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In this age of Instagram and Twitter—when breaking news reaches the world within minutes—it’s almost impossible to imagine the sluggish information culture of the Civil War. Never mind that Americans North and South justifiably believed that they were living through  a communications revolution. Newspapers might take days to present eyewitness coverage of battles, even longer if they occurred in the West. Yes,  the telegraph carried news to the Union and Confederate capitals—that is, when enemy combatants did not sever the lines—but the systems were  so clunky that no less a newshound than Abraham  Lincoln had no wires to receive news directly at the  White House and was compelled to trudge to the War Department to wait for reports from the front. As for photographs and prints of the battlefields,  much as we heap praise on the artists who braved difficult conditions to make their pictorial records,  their results often did not reach the public for months. Hard as it was to wait for news of military  engagements, it was even harder to visualize them. What we describe in retrospect as “timely” was not  only less so by our own blink-of-an-eye standards;  time sometimes stood agonizingly still for the men  and women who lived through the war.

That’s why I think it’s worth remembering a neglected and influential military event that  occurred 150 years ago—the one-on-one duel  between the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge in distant Cherbourg, France, on June 19, 1864.

Much has been—and will be—written about William T. Sherman’s victory in Atlanta three months  later, and its allegedly transformative impact on  Lincoln’s campaign for a second White House term. True enough: Sherman took Atlanta on September 2, when the president seemed at a low ebb in what today we would call “approval ratings”  (there were no public opinion polls in 1864). We can only surmise the depths of his despair by his own  admission that it seemed “exceedingly probable  that this Administration will not be re-elected.”

Yes, news from Atlanta a week later counted as  a significant game-changer, overshadowing that  week’s reports of George B. McClellan’s nomination by the Democrats and rendering as almost  unpatriotic his party’s newly adopted platform  plank calling overtly for peace.

But could Atlanta alone have won the presidency for Lincoln any more than the elimination  of Osama Bin Laden truly ended the presidential  contest of 2012? Remember the “Mitt Romney Momentum” after the first televised  presidential debate?

Wartime military successes do indeed  help incumbent commanders-in-chief  seeking re-election (would FDR have  won a fourth term in 1944 had the Allies  failed to gain a D-Day foothold on the  Normandy beaches?). But the problem  with over-emphasizing Atlanta is that  history has too often relegated earlier  and later events—Farragut at Mobile  Bay, Sheridan’s Ride at Cedar Creek— to oblivion. In fact the news of the  KearsargeAlabama duel did not reach  America until July—when, it might  be argued, it worked its own magic to  change the political equilibrium on Lincoln’s behalf by causing its own boost in  Union morale and confidence.

The Alabama had been wreaking  widely reported havoc on American  merchant ships for months before Captain John A. Winslow finally cornered it  in Cherbourg Harbor. Admiral Raphael  Semmes had no choice but to take his  Confederate commerce raider into the  open water and submit to a classic one-on-one fight. The battle raged for only  an hour before the battered Alabama went down to the bottom, stern first.

That the duel caused immediate  controversy and excitement cannot  be denied—but for a while, only the  French knew about it. Unionists there  portrayed the Alabama as a “pirate  ship,” and rejoiced in its destruction.  Semmes, who survived its sinking,  grew incensed when he learned that  Winslow had draped chain mail over  the Kearsarge’s hull, charging that the  fight had been unfair—after all, he had  been forced to face an “ironclad.” More  important, a group of French artists had  been meeting nearby for what today we  might call a “junket.” Learning that  two picturesque American ships were  about to open fire on each other outside the harbor, they took up positions  on the surrounding cliffs and sketched  and painted the battle into immortality.  Among them was Édouard Manet.

But not right away. Because communications between Europe and America had slowed to a crawl—the Atlantic  Cable was down and news had to be  transferred by vessels plodding across  the ocean between the continents— news often took two to three weeks to  reach Union and Confederate readers.  New York dailies reported the news  on July 6, but Harper’s Weekly did not  publish its first visual accounts of the  event until later in July. But when it did,  the news caused a genuine sensation.  Hard proof that the Kearsarge victory was eventually seen by the Republicans as a political asset can be found  in a rare, surviving Republican ballot,  issued in California for the November 1864 election. On one side are the  names of electors pledged to Lincoln; on  the other, for decoration, not an image  of the president or even Sherman, but  of the Kearsarge sinking the Alabama.  

So when re-examining the ebb and  flow of the 1864 presidential campaign,  it is useful to remember not only when  momentum-altering events took place,  but when voters learned of them.


Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.