"In Cherbourg Roads
The pirate lay;
On a morn in June
Like a beast at bay."

I don't remember the rest of this less than inspired poem, or even the author, but I remember reciting it in a third grade pageant in a small schoolhouse in Maine. It represented a Yankee viewpoint of the epic ship-to-ship battle fought between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama on the 14th of June 1864. John Winslow, Kearsarge's captain, if not a household byword was at least a minor deity in the pantheon of Union victors for ending the career of the Confederacy's most successful commerce raider. Obviously, a schoolchild growing up south of the Mason-Dixon line would have learned a very different version of history. Southerners regarded Captain Raphael Semmes as a cavalier of the sea, the very personification of Southern chivalry...the man who cast his sword of honor into the sea at battle's end so it would not be defiled by base Yankee fingers.

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Even stripped of partisan distortions, the Kearsarge/Alabama action certainly ranks with the Monitor/Merrimac engagement as one of the two most noteworthy naval battles of the Civil War. One of the most remarkable aspects of the battle was the fact that the two ships were so closely matched in size and armament. In a war characterized by massive imbalances in materiel, Kearsarge and Alabama resembled each other so closely that to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their famous fight Revell chose to produce kits of both ships by adapting the same set of molds.  

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USS Kearsarge was built in 1861 in Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, New Hampshire. She was one of a group of 10 shallow draft steam sloops authorized by Congress in 1857 primarily for coastal patrol work. As built her WL length was 198.5', beam 33' and draft 16'. She displaced 1031 tons and was powered with 2 400 HP steam engines which gave her a maximum speed under both steam and sail of better than 13 knots: her 4-bladed screw could be disengaged from the shaft to windmill freely when she was under sail alone. In her original configuration she had relatively low bulwarks with a pronounced sheer: this coupled with her tendency to roll heavily made her a wet ship. Her main armament consisted of 2 massive 11" Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns on pivot mountings amidships. These monsters fired 150-pound shells and were largely responsible for pounding Alabama into a sinking wreck. They were supplemented by two 32-pounders on each broadside and a 30-pounder Dahlgren in a pivot mounting on her short forecastle deck. Her original rig was relatively modest which reflected the Union navy view that her steam plant was her primary means of propulsion: when she met the Alabama she was rigged as a 3 masted barque with a short bowsprit and only main and topsail yards on her fore and mainmasts. Just before her engagement with Alabama she also had chain cable laid externally over her engineering spaces and covered with thin wood sheathing. It has been suggested that this was the 'first ever' use of belt armor but it is questionable how much protection would have been conferred by this arrangement in the event it was not put to the test as no return fire from Alabama appears to have hit in the 'belt' area.

During her long life Kearsarge was extensively rebuilt on several occasions. During the course of these refits her forecastle deck was extended aft of the foremast, a quarterdeck was constructed, a conning platform was added forward of the funnel, her bulkheads were raised and her sheer markedly flattened. Her broadside 32-pounders were replaced by 9" Dahlgrens and her 11" main pivot guns were replaced with 8" rifled guns with iron carriages. She was also given a loftier rig with both topgallant and royal yards on her fore and mainmasts.

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When she was lost on Roncador Reef in the Caribbean in 1894 her name was transferred by Act of Congress to a new steel warship, the USS Kearsarge (BB-5). To the end of her days she was unique as the only twentieth century US Navy battleship not to be named after a state.

CSS Alabama was also built in 1861 under conditions of great secrecy in the Liverpool shipyard of John Laird Sons and Company. Her original contract specifications and builders drafts survive but since most of her short career was spent at sea her photographic records are far less extensive than those of Kearsarge. As previously noted her dimensions were very similar to those of Kearsarge, being 210' on the WL, 32' in beam and drawing 17' while displacing 1150 tons. She had 2 300 HP steam engines to drive her 2-bladed screw: a lifting mechanism was provided to disengage and raise the screw out of the water if she was moving under sail alone. Efficiency under sail was a paramount consideration for Alabama since she was destined for long ocean voyages with limited refueling opportunities. Her builders sail plan shows her with a barque rig with full square rig, including royal yards on her fore and mainmasts, but all the engravings of her at the time of her battle with Kearsarge show her with only main, topsail and topgallant yards crossed. Her main armament consisted of a 7" 100 pounder Blakely rifle on a pivot mounting forward of her funnel and an 8" 68 pounder smoothbore of English manufacture on a pivot mounting aft supplemented by 3 32-pounders on each broadside. She was flush-decked with no forecastle and was equipped with a conning platform forward of her funnel.

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The first generation of styrene plastic warship kits in the mid 1950s were characterized by 'rough and ready' attention to accuracy and 'box scale' models (i.e. scaling the models to fit in a standard-sized box rather than adhering to a uniform or recognized scale). In addition, kits were often repackaged and sold as sister ships or even distant relatives with no attempt to individualize anything but the box art. Revell's earliest offerings, while better than some, fell prey to most of these shortcomings as well. However, when they inaugurated their large-scale sailing warship series they obviously resolved to do better. By the time the Kearsarge kit made its appearance in 1961 these general guidelines had been established: A standard scale of 1/96 (commonly utilized by the better wood sailing ship kits). Careful research and attention to detail with the goal being to produce a real scale model, not just capture a general suggestion of the prototype. If models of sister ships were offered, the molds would be changed to reflect differences in the class. 

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The Kearsarge kit set a remarkable standard for accuracy, particularly by the standards of those days. The modeler was informed in a historical supplement that the model was built from the original blueprints and that "Approximately 15,000 man hours and $100,000 was (sic) expended in the production of this museum type scale model Civil War steam sloop of war." The scale measurements of the hull conform closely to published dimensions and confirm the accuracy of this statement. Unfortunately, Revell's researchers appear to have been led astray by Kearsarge's multiple refits. As may be seen by comparing the kit hull with a set of drawings from the National Archives, as well as comparing the box art with a photo from the 1880s, the model appears to be patterned after Kearsarge's 1888 and final appearance. 


Parts from Kearsarge
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The company did make some effort to backdate the kit to the ship's 1864 arrangement by removing the quarterdeck and conning platform, but they left the elongated forecastle deck untouched and introduced a number of other features which were not present at the time of the 1864 battle, such as a more lofty sailing rig, 9" Dahlgrens in the broadside positions, 1880's deck fittings and 6 small boats rather than the 4 that she carried in 1864. Most notably (and hardest to fix for a modeler wanting to retrofit the model to her Civil War appearance), they depicted the modernized raised bulkheads and straightened sheer line. In addition, the kits hull halves come together at the stern at a slight angle but all photos and plans show the ship with a perfectly rounded stern. The kit is remarkably well detailed, with most small parts provided as separate pieces rather than cast on: in this regard the model compares very favorably to much newer kits. While some of the larger parts in my sample kit have warped somewhat (not surprising in styrene castings almost 40 years old!) in general the fine detail and fit are excellent. Preformed shrouds and ratlines made of flexible plastic-coated fiber are provided these look much more realistic that the cast styrene used in many other sailing ship models. They relieve the modeler from the tedious chore of 'rattling down', but result in the shrouds and ratlines being the same diameter (the ratlines should be considerably smaller than the shrouds). 

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When Revell introduced the companion CSS Alabama kit they unfortunately backed away from their previously demonstrated commitment to uncompromising accuracy. This kit is essentially a major revision of the Kearsarge kit designed to resemble Alabama in general terms using the Kearsarge hull. As may be seen the hull halves of the two kits mate perfectly and are identical below the waterline: this means that the hull is more than 11 scale feet too short for Alabama as well as having incorrect lines. In particular the curvature of the stem is wrong for Alabama. Above the waterline the hull has been cut down from the Kearsarge lines and the planking details have been extensively modified and generally resemble contemporary engravings of Alabama with one odd exception, namely a series of rectangular holes in the stern bulkhead at the level of the main deck. None of the surviving plans show her as having quarter galleries or stern windows so I suspect that the patternmakers misinterpreted a few engravings of the ship that appeared to show her with these features. 


USS Kearsarge with copper hull, CSS Alabama with plain hull
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As the kit is arranged the openings are one deck too high to represent cabin windows and it is hard to imagine what purpose they could possibly serve (other than to get the watch on deck soaking wet in any kind of sea state!). A conning platform is provided in the correct location and the ship has no forecastle deck, which is also correct. In general the small parts are based on those of the Kearsarge, which introduces several other inaccuracies, most notably in her ordnance. The two large pivot guns are 'soda bottle' shaped without the characteristic 'tulip' at the muzzle which was found on all Dahlgren guns; they don't really resemble the photograph of the after 8" smoothbore and are totally incorrect for the forward Blakely, which should have a number of sharply demarcated bands around the breech. The broadside cannon appear to be 9" Dahlgrens copied from the Kearsarge kit and Alabama never carried Dahlgrens at any time. 

I still remember my sense of awe and excitement when this kit was released! The Revell Kearsarge was truly one of the most carefully researched styrene models of its day and with her quarterdeck and conning platform restored could easily serve as the basis for an extremely accurate model of this famous warship at the end of her career. Unfortunately, the modifications required to backdate her to her 1864 appearance would involve an extensive revision of almost all external hull details above the waterline as well as replacement of many kit-provided small parts. The kit appears never to have been re-released after its initial runs and now commands astronomical prices when it appears on auction sites.


Parts from Alabama
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The Revell Alabama, on the other hand, bears only a general resemblance to her prototype since the hull and many of the parts were based on the Kearsarge. The good news however is that the kit has just enjoyed a limited re-release and is readily available, and aside from the concerns noted is a good kit which makes into an attractive model out of the box. A modeler who wanted to build an 1864 Kearsarge in plastic could make a good beginning by using this kit rather than the very hard-to-find Kearsarge as a starting point (and it would be LOTS cheaper!). Ironically, the cutdown bulkhead lines of the Alabama kit make it resemble the lines of the 1864 Kearsarge more closely than the kit which bears the Kearsarge's name.

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References:

1. The Old Steam Navy Vol.1 by Donald L. Canney, Naval Institute Press 1990.
2.
CSS Alabama, Builder, Captain and Plans by Charles G. Summersell, U. of Alabama Press 1985. (Includes partial set of builder's plans)
3.
Reconstructing USS Kearsarge 1864 by Arthur C. Roberts, 4-part article in the 12/99, 3/00, 6/00 and 9/00 issues (Vol. 44 #4 and Vol. 45 #s 1, 2, and 3) of the Nautical Research Journal. (A superb description of the research and construction of Dr. Roberts' museum model)

All contemporary illustrations are taken from the US Naval Historical Center or the University of Alabama History Center.

My thanks to Mr. John Fuldner for making me aware of the excellent Canney and Summersell books.