'The Firing Here Became Continual'

By Norman C. Delaney

On 11 June 1864 the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, and the Kearsarge , whose captain, John Winslow, had been alerted to her whereabouts, arrived three days later. There followed, on the 19th, their climactic engagement. Fifty-five years earlier, in April of 1809, there had been another battle off the French coast, one between opposing British and French squadrons at Basque Roads, in which 13-year-old Thomas Higgins was a midshipman on board the 80-gun HMS Caesar . Now, outside Cherbourg Harbor, it would be his son’s turn to experience combat. Although it is not possible to tell what Henry Higgins actually observed himself or what he might have learned from other survivors, his firsthand account of the battle nevertheless provides a fresh view of a major event in the history of naval warfare:

We came to Cherbourg from Cape Town to be paid off and for the purpose of making repairs. The greater part of our copper was off the bottom. Our boilers were in a very leaky state. Our pay as able-bodied seamen was four pound ten a month and we were paid off yesterday [22 June]. We came in here ship rigged, and so disguised that, had we met the Kearsarge outside we intended to take her by surprise. We fully expected having a fight with her. As soon as we saw her outside Capt. [Raphael] Semmes ordered the after yards to be sent down and the vessel turned into the usual rig as a bark. This was immediately done. He went ashore at the same time for permission to coal and intended to go outside and commence the fight without delay. We commenced coaling immediately, and were occupied three or four days in this. We finished coaling on Saturday afternoon, the 18th. Capt. Semmes then prepared to go out the next day. We went to general quarters twice while in port, as a general drill, and the ship was put in fighting order. About 9 o’clock on the morning of Sunday we weighed anchor and stood outside. After getting clear of the breakwater we cast loose our starboard battery and ran out the guns loaded for action. The order was then given for all hands to lay aft.

Capt. Semmes handed the clerk [William Breedlove Smith] a written paper which was read to us. The substance of it was that we were going into action; that we were to fight in the English Channel, the seat of so many important naval engagements, and recalled the acts we had already performed, and the eyes of all Europe were upon us, and that he expected every man to do his duty. 4 The men were enthusiastic and cheered considerably. They had no idea but that they would gain the victory, and an easy one. The crew fully expected from the beginning that they would be led by Capt. Semmes close alongside the Kearsarge so as to commence the action at close quarters and finish by boarding her. It was expected that Semmes would lead the boarders in person, for though we had as fine a crew as any ship afloat, yet we had not a single competent gunner on board, excepting the captain of the forward pivot, a hundred-pound rifle gun. He was an old English man-of-war man, trained in the British navy. 5 The captains of the other guns were not competent gunners, though brave men.

We came in sight of the Kearsarge and she steamed towards us. We closed as rapidly as possible. The men were all lying down at their guns, smoking and resting, the order having been passed to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and reserve our strength till the commencement of the action.

When the Kearsarge was within about 1,500 yards of us we opened fire, each gun firing as soon as it was pointed and properly elevated. We fired three broadsides before the Kearsarge returned a shot. The first shell she sent came through near the forward rifle port, at which I was stationed. It caused many splinters, and struck a man at our gun. He leaped away with a leg smashed, and another man at the next gun fell dead. The shell caught our slide rack, and I think the man was killed by one of our own shot, which was thrown against him by the shell of the Kearsarge .

The firing here became continual on both sides, we firing at least two shots to their one. We fired shells almost together. But a few solid shot were fired. At the after pivot gun, shortly after, two or three men were cut right in two besides others being wounded. Then the crew of our after guns was ordered by Semmes to fill up the vacancy at the pivot gun, which was the second gun from the stern; we were consequently then only fighting six guns. For some time after there was very little damage done by the Kearsarge ’s guns, their elevation being rather high, the shot passing over, and though not injuring our hull, greatly damaging our spars. About twenty minutes after the commencement of the action the spanker gaff, on which our colors were set, was shot away and the colors thus brought down nearly to the deck, the spar hanging and the colors hanging about twenty feet from the deck, the colors still remaining in sight.

About the same time our forward pivot gun sent two well directed shells, one of which struck the Kearsarge ’s chains which protected the Kearsarge ’s boilers, penetrating the chain, but doing no such damage as was expected. We supposed then that her engines were knocked to pieces, and that the Kearsarge would soon go down. We gave three cheers. This shell was fired from our hundred-pound forward rifle pivot, and would certainly have penetrated the chain and entirely disabled the Kearsarge had our powder been good, as this gun would have carried the shell and taken effect at five miles with dry powder. 6 Our powder had been a long time on board, and was dampened. The night before the action we threw seven barrels of dampened powder overboard. [We] had frequently thrown powder over.

The next shell we sent struck the sternpost of the Kearsarge without exploding. Had this exploded, the Kearsarge would have been blown to pieces. 7 At this time we had no serious damage. This was about half an hour after the fight commenced. After that the shooting on our part became worse, and that of the Kearsarge better. 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. Capt. Semmes, during all this time, was standing just forward of the forward rigging, with an opera glass in his hand, and leaning over the rail. The gunners were left to themselves to fight the guns, and no particular orders were given to the gunners during the fight. Capt. Semmes directed the maneuvering of the ship.

The shell man belonging to our gun crew was cut right in two by one of the Kearsarge shots while he was bringing a shell to our gun. His name was James Hart. He was blown all to pieces, and nothing was found of him which could be recognized except the collar of his shirt. Several men were wounded and carried below. The first serious disaster we met with was from a shell which carried away our rudder. About the same time more shell came into our coal bunkers and penetrated the boilers, putting out the fires and burying several of the firemen under the coal. Some were killed, and others dug out alive. The vessel was filled with smoke and steam. All our power of movement then was over.

The Kearsarge then gradually began to edge round on our port quarter. When she reached this position the order was given to lie down, as we expected to be raked fore and aft. A few minutes afterwards the sail trimmers were called away to loose the fore trysail and head sails so that she could be steered. She was then standing into shore. We then considered ourselves done for, as the Alabama was rapidly settling. I do not think our screw was damaged. The Kearsarge kept up a continuous fire on our port side, and we shifted over our guns to that side. Our men were then very fatigued and many disabled and wounded. We still fired as well as possible from the port side, though we knew the day was lost. When the headsails were loosed the loader of our port gun, John Roberts, a young Welshman, while engaged in the work, had the lower part of his body cut open, which caused his entrails to protrude. With his entrails hanging out, he walked towards his gun and fell dead on deck. Mr. [Edward Maffitt] Anderson, a midshipman stationed in the after division, was knocked overboard, his leg, which was shot off, remaining on board. 8 Capt. Semmes about the same time was wounded in the hand by a splinter. He tied his handkerchief round his hand, but never left his post.

The dead, of whom there were about eight [actually nine], and the wounded, numbering perhaps twelve [21, according to Semmes], instead of being carried below, were lying about the deck. The carnage was awful, some of the men being literally cut to pieces. There was much confusion on board though nothing like a panic, excepting on the part of one or two, who were not Englishmen. One young Prussian, stationed at a gun [Christian Pust], having ran below and stated to the doctor that he was wounded, and was ordered on deck, he not being wounded, and was immediately shot in the back by an old man named [James Higgs], an English seaman who had been long in the English navy. He shot him with his revolver. He [Pust] died soon afterwards. 9

Our first lieutenant, Mr. [John McIntosh] Kell, seeing the battle was lost, ran to Semmes, and told him he must strike the colors, as the vessel was sinking fast. Semmes merely replied, ‘Try to get a little more headway on her,’ and to the last would not order the colors to be struck. The color [halyards] about this time was shot away, and the colors fell to the deck. The report was circulated fore and aft that they were down, and for a moment the Kearsarge ceased firing. When our men saw our colors were down they were enraged, and most of them turned round on their officers. Several of them ran aft to Capt. Semmes with drawn cutlasses. One of them told him if he did not immediately hoist the colors he would cut him down. At the same time Mr. [Arthur] Sinclair, the fourth lieutenant, pointed a revolver at the man’s head to shoot him dead in case he made an attack on the captain. 10

Capt. Semmes was perfectly cool, and did not even draw his sword. He said he admired the courage of the men, but the colors were down, the vessel was sinking, and he did not wish any more lives to be lost. It was for their own benefit that he refused to raise the colors. As soon as the colors were shot away, by the orders of Mr. Kell, a white flag was held up as a signal of surrender. A man jumped up on the spanker boom and held it up the best way he could in his hands. This caused the officers of the Kearsarge to imagine that it was one of our men still persisting in holding up the Confederate flag. They continued firing, and poured at least three broadsides into us after the white flag was held up. We had also at this time fired a lee gun in token of surrender, but seeing the Kearsarge still firing on us the word was passed along the deck among us, “there’s no quarter for us.” Some of our guns were then fired again, particularly our foremost thirty-two, while the men were cutting away the boats. Capt. Semmes gave orders for the wounded to be put in the boats as quickly as possible and taken away, refusing everything in the shape of a boat himself. The men were to be taken to the yacht Deerhound if possible, if not to the Kearsarge . At this time the wardroom was full of water and the ship rapidly settling.

The chief engineer [Miles Freeman] did not leave the engine room till he was up to his waist in water. While the men were cutting away the boats and putting in the wounded, Capt. Semmes walked down into his cabin without saying a word. His cabin was then partly filled with water.

Two of our boats pulled off, carrying the wounded—the Kearsarge having ceased firing—the remainder of our boats (we had six) being all seriously damaged. One of these boats took the wounded on board the Kearsarge , on which she left them, and then receiving permission to go and pick up more drowning and wounded men, instead of doing so pulled off to the yacht. This may not have been exactly right, but we were justified in anything after the Kearsarge had fired three broadsides at us after the colors were down. I was ordered down by the First Lieutenant [Kell] to carry the wounded away to the Kearsarge . In that boat were a few wounded men, Mr. [Becket] Howell nominally occupying the rank of captain of marines (we had no marines on board), Mr. [Joseph] Wilson, third lieutenant, Mr. [Irvine] Bulloch, master, and a few others. This boat went to the Kearsarge .

The Alabama at this time was just going down, and Mr. Kell passed the order for the men to save themselves if they could. The greater part of them jumped overboard. Among them was Dr. [David] Llewellyn, our assistant surgeon. He was an Englishman, and had long been on the sick list with a sore leg, consequently, not depending upon his swimming powers, he had lashed himself to a box, but the box turned, and putting him under, he was drowned.

Capt. Semmes secured what papers he had not already sent ashore, and coming up from his cabin, came on deck as the vessel was just sinking, and was advised by a man named [Michael] Mars to pull off his coat and uniform cap, so that he would not be recognized, and fasten himself to two life buoys. After asking the man how best to use the life buoys, he went overboard with them, with his cap on, but turned inside out, striking out towards the yacht, and in an opposite direction from the Kearsarge , his determination not to be taken being proven by his giving his papers to Mars, with orders to Mars to save himself and the papers, and to deliver them to the first Confederate authority that he should encounter. The principal papers and the chronometers had been sent off the night before. The papers given to Mars were dispatches from the Confederate government and the ship’s accounts. Mars, in swimming toward the yacht, was cut off by a boat from the Kearsarge , and was taken in. He said to the officer in command of the boat that he should like another swim, and leaped back into the water. He was picked up by a French pilot boat and brought on shore, and delivered the papers to Capt. [George] Sinclair. Capt. Semmes was picked up by one of the yacht’s boats. 11

We were all treated with every possible kindness on board the Kearsarge , our grog was given us as soon as we got on board, and we were treated much better than any prisoners had ever been treated on the Alabama .

On board the Kearsarge the crew was very much dispirited because they had not taken either Semmes or the Alabama . Capt. Semmes had never told us that we would be badly treated if taken prisoner. Captain Winslow came forward among us and gave us dry clothing and gave orders to treat us with every possible kindness.

When we came to anchor we were called aft and paroled. We promised not to serve in any manner against the interests of the United States until honorably discharged as prisoners of war. We then went on shore. We went to M. Bonfils, the Confederate agent, and he sent us to boarding houses. We saw Capt. [George] Sinclair, a Confederate officer who had come from Paris, and who is acting in place of Capt. Semmes. We were yesterday [22 June] paid off by M. Bonafils and Surgeon [Francis] Galt.

We all think we have been swindled and will never get anything out of the promised prize money. If we get what has been promised us we shall all be rich men.

And so the loquacious sailor concluded the interview on a bitter note. A day or two after being interviewed, Higgins sent a letter to the Herald reporter decrying what he believed were inaccuracies being published by the London Times , especially the allegation that the Kearsarge had deliberately fired on the Alabama after her surrender. Higgins was convinced that the Kearsarge had fired in the mistaken belief that the white cloth being displayed was actually the Confederate banner, “the greater part of it being white.” He contended too that a shot had been fired from the Alabama after the vessel had been surrendered, noting that the Kearsarge gunners would have been entirely justified in “blowing us all to hell, though I thank God that matters are as He intended them.” 12 Higgins was not quite ready to fade away. He provided U.S. investigators with insider information in support of their case for monetary claims against Great Britain for the destruction caused by the Confederate cruisers. 13 Little else is known of his later life.

One indication of his whereabouts can be found in his father’s will, composed in February 1871. Thomas Higgins had married a woman much younger than himself and was the father of two daughters, ages 4 and 5. In his will Thomas left his house and furniture along with £20 to his wife, Sarah, and £25 in trust to his son, Henry, “now in East Indies until his return to England within 5 years.” But something happened not long afterward to cause an estrangement. On 31 October 1871, Thomas had a codicil added: “In consequence of the behavior of my son Henry I hereby revoke the portion of the written will giving him £25 that was put aside for him and [to be] given to his natural children instead.” 14 There would be no reconciliation. Thomas Higgins died on 28 January 1872.



1. New York Herald , 9 July 1864.

2. India Office Records, European Seamen in the Indian Navy, returns from Bombay, references L/MAR/C/727 and 728. British Library, London. The editor would like to thank Maurice Rigby of Hampshire, England, for providing the information from British archives.

3. Charles G. Summersell, ed., The Journal of George Townley Fullam (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1973), 176.

4. Semmes later claimed to have mounted a gun carriage and delivered the speech in person; see his Memoirs of Service Afloat (New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1868), 756.

5. The sailor would have been 42-year-old James Higgs, captain of the hold, whose naval service dated from 1839.

6. According to a post-battle damage report, “1 shot in starboard gangway cut chain and bruised plank; 1 shell under waist gun cut chain and exploded, cutting outside planking; 1 shell under starboard main channel cut off chain plate, going through and exploding.” Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies , ser. 1, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901), 63.

7. Semmes likewise initially contended that faulty powder was largely responsible for his defeat. Semmes to Flag Officer Samuel Barron, 5 July 1864. Ibid., 664.

8. Anderson was neither killed nor seriously injured. What actually happened was later related by a midshipman friend of Anderson from the CSS Georgia . “In the fight with the Kearsarge a sailor was cut completely in two by a shell, and the upper half of his body was hurled through the air, striking Midshipman Anderson in the head. Some of the crew of the Alabama , who were saved by either the Kearsarge or the French pilot boat, had reported that Midshipman Anderson had had his head blown off, and this story reached the Confederacy before I did.” James M. Morgan, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), 199–200.

9. Of the three Prussians in the Alabama , only Christian Pust was killed.

10. This incident was not mentioned by Sinclair in his Two Years on the Alabama (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1896).

11. The Deerhound brought Semmes and 41 other rescued survivors directly to Southampton, England.

12. New York Herald , 11 July 1864.

13. “Correspondence concerning claims against Great Britain,” U.S. Senate Resolutions, 4 and 10 December 1867, 27 May 1868.

14. Thomas’ will provided by Maurice Rigby.

 

 
 

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