An American Civil War battle was fought off the coast of France.

  • Sinking of the CSS Alabama
Sinking of the CSS Alabama
Credit: Classic Image/ Alamy Stock Photo

While most U.S. Civil War conflicts occurred on American soil, the Battle of Cherbourg was a rare exception — it took place all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of France. This sea skirmish occurred on June 19, 1864, between two opposing warships, the Union’s USS Kearsarge and the Confederacy’s CSS Alabama. The battle was the result of an effort by Union ships to track down Confederate raiders across the globe. Given the U.S. Navy’s loyalty to the Union, the Confederacy contracted various shipyards in Britain to help expand their fleet, which the neutral British government did little to prevent at the time. The Alabama had been secretly built in England, and set sail across the Atlantic in January 1863. The warship struck and sank the USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas, before changing course toward Southeast Asia. During this global excursion, it captured 65 Union merchant ships before returning to Europe in 1864 for much-needed repairs.

The crew of the Alabama docked in Cherbourg Harbor on June 11, believing they’d likely be safe in neutral French territory. However, on June 14, the Kearsarge came upon the enemy ship and created a blockade out at sea. Over the next several days, Union Captain John A. Winslow and Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes prepared their respective ships for battle, and the Alabama fired the first shots on June 19. The fighting drew the attention of spectators who gathered on the shore to witness the skirmish. After an hour, the Alabama began sinking, though most of its crew members were rescued by a nearby British yacht. While Semmes escaped into England and evaded capture, the battle was a decisive victory for the Union Army, which had toppled one of the Confederacy’s most destructive warships.

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