TREMONT — A pivotal naval battle in the Civil War was fought off the coast of Cherbourg France, June 19, 1864, between the Union Navy’s 200 foot, three-masted steam- and sail- powered USS Kearsarge, and the elusive Confederate raider the CSS Alabama.
On board the Kearsarge that day was a 21-year-old sailor named John Fairfield Bickford, of Bass Harbor, the ship’s number one pivot gunner.
Bickford, along with the ship’s Capt. John A. Winslow, and the 17-man gun crew, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his outstanding service and valor in that famous battle.
For two years, previous to this naval encounter, the Alabama, captained by Raphael Semmes, had been sinking or disabling dozens of Union-affiliated vessels — merchant ships, whalers, even a fully armed warship — with brutal precision, totaling up a loss of men, treasure and strategic advantage that could well have affected the outcome of the war.
The Kearsarge had been dispatched to put an end to this rampage.
According to an article written by Norman Delaney for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History magazine, the Kearsarge caught up with the enemy ship in the French port of Cherbourg where it had put in for repairs. When Semmes learned that the Kearsarge was prowling a few miles outside the harbor, like a hungry shark waiting to engage in battle as soon as the Alabama left port, in an act of what in hindsight seems extreme hubris, Semmes sent Capt. Winslow a challenge:
“My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements,” Semmes wrote, according to accounts of the battle. “I hope they will not detain me more than until tomorrow evening or after the morrow morning at furthest. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out.”
Capt. Semmes was so eager for this rendezvous that the repairs on Alabama were only partially complete when he steamed out of port to confront his Union rival on his own terms.
The two ships were fairly evenly matched in size and firepower, but the Alabama was at a disadvantage, according to Delaney. The ammunition was damp, and the gunnery crew was not as experienced or well-trained. Also unbeknownst to Capt. Semmes, the Kearsarge’s hull in the engine area had been draped with chains, with boards attached on the outside of the chains, making the ship effectively an iron clad.
When the two ships went broadside to broadside that sunny, still morning of June 19, the Kearsarge’s superior gun crews — one of them led by John Bickford — ripped into the Alabama with a barrage of fire power from its cannons and the two large pivot guns mounted on the ship’s bow and stern.
The Alabama’s gunners were not so well prepared. While they fired even more shot and shells than they received, their cannons were apparently aimed too high, and much of it flew over the Kearsarge’s deck. Also, most of shells from the Alabama’s own pivot guns did not explode, or did little damage, largely due to damp wicks and powder and, perhaps, the Kearsage’s armored hull.
The uneven exchange of fire power went on for a solid hour before the Alabama foundered, and Semmes lowered the Confederate colors in surrender.
That autumn, after being feted, along with his gunnery crew, for their “personal valor” at a banquet at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Bickford reenlisted. Delaney reports that Bickford was promoted to acting master’s mate and was allowed to go home to Bass Harbor for a brief visit with family before returning to sea aboard the USS Lenapee for a reconnaissance mission along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. He contracted malaria there in 1865 and was discharged after three months.
Two years later, with the war won, Bickford left Mount Desert Island to take a job as a foreman in a Gloucester, Mass. fish factory. Two years after that he married the boss’s daughter, with whom he had five children, three of whom survived to adulthood. By 1891, he had retired from the factory, but even into his eighties operated an excursion boat of out Gloucester Harbor. During tours he would regale passengers with his personal accounts of the renowned sea battle. He was also a regular attendee at reunions with his old crew mates.
John F. Bickford died April 27, 1927, at age 84. He was buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Gloucester. A headstone and a veteran’s marker mark his grave. His Medal of Honor, which he received by mail, is now in the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester.
TREMONT — It is not known if Medal of Honor recipient John Bickford ever visited Bass Harbor in his later years, and while he has one probable relative still living on Mount Desert Island, his story has gone out of her family’s oral history.
A few years ago the Tremont Historical Society received a notice from the Maine Secretary of State about an educational project to recognize and honor Medal of Honor recipients from Maine. John Bickford was on that list.
Kathy Pratt, a Tremont Historical Society board member, has picked up the banner and is devising a project with local middle and high school students and teachers to memorialize this hometown hero.
“Except for a few diligent Civil War historians and writers,” Pratt said, “when Maine’s contribution to the Civil War is mentioned, Brewer born Joshua Chamberlain is the hero who is most often mentioned.
“But Maine sent many young men to fight and, in some cases, die, for the cause of preserving the Union and ending slavery. John F. Bickford was one of these brave and presumably principled young men who, while honored in his own time, should also be remembered in ours.”
Anyone interested in being a part of this project is welcome to call Pratt at 244-0558.