples set before them, and he was ashamed to own that some of his officers had no more respect for themselves and their country than to act as they have done in this place and I [Winslow] hope it will be a warning to them hereafter. I don’t intend to stop the men’s privileges for what they have done here. It is passed and let it go.
Well, it is too true they don’t show our Captain respect enough. They have all the liberty a man can wish for in a vessel like this and still they growl and find fault. Evening is pleasant but most of the boys have turned in for they are played out and require rest.
After leaving Flushing, the Kearsarge steamed across the Channel to Dover, then to Hastings, back to Dover, across to Calais, back again to Dover, and, on 1 June, returned to Flushing, all the while trying to gain information on the whereabouts of Confederate cruisers. At Flushing, on 12 June, Winslow received the long-awaited news: The Alabama was at Cherbourg!
Sunday, 12 June.
. . . At 8½ pm we were startled by the cry of all hands to muster. This created an excitement. Some said we were bound home and all kinds of stories were put in circulation, but the suspense was short as soon as we were mustered on the quarter deck. Silence reigned supreme. Not a whisper was heard. You could almost hear a pin drop when Captain Winslow addressed us fellows: “My lads I am happy to congratulate you, when I inform you that the Alabama has arrived in Cherbourg and henceforth our duty will be off that place. I need not tell you that she is noted for her sailing qualities and has gained a great reputation especially in England and if we succeed in taking her it will be more than any of our cruisers have done.”
The order was given to pipe down, but the bosins mate took off his hat and proposed three cheers for the Kearsarge, and three loud, long cheers were given for our noble steamer’s success. Three more were proposed for Captain Winslow and the ship fairly shook with the yells that were given the Captain and officers joined in the cheering, and methinks they looked pleased to see so much spirit displayed. Although we were disappointed about [not] going home, the news made our spirits as buoyant as ever. In fact I would rather we take the Alabama, than all the rest of them put together. But time will tell. It may be our luck to take her yet. If it is I ask no more this cruise.
Tuesday, 14 June:
. . . The redoubtable Alabama is here, the long looked for rebel pirate is again blockaded by a Federal gun boat . . . and I hope we shall be more successful than we have been heretofore. We have been fortunate in blockading the pirate cruisers but unfortunate in its results. The Alabama arrived last Saturday night in disguise, she burned an American ship [the Rockingham] a few days ago and transferred the crew on board of her also some spars for the purpose of disguising her. As soon as he [Captain Semmes] entered the channel he asked all his prisoners to join him (about 40 in number). Ay, begged of them if only for a few days till he got safely into port. He knew that we were in the Channel and he has not forgot the snaky looking craft of Gibraltar notoriety [the Kearsarge], where he was compelled to sell the Sumter in order to elude us.
But to resume, the prisoners would not join him with the exception of two. He then made up his mind to play a Yankee trick. From a bark rigged steamer, he disguised her into a ship and proceeded . . . to here in the night, and arrived safely in Cherbourg, unseen by us, for we were many miles away. That shows how courageous he is and how much he fears any vessel that is his equal. He landed the prisoners here and they are now on the consul’s hands, and no doubt some of them will ship on board here.
Wednesday, 15 June:
. . . All this excitement on board. . . . The gunner and his gang are busy getting up shells, grapes and canister, and they are piling them up in various places about decks. The carpenter cleared the spar deck of all loose lumber and stowed it below and is busy grinding battle axes, hatchets and fire axes. The bosins with his gang are getting up spare gear, stoppers, tackles, etc. Sent the top burtons up and hooked them in their places ready for sending the yards down.10 The Dr. [John M. Browne] and his assistants are making bandages and overhauling the surgical instruments ready for use. They have fitted up a temporary cockpit in the main hold, for performing surgical operations on the wounded and cots are in readiness to put them in. In fact everyone is at work. Chains were payed down below and stoppered in deck and everything that was not needed was put below. At 4½ pm inspection at quarters. The word was passed to cast loose the battery, each gun was loaded with shell, the pivot guns were got ready. Train tackle were let out on each side, levers shipped to be used at a minute’s warning.
The Captain and Lieutenant [James S. Thornton] visited every part of the ship to see if everything was all right. A bucket of water was put to each gun and four buckets of sand were got up for the purpose of sanding the decks down. The Engineers department let their hose out and put the hot water muzzle pipe on. The Captain finding everything to his satisfaction he pronounced the ship cleared for action, all hands were called to muster and the Captain said he had an extract of a letter from Captain Semmes to the Confederate agents stating that he would meet us in a few days, four days at the farthest, and he had no doubt he would. He encouraged us all to fight courageously and if any one showed marks of bravery they would be put on the list in the line of promotion. He said he was expecting to go home within a month but for this and hoped that Capt. Semmes would be a man of his word. He knew him to be a plucky man, but he could not say the same for his crew.
Thursday, 16 June:
. . . We feel so elated that we don’t know what to do, everyone is animated with the one desire and that is to capture her. If we do that we will be satisfied. We ask no more, it would be the crowning feat of the cruise. A person would naturally think that in such times as these that men would feel sad and serious in a ship cleared for action, expecting an enemy to meet us at any hour, and a vessel that has got such a celebrated name as she has for speed and strength, and manned with English hearts of Oak, that in thinking of all these things, there would be a cloud now and then across our brow. To think of our impending fate, but no, never have I seen the men in better spirits. Never have I seen the chit chat, the jokes and sallies of will, fly with more brilliancy than it has since we came here. There is but one topic of conversation and that is the Alabama and our approaching conflict, there is but [one] idea animates them and that is capture her or die. . . . At 7 pm the fire bell rang and in sixty-one seconds, every man was to his stations, ready for action. The Captain was pleased to see the men so prompt and said, “My lads, I will give you five minutes to take that vessel in. You can do it and I will warrant you plenty of prize money and you will have something to take home with you.”
Friday, 17 June:
. . . I hope the crisis will come soon for I’m getting tired of this suspense and I long to see it over. I am fully confident that we will be the victor although he has nine chances of escaping us in the night or in open sea [one] of these foggy days where we have [no way] of seeing him. Afternoon, he is still there and seems to be making no effort to leave yet. 6 pm inspection at quarters and the Captain inspected all the battery to see if everything was all right. He gave [the] order to have the music got up and let the boys enjoy themselves. We danced several cotillions, waltzes, etc. The boys are in excellent spirits and are spoiling for a fight with the Alabama, and it will be a disappointment to us if we don’t have one.
Sunday, 19 June:
This is a fine morning, cool and pleasant, holystoned decks, and put everything in apple pie order. At 8 am the word was passed to shift in clean blue mustering clothes. At 10 am general inspection at quarters. A steamer was now seen coming out of Cherbourg harbor and she was soon made out to be the famous cruiser Alabama. We gave chase and at five minutes to eleven the battle began. Semmes opened the ball by firing seven shots at us before we replied. The firing was then kept up without intermission for one hour and five minutes, when we ceased firing for she had hauled down [her] flag and fired a gun to windward as a token of defeat. They lowered a boat and put for us. We could then see she was sinking and in fifteen minutes the celebrated rebel steamer was no more. . . . We lowered the launch and second cutter to pick up the men. There was an English yacht [the Deerhound] out to see the fight and the Captain asked him to pick up some of the drowning men. He picked up 8 or so and it is supposed that Semmes was among that number. He then steamed off toward England but Captain Winslow sent a telegraph to the minister [Charles Francis] Adams at London to have them seized.
At 3 pm we took a pilot and proceeded into Cherbourg, and came to anchor. We were soon surrounded by hundreds of boats loaded with men and women to look at our steamer. The minister’s son came on board to congratulate us on our victory.11 Evening, all you can hear is the busy hum of voices and all hands are tired out, and I for one can hardly walk. The greatest naval fight on record is ended and victory has perched on our banners. The Kearsarge will be a name that will be remembered for time immemorial. The merchants have cause to thank us for destroying the terror of the seas to American ships.
As for Lee’s own role in the battle:
The first broadside from [the Alabama’s] starboard battery went over us. After that I had no time to watch the battle. I looked out for no one and dodged the shot and shells. I worked at my gun with far more coolness than I supposed I should have in a time like that, but after the first round I cared nothing about it.
Landsman Martin Hoyt would recall: “James H. Lee was an excellent seaman, and did his level best during the fight. He was sponger of the after [32-pounder] broadside gun on the starboard side (the side engaged) and worked like a Trojan. He had on no shirt when the fight commenced, and his blue undershirt had very short sleeves, so that at first his neck and arms showed white, but as the fight progressed and he wiped the reeking sweat from his face and neck with his powder stained hands, he gradually covered himself with so thick a coating of burnt powder that it was hard to tell where the blue undershirt ended and the skin began.”12
Continuing his account of the battle, Lee noted:
Our damage is light. We had but three men wounded [one of whom later died]. . . . There was one shot struck us under the sheet anchor but it did not go clear through. Two shots struck amid ship on the chain casing breaking the chain in two places. Another one struck us under the main chains through the bulwarks engine room house and stopped in the hammock netting and tore a hammock all to pieces. One shot glanced under our stern and lodged in the stern post. That was all that hit our hull. One shot went through the smoke stack and splintered the gig. The fore top mast stay was cut. Top tie cut, top buntline cut. The spanker was cut in two, and some other light damage was done to the rigging but it can all be repaired in 48 hours.
The captain mustered all hands and thanked us for our coolness and bravery. We have taken about 40 prisoners and several of them are wounded. Three of them have died. From the prisoners we learn that they expected no quarter. [They] said the scene was awful, the dead and dying strewn on every side. Nearly all our shots took effect. Captain Semmes said “My God, I never saw such cool deliberation in my life, every shot strikes us. They are taking their time and I am afraid it is all day with us.” His words were too true. As near as can be ascertained, there were seventy lives lost [actually 21] and it was one of the greatest naval fights that ever was known. Thus ends the 19th of June, a day that will be remembered in the annals of history.
The journal’s postbattle entries have Lee and his fellow shipmates basking in the glow of celebrity at Cherbourg, followed by warm receptions at Dover, Hastings, and Boulogne. Lee noted with satisfaction, “We are the lion of the day and thousands [are] flocking to see us.” Promoted to captain of the top, he professed, “Henceforth it will be my proudest boast to say I was a Kearsarger,” adding, “If I was ever going in the Navy again I would rather go with Captain Winslow in the Kearsarge than any other man I know of and as for the vessel, I wouldn’t change with none of them.” The journal’s abrupt ending on 3 October coincides with Lee having contracted conjunctivitis and been advised by the ship’s doctor to cease all further reading, writing, and smoking.
With the cruise ended, at the Charlestown Navy Yard, on 30 November 1864, James H. Lee was honorably discharged. A month and a day later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Kearsarge’s battle with the Alabama.13
2. Kearsarge muster roll, 20 November 1864. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as NARA).
3. Oswego Palladium, 13 Aug. 1877.
4. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901), ser. 1, vol. 12, 416–23.
5. A bum boat was a craft that sold supplies, provisions, and other articles to ship crewmen.
6. A donkey engine is a small auxiliary engine used for various shipboard tasks.
7. To flemish down a line is to coil it on deck in a flat, tight, circular arrangement.
8. The calaboose is the local jail.
9. Widow’s pension file #WC4457, NARA.
10. A burton is light tackle often used for tightening rigging or shifting weight on board a ship.
11. William L. Dayton Jr. was the son of the U.S. minister to France.
12. Martin Hoyt, “War Story,” The Times, June 1893. A sponger would use a long staff with a wet sponge head on one end to extinguish any burning residue in his gun’s bore after each shot was fired. Then, after withdrawing the sponge, he would “strike it against the sill of the port to shake off any particles of fire that may have adhered to it.” B. J. Totten, Naval Text-Book (Boston: Little and Brown, 1841), 262.
13. M. S. Thompson, comp., General Orders and Circulars Issued by the Navy Department from 1863 to 1887 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1887), 22–24.
James Lee’s Naval Service on Display
By Theodore ‘Ted’ Panayotoff with Julianne Clark King
After his discharge from the Navy, James Lee moved to the Oswego, New York, area. Judging from comments in his journal, he was looking forward to giving up the life of a sailor and returning to farming, which he did. James settled in Sterling, about ten miles west of Oswego, where he boarded with a family and worked on their farm. The Place family, including their daughter, Julia, lived next door.
James and Julia were married on 19 June 1866—the second anniversary of the Kearsarge-Alabama duel—and eventually had their own farm; he became very active in the local Grange movement. James Lee died in Oswego on 9 August 1877 of “bronchial consumption”—what is now known as tuberculosis. His obituary was published in the two local Oswego papers and repeated in The New York Times. Julia Lee did not remarry and subsequently collected a widow’s pension. She passed away nearly 18 years after her husband.
Julia Lee’s nephew Lyman T. Place, who had been born in 1882, developed a strong interest in his uncle’s life, including his service on board the Kearsarge and her battle with the Alabama. After retiring, Place moved back to the Oswego area, where he built a nearly three-foot model of the Union sloop and collected items from Lee’s naval career. Sadly, a fire in the 1920s may have destroyed other related mementoes, including Lee’s Medal of Honor. Place installed the model in a specially constructed case. Images and text on the inside of its cover recounted James Lee’s life, his naval service, and the famous battle, and Place used the display to educate his family about their ancestor. After Place passed away, his daughter, Eva Place Clark, found the remaining volume of a journal Lee had kept while serving in the Kearsarge.
In 2010 the model, special case, and the other James Lee–related items, including his journal, were donated to the H. Lee White Marine Museum in Oswego by Lyman Place’s granddaughter, Julianne Clark King. The museum’s permanent exhibit about James Lee also includes additional research about the Kearsarge and her famous battle. For more information about the museum, go to www.hleewhitemarinemuseum.com.