This Day in History

Painting of the sinking of CSS Alabama by American marine painter, Xanthus Russell Smith.

Xanthus Russell Smith (American, 1839-1929), Sinking of the Rebel cruiser Alabama by the U.S.S. Kearsage, 1868. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Regions Bank AFI.179.2015

This painting—Sinking of the Rebel Cruiser Alabama by the U.S.S. Kearsage—depicts the Battle of Cherbourg, a fight between Union and Confederate forces that occurred off the coast of France on June 19, 1864, during the Civil War, exactly 152 years ago. The two ships exchanged fire for over an hour, watched by more than 15,000 bystanders from the nearby shore. The conflict resulted in the death of 41 sailors and the sinking of the CSS Alabama, which was no match for the Kearsage’s iron-chain cladding and slower, but more accurate artillery. Relying on newspaper accounts, the French painter Édouard Manet documented the battle in a work that same year. Four years later, the American marine painter Xanthus Russell Smith (1839 – 1929) similarly relied on both written and oral eyewitness accounts to ensure the accuracy of his painting, the first of several works on the subject. Smith himself had served as a captain’s clerk in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Beginning in 1868, he embarked on a long career painting the major naval engagements of the Civil War, eventually referring to himself as the “oldest living and practicing artist with Civil War experiences.” An important addition to our collection of American history paintings, the work was recently donated to the Museum by Regions Bank.