When civil war broke out between the states of America on April 12th, 1861, both sides understood the importance of their respective navies when attempting to maintain control of vital waterways such as the Mississippi River and positions along the eastern and southern coast. The Federal Navy led the way in quantity of ships available while the Confederacy adopted a policy of limited number, high quality ironclad warships in response. The North moved ahead with an emergency shipbuilding program that was to grant its navy all-new vessels, no doubt benefitting from an established industrial base. One of the products of this endeavor became the USS Kearsarge, a steam-powered, three-masted, ocean-going vessel categorized as a first line "Sloop-of-War". She was named after Mount Kearsarge of New Hampshire and saw her keel laid down in 1861 at Portsmouth Navy Yard of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The vessel was launched on September 11th, 1861 and officially commissioned on January 24th, 1862 with Captain Charles Pickering in command.
Displacing at 1,550 tons, the Kearsarge was given a running length of 201 feet, 3 inches with a beam of 33 feet, 8 inches and a draught of 14 feet, 3 inches. She was armed with 2 x 11" (280mm) Dahlgren smoothbore main guns backed by 4 x 32-pounder cannons and 1 x 30-pounder Parrott rifled gun. The vessel utilized a hybrid form of propulsion common to the period led by her horizontal, back-acting steam engine which applied power to a single screw held under the stern. In addition to her powered drive, the Kearsarge also relied on her sail configuration. Her smoke stack was fitted ahead of midships and lifeboats were arranged along her hull sides. A large rudder structure was affixed aft of the turning propeller blades for maximum agility. Her crew numbered 160 men.
Kearsarge was ordered from Portsmouth to Spanish waters with her journey taking her to Gibraltar where she served in containing the CSS Sumter naval raider. With no better option, the Confederate Navy released her crew and sold off the ship. Her acting commander, Captain Raphael Semmes, made his way to Britain where Confederate agents had obtained the ex-British sloop "Enrica" and recommissioned her for service to the South as the CSS Alabama. The CSS Alabama would go on to claim some 65 Union ships and become one of the most successful raiders of the war. She displaced at 1,050 tons, featured twin steam engines driving a single screw with a three-masted sail arrangement not unlike the Kearsarge. She was crewed by 145 persons and fielded 6 x 32lb cannons, 1 x 110lb gun and 1 x 68lb gun. Dimensions included a length of 220 feet, a beam of 31 feet, 8 inches and a draught of 17 feet, 8 inches. She was launched into Confederate Navy service on July 29th, 1962 and commissioned on August 24th, 1862.
The Kearsarge, now under the command of Captain John Winslow, was charged with hunting down the problematic Alabama and found her in neutral France at Cherbourg on June 14th, 1864. Winslow waited the Alabama out, positioning himself at the mouth of the harbor, careful to not violate French territorial waters. The French Navy itself positioned their Couronne ironclad warship to ensure national security. The Kearsarge lay in wait until June 19th when the Alabama set sail for what would become her final voyage, meeting the Kearsarge in international waters.
With the vessels clear of French territory, the CSS Alabama engaged the USS Kearsarge at range as each vessel entered into their maneuvers attempting to secure optimal firing angles. Due to poor ammunition and inaccurate gunnery, Alabama's shells failed to harm the Kearsarge. The Kearsarge also benefitted from chain cabling added over critical sections about her hull which improved protection. The Kearsarge returned fire in a naval battle that would last approximately one hour and left the Alabama a destroyed wreck. The enemy crew was taken prisoner though 42 of them - including Captain Semmes - was collected by the nearby British vessel "Deerhound" (in what may have been a preplanned service). The battle ended the raiding career of the famous CSS Alabama and earned the Kearsarge crew seventeen Medal of Honor recipients.
Kearsarge then set a course for the French coast in search of the CSS Florida though this hunt yielded nothing. She then made her way to Caribbean waters before ultimately arriving in Boston for much needed repairs. The vessel was placed back in service on April 1st, 1865 and headed for Spanish waters in search for the CSS Stonewall. Her hunting endeavor came up empty once more and the American Civil War was officially declared over on May 10th, 1865. Kearsage was decommissioned on August 14th, 1866 in Boston - the first of her several decommissionings/recommissionings to come.
Kearsarge continued her sea-going career with the United States Navy and patrolled along the South and Central American coast (including a humanitarian mission for earthquake victims in Peru) after she was recommissioned on January 16th, 1868. She was decommissioned for the second time on October 11th, 1870 only to be recommissioned once more on December 8th, 1873. The vessel traveled to Japan and remained in regional waters for several years until September 1877. Transiting the Suez Canal, she managed European stops en route to Boston, arriving there in December of 1877 only to be decommissioned again on January 15th, 1878. Her career was not over for the vessel was readied and recommissioned a fourth time on May 15th, 1879 for extended service in North Atlantic waters, decommissioned once more on December 1st, 1886. On November 2nd, 1888, Kearsarge was commissioned for the fifth and final time and served in Caribbean and Central American waters. After sailing from Haiti en route to Nicaragua on January 20th, 1894, she struck Roncador Reef on February 2nd, 1894 which forced her crew (safely) off. Her hull was then stripped of valuables, her hulk set alight and her name struck from the Naval Register, bringing an end to the storied career of the USS Kearsarge.
While there have been several subsequent American vessels to carry the "Kearsarge" name, only the USS Kearsarge of 1861-1862 was named after the New Hampshire mountain - all others following were named in honor of the original USS Kearsarge.