previous next

[206]

Chapter 30:

  • Naval affairs continued

  • -- necessity of a Navy -- Raphael Semmes -- the Sumter -- difficulties in creating a Navy -- the Sumter at sea -- alarm -- her captures -- James D. Bullock -- Laird's speech in the House of Commons -- the Alabama -- Semmes takes command -- the vessel and crew -- Banks's expedition -- Magruder at Galveston -- the steamer Hatteras sunk -- the Alabama not a pirate -- an Aspinwall steamer ransomed -- other captures -- prizes burned -- fight with the Kearsarge -- rescue of the men -- demand of the United States government for the surrender of the Drowning men -- reply of the British government -- sailing of the Oreto. Captain Maffit -- the ship half equipped -- running of the blockade -- her cruise -- capture and cruise of the Clarence -- the capture of the Florida -- Captain C. M. Morris -- the Florida at Bahia -- correspondence -- the Georgia -- Cruises and captures -- the Shenandoah -- Cruises and captures -- the Atlanta -- the Tallahassee -- the Edith.


To maintain the position assumed by the Confederate States as a separate power among the nations, it was obviously necessary to have a navy, not only for the defense of their coast, but also for the protection of their commerce. These states, after their secession from the Union, were in that regard in a destitute condition, similar to that of the United States after their Declaration of Independence.

It has been shown that among the first acts of the Confederate administration was the effort to buy ships which could be used for naval purposes. The policy of the United States government being to shut up our commerce rather than protect their own, induced the wholesale purchase of the vessels found in the Northern ports—not only such as could be made fit for cruisers, but also any which would serve even for blockading purposes. There was little shipping of any kind in the Southern ports, and to that scanty supply we were, for the time, restricted.

A previous reference has been made to the Sumter, Commander Raphael Semmes, but a more extended notice is considered due. Educated in the naval service of the United States, Raphael Semmes had attained the rank of commander, and was distinguished for his studious habits and varied acquirements. When Alabama passed her ordinance of secession, he was on duty at Washington as a member of the [207] Light-house Board; he promptly tendered his resignation, and at the organization of the Confederate government repaired to Montgomery and tendered his services to it. The efforts which had been made to obtain steamers suited to cruising against the enemy's commerce had been quite unsuccessful, none being found which the naval officers charged with their selection regarded fit for the service. One of the reports described a small propeller-steamer of five hundred tons burden, sea-going, lowpressure engine, sound, and capable of being so strengthened as to carry an ordinary battery of four or five guns; speed between nine and ten knots, but the board condemned her because she could carry but five days fuel, and had no accommodations for the crew.

The Secretary of the Navy showed this to Commander Semmes, who said: ‘Give me that ship; I think I can make her answer the purpose.’ She was to be christened the Sumter, in commemoration of our first victory, and had the honor of being the first ship of war commissioned by the Confederate States, and the first to display the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy on the high seas. The Sumter was at New Orleans, to which place Commander Semmes repaired; as forcibly presenting the difficulties under which we labored in all attempts to create a navy, I will quote from his memoirs the account of his effort to get the Sumter ready for sea:

I now took my ship actively in hand and set gangs of mechanics at work to remove her upper cabins and other top hamper, preparatory to making the necessary alterations. These latter were considerable, and I soon found that I had a tedious job on my hands. It was no longer the case, as it had been in former years, when I had had occasion to fit out a ship, that I could go into a navy-yard, with well-provided workshops and skilled workmen, ready with all the requisite materials at hand to execute my orders. Everything had to be improvised, from the manufacture of a water-tank to the kids and cans of the berth-deck messes, and from a gun-carriage to a friction-primer. . . . Two long, tedious months were consumed in making alterations and additions. My battery was to consist of an eight-inch-shell gun, to be pivoted amidship, and of four light thirtytwo-pound-ers of thirteen hundred weight each, in broadside.

On June 3, 1861, the Sumter was formally put in commission, and a muster roll of the officers and men transmitted to the Navy Department. On June 18th she left New Orleans and steamed down and anchored near the mouth of the river. While lying at the head of the passes, the commander reported a blockading squadron outside, of three ships at Passe à l'outre, and one at the Southwest Pass. The Brooklyn, at Passe à l'outre, was not only a powerful vessel, but she had greater speed than the Sumter. The Powhatan's heavy armament made it very hazardous to pass her in daylight, and the absence of buoys and lights made it [208] next to impossible to keep the channel in darkness. The Sumter, therefore, had been compelled to lie at the head of the passes and watch for some opportunity in the absence of either the Brooklyn or the Powhatan to get to sea. Fortunately, neither of these vessels came up to the head of the passes, where, there being but a single channel, it would have been easy to prevent the exit of the Sumter.

On June 30th, one bright morning, a boatman reported that the Brooklyn had gone off in chase of a sail. Immediately the Sumter was got under way, when it was soon discovered that the Brooklyn was returning, and that the two vessels were about equally distant from the bar. By steady courage and rare seamanship the Sumter escaped from her more swift pursuer, and entered on her career of cutting the enemy's sinews of war by destroying his commerce.

Numerous armed vessels of the enemy were hovering on our coast, yet this one little cruiser created a general alarm, and, though a regularly commissioned vessel of the Confederacy, was habitually denounced as a ‘pirate,’ and the many threats to destroy her served only to verify the adage that the threatened live long.

During her cruise up to January 17, 1862, she captured three ships, five brigs, six barks, and three schooners, but the property destroyed formed a very small part of the damage done to the enemy's commerce. Her appearance on the seas created such alarm that Northern ships were, to a large extent, put under foreign flags, and the carrying trade, in which the United States stood second only to Great Britain, passed rapidly into other hands. The Sumter, while doing all this mischief, was nearly self-sustaining, her running expenses to the Confederate government being but twenty-eight thousand dollars when, at the close of 1861, she arrived at Gibraltar. Not being able to obtain coal, she remained there until sold.

Captain James D. Bullock, an officer of the old navy, of high ability as a seaman, and of an integrity which stood the test under which a less stern character might have given way, was our naval agent at Liverpool. In his office he disbursed millions, and when there was no one to whom he could be required to render an account, paid out the last shilling in his hands, and confronted poverty without prospect of other reward than that which he might find in a clear conscience. He contracted with the Messrs. Laird, of Birkenhead, to buld a strong steam merchant-ship—the same which was afterward christened the Alabama when, in a foreign port, she had received her armament crew. So much of puerile denunciation has been directed against the builder and the [209] ship, which, in the virulent language of the day, our enemies denominated a ‘pirate,’ that the case claims at my hands a somewhat extended notice.

The senior Mr. Laird was a member of the British Parliament, and, because of the complaints made by the United States government, and the abuse heaped upon him by the Northern newspapers, he made a speech in the House of Commons, in which he stated that, in 1861, he was applied to to build vessels for the Northern government, first, by personal application, and subsequently by letter from Washington, asking him, on the part of the United States Navy Department, to give the terms on which he would build an iron-plated ship, ‘to be finished complete, with guns and everything appertaining.’ Mr. Laird continued: ‘On the 14th of August I received another letter from the same gentleman, from which the following is an extract: “I have this morning a note from the Assistant-Secretary of the Navy, in which he says, ‘I hope your friends will tender for the two iron-plated steamers.’ ” ’ Mr. Laird then said that, while he would not give the name of his correspondent, who was a gentleman of the highest respectability, he was willing, in confidence, to submit the original letters to the Speaker of the House or the first Minister of the Crown; that, as ‘the American Government is making so much work about other parties whom they charge with violating or evading the law, when in reality they have not done so, I think it only right to state these facts.’

To those who have listened with credulity to the abuse of the Confederate government, as well as that of Great Britain, the one for contracting for the building of the Alabama and the other for permitting her to leave a British port, will thus see how little of sincerity there was in the complaints of the United States government. For more than a generation the British people have been the great shipbuilders of world, and it is a matter of surprise that they should have given respectful consideration to charges of a breach of neutrality because they allowed a merchantman to be built in one of their ports and to leave it without any armament or crew, which could have enabled it, in that condition, to make war upon a country with which Great Britain was at peace.

Referring to the Alabama, as she was when she left the Mersey, Mr. Laird said:

If a ship without guns and without arms is a dangerous article, surely rifled guns and ammunition of all sorts are equally and even more dangerous. I have referred to the bills of entry in the custom-houses of London and Liverpool, and I find that there has been vast shipments of implements of war to the Northern States through the celebrated houses of Baring & Co.; Brown, Shipley & Co.; and [210] a variety of other names. . . . I have obtained from the official custom-house returns some details of the sundries exported from the United Kingdom to the Northern States of America from the 1st of May, 1861, to the 31st of December, 1862. There were—muskets, 41,500; rifles, 341,000; gun-flints, 26,500; percussion-caps, 49,982,000; and swords, 2,250. The best information I could obtain leads me to believe that one third to a half may be added to these numbers for items which have been shipped to the Northern States as hardware . . . so that, if the Southern States have got two ships unarmed, unfit for any purpose of warfare—for they procured their armament somewhere else—the Northern States have been well supplied from this country, through the agency of some most influential persons.

The speech of Mr. Laird, exposing the hypocrisy of the representations which had been made, as well by commercial bodies as by the highest officers of the United States, called forth repeated cheers from the Parliament.

There had been no secrecy about the building of the Alabama. The same authority above quoted states that she was frequently visited while under construction, and it is known that the British government was applied to to prevent her from leaving port. It was feared that she might be delayed; it was not considered possible, however, that British authorities would prevent an unarmed merchant ship from leaving her coast, lest she might elsewhere procure an armament, and, in the service of a recognized belligerent, revive the terror in the other belligerent which the little Sumter had recently inspired.

When the Alabama was launched and ready for sea, Captain Bullock summoned Captain Semmes, lately commander of the Sumter, to Liverpool, where he spent a few days in financial arrangements, and in collecting the old officers of the Sumter. The Alabama, then known as the 290, had proceeded a few days before to her rendezvous, the Portugese Island of Terceira, one of the group of the Azores. The story that the name 290 belonged to the fact that she had been built by two hundred ninety Englishmen, sympathizers in our struggle, was a mere fiction. She was built under a contract with the Confederate States, and paid for with Confederate money. She happened to be the two hundred ninetieth ship built by the Lairds, and, not having been christened, was called 290. Captain Semmes followed her, accompanied by Captain Bullock on the steamer Bahama, and found her at the place of rendezvous, also a sailing ship which had been dispatched before the Alabama with her battery and stores. Captain Semmes, with a sailor's enthusiasm, describes his first impression on seeing the ship which was to be his future home. The defects of the Sumter had been avoided, so that he found his new ship ‘a perfect steamer and a perfect sailing-ship, at [211] the same time neither of her two modes of locomotion being at all dependent upon the other. . . . She was about nine hundred tons burden, two hundred and thirty feet in length, thirty-two feet in breadth, twenty feet in depth, and drew, when provisioned and coaled for a cruise, fifteen feet of water. Her model was of the most perfect symmetry, and she sat upon the water with the lightness and grace of a swan.’ She was yet only a merchant ship, and the men on board of her, as well as those who came out with the captain on the Bahama, were only under articles for the voyage. She therefore had no crew for future service. When her armament and stores had been put on board, she steamed from the harbor out to the open sea, where she was to be chistened and put in commission. Captain Bullock went out on her and stood sponsor at the ceremony. He had just cause to be proud of the ships and we to be thankfull to him for the skill and care with which he had designed her and supervised her construction. The scantling of the vessel was comparatively light, having been intended for a scourge to the enemy's commerce rather than for battle, and merely to defend herself if it became necessary. Her masts were proportioned so as to carry large canvas, and her engine was of three hundred horse-power, with an apparatus for condensing vapor to supply the crew with all the fresh water requisite. The coal, stores, and armament having been received from the supply ships, she steamed out to sea on Sunday morning, August 24, 1862. There, more than a marine league from the shore, on the blue water over which man holds no empire, Captain Semmes read the commission of the President of the Confederacy appointing him a captain, and the order of the Secretary of the Navy assigning him to the command of the Alabama. There, where no government held jurisdiction, where the commission of the Confederacy was as valid as that of any power, the Alabama was christened, and was henceforth a ship of war in the navy of the Confederate States. The men who had come thus far under articles no longer binding were left to their option whether to be paid off with a free passage to Liverpool, or to enlist in the crew of the Alabama. Eighty of the men who had come out in the several vessels enrolled themselves in the usual manner. Captain Semmes had a full complement of officers, and with this, though less than the authorized crew, he commenced his long and brilliant cruise. The ship's armament consisted of six thirty-two-pounders in broadsides and two pivot-guns amidships, one of them a smooth-bore eight-inch, the other a hundredpounder rifled Blakely.

Captain Semmes, from his varied knowledge of affairs both on sea [212] and land, did not sail by chance in quest of adventure, but directed his course to places where the greatest number of the enemy's merchantmen were likely to be found, and to this the large number of captures he made is in no small degree attributable. On board one of the ships captured they got New York papers, from which he learned that General Banks, with a large fleet of transports, was to sail on a certain day for Galveston. On this he decided to go to the rendezvous appointed for his coal ship, and make all due preparation for a dash into the fleet when they should arrive at the harbor of Galveston, and therefore directed his course into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the meantime General Magruder had recaptured Galveston, so that on his arrival the lookout informed him that, instead of a fleet, there were five ships of war blockading the harbor and throwing shells into the town, from which his keen perception drew the proper conclusion that he had possession of the town, and that he was confronted by ships of war, not transports laden with troops. As each of the five ships observed by the lookout were supposed to be larger than his own, he had of course no disposition to run into that fleet. It therefore remained only to tempt one of the ships to follow him beyond supporting distance. The hope was soon realized, as a vessel was seen to come out from the fleet. The Alabama was under sail, and Captain Semmes says: ‘To carry out my design of decoying the enemy, I now wore ship as though I were fleeing from his pursuit, and lowered the propeller into the water. When about twenty miles from the fleet, the Alabama was prepared for action and wheeled to meet her pursuer. To the first hail made, the answer from the Alabama was, “This is her Britannic Majesty's steamer Petrel,” and the answer was, “This is the United States ship ——,” name not heard.’ Captain Semmes then directed the first lieutenant to call out through his trumpet, ‘This is the Confederate States steamer Alabama.’ A broadside was instantly returned by the enemy. Captain Semmes describes the state of the atmosphere as highly favorable to the conduct of sound, and the wind blowing in the direction of the enemy's fleet. The Federal Admiral, as afterward learned, immediately got under way with the Brooklyn and two others of his steamers to go to the rescue. The crews of both ships must have been standing at their guns, as the broadsides so instantly followed each other. In thirteen minutes after firing the first gun the enemy hoisted a light and fired an off-gun as a signal that he had been beaten. Captain Semmes steamed quite close to the Hatteras and asked if he had surrendered; then, if he was in want of assistance. An affirmative answer was given to both questions. The boats [213] of the Alabama were lowered with such promptitude and handled with such care that, though the Hatteras was sunk at night, none of her crew were drowned. When her captain came on board, Captain Semmes learned that he had been engaged with the United States steamer Hatteras, ‘a larger ship than the Alabama by one hundred tons,’ with an equal number of guns, and a crew numbering two less than that of the Alabama. There was a ‘considerable disparity between the two ships in the weight of their pivot-guns, and the Alabama ought to have won the fight, which she did in thirteen minutes.’ The Alabama had received no appreciable injury, and, continuing her cruise to the Island of Jamaica, entered the harbor of Port Royal, where, by the permission of the authorities, Captain Semmes landed his prisoners, putting them on parole.

As an answer to the stereotyped charges against Captain Semmes as a ‘pirate’ and robber, I will select from the many unarmed ships captured by him one case. He had gone to the track of the California steamers between Aspinwall and New York, in the hope of capturing a vessel homeward bound with government treasure. On the morning before such a vessel was expected, a large steamer, the Ariel, was seen, but unfortunately not going in the right direction. An exciting chase occurred, when she was finally brought to, but, instead of the million of dollars in her safe, she was outward bound, with a large number of women and children on board. A boarding officer was sent on her, and returned, giving an account of great alarm, especially among the ladies. Captain Semmes sent a lieutenant on board to assure them that they had ‘fallen into the hands of Southern gentlemen, under whose protection they were entirely safe.’ Among the passengers were a battalion of marines and some army and navy officers. These were all paroled, rank and file numbering one hundred forty, and the vessel was released on ransom bond. Captain Semmes states that there were five hundred passengers on board. It is fair to presume that each passenger had with him a purse of from three to five hundred dollars. Under the laws of war all this money would have been good prize, but not one dollar of it was touched, or indeed so much as a passenger's baggage examined.

The Alabama now proceeded to run down the Spanish Main, thence bore eastward into the Indian Ocean, and, after a cruise into every sea where a blow at American commerce could be struck, came around the Cape of Good Hope, and, sailing north, ran up to the thirtieth parallel, where so many captures had been made at a former time. Of the ship at this date Captain Semmes wrote: ‘The poor old Alabama was not now [214] what she had been then. She was like the wearied fox-hound, limping back after a long chase, foot-sore, and longing for quiet repose.’

She had, in her mission to cripple the enemy's commerce and cut his sinews of war, captured sixty-three vessels, among them one of the enemy's gunboats, the Hatteras, sunk in battle, had released nine under ransom bond, and had paroled all prisoners taken.

All neutral ports being closed against her prizes, the rest of the vessels were, of necessity, burned at sea. Much complaint was made on account of the burning of these merchantmen, though very little reflection would have taught the complainants that the interests of the captor would have induced him to save the vessels, and send them into the nearest port for condemnation as prizes; therefore, whatever grievance existed was the result of the blockade and of the rule which prevented the captures from being sent into a neutral port to await the decision of a prize court.

On the morning of June 11, 1864, the Alabama entered the harbor of Cherbourg. ‘An officer was sent to call on the port admiral, and ask leave to land the prisoners from the last two ships captured; this was readily granted.’ The next day Captain Semmes went on shore to consult the port admiral ‘in relation to docking and repairing’ the Alabama. As there were only government docks at Cherbourg, the application had to be referred to the emperor. Before an answer was received, the Kearsarge steamed into the harbor, sent a boat ashore, and then ran out and took her station off the breakwater. Captain Semmes learned that the boat from the Kearsarge sent on shore had borne a request that the prisoners discharged from the Alabama might be delivered to the Kearsarge. It will be remembered that the government of the United States, in many harsh and unjust phrases, had refused to recognize the Alabama as a ship of war, and held that the paroles given to her were void. This request was therefore regarded by Captain Semmes as an attempt to recruit for the Kearsarge from the prisoners lately landed by the Alabama, and he so presented the facts to the port admiral, who rejected the application from the Kearsarge.

Captain Semmes sent notice to Captain Winslow of the Kearsarge, whose presence in the offing was regarded as a challenge, that if he would wait until the Alabama could receive some coal on board, she would come out and give him battle.

As has been shown by extracts previously made, Captain Semmes knew that, after his long cruise, the Alabama needed to go into dock for repairs. It had not been possible for him, on account of the rigid [215] enforcement of ‘neutrality,’ to replenish his ammunition. Unless the niter is more thoroughly purified than is usually, if ever, done by those who manufacture for an open market, it is sure to retain nitrate of soda, and the powder, of which it is the important ingredient, to deteriorate by long exposure to a moist atmosphere. The Kearsarge was superior to the Alabama in size, and, having been built for war in stanchness of construction, her armament was also greater, the latter being measured, not by the number of guns, but by the amount of metal she could throw at a broadside. The crew of the Kearsarge, all told, was one hundred sixtytwo; that of the Alabama, one hundred forty-nine. Captain Semmes says: ‘Still the disparity was not so great but that I might hope to beat my enemy in a fair fight. But he did not show me a fair fight, for, as it afterward turned out, his ship was iron-clad.’ This expression ‘ironclad’ refers to the fact that the Kearsarge had chains on her sides, which Captain Semmes describes as concealed by planking, the forward and after ends of which so accorded with the lines of the ship as not to be detected by telescopic observation. Many of that class of critics whose wisdom is revealed only after the event have blamed Captain Semmes for going out under the circumstances. Like most other questions, there are two sides to this. If he had gone into dock for repairs, the time required would have resulted in the dispersion of his crew, and, from the known improvidence of sailors, it would have been more than doubtful that they could have been reassembled. It was, moreover, probable that other vessels would have been sent to aid the Kearsarge in effectually blockading the port, so that, if his crew had returned, the only chance would have been to escape through the guarding fleet. Proud of his ship, and justly confiding in his crew, surely something will be conceded to the Confederate spirit so often exhibited and so often triumphant over disparity of force.

On June 19, 1864, the Alabama left the harbor of Cherbourg to engage the Kearsarge, which had been lying off and on the port for several days previously. Captain Semmes in his report of the engagement writes:

After the lapse of about one hour and ten minutes, our ship was ascertained to be in a sinking condition . . . to reach the French coast, I gave the ship all steam, and set such of the fore and aft sails as were available. The ship filled so rapidly, however, that, before we had made much progress, the fires were extinguished. I now hauled down my colors, and dispatched a boat to inform the enemy of our condition. Although we were now but four hundred yards from each other, the enemy fired upon me five times after my colors had been struck. It is charitable to suppose that a ship of war, of a Christian nation, could not have done this intentionally.

Captain Semmes states that, his waist-boats having been torn to pieces, [216] he sent the wounded, and such of the boys of the ship as could not swim, in his quarter-boats, off to the enemy's ship, and, as there was no appearance of any boat coming from the enemy, the crew, as previously instructed, jumped overboard, each to save himself if he could. All the wounded—twenty-one—were saved. Ten of the crew were ascertained to have been drowned. Captain Semmes stood on the quarter-deck until his ship was settling to go down, then threw his sword into the sea, there to lie buried with the ship he loved so well, and leaped from the deck just in time to avoid being drawn down into the vortex created by her sinking. He and many of his crew were picked up by a humane English gentleman in the boats of his yacht, the Deerhound. Others were saved by two French pilot boats which were near the scene. The remainder, it is hoped, were picked up by the enemy. Captain Semmes states in his official report, two days after the battle, that about the time of his rescue by the Deerhound the ‘Kearsarge sent one and then tardily another boat.’ The reader is invited to compare this with the conduct of Captain Semmes when he sank the Hatteras, and when, though it was in the night, by ranging up close to her, and promptly using all his boats, he saved her entire crew.

Mention has been made of the defective ammunition of the Alabama, and in that connection I quote the following passage from Captain Semmes's book,1 on which I have so frequently and largely drawn for facts in regard to the Sumter and the Alabama:

I lodged a rifle percussion shell near to her [the Kearsarge's] sternpost— where there were no chains—which failed to explode because of the defect of the cap. If the cap had performed its duty, and exploded the shell, I should have been called upon to save Captain Winslow's crew from drowning, instead of his being called upon to save mine.

As it appears by the same authority that the Kearsarge had greater speed than the Alabama, it followed that, though the captain of the Kearsarge might have closed with and boarded the Alabama, the captain of the Alabama could not board the Kearsarge unless by consent.

The Alabama, built like a merchant ship, sailed in peaceful garb from British waters, on a far-distant sea received her crew and armament, fitted for operations against the enemy's commerce. On ‘bluewater’ she was christened, and in the same she was buried. She lived the pride of her friends and the terror of her enemies. She went out to fight a wooden vessel and was sunk by one clad in secret armor. Those rescued by the Deerhound from the water were landed at Southampton, England. [217]

The United States government then, through its minister, Charles Francis Adams, made the absurd demand of the English government that they should be delivered up to her as escaped prisoners. To this demand Lord John Russell replied as follows:

With regard to the demand made by you, by instructions from your Government, that those officers and men should now be delivered up to the Government of the United States, as being escaped prisoners of war, her Majesty's Government would beg to observe that there is no obligation by international law which can bind the government of a neutral state to deliver up to a belligerent prisoners of war who may have escaped from the power of such belligerent, and may have taken refuge within the territory of such neutral. Therefore, even if her Majesty's Government had any power, by law, to comply with the above-mentioned demand, her Majesty's Government could not do so without being guilty of a violation of the duties of hospitality. In point of fact, however, her Majesty's Government have no lawful power to arrest and deliver up the persons in question. They have been guilty of no offense against the laws of England, and they have committed no act which would bring them within the provisions of a treaty between Great Britain and the United States for the surrender of the offenders; and her Majesty's Government are, therefore, entirely without any legal means by which, even if they wished to do so, they could comply with your above-mentioned demand.

It will be observed that Her Majesty's minister mercifully forbore to expose the pretensions that ‘the persons in question’ had been prisoners, and confined his answer to the case as it would have been had that allegation been true. There are other points in this transaction which will be elsewhere presented.

The Oreto, which sailed from Liverpool about March 23, 1862, was, while under construction at Liverpool, the subject of diplomatic correspondence and close scrutiny by the customs officers. After her arrival off Nassau, upon representations by the United States consul at that port, she was detained and again examined, and, it being found that she had none of the character of a vessel of war, she was released. Captain Maffitt, who had gone out with a cargo of cotton, here received a letter which authorized him to take charge of the Oreto and get her promptly to sea. She was a steamer of two hundred fifty horse-power, tonnage five hundred sixty, bark-rigged; speed, under steam, eight to nine knots; with sail, in a fresh breeze, fourteen knots; crew twenty-two, all told. The United States minister, Adams, had made a report to the British government which, it was apprehended, would cause her seizure at once. This was soon done, and with great difficulty the vessel was saved to the Confederacy by her commander. She arrived at Nassau on April 28th, and was detained until the session of the Admiralty Court in August. As soon as discharged by the proceedings therein, she sailed for the [218] uninhabited island ‘Green Kay,’ ninety miles to the southward of Providence Island, with a tender in tow having equipments provided by a Confederate merchant, where she anchored the next day, and proceeded to take on board her military armament sent out on the tender. She now became a ship of the Confederate Navy, and was christened Florida. Her long detention in Nassau had caused the ship to be infected with yellow fever, and, as she had no surgeon on board, the vessel was directed to the island of Cuba, and ran into the harbor of Cardenas for aid. The crew was reduced to one fireman and two seamen, and eventually the captain was prostrated by the fever. The governor of Cardenas, under his view of the neutrality proclaimed by his government, refused to send a physician aboard, and warned the steamer that she must leave in twenty-four hours. Lieutenant Stribling, executive officer of the ship, had been sent to Havana to report her condition to the captain-general, Marshal Serrano. That chivalrous gentleman, soldier, and statesman, at once invited the ship to the hospitalities of the harbor of Havana, whither she repaired and received the kindness which her forlorn situation required.

On September 1, 1862, the vessel left Havana to obtain a crew; to complete her equipment, which was so imperfect that her guns could not all be used, the vessel was directed to the harbor of Mobile. On approaching that harbor she found several blockading vessels on the station, and boldly ran through them, escaping, with considerable injury to her masts and rigging, to the friendly shelter of Fort Morgan, where, while in quarantine, Lieutenant Stribling was attacked with fever and died. He was an officer of great merit, and his loss was much regretted, not only by his many personal friends, but by all who foresaw the useful service he could render to his country if his life were prolonged. Under the disadvantages of being an infected ship and remote from the workshops, repairs were commenced, and the equipment of the ship completed.

In the meantime the blockading squadron had been increased, with the boastful announcement that the cruiser should be ‘hermetically sealed’ in the harbor of Mobile. Some impatience was manifested after the vessel was ready for sea that she did not immediately go out, but Captain Maffitt, with sound judgment and nautical skill, decided to wait for a winter storm and a dark night before attempting to pass through the close investment. When the opportunity offered, he steamed out into a rough sea and a fierce north wind. As he passed the blockading squadron he was for the first time discovered, when a number of vessels gave chase, and continued the pursuit throughout the night and the [219] next day. In the next evening all except the two fastest had hauled off, and as night again closed in, the smoke and canvas of the Florida furnished their only guide. Captain Maffitt thus describes the ruse by which he finally escaped: ‘The canvas was secured in long, neat bunts to the yards, and the engines were stopped. Between high, toppling seas, clear daylight was necessary to enable them to distinguish our low hull. In eager pursuit the Federals swiftly passed us, and we jubilantly bade the enemy good night, and steered to the northward.’ She was now fairly on the high seas, and after long and vexatious delays entered on her mission to cruise against the enemy's commerce. She commenced her captures in the Gulf of Mexico, then progressed through the Gulf of Florida to the latitude of New York, and thence to the equator, continuing to 12° south, and returned again within thirty miles of New York. When near Cape St. Roque, Captain Maffitt capured a Baltimore brig, the Clarence, and fitted her out as a tender. He placed on her Lieutenant C. W. Read, commander, fourteen men armed with muskets, pistols, and a twelve-pound howitzer. The instructions were to proceed to the coast of America, to cruise against the enemy's commerce. Under these orders he destroyed many Federal vessels. Of him Captain Maffitt wrote: ‘Daring, even beyond the point of martial prudence, he entered the harbor of Portland at midnight, and capture the revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing; but, instead of instantly burning her, ran her out of the harbor; being thus delayed, he was soon captured by a Federal expedition sent out against him.’ While under the command of Captain Maffitt the Florida, with her tenders, captured some fiftyfive vessels, many of which were of great value. The Florida being built of light timbers, her very active cruising had so deranged her machinery that it was necessary to go into some friendly harbor for repairs. Captain Maffitt says: ‘I selected Brest, and, the Government courteously consented to the Florida having the facilities of the navy-yard, she was promptly docked.’ The effects of the yellow fever from which he had suffered and the fatigue attending his subsequent service had so exhausted his strength that he asked to be relieved from command of the ship. In compliance with this request, Captain C. M. Morris was ordered to relieve him.

After completing all needful repairs, Captain Morris proceeded to sea and sighted the coast of Virginia, where he made a number of important captures. Turning from that locality he crossed the equator, destroying the commerce of the Northern states on his route to Bahia. Here he obtained coal, and also had some repairs done to the engines, when the United States steamship Wachusett entered the harbor. Not [220] knowing what act of treachery might be attempted by her commander on the first night after his arrival, the Florida was kept in a watchful condition for battle.

This belligerent demonstration in the peaceful harbor of a neutral power alarmed both the governor and the admiral, who demanded assurances that the sovereignty of Brazil and its neutrality should be strictly observed by both parties. The pledge was given. In the evening, with a chivalric belief in the honor of the United States commander, Captain Morris unfortunately permitted a majority of his officers to accompany him to the opera, and also allowed two-thirds of the crew to visit the shore on leave. About one o'clock in the morning the Wachusett was surreptitiously got under way, and her commander, with utter abnegation of his word of honor, ran into the Florida, discharging his battery and boarding her. The few officers on board and small number of men were unable to resist this unexpected attack, and the Florida fell an easy prey to this covert and dishonorable assault. She was towed to sea amid the execrations of the Brazilian forces, army and navy, who, completely taken by surprise, fired a few ineffectual shots at the infringer upon the neutrality of the hospitable port of Bahia. The Confederate was taken to Hampton Roads.

Brazil instantly demanded her restoration intact to her late anchorage in Bahia. Lincoln was confronted by a protest from the different representatives of the courts of Europe, denouncing this extraordinary breach of national neutrality, which placed the government of the United States in a most unenviable position. Seward, with his usual diplomatic insincerity and Machiavellianism, characteristically prevaricated, while he plotted with a distinguished admiral as to the most adroit method of disposing of the ‘elephant.’ The result of these plottings was that an engineer was placed in charge of the stolen steamer, with positive orders to ‘open her sea-cock at midnight, and not to leave the engine-room until the water was up to his chin, as at sunrise the Florida must he at the bottom.’

The following note was sent to the Brazilian charge d'affaires by Seward:

While awaiting the representations of the Brazilian Government, on the 28th of November she [the Florida] sank, owing to a leak, which could not be seasonably stopped. The leak was at first represented to have been caused, or at least increased, by collision with a war-transport. Orders were immediately given to ascertain the manner and circumstances of the occurrence. It seemed to affect the army and navy. A naval court of inqury and also a military court of inquiry were charged with the investigation. The naval court has submitted its report, and a copy thereof is herewith communicated. The military court is yet engaged. So [221] soon as its labors shall have ended, the result will be made known to your Government. In the mean time it is assumed that the loss of the Florida was in consequence of some unforeseen accident, which casts no responsibility on the Government of the United States.

The restitution of the ship having thus become impossible, the President expressed his regret that ‘the sovereignty of Brazil had been violated; dismissed the consul at Bahia, who had advised the offense; and sent the commander of the Wachusett before a court-martial.’2

The commander of the Wachusett experienced no annoyance, and was soon made an admiral.

The Georgia was the next Confederate cruiser that Captain Bullock succeeded in sending forth. She was of five hundred sixty tons, and fitted out on the coast of France. Her commander, W. L. Maury, Confederate States Navy, cruised in the North and South Atlantic with partial success. The capacity of the vessel in speed and other essentials was entirely inadequate to the service for which she was designed. She proceeded as far as the Cape of Good Hope, and returned, after having captured seven ships and two barks. Then she was laid up and sold.

The Shenandoah, once the Sea King, was purchased by Captain Bullock and placed under the command of Lieutenant-commanding J. J. Waddell, who fitted her for service under many difficulties at the barren island of Porto Santo, near Madeira. After experiencing great annoyances, through the activity of the American consul at Melbourne, Australia, Captain Waddell finally departed, and commenced an active and effective cruise against American shipping in the Okhotsk Sea and Arctic Ocean. In August, 1865, hearing of the close of the war, he ceased his pursuit of United States commerce, sailed for Liverpool, England, and surrendered his ship to the English government, which transferred it to the government of the United States. The Shenandoah was a full-rigged ship of eight hundred tons, very fast under canvas. Her steam power was merely auxiliary.

This was the last but not the first appearance of the Confederate flag in Great Britain; the first vessel of the Confederate government which unfurled it there was the swift, light steamer Nashville, commanded by R. B. Pegram. Having been constructed as a passenger vessel, and mainly with reference to speed and the light draught suited to the navigation of the Southern harbors, she was quite too frail for war purposes and too slightly armed for combat.

On her passage to Europe and back, she nevertheless destroyed two [222] merchantmen. Nearing the harbor on her return voyage, she found it blockaded, and a heavy vessel lying close on her track. Her daring commander headed directly for the vessel, and ran so close under her guns that he was not suspected in her approach, and had passed so far before the guns could be depressed to bear upon her that none of the shots took effect. Being little more than a shell, a single shot would have sunk her; she was indebted to the address of her commander and the speed of his vessel for her escape. Wholly unsuited for naval warfare, this voyage terminated her career.

A different class of vessels from those adapted to the open sea was employed for coastwise cruising. In the month of July, 1864, a swift twin-screw propeller called the Atlanta, of six hundred tons burden, was purchased by the Secretary of the Navy and fitted out in the harbor of Wilmington, North Carolina, for a cruise against the commerce of the Northern states. Commander J. Taylor Wood, an officer of extraordinary ability and enterprise, was ordered to command her, and her name was changed to the Tallahassee. This extemporaneous manof-war ran safely through the blockade, and soon lit up the New England coast with her captures, which consisted of two ships, four brigs, four barks, and twenty schooners. Great was the consternation among Northern merchants. The construction of the Tallahassee exclusively for steam made her dependent on coal; her cruise was of course brief, but brilliant while it lasted.

About the same time another fast double-screw propeller of five hundred eighty-five tons, called the Edith, ran into Wilmington, North Carolina, and the Navy Department, requiring her services, bought her and gave to her the name of Chickamauga. A suitable battery was placed on board, with officers and crew, and Commander John Wilkinson, a gentleman of consummate naval ability, was ordered to command her. When ready for sea, he ran the blockade under the bright rays of a full moon. Strange to say, the usually alert sentinels neither hailed nor halted her. Like the Tallahassee, though partially rigged for sailing, she was exclusively dependent upon steam in the chase, escape, and in all important evolutions. She captured seven vessels, despite the abovenoticed defects.

1 Pages 761, 762.

2 M. Bernard's Neutrality of Great Britain During the American Civil War.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Alabama (Alabama, United States) (38)
United States (United States) (22)
Florida (Florida, United States) (10)
England (United Kingdom) (7)
Liverpool (United Kingdom) (6)
Brooklyn (New York, United States) (5)
Bahia (Bahia, Brazil) (5)
Galveston (Texas, United States) (4)
Newton (Florida, United States) (3)
Nassau River (Florida, United States) (3)
Havana (Cuba) (3)
Cherbourg (France) (3)
Brazil (Brazil) (3)
Wilmington, N. C. (North Carolina, United States) (2)
Mobile, Ala. (Alabama, United States) (2)
Gulf of Mexico (2)
Europe (2)
Cardenas (Cuba) (2)
America (Alabama, United States) (2)
Terceira (Portugal) (1)
Southwestern States (United States) (1)
Southampton (United Kingdom) (1)
Providence Island (Vermont, United States) (1)
Portland (Maine, United States) (1)
Port Royal (South Carolina, United States) (1)
New England (United States) (1)
Montgomery (Alabama, United States) (1)
Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) (1)
London (United Kingdom) (1)
Liverpool (Mississippi, United States) (1)
Kearsarge (California, United States) (1)
Indian Ocean (1)
Hampton Roads (Virginia, United States) (1)
Gibralter (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Georgia (Georgia, United States) (1)
France (France) (1)
Fort Morgan (Alabama, United States) (1)
Cuba (Cuba) (1)
Brest (France) (1)
Blakely (Alabama, United States) (1)
Birkenhead (United Kingdom) (1)
Atlantic Ocean (1)
Atlanta (Georgia, United States) (1)
Arctic Ocean (1)

Visualize the most frequently mentioned Pleiades ancient places in this text.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: