The Commandant of the US Marine Corps, the 73-year-old Col John Harris, died of fatigue and old age on May 12, 1864; and after a month of deliberation, Secretary Welles decided to retire all Marine officers past the legal age, and to recommend the appointment of Jacob Zeilin as Harris' replacement. By now recovered from his illness and serving as commanding officer of the barracks at Portsmouth, NH, Zeilin became the new Commandant on June 10, 1864. On the same date, Marines participated in one of the finest hours of the US Navy during the Civil War, when the guard aboard Capt John A.Winslow's screw sloop USS Kearsarge helped to sink the Confederate raider CSS Alabama off the coast of France.
Built secretly for the Confederacy by Laird & Company at Birkenhead, England, during 1862, and initially known only as "No.290," the Alabama spent 22 months on the high seas under the command of Capt Raphael Semmes, wreaking havoc among the Union merchant fleet. Having sunk, captured or bonded over 60 vessels, the raider was in need of repairs by March 1864, and made for the French port of Cherbourg to refit.
While off the English coast near Dover on June 12 the Kearsarge, which had been hunting for Confederate raiders in European waters for nearly two years, received word that the Alabama had arrived at Cherbourg. By dawn of June 14 the Federal sloop had taken up station off the port within sight of its quarry. Going ashore, Winslow received word from Semmes via the Confederate consul that he intended to fight as soon as the necessary arrangements were made; and five days later the Alabama steamed out of harbor to do battle. One of the Marine Guard aboard the Kearsarge, Cpl Austin Quimby, recorded in his journal:
"Soon we saw die Rebel Flag. We then knew it was the pirate. Then it was clear the ship for action." The crew of the Federal vessel was so depleted by desertion that the Marines wTere needed to man die forecastle pivot gun, which was completely exposed to enemy fire. Quimby recalled: "When the battle first commenced, it made my hair stick right up straight but after we had got settled down to work and saw by their rapid and haphazard fire that they were not doing us much damage we took it easy... The Marines kept up a rapid fire with the rifle on the forecastle. As they would be clear of the smoke they would blaze away." After about an hour the Alabama hoisted a white flag, but then recommenced firing - much to the disgust of the Federal crew. "Fire away, boys!" ordered Capt Winslow, and the Marines fired three more rounds from their rifles, while the rest of the batter)' fired twice. As a result, two 11 in shells entered the coal bunker of the Alabama, causing an explosion that reached the yardarm. At this point the Confederates hoisted the white flag again, as their vessel began to sink.
While the Kearsarge prepared to lower its boats to save the survivors, LtCdr James S.Thornton noticed that the Alabama was attempting to rig a sail in an effort to get closer to the shoreline. He therefore ordered the Marines to aim a shot at those involved in the work; and seconds after they fired, a Confederate seaman trying to clear away the sail on the bowsprit was seen tumbling to the deck. Of the closing stages of the battle, Cpl Quimby wrote: "In just one hour and fifteen minutes from the time the Alabama fired her first shot the Notorious Pirate went to the bottom with her just deserts. After picking up the survivors and attending to their needs, our crew was piped to splice the main brace. After we had taken our drink some of our men went to see if the .Alabama's men could have some whiskey. The Captain gave permission and they all appreciated the kindness."
The Marines were warmly praised in reports of this action. Acting Master James R. Wheeler, USN, recorded: "The Marine Guard, stationed at the rifle gun openly exposed to the fire of the Alabama, showed great coolness and efficiency in the discharge of their duties." Lieutenant-Commander Thornton concluded, "The high reputation of their service was nobly sustained by the Marine Guard of this ship."
David Farragut's flagship, USS Hartford, at close quarters with the ironclad ram CSS Tennessee during the battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. US Marines can be seen serving the "great gun" in the center of the painting. (Naval Historical Division photo NH 644Z3KN)
The USS Hartford in collision with the Tennessee during the battle of Mobile Bay. (Battles & Leaders)
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