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Chapter 10:

  • The preparation of the Sumter for sea
  • -- she drops down between the forts Jackson, and St. Philip -- receives her sailing orders -- list of officers.

A great change was apparent in New Orleans since I had last visited it. The levee in front of the city was no longer a great mart of commerce, piled with cotton bales, and supplies going back to the planter; densely packed with steamers, and thronged with a busy multitude. The long lines of shipping above the city had been greatly thinned, and a general air of desolation hung over the river front. It seemed as though a pestilence brooded over the doomed city, and that its inhabitants had fled before the fell destroyer. The Sumter lay on the opposite side of the river, at Algiers, and I crossed over every morning to superintend her refitment. I was sometimes detained at the ferry-house, waiting for the ferry-boat, and on these occasions, casting my eyes up and down the late busy river, it was not unfrequent to see it without so much as a skiff in motion on its bosom.

But this first simoon of the desert which had swept over the city, as a foretaste of what was to come, had by no means discouraged its patriotic inhabitants. The activity of commerce had ceased, it is true, but another description of activity had taken its place. War now occupied the thoughts of the multitude, and the sound of the drum, and the tramp of armed men were heard in the streets. The balconies were crowded with lovely women in gay attire, to witness the military processions, and the Confederate flag in miniature was pinned on almost every bosom. The enthusiasm of the Frenchman had been most easily and gracefully blended with the stern determination of the Southern man of English descent; the consequence of which was, that there was more demonstrative [98] patriotism in New Orleans, than in any other of our Southern cities. Nor was this patriotism demonstrative only, it was deep and real, and was afterward sealed with some of the best Creole blood of the land, poured out, freely, on many a desperate battle-field. Alas! poor Louisiana. Once the seat of wealth, and of a gay and refined hospitality, thy manorial residences are deserted, and in decay, or have been levelled by the torch of the incendiary; thy fruitful fields, that were cultivated by the contented laborer, who whistled his merriment to his lazy plow, have been given to the jungle; thy fair daughters have been insulted, by the coarse, and rude Vandal; and even thy liberties have been given in charge of thy freedmen; and all this, because thou wouldst thyself be free!

I now took my ship actively in hand, and set gangs of mechanics at work to remove her upper cabins, and other tophamper, 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 requsite 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. I had not only to devise all the alterations but to make plans, and drawings of them, before they could be comprehended. The main deck was strengthened, by the addition of heavy beams to enable it to support the battery; a berth-deck was laid for the accommodation of the crew; the engine, which was partly above the water-line, was protected by a system of wood-work, and iron bars; the ship's rig was altered so as to convert her into a barkentine, with square-sails on her fore and main-masts; the officers' quarters, including my own cabin, were re-arranged; new suits of sails were made, and new boats constructed; hammocks and bedding were procured for the crew, and guns, gun-carriages, and ammunition ordered. Two long, tedious months were consumed in making these various alterations, and additions. My battery was to consist of an eight-inch shell gun, to be pivoted [99] amid-ships, and of four light thirty-two pounders, of thirteen cwt. each, in broadside.

The Secretary of the Navy, who was as anxious as myself that I should get to sea immediately, had given me all the assistance in his power, readily acceding to my requests, and promptly filling, or causing to be filled, all my requisitions. With the secession of Virginia we had become possessed of a valuable depot of naval supplies, in the Norfolk Navy Yard. It was filled with guns, shot, shell, cordage, and everything that was useful in the equipment of a ship, but it was far away from New Orleans, and such was the confusion along the different lines of railroad, that it was difficult to procure transportation. Commander Terry Sinclair, the active ordnance officer of the yard, had early dispatched my guns, by railroad, but weeks elapsed without my being able to hear anything of them. I was finally obliged to send a lieutenant in search of them, who picked them up, one by one, as they had been thrown out on the road-side, to make room for other freight. My gun-carriages I was obliged to have constructed myself, and I was fortunate enough to obtain the services of a very ingenious mechanic to assist me in this part of my dutiesMr. Roy, a former employee of the Custom-House, within whose ample walls he had established his work-shop. He contrived most ingeniously, and constructed out of railroad iron, one of the best carriages (or rather, slide and circle) for a pivotgun, which I have ever seen. The large foundry of Leeds & Co. took the contract for casting my shot, and shells, and executed it to my satisfaction.

Whilst all these various operations are going on, we may conveniently look around us upon passing events, or at least upon such of them as have a bearing upon naval operations. President Davis, a few days after the secession of Virginia, and when war had become imminent, issued a proclamation for the purpose of raising that irregular naval force, of which I have spoken in a previous page. Parties were invited to apply for letters-of-marque and reprisal, with a view to the fitting out of privateers, to prey upon the enemy's commerce. Under this proclamation several privateers—generally light-draught river-steamers, with one or two small guns each—were hastily [100] prepared, in New Orleans, and had already brought in some prizes captured off the mouths of the Mississippi. Even this small demonstration seemed to surprise, as well as alarm the Northern government, for President Lincoln now issued a proclamation declaring the molestation of Federal vessels, on the high seas, by Confederate cruisers, piracy. He had also issued a proclamation declaring the ports of the Confederacy in a state of blockade. The mouths of the Mississippi were to be sealed on the 25th of May.

The European governments, as soon as it became evident, that the two sections were really at war, took measures accordingly. Great Britain took the lead, and declared a strict neutrality between the combatants. It was of the essence of such a declaration, that it should put both belligerents on the same footing. This was apparently done, and the cruisers of both sections were prohibited, alike, from taking their prizes into British ports. I shall have something to say of the unequal operation of this declaration of neutrality, in a future part of these memoirs; for the present it is only necessary to state, that it acknowledged us to be in possession of belligerent rights. This was a point gained certainly, but it was no more than was to have been expected. Indeed, Great Britain could do nothing less. In recognizing the war which had broken out between the sections, as a war, and not as a mere insurrection, she had only followed the lead of Mr. Lincoln himself. Efforts had been made it is true, both by Mr. Lincoln, and his Secretary of State, to convince the European governments that the job which they had on their hands was a small affair; a mere family quarrel, of no great significance.

But the truth would not be suppressed, and when, at last, it became necessary to declare the Confederate ports in a state of blockade, and to send ships of war thither, to enforce the declaration, the sly little game which they had been playing was all up with them. A blockade was an act of war, which came under the cognizance of the laws of nations. It concerned neutrals, as well as belligerents, and foreign nations were bound to take notice of it. It followed that there could not be a blockade without a war; and it equally followed, that there could not be a war without at least two belligerent parties [101] to it. It will thus be seen, that the declaration of neutrality of Great Britain was a logical sequence of Mr. Lincoln's, and Mr. Seward's own act. And yet with sullen, and singular inconsistency, the Northern Government has objected from that day to this, to this mere routine act of Great Britain. So much was this act considered, as a matter of course, at the time, that all the other powers of the earth, of sufficient dignity to act in the premises, at all, followed the example set them by Great Britain, and issued similar declarations; and the four years of bloody war that followed justified the wisdom of their acts.

We may now return to the equipment of the Sumter. A rendezvouz had been opened, and a crew had been shipped for her, which was temporarily berthed on board the receiving ship, Star of the West, a transport-steamer of the enemy, which had been gallantly captured by some Texans, and turned over to the Navy. New Orleans was full of seamen, discharged from ships that had been laid up, and more men were offering themselves for service, than I could receive. I had the advantage, therefore, of picking my crew, an advantage which no one but a seaman can fully appreciate. My lieutenants, surgeon, paymaster, and marine officer had all arrived, and, with the consent of the Navy Department, I had appointed my engineers—one chief, and three assistants— boatswain, carpenter, and sailmaker. My provisions had been purchased, and were ready to be put on board, and my funds had already arrived, but we were still waiting on the mechanics, who, though doing their best, had not yet been able to turn the ship over to us. From the following letter to the Secretary of the Navy, inclosing a requisition for funds, it will be seen that my demands upon the department were quite moderate, and that I expected to make the Sumter pay her own expenses, as soon as she should get to sea.

New Orleans, May 14, 1861.
Sir:—I have the honor to inclose, herewith, a requisition for the sum of $10,000, which I request may be remitted to the paymaster of the Sumter, in specie, for use during my contemplated cruise. I may find it necessary to coal several times, and to supply my crew with fresh provisions, &c., before I have the opportunity of replenishing my military chest from the enemy.


The ammunition remained to be provided, and on the 20th of May, I dispatched Lieutenant Chapman to the Baton Rouge Arsenal, which had been captured a short time before, for the purpose of procuring it, under the following letter of instructions:

New Orleans, May 20, 1861.
Sir:—You will proceed to Baton Rouge, and put yourself in communication with the commander of the C. S. Arsenal, at that point, for the purpose of receiving the ammunition, arms, shot, shell, &c., that may be required for the supply of the C. S. steamer Sumter, now fitting for sea at this port. It is presumed that the proper orders [which had been requested] have been, or will be dispatched from Montgomery, authorizing the issue of all such articles, as we may need. Should this not be the case; with regard to any of the articles, it is hoped that the ordnance officer in charge will not hesitate to deliver them, as it is highly important that the Sumter should not be detained, because of any oversight, or informality, in the orders of the War Department. Be pleased to present the accompanying requisition to Captain Booth, the superintendent, and ask that it may be filled. The gunner will be directed to report to you, to accompany you to Baton Rouge, on this service.

The reader will thus perceive that many difficulties lay in the way of equipping the Sumter; that I was obliged to pick up one material here, and another there, as I could best find it, and that I was not altogether free from the routine of the ‘Circumlocution Office,’ as my requisitions had frequently to pass through many hands, before they could be complied with.

About this time, we met with a sad accident in the loss of one of our midshipmen, by drowning. He, with other young officers of the Sumter, had been stationed, temporarily, on board the receiving ship, in charge of the Sumter's crew, whilst the latter ship was still in the hands of the mechanics. The following letter of condolence to the father of the young gentleman will sufficiently explain the circumstances of the disaster

New Orleans, May 18, 1861.
Sir:—It becomes my melancholy duty to inform you, of the death, by drowning, yesterday, of your son, Midshipman John F. Holden, of the C. S. steamer Sumter. Your son was temporarily attached to the receiving ship (late Star of the West) at this place, whilst the Sumter was being prepared for sea, and whilst engaged in carrying out an anchor, in a boat belonging to that [103] ship, met his melancholy fate, along with three of the crew, by the swamping of the boat, in which he was embarked. I offer you, my dear sir, my heartfelt condolence on this sad bereavement. You have lost a cherished son, and the Government a valuable and promising young officer.

War had begun, thus early, to demand of us our sacrifices. Tennessee had not yet seceded, and yet this ardent Southern youth had withdrawn from the Naval Academy, and cast his lot with his section.

A few extracts from my journal will now, perhaps, give the reader a better idea of the progress of my preparations for sea, and of passing events, than any other form of narrative. May 27th.—News received this morning of the appearance, at Pass à L'Outre, yesterday, of the U. S. steamer Brooklyn. and of the establishment of the blockade. Work is progressing satisfactorily, and I expect to be ready for sea, by Sunday next.

News of skirmishing in Virginia, and of fresh arrivals of Northern troops, at Washington, en route for that State. The Federal Government has crossed the Potomac, in force, and thus inaugurated a bloody, and a bitter war, by the invasion of our territory. So be it—we but accept the gantlet, which has been flung in our faces. The future will tell a tale not unworthy of the South, and her glorious cause.

Monday, May 30th. My patience is sorely tried by the mechanics. The water-tanks for the Sumter are not yet completed. The carriage for the 8-inch gun was finished, to-day, and we are busy laying down the circles for it, and cutting the holes for the fighting-bolts. The carriages for the 32-pounders are promised us, by Saturday next, and also the copper tanks for the magazine. Our ammunition, and small arms arrived, yesterday, from Baton Rouge. Besides the Brooklyn, at the Passes, we learn, to-day, that the Niagara, and Minnesota, two of the enemy's fastest, and heaviest steamships have arrived, to assist in enforcing the blockade, and to lie in wait for some ships expected to arrive, laden with arms and ammunition, for the Confederacy. May 31st.—The tanks are at last finished, and they have all been delivered, to-day. Leeds & Co. have done an excellent job, and I shall be enabled to carry three [104] months' water for my crew. We shall now get on, rapidly, with our preparations.

Saturday, June 1st, finds us not yet ready for sea! The tanks have all been taken on board, and stowed; the gun carriages for the 32s will be finished on Monday. The circles for the 8-inch gun have been laid down, and the fighting-bolts are ready for placing. On Monday I shall throw the crew on board, and by Thursday next, I shall, without doubt be ready for sea. We are losing a great deal of precious time. The enemy's flag is being flaunted in our faces, at all our ports by his ships of war, and his vessels of commerce are passing, and repassing, on the ocean, in defiance, or in contempt of our power, and, as yet, we have not struck a blow.

At length on the 3d of June, I was enabled to put the Sumter, formally, in commission. On that day her colors were hoisted, for the first time—the ensign having been presented to me, by some patriotic ladies of New Orleans—the crew was transferred to her, from the receiving ship, and the officers were ordered to mess on board. The ship was now hauled off and anchored in the stream, but we were delayed two long and tedious weeks yet, before we were finally ready. During these two weeks we made a trial trip up the river, some ten or twelve miles. Some of the principal citizens were invited on board, and a bright, and beautiful afternoon was pleasantly spent, in testing the qualities of the ship, the range of her guns, and the working of the gun-carriages; the whole ending by a collation, in partaking of which my guests were kind enough to wish me a career full of ‘blazing honors.’

I was somewhat disappointed in the speed of my ship, as we did not succeed in getting more than nine knots out of her. There was another great disadvantage. With all the space I could allot to my coal-bunkers, she could be made to carry no more than about eight days fuel. We had masts, and sails, it is true, but these could be of but little use, when the coal was exhausted, as the propeller would remain a drag in the water, there being no means of hoisting it. It was with such drawbacks, that I was to take the sea, alone, against a vindictive and relentless enemy, whose Navy already swarmed on our coasts, and whose means of increasing it were inexhaustible. [105] But the sailor has a saying, that ‘Luck is a Lord,’ and we trusted to luck.

On the 18th of June, after all the vexatious delays that have been described, I got up my anchor, and dropped down to the Barracks, below the city a short distance, to receive my powder on board, which, for safety, had been placed in the State magazine. At 10.30 P. M. of the same day, we got up steam, and by the soft and brilliant light of a moon near her full, threw ourselves into the broad, and swift current of the Father of Waters, and ran rapidly down to the anchorage, between Fort Jackson, and Fort St. Philip, where we came to at 4 A. M. In the course of the day, Captain Brand, an ex-officer of the old Navy, and now second in command of the forts, came on board to make us the ceremonial visit; and I subsequently paid my respects to Major Duncan, the officer in chief command, an ex-officer of the old Army. These gentlemen were both busy, as I found upon inspecting the forts, in perfecting their batteries, and drilling their men, for the hot work that was evidently before them. As was unfortunately the case with our people, generally, at this period, they were over-confident. They kindly supplied some few deficiencies, that still remained in our gunner's department, and I received from them a howitzer, which I mounted on my taffarel, to guard against boat attacks, by night.

I remained three days at my anchors between the forts, for the purpose of stationing, and drilling my crew, before venturing into the presence of the enemy; and I will take advantage of this lull to bring up some matters connected with the ship, which we have hitherto overlooked. On the 7th of June, the Secretary of the Navy—the Government having, in the mean time, removed to Richmond—sent me my sailing orders, and in my letter of the 14th of the same month, acknowledging their receipt, I had said to him: ‘I have an excellent set of men on board, though they are nearly all green, and will require some little practice, and drilling, at the guns, to enable them to handle them creditably. Should I be fortunate enough to reach the high seas, you may rely upon my implicit obedience of your instructions, “to do the enemy's commerce the greatest injury, in the shortest time.” ’ [106]

Here was a model of a letter of instruction—it meant ‘burn, sink, and destroy,’ always, of course, within the limits prescribed by the laws of nations, and with due attention to the laws of humanity, in the treatment of prisoners. The reader will see, as we progress, that I gave the ‘implicit obedience’ which had been promised, to these instructions, and that if greater results were not accomplished, it was the fault of the Sumter, and not of her commander. In the same letter that brought me my sailing orders, the Secretary had suggested to me the propriety of adopting some means of communicating with him, by cipher, so that, my despatches, if captured by the enemy, would be unintelligible to him. The following letter in reply to this suggestion, will explain how this was arranged: ‘I have the honor to enclose herewith a copy of “Reid's English Dictionary,” a duplicate of which I retain, for the purpose mentioned in your letter of instructions, of the 7th instant. I have not been able to find in the city of New Orleans, “Cobb's miniature Lexicon,” suggested by you, or any other suitable dictionary, with but a single column on a page. This need make no difference, however. In my communications to the Department, should I have occasion to refer to a word in the copy sent, I will designate the first column on the page, A, and the second column, B. Thus, if I wish to use the word “prisoner,” my reference to it would be as follows: 323, B, 15; the first number referring to the page, the letter to the column, and the second number to the number of the word from the top of the column.’ By means of this simple, and cheap device, I was enabled, at all times, to keep my dispatches out of the hands of the enemy, or, in other words, prevent him from interpreting them, when I had anything of importance to communicate.

Before leaving New Orleans, I had, in obedience to a general order of the service, transmitted to the Navy Department, a Muster Roll of the officers, and men, serving on board the Sumter. Her crew, as reported by this roll, consisted of ninety-two persons, exclusive of officers. Twenty of these ninety-two persons were marines—a larger guard than was usual for so small a ship. The officers were as follows:

Commander.—Raphael Semmes. [107]

Lieutenants.—John M. Kell; Robert T. Chapman; John M. Stribling; William E. Evans.

Paymaster.—Henry Myers. Surgeon.—Francis L. Galt. 1st Lieutenant of Marines.—B. Howell.

Midshipmen.—William A. Hicks; Albert G. Hudgins; Richard F. Armstrong; Joseph D. Wilson.

Engineers.—Miles J. Freeman; William P. Brooks; Matthew O'Brien; Simeon W. Cummings.

Boatswain.—Benjamin P. Mecasky.

Gunner.—Thomas C. Cuddy.

Sailmaker.—W. P. Beaufort.

Carpenter.—William Robinson.

Captain's Clerk.—W. Breedlove Smith.

Commissions had been forwarded to all the officers entitled to receive them, and acting appointments had been given by me to the warrant officers. It will thus be seen, how formally all these details had been attended to. These commissions were to be our warrants for what we were to do, on the high seas.

And now the poor boon will be permitted to human nature, that before we launch our frail bark, on the wild sea of adventure, before us, we should turn our thoughts, homeward, for a moment.

“And is he gone?” —on sudden solitude
How oft that fearful question will intrude!
'Twas but an instant past—and here he stood!
And now!—without the portal's porch she rushed,
And then at length her tears in freedom gushed;
Big, bright, and fast, unknown to her they fell;
But still her lips refused to send “farewell!”
For in that word—that fatal word—howe'er
We promise—hope—believe—there breathes despair.

Such was the agony of many a fair bosom, as the officers of the Sumter had torn themselves from the embraces of their families, in those scenes of leave-taking, which more than any other, try the sailor's heart. Several of them were married men, and it was long years before they returned to the homes which they had made sad by their absence.

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