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OM Hall of Fame

The Old Marlburian Hall of Fame is designed, by referencing OMs who have achieved something notable, contributing to the progress of human well-being, in arts, sciences, sport, the military or other, to inspire the Marlburians of the present. 

An additional aim is to put the spotlight on someone overlooked, and perhaps lost in the history of the College or the College website.


The Alabama

You need to take yourselves back 145 years and 13 days.  It is Sunday 19th June 1864, just before 10 o’clock in the morning of a fine summer’s day. At Marlborough College all is quiet for a severe epidemic of scarlet fever has killed 4 boys and caused the College to close two days earlier. 

Meanwhile, out in the English Channel, there is a light heat-haze and a gentle westerly breeze creating not much more than a slight swell. The cliff-tops to the east and west of Cherbourg are crowded with sightseers, some of whom have come on excursion by train from as far away as Paris. Among them is the artist Edouard Manet who will later paint a record of the events that are about to unfold. Manet had trained as a sea cadet but had failed his naval examinations and had turned to painting.

Newspaper reports throughout the week leading up to Sunday the 19th have created a fever-pitch of anticipation and excitement in the crowds, and it is estimated that there may be as many as 15,000 people gathered there. Some have provided themselves with spy-glasses and camp-stools, others are crammed along the breakwater of the harbour, and still more are hanging from the rigging of men-of-war anchored beyond the breakwater. On the water there are dozens of small vessels jostling for position to get a clearer view, and out of the harbour steams a wooden battleship of some 1,000 tons, flying the Confederate ensign, her decks lined with her crew dressed as if for an official fleet review, her guns sparkling in the sunshine. She is the C.S.S. Alabama, and she is heading out to sea to do battle with the U.S.S. Kearsarge.

The Alabama’s story began two years earlier, when in somewhat controversial circumstances which were to cause some embarrassment to the British government of the time she was built in the shipyards of Birkenhead. Viscount Palmerston, the then Prime Minister, and his Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell were not unsympathetic towards the Southern cause, but not at the expense of upsetting relations with the North. The Alabama had been commissioned by one J.D. Bulloch, a commercial shipping agent for the Confederacy, but there was strong suspicion that the intention was to use the ship to raid merchantmen trading with the Union, and as a neutral country in the American Civil War this would have been in breach of British regulations. Legal pettifoggery and political prevarication however prevented any direct action being taken until it was too late and the Alabama had sailed out of Liverpool on July 29th 1862 under the pretence of a sea-trial. Having off-loaded the passengers who had been invited on board to strengthen the impression that her sailing was no more than a little naval exercise, she sailed to the Azores where her armament of 8 guns was fitted. Two years and 64 seized, sunk or burnt merchantmen later, the Alabama had put into Cherbourg harbour for a much needed refit to her hull and her engines. During those two years her captain, Raphael Semmes, had taken her across the North Atlantic to the Caribbean, down through the South Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean to the East Indies and back again to the coast of South America, before heading for the French port. Her complement of 24 officers and 120 crew included as Assistant Medical Officer a Dr David Herbert Llewellyn, son of the vicar of Easton Royal in Wiltshire and a former pupil of the recently founded Marlborough College.

The war they had been fighting – the war between the northern and the southern states of America, a war whose causes split English opinion down the middle almost as much as they divided the American people – was essentially a land war whose outcome was going to be decided at Bull Run, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, and by generals such as Lee, Grant, Jackson and Sherman, rather than on the high seas. In that war the odds often seemed stacked against the South, not least of all in economic terms with so much of the financial power of the country rooted in the industry of the North, so anything the South could do to disrupt its enemy’s economic might by harassing the trade that was its lifeblood was going to go some way towards redressing that imbalance. That is where the Alabama and other such commercial raiders became important in the story, and so effective had Captain Semmes been in the damage that his ship had inflicted on merchant shipping that the cost to the North was estimated to be in excess of $7 million. Amongst the crowd at Cherbourg that June morning were the crews of two merchantmen recently seized and burnt by the Alabama.

News of the arrival of the Alabama in Cherbourg harbour was relayed to Captain John Winslow of the U.S.S. Kearsarge lying at anchor in the Scheldt, off Flushing in Holland, and within two days the two ships were positioned only a few hundred yards from each other, either side of the breakwater of Cherbourg harbour. On Wednesday news broke that a challenge had been issued, surprisingly by Captain Semmes since it was generally felt that his ship was likely to be outgunned and outrun by the Kearsarge, and since it had been his policy to avoid conflict of this sort. Perhaps such taunts that his ship was nothing but a privateer preying on defenceless merchantmen emboldened Semmes to prove to the world that the Alabama was a true man-of-war. Whatever the reason, the next three days were spent in frantic activity in the harbour preparing for the inevitable conflict: the repairs were quickly brought to an end, coal was loaded, ammunition taken on board, cutlasses sharpened.

The Kearsarge meanwhile had withdrawn form the mouth of the harbour, and was lying three miles off shore in international waters, watching and waiting, anxious not to let the Alabama slip away if Semmes’ challenge were to prove to have been just a hoax to lull Captain Winslow into a false sense of security. Come Sunday morning, the crew of the Kearsarge were just preparing for morning service on deck when the lookout shouted that the Alabama was sailing straight for them. She was escorted by a French frigate to the limit of the French waters, and accompanied by a small English steam-yacht, The Deerhound, flying the flag of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club. Determined not to allow the Alabama the opportunity of fleeing back into neutral waters, Captain Winslow turned and lured Captain Semmes further out to sea before battle commenced.

Firing began at 10.57 and continued for the best part of an hour as the two ships circled each other. At the start of the battle the Alabama appeared to be trying to keep her distance and fire at long range, but Captain Winslow determined to get in closer so that his guns could have better effect. Both ships were soon steaming at full speed firing broadside after broadside at each other. The Alabama changed from solid shot to shell, then back to shot again, in a desperate attempt to inflict serious damage on the Kearsarge. One shell entered the starboard quarter and lodged in the sternpost. The blow shook the ship from stem to stern, but luckily for the Kearsarge it did not explode for had it done so it most likely would have crippled the ship beyond repair. Another shell entered the forward pivot port of the Kearsarge but also failed to explode, theses failures possibly the consequence of ammunition which had deteriorated after being stored so long at sea.

During the course of the battle the Alabama fired twice as much as her opponent, but her more random firing and her smaller guns failed to make an impact, whereas the more precise and deliberate aim of the Kearsarge’s gunners and especially her 11-inch guns were beginning to take their toll on the Alabama. In addition the Kearsarge’s wooden sides were protected by a sort of chain-mail which helped to reduce the damage done by the Alabama’s shells, a fact which Captain Semmes after the battle singled out as the main reason why his ship had lost. At the start of the eighth circle the Alabama suddenly hoisted full sail and appeared to be trying to break out of the battle and make a run for neutral waters, but she was already holed below the water-line and had begun to take in a lot of water. Just over one hour into the battle her colours were struck, a white flag was shown, and the Kearsarge ceased her firing.

Efforts were now made to rescue the crew of the Alabama. The Deerhound which had been observing the battle from a safe distance now appeared on the scene and began to pick up some of those who had already got aboard the lifeboats. Boats from the Kearsarge were also lowered to go to help those in the water, and with his ship now tilting at forty-five degrees Captain Semmes and the remaining officers and men jumped overboard. Semmes and some of the others swam straight for the Deerhound, which a little later was seen sailing from the scene in the direction of Southampton, thus depriving Captain Winslow of the opportunity of taking prisoner the man who had done so much damage to Northern trade over the previous two years. One member of the crew of the Kearsarge died of his wounds shortly after the battle, but otherwise they only suffered injuries; nine of the Alabama’s crew were killed and twenty-one wounded, and at least four believed drowned. Included in that number was Old Marlburian Dr David Llewellyn, a non-swimmer, who refused the chance to board one of the earlier lifeboats for fear that the already overcrowded boat would capsize, and was last seen jumping into the water just before the Alabama finally slipped below the waves. It is his life that we commemorate today.

Terry Rogers
College Archivist

Copyright 2011



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