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A daring exploit. [from the Richmond Dispatch, January 17, 1897.]


The capture of the steamer Saint Nicholas. Commodore Hollins' account.

At 6 o'clock A. M., June 18, 1861, I left Baltimore on the Mary Washington, a steamboat running to the Patuxent. On landing at one of the landings on the river, I went to the plantation of Mr. S., where I suggested the idea (which originated entirely with myself), of seizing the Saint Nicholas, a boat running between Baltimore and Washington, and manning her with volunteers, and then to take the Pawnee, a United States steamer commanded by Yankee Ward, and which was a great annoyance to the boats on the Potomac. I was told that the plan could not be carried out, as there were so many Union men about; that it must be certainly discovered before it could be executed. Finding I could not act there, I crossed the Potomac in an open boat pulled by four negroes. On reaching the [89] Virginia side, I went to the residence of Dr. Howe (Hooe), about twenty miles from Fredricksburg. This place I reached at 1 A. M. This gentlemen was a perfect stranger to me, but he received me kindly, entertained me handsomely, he and his charming family so soon to be rendered houseless and homeless by the incendiary act of the vandal Captain Budd, of the United States gunboat, a name ever to be remembered, desecrated as the insulter of unprotected females, firing into barns and houses, and everything but what might have been expected of an officer or a gentleman.

The same day Dr. Howe (Hooe), chartered a buggy and drove me to Fredricksburg, where I arrived at six o'clock in the afternoon. On registering my name at the hotel, a gentleman, Mr. Chew, introduced himself to me, and insisted most kindly on taking me to his house, where he entertained me most handsomely and hospitably. Next morning I went to Richmond on the cars. I immediately proceeded to the Navy Department and reported myself to the Secretary, and at once received my commission as captain in the Confederate States navy. After getting my position and commission, I went into the Bureau of Details, where I met many of my old friends, who had also resigned—Barron, Maury, Lewis, Spotswood, and many others. In conversation in that office I suggested my plan of seizing the Saint Nicholas, and carrying out the scheme that had suggested itself to me at Colonel S——'s. I was told that the Secretary (Mr. Mallory) would not agree to the plan, but that the Governor (Letcher) would. I then remarked that I would obtain Mr. Mallory's permission to apply to the Governor. I walked into Mr. Mallory's room and asked his permission. He granted it, and I at once went straight to the Governor's. When I made my proposition, Governor Letcher, without a moments hesitation, acceded to the proposal, and gave me a draft for $1,000 to send North for arms and men, etc. He then and there introduced me to Colonel Thomas, of Maryland, alias Zarvona, as a person who could be trusted to go North to purchase arms, or transact other business. That same afternoon I started off for Point Lookout via Fredericksburg. After leaving Fredericksburg I met my two sons, who were on their way to Richmond; they joined me of course. That next evening we recrossed the Potomac to the Maryland side, St. Mary's county, where I went to the house of a friend and remained untill sundown, when I, my two sons, and five men started in a wagon in a pouring rain, a nasty, dirty night, for Point Lookout, where the Saint Nicholas had to stop on her way to Washington. About an hour after [90] our arrival at Point Lookout, the Saint Nicholas came to the wharf. After reaching the Maryland side I signed the draft and Colonel Thomas took the Patuxent boat and went on to Baltimore and Philadelphia to purchase the arms, etc. I directed him to get the arms and return down the bay in the Saint Nicholas, and get as many men to join him as he could. I also stated to him that I should join him at Point Lookout. At 12 midnight I went on board with my party; I saw Colonel Thomas dressed as a woman, to avoid suspicion, as he had high, large trunks such as milliners use; they contained arms and ammunition. I told Colonel Thomas to hold himself in readiness; as soon as we cleared the wharf we would take the steamer. In a few minutes we left the wharf and I soon made the appointed signal. The trunks were then opened, the men seized the arms; I took a musket, or rather a Sharp's rifle, and a pair of pistols, ran up to the wheelhouse, put my hand on the captain's shoulder, and told him I had captured his boat, and ordered him to take the boat over to Coan river, but he declined saying he was no pilot. I told him I knew he was a pilot, and that if he did not pilot me over, I would set fire to the Saint Nicholas and land all of my men in his boats, as I was determined she should not fall into the hands of the enemy. I have learned since that the captain became so uneasy, that another man piloted her over. About half an hour after my arrival at Coan river landing, a body of Confederate soldiers and sailors came down to assist me, the soldiers commanded by Captain Lewis. I then read the Baltimore morning papers and ascertained that Captain Ward had been killed while making an attack on Mathias Point, and all the gunboats had left the river and gone up the river to Washington to the funeral.

There were several passengers on board, but I landed them and gave permission to all who wished to return to Baltimore to do so. Few returned, as nearly all were on their way South; and although it was Sunday the ladies amused themselves by making Confederate flags out of the Yankee flags I had captured.

Finding there was no chance of capturing the Pawnee, and deeming it unsafe to remain where I was in a steamer without guns, I resolved to go up to Fredericksburg, and immediately ran out into the Chesapeake bay. I saw a fine brig; ran alongside of her; she proved to be the brig Monticello, from Rio, loaded with coffee, and bound for Baltimore. I merely captured her, taking the crew on board the Saint Nicholas, and leaving the captain and his wife on board, as I did not wish to terrify the lady, or render her uncomfortable [91] I put Lieutenant Robert (D.) Minor on board, with orders to take the brig to Fredericksburg. The coffee, a full cargo, was a great treat to our ‘boys in gray,’ who were already beginning to endure some of the many privations that made them in later days, ‘truly an army of martyrs.’ In an hour or less, I captured a schooner from Boston, loaded with ice and bound for Washington. I placed an officer and prize crew on board, and dispatched her to Fredericksburg. The ice just got there in time, for the wounded and sick in the hospitals were suffering for the want of it; and the Yankee captain of the schooner attended the sale, and seeing the fine prices paid for the ice, he came to me and proposed that he should go to Boston, get another vessel loaded with ice, bring her down, and let me know precisely when to meet him, that I might capture him, take the vessel to Fredericksburg, sell the ice, and divide the proceeds. Would any one but a Yankee have been guilty of such rascality? He had a splendid flag of a 74, an ensign that he had borrowed from the navy-yard, Boston, to hoist on the occasion of Douglas's death, but of that same ensign a goodly number of secession flags were made. I next captured another vessel from Baltimore, loaded with coal, bound for Boston—a most fortunate prize, as I was on my last bucket of coal in the Saint Nicholas. I filled up as I went along, as I began to feel a little fearful that some of the gunboats might be after me, so we went up to Fredericksburg, I towing my prize. We reached there safely. The government bought the Saint Nicholas for about $45,000, and turned her into a gunboat. The coffee sold well, but as she was a Baltimore vessel, and owned by gentlemen of that city, the government ascertained the price of coffee in Baltimore and paid Messrs. Spence & Reid twelve cents a pound, and sold it at twenty-five or thirty cents in Richmond. The vessel was returned to the owners. I then went to Richmond, and was ordered to the command of fortifications on James river. After having been there for some time, and knowing I was not competent to build 'longshore fortifications, whatever other navy officers might have been, I applied for other duty more in the line of my profession, and was ordered to take command of the station at New Orleans, with the rank of commodore.

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