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 Kearsarge–Alabama 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.