Fire on the Water exhibit at Athenaeum observes 150th anniversary of Civil War

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – A ship that helped turn the tide of public opinion at home and abroad during the Civil War is featured in a new exhibit, “Fire on the Water: Portsmouth’s Kearsarge Sinks the Deadly Confederate Raider Alabama.”

“Civilian and military morale, at a low ebb over the Union’s seeming inability to bring the long war to a decisive conclusion, was enormously bolstered by the stunning defeat of the Alabama in 1864,” said Richard Adams, who is curating the free exhibit that opens May 6 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. An opening reception that coincides with Portsmouth’s Art ‘Round Town gallery walk will be held in the Randall Gallery on Friday, May 6, 5-8 p.m.

John A. Winslow, who commanded USS Kearsarge in the epic Union naval victory over the Confederate raider Alabama, was born in 1811 in North Carolina, though his parents were of old Yankee stock with direct ties to the Pilgrims. He gained admittance to the Naval Academy in 1827 through the sponsorship of Daniel Webster, who at the time was living in a house on the Winslow estate in Marshfield, Mass. Image courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum

Adams said the 90-minute battle between the Portsmouth Navy Yard-built Kearsarge and the Alabama was witnessed by thousands of onlookers who lined the cliffs of Cherbourg, France. Hundreds of salvos were exchanged as Kearsarge Capt. John A. Winslow engaged the Alabama, which had put into the French port for a much-needed overhaul.

“The battle became enormously popular as a subject for artists,” Adams said. “Dozens of paintings were made, mostly taken from eyewitness accounts.”

Several of those paintings will be on display in the Athenaeum’s Randall Room, as well as photographs, musical pieces, a written account of the engagement by a Newington man who fought in the battle and a model of the USS Sassacus, a steamer that disabled a Confederate ironclad. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is loaning the original construction plans of the three-masted, steam-powered Kearsarge as well as a sailor’s hat from the era.

Capt. Winslow assumed command of the Kearsarge — named for the mountain in New Hampshire — in April 1863 and had spent more than a year in a fruitless quest for Confederate raiders. The Alabama, under the command of Raphael Semmes, had sunk 55 merchant ships, Adams said. Winslow was docked in Flushing, Holland, when he got word that Semmes was in the Normandy port.

“He anchored just outside the territorial waterline on June 14, 1864, and patiently awaited Semmes’ next move,” said Adams, who described the Alabama’s commander as “an aggressive fighter.”

Six days later, Semmes steamed out of Cherbourg and fired the first shots. Word about the impending battle had spread, and trains had brought spectators from as far away as Paris, Adams said.

“The two ships maneuvered around each other in seven concentric circles, each attempting to gain advantage in firing position,” Adams said. The superior marksmanship of the gunners aboard the Kearsarge decided the battle, and the Alabama raised a white flag of surrender after its rudder was disabled and boilers destroyed.

“In all, about 30 of Alabama’s crew were killed or drowned, while the Kearsarge’s casualties totaled three wounded,” Adams said.

Semmes and 40 Confederate crew members managed to escape aboard an English steam yacht, the Deerhound, which seems to have been stationed near the battle “by prior arrangement,” Adams said.

The Union victory — widely celebrated on U.S. soil — also had international implications.

“The battle’s outcome served to shift foreign sentiment, in France especially, toward greater sympathy for the Union cause,” Adams said.

Other Civil War

anniversary events

The Athenaeum exhibit is just one of a number of events going on in New Hampshire to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

They include exhibits at Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke on Gen. Fitz John Porter (May 1-Oct. 31) and the Peterborough Historical Society (April 20-Oct. 29), self-guided tours of Civil War Portsmouth offered at the Discover Portsmouth Center, a series of Civil War Roundtable discussions in Epping and the Civil War diary and letters of John Hay at The Fells in Newbury (June 27-Oct. 10).

The Discover Portsmouth Center, 10 Middle St., will have a related exhibit opening June 4, “Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection.”

The Athenaeum exhibit, which runs through Sept. 17, draws heavily on the works of art and ephemera collected by Joseph Sawtelle, a Portsmouth philanthropist and avid student of local marine history who died in 2000.

On June 9 at the Athenaeum, author William Marvel will give a gallery talk at 7 p.m. Marvel’s many books include “The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War,” as well as “Mr. Lincoln Goes to War” and “Andersonville.” He has won a Lincoln Prize, the Douglas Southall Freeman Award, and the Bell Award.

On June 23 at 7 p.m., Alan Fraser Houston will present a talk on his recent book,“Keep Up Good Courage, A Yankee Family & the Civil War: The Correspondence of Corporal Lewis Q. Smith of Sandwich, N.H., Fourteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, 1862-1865.”

Richard Adams and Richard Candee will conduct a Civil War Portsmouth Walking Tour on Aug. 6.

Reservations are required for both talks and the walking tour. For reservations and information, call the Athenaeum at 431-2538.

The Athenaeum is a nonprofit membership museum and library founded in 1817. See more at www.portsmouthathenaeum.org.

WHAT Fire on the Water: Portsmouth’s Kearsarge Sinks the Deadly Confederate Raider Alabama, curated by Richard Adams

WHEN May 6-Sept. 17; reception May 6, 5-8 p.m. in conjunction with Art ‘Round Town gallery walk

WHERE Portsmouth Athenaeum,

EVENTS June 9, 7 p.m. at the Athenaeum, author William Marvel will give a gallery talk. Marvel’s books include “The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War,” as well as “Mr. Lincoln Goes to War” and “Andersonville;” June 23, 7 p.m., Alan Fraser Houston will present a talk on his recent book, “Keep Up Good Courage, A Yankee Family & the Civil War: The Correspondence of Corporal Lewis Q. Smith of Sandwich, N.H., Fourteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, 1862-1865;” Aug. 6: Richard Adams and Richard Candee will conduct a Civil War Portsmouth Walking Tour. Reservations are required for both talks and the walking tour. For reservations and information, call the Athenaeum at 431-2538. CONTACT www.portsmouthathenaeum.org, 431-2538

About civilwarweek

Member - Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force, Civil War reenactor and historian since 1993, holds Bachelor's Degree in History from Concordia University-St. Paul, currently pursuing Master's Degree in History at St. Cloud State University and is author of the forthcoming book, "Muskets and Memories: A Modern Man's Journey through the Civil War."
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