In volume 3 of Shebly Foote's book on the American Civil war, he mentions that once out to sea, Winslow got a message from France about Semmes's intentions. Does that mean there were boats going back and forth from ship to shore before the battle? I know there were some Yachts near the battle so they could watch. Would they have been the source of communication?

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    I don't think this info is vital to the question, but out of curiosity which Foote book on the Civil War? One of the volumes of The Civil War: A Narrative perhaps?
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 2 '18 at 21:05
  • Ship to ship communication is via flag. Is there any reason why they wouldn't use a known, standard protocol? I've edited the substance of your comment into the question and deleted the comment, but a citation would be very helpful.
    – MCW
    Nov 2 '18 at 21:07
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    Well, Foote seemed to suggest the Kearsarge was waiting 3 miles off shore to wait for the Alabama in international waters. 3 miles seemed too far for flag, but I have no idea. The intentions were weather the Alabama was going to try to make an escape or to give battle. Nov 3 '18 at 0:28

I'm confused by the phrase "once out to sea," and I don't know what Semmes' intentions were, other than to fight, but I suspect Winslow received the message on shore, after taking a boat to shore from his ship the Kearsarge.

For context: Winslow and the Kearsarge had been pursuing Semmes and the Alabama for about 2 years. The Alabama arrived at Cherbourg on June 11th, intending to dock for resupply/repair, but the dry docks were full and he was denied. Kearsarge arrived at Cherbourg on the 14th without docking.

Kearsarge logbook fragment: "as we draw nearer to the spot where the Alabama is said to be."

According to the Kearsarge's logbook, Winslow sent a boat ashore but the boat was not allowed to land; a second boat with a more senior officer was permitted to land (p.309). On the 15th, Winslow "went ashore... himself to find out how things stand" (p.310) and returned with news that Alabama was planning to fight. The author of the logbook reports that Winslow "had received an abstract of a letter sent by Capt Semmes to the Confederate Agent" stating he planned to fight ("if the Kearsarge would wait for him he would not detain her but a short time," as the logbook's author put it).

Kearsarge logbook fragment: "we all had a good view of the notorious Alabama."

On the 19th, Kearsarge saw Alabama leaving port; both ships sailed out to international waters (to ensure the fight didn't happen in French waters, Alabama was escorted by the French ship Couronne) and battled for about an hour.

After Alabama was sunk, Semmes escaped aboard an English yacht, the Deerhound, which had putatively sailed out to watch the battle but turned out to be an accomplice of Semmes that spirited away Semmes and 40 of his officers and crew, preventing Winslow from taking them prisoner.


I don't know what was used in this particular case, but I can tell you what was available at that time. Besides a courier sent by boat.

a) on small distance: flag communication (a person with two flags in his hands, see Flag semaphore. Used on short distances.

b) flags raised on a mast, Naval flag signaling. Used on intermediate distances. Frequently used in a battle, or in convoy to transmit commands. Used on intermediate distances.

c) Communication with special lights: a searchlight specially constructed so that you can dim it or open quickly with a kind of the blind in front of it. Morse code or some other similar code can be used. Advantages: it is more secure, because you direct your searchlight narrow beam at the recipient. Works especially well when it is dark. (I don't know English name of this system, in Russian it is called "ratier", probably after the name of the inventor.) The range is limited only by the horizon, but you can place the searchlight high, for example on a top, to achieve quite a long distance. This system has the longest range of all optical systems.

enter image description here

To increase the range, sometimes a signal was transmitted through a chain of ships, two nearby ships or boats within the range of any of the previously described system.

Remark. A searchlight does not necessarily use electricity. Lighthouses exist since very ancient times, but I don't know whether non-electric "ratiers" were ever used.

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    @Kerry L: Radios did not exist at the time of American civil war.
    – Alex
    Nov 2 '18 at 21:50
  • I was thinking of Normandy when I saw Cherbourg for some stupid reason. I REALLY shouldn’t do any of this on my phone!!!
    – Kerry L
    Nov 2 '18 at 21:52
  • The French had large land-based semaphore systems that could be seen and read a lot farther away than one guy with two flags. Nov 2 '18 at 22:52
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    @Pieter Geerkins: Thanks for the nice photo. Do you know the name of this in English?
    – Alex
    Nov 3 '18 at 2:00
  • @Alex: I don't know of a name; but I am confident that the descriptive phrase "naval signal lamp" will be recognized by most native English speakers. That is the phrase I used to Google the image. Signalling today is done in Morse Code, but that post-dates Napoleonic times. Nov 3 '18 at 2:08

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