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Inside the USS Kearsage Monument

 

 

Keeping memory alive

The miraculous new “white bronze,” however, turned out to be a poor material for monuments. The zinc alloy skin cracked, split, bowed, and could not support its own weight. The 15-foot central column and a pedestal section of the Portsmouth monument were removed in 1955 and the memorial shrank to its current height. In recent years  Goodwin Park received a landscaping and design make-over for $263,000, largely from a HUD block revitalization grant. The monument, originally priced at $5,000, was restored using public and private funds for $127,000, according to a city official.

Kearsage_painting

Similar monuments made during this era have been collapsing in towns across New England or repaired at great cost. Although nearly identical to many of its sisters, the Portsmouth’s version has a key customized feature. Three of the four sides display the names of critical battles at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.  The fourth side is emblazoned with the word KEARSAGE, and shows an image of the Kittery-built battleship USS Kearsage and the defeated Confederate cruiser Alabama.

The Civil War was a boom period for shipbuilding on the Piscataqua River. Besides the clash between the ironclads Merrimac and Monitor, no Civil War sea battle is more famous than the sinking of the commerce raider Alabama.

Built at Portsmouth Yard in Kittery, ME and launched in 1861, Kearsage was a strange combination of sailing ship and steamboat with a central smokestack. The battle took place off the coast of Europe where the Confederate ship had been stalking Yankee merchant vessels. The Kearsage captain politely allowed Alabama five days to make repairs in a French port before the battle began in July 1884. When they finally faced off, the Alabama was sunk and the Kearsage boasted no lives lost, though one crewman died of his wounds days later.

The one hour and ten-minute battle left Kearsage veterans with a lifetime of laurels. Some of the crew members organized to promote annual Kearsage remembrance ceremonies and marched in local military parades well into the World War I era. A reported 5,000 marchers filled the city streets for a huge three-day festival in 1900. Around here "Remember the Kearsage!" was a cry more stirring than "Alamo!" The full story of the ship, the men, and the battle are currently on display at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this article appears exclusively online. His latest book is Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard M. Camdee. The new book is available in local stores, on Amazon.com, and at the Discover Portsmouth Center.

Kearsage_Parade_1901

 

 

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