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THE KEARSARGE-ALABAMA FIGHT. From original painting by Xanthus Smith. By permission of the Union League, Philadelphia.
[Of all the officers aboard the Kearsarge on the historic day when she sank the Alabama, but one remains alive—the present Rear-Admiral Joseph Adams Smith. By his permission we print the valuable address which he delivered in January, 1906, before the Union League of Philadelphia—the occasion being the presentation to the institution of the painting by Xanthus Smith (himself a Union sailor during the Rebellion) representing the fight. By permission of the League we are also enabled to reproduce the engraving made of the painting, as our frontispiece.—ED.]
ISTORICAL details of naval warfare are often meagre and unsatisfactory, while the prowess of the soldier is sung in the songs
of the street, and elaborately rehearsed in story the whole civilized world over.
During our great Rebellion, the press correspondent, with characteristic sagacity, more frequently preferred the camp-fires of the soldier, the comforts of a farmhouse near the army headquarters, or the gentle lope of a cavalry horse to the less attractive fascinations of life on the ocean wave. The news reporter sketched with masterly stroke the minutest features of army life, and our orator soldiers have illumined the history of our army with a splendor of diction equalled only by the matchless skill displayed in achieving their triumphs.
In the rehearsal of this scrap of naval history you will not be blinded by the sweet smoke of rhetoric, your imagination will not be stirred by glowing descriptions of armies marching in splendid array to the shock of battle, you will not see the rush of cavalry into the “jaws of hell," as at Balaklava, nor earth mines yawning beneath the feet of regiments, as at Petersburg.
The story of the Kearsarge is short and simple, but the circumstances and conditions under which her battle with the Alabama was fought, and the effect of the resulting victory upon European sentiment involve more extended consideration.
Apart from a rapid review of some of these conditions, your attention will be invited to nothing more thrilling than the recital of the more important incidents which occurred during a three years' cruise of one hundred and sixty-two American tars and their ship, over different portions of the globe, from the frozen shores of Maine, amid furious gales which threatened destruction, to Madeira, with her vine-clad steeps and blossoming vales; to Cadiz, whose ancient origin antedates the birth of history; to the Bay of Gibraltar, whose rocky defences have become a synonym for impregnability; to the Canaries, whose glorious peak of Teneriffe rises through the heat of perpetual summer to regions of perpetual snow; to the lake-like harbor of Ferrol, where the old naval kingdom of Spain was building her first iron-clads under the supervision of an American engineer; to the extensive French naval station of Brest, first established by Richelieu, with its spacious and beautiful harbor; to Flushing, Dover, Calais, Boulogne, London, and other ports on either side of the Channel, including Cherbourg, where the notorious corsair was shot to death; then through the calm seas of the tropics to the West India Isles; and finally back again once more, rewarded by a great nation's plaudits, to the rockbound coast of New England.
The conditions and experiences of the soldier and sailor, during active service, are as dissimilar as are their methods of warfare.
One day the soldier builds a fort or bridges a stream, the next he wins a battle or retreats before a victorious foe. Now he lives on the fat of the land, then he faints with hunger and thirst; at times he sleeps beneath the clear blue vault of the heavens, and again the chilling storm beats pitilessly on his jaded form stretched on the bare ground beside his rusting musket, his slumbers disturbed by fitful dreams of the struggle on the contested field, where lie “rider and horse, friend, foe, in one red burial blent."
The sailor's life is less varied. He swings nightly from the same peg. His dreams are seldom disturbed even by the recollection of his sins. His ship is his horse, his kitchen, his ambulance, his fortress, his hospital, and his battle-field. He knows every inch of his stampingground. He treads it daily, in calm and in storm, in dance and in song, amid the terrors of battle and the solemn burial of his dead comrades.
As the morning light breaks, the shrill notes of the boatswain's whistle call the man-o'-war's man to duty. At this signal he rises from his slumbers, ties up his hammock in a mummy-like roll, and stows it away in the nettings. Coffee rouses his still sluggish senses to the daily routine of scrubbing and drills.
The enemy that most frequently disturbs the even tenor of the sailor's life comes without a declaration of war. It is the storm-king when he rushes forth with lowering brow, bellowing thunder, hurling his lightning bolts and lashing the ocean to terrific fury. Sleep is banished by the monster's dread roar. The sailor rolls into his hammock and out of it, he rolls his coffee, soup, and biscuit down his throat, and indeed, he rolls in ceaseless motion and discomfort during the entire reign of the storm-king.
The conflict between the Kearsarge and the Alabama may be regarded as the first open sea fight between vessels of equal size and nearly equal armament, under steam propulsion, and with what was then modern ordnance.
At that time development in the art of building war-vessels was in full progress. England had shortly before completed four great iron-clad vessels of the Warrior and Black Prince type. They had four and onehalf inches of steel armor, were of 9000 tons burthen, and were armed with four ten-ton guns, and 28 six and one-half ton Armstrong breech-loading rifles.
The French had really led the way in the use of steel armor, but the idea of armored ships, like so many other useful and ingenious mechanical inventions, is said to have originated in the United States.
The Warrior and Black Prince were stately, majestic, powerful, and graceful specimens of naval architecture, and when the little Kearsarge swept by them in Gibraltar Bay she was dwarfed into insignificance by comparison.
The comparison thus afforded impressed the officers of our little ship with the feeling that should England recognize the states in rebellion as a separate national government, it would result in a permanent dissolution of the Union. It seemed as though the Warrior and Black Prince, and their sister ships, could sweep the entire Union navy from the ocean.