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Chapter 14:

  • The Sumter on the wing again
  • -- is put under sail for the time -- reaches the island of Curacoa, and is only able to enter after a diplomatic fight.

From what has been said in the last chapter, the reader will have observed how anxious I was to conform my conduct, in all respects, to the laws of war. My hope was, that some of the nations of the earth, at least, would give me an asylum for my prizes, so that I might have them formally condemned by the Confederate States Prize Courts, instead of being obliged to destroy them. It was with this hope, that I had entered the port of Cienfuegos, as the reader has seen; and it was in furtherance of this object, that I now drew up the following appointment of a Prize Agent, who had come well recommended to me, as a gentleman of integrity and capacity.

C. S. Steamer Sumter, Cienfuegos, July 6, 1861.
Sir:—You are hereby appointed Prize Agent, for, and in behalf of the Confederate States of America, of the following prizes, to wit: The Cuba, Machias, Ben. Dunning, Albert Adams, Naiad, West Wind, and Louisa Kilham, and their cargoes, until the same can be adjudicated, by the Prize Courts of the Confederate States, and disposed of by the proper authorities. You will take the necessary steps for the safe custody of these prizes, and you will not permit anything to be removed from, or disturbed on board of them. You will be pleased, also, to take the examinations of the master, and mate of each of these vessels, before a notary, touching the property of the vessels, and cargoes; and making a copy thereof, to be retained in your own possession, you will send, by some safe conveyance, the originals, addressed to ‘The Judge of the Confederate States District Court, New Orleans, La.

I have the honor to be, &c.,


During the day, the steam-tug towed down from the town, for me, a couple of lighters, containing about one hundred tons of coal, five thousand gallons of water, and some fresh provisions for the crew. It was necessary that we should prepare for sea, with some dispatch, as there was a line of telegraph, from Cienfuegos to Havana, where there were always a number of the enemy's ships of war stationed. As a matter of course, the U. S. Consul at Cienfuegos had telegraphed to his brother Consul, in Havana, the arrival of the Sumter, in the first ten minutes after she had let go her anchor; and as another matter of course, there must already be several fast steamers on their way, to capture this piratical craft, which had thus so unceremoniously broken in upon the quiet of the Cuban waters, and the Yankee sugar, and rum trade. I had recourse to the chart, and having ascertained at what hour these steamers would be enabled to arrive, I fixed my own departure, a few hours ahead, so as to give them the satisfaction of finding that the bird, which they were in pursuit of, had flown. My excellent first lieutenant came up to time, and the ship was reported ready for sea before sunset, or in a little more than twenty-four hours, after our arrival.

To avoid the coal dust, which is one of the pests of a steamer, and the confusion, and noise which necessarily accompany the exceedingly poetic operation of coaling, I landed, as the sun was approaching the western horizon, in company with my junior lieutenant and sailing-master, for a stroll, and to obtain sights for testing my chronometers, as well. Having disposed of the business part of the operation first, in obedience to the old maxim; that is to say, having made our observations upon the sun, for time, we wandered about, for an hour, and more, amid the rich tropical vegetation of this queen of islands, now passing under the flowering acacia, and now under the deepfoliaged orange-tree, which charmed two senses at once—that of smell, by the fragrance of its young flowers, and that of sight, by the golden hue of its luscious and tempting fruit. We had landed abreast of our ship, and a few steps sufficed to put us in the midst of a dense wilderness, of floral beauty, with nothing to commune with but nature. What a contrast there was between this peaceful, and lovely scene, and the life we [146] had led for the last week! We almost loathed to go back to the dingy walls, and close quarters of our little craft, where everything told us of war, and admonished us that a life of toil, vexation, and danger lay before us, and that we must bid a long farewell to rural scenes, and rural pleasures. As we still wandered, absorbed in such speculations as these, unconscious of the flight of time, the sound of the evening gun came booming on the ear, to recall us to our senses, and retracing our steps, we hurriedly re-embarked. That evening's stroll lingered long in my memory, and was often recalled, amid the whistling, and surging of the gale, and the tumbling, and discomforts of the ship.

I had been looking anxiously, for the last few hours, for the arrival of our prize brigantine, the Cuba, but she failed to make her appearance, and I was forced to abandon the hope of getting back my prize crew from her. I left with my prize agent, the following letter of instructions for the midshipman in command of the Cuba.

Confederate States steamer Sumter, Cienfuegos, July 7, 1861.
Sir:—Upon your arrival at this place, you will put the master, mate, and crew of the Cuba on parole, not to serve against the Confederate States, during the present war, unless exchanged, and release them. You will then deliver the brigantine to the Governor, for safe custody, until the orders of the Captain-General can be known in regard to her. I regret much that you are not able to arrive in time, to rejoin the ship, and you must exercise your judgment, as to the mode in which you shall regain your country. You will, no doubt, be able to raise sufficient funds for transporting yourself, and the four seamen who are with you, to some point in the Confederate States, upon a bill of exchange, which you are hereby authorized to draw, upon the Secretary of the Navy. Upon your arrival within our territory, you will report yourself to that officer. Your baggage has been sent you by the pilot.

I did not meet Mr. Hudgins, afterward, until as a rear admiral, I was ordered to the command of the James River fleet, in the winter of 1864. He was then attached to one of my ships, as a lieutenant. On the retreat from Richmond, I made him a captain of light artillery, and he was paroled with me, at Greensboroa, North Carolina, in May 1865. How he has settled with my friend, the Spanish pilot, who agreed [147] with me that the prizes which I captured, off Cienfuegos, were five miles from the land, and with the Northern claimants, and the Captain-General of Cuba, that they were less than three miles from it, about his baggage, I have never learned.

Everything being in readiness for sea, on board the Sumter, and the officers having all returned from their visits to the town, at eleven P. M., we got under way, and as the bell struck the midnight hour, we steamed out of the harbor, the lamps from the light-house throwing a bright glare upon our deck, as we passed under its shadow, close enough to ‘have tossed a biscuit’ to the keeper; so bold is the entrance of the little river. The sea was nearly calm, and the usual land breeze was gently breathing, rather than blowing. Having given the course to the officer of the deck, I was glad to go below, and turn in, after the excitement, and confusion of the last forty-eight hours. When some seven or eight miles from the land, we lost the land breeze, and were struck by the sea breeze, nearly ahead, with some force. We steamed on, all the next day, without any incident to break in upon the monotony, except a short chase which we gave to a brigantine, which proved, upon our coming up with her, to be Spanish. Between nine, and ten o'clock in the evening, we passed the small islands of the Caymans, which we found to be laid down in the charts we were using, some fifteen or sixteen miles too far to the westward. As there is a current setting in the vicinity of these islands, and as the islands themselves are so low, as to be seen with difficulty, in a dark night,—and the night on which we were passing them was dark,—I make this observation, to put navigators on their guard.

The morning of the ninth of July dawned clear, and beautifully, but as the sun gained power, the trade-wind increased, until it blew half a gale, raising considerable sea, and impeding the progress of the ship. Indeed, so little speed did we make, that the island of Jamaica, which we had descried with the first streaks of dawn, remained in sight all day; its blue mountains softened but not obliterated by the distance as the evening set in. The sea was as blue as the mountains, and the waves seemed almost as large, to our eyes, as the little steamer plunged into, and struggled with them, in her vain attempt [148] to make headway. All the force of her engine was incapable of driving her at a greater speed than five knots. The next day, and the day after were equally unpropitious. Indeed the weather went from bad, to worse, for now the sky became densely overcast, with black, and angry-looking clouds, and the wind began to whistle through the rigging, with all the symptoms of a gale. We were approaching the hurricane season, and there was no telling at what moment, one of those terrible cyclones of the Caribbean Sea might sweep over us. To add to the gloominess of the prospect, we were comparatively out of the track of commerce, and had seen no sail, since we had overhauled the Spanish brigantine.

As explained to the reader, in one of the opening chapters, it was my intention to proceed from Cuba, to Barbadoes, there recoal, and thence make the best of my way to Cape St. Roque, in Brazil, where I expected to reap a rich harvest from the enemy's commerce. I was now obliged to abandon, or at least to modify this design. It would not be possible for me to reach Barbadoes, with my present supply of coal, in the teeth of such trade-winds, as I had been encountering for the last few days. I therefore determined to bend down toward the Spanish Main; converting the present head-wind, into a fair wind, for at least a part of the way, and hoping to find the weather more propitious, on that coast. It was now the thirteenth of July, and as we had sailed from Cienfuegos, on the seventh, we had consumed six out of our eight days supply of fuel. Steaming was no longer to be thought of, and we must make some port under sail. The Dutch island of Curacoa lay under our lee, and we accordingly made sail for that island. The engineer was ordered to let his fires go down, and uncouple his propeller that it might not retard the speed of the ship, and the sailors were sent aloft to loose the topsails.

This was the first time that we were to make use of our sails, unaided by steam, and the old sailors of the ship, who had not bestridden a yard for some months, leaped aloft, with a will, to obey the welcome order. The race of sailors has not yet entirely died out, though the steamship is fast making sad havoc with it. There is the same difference between the old-time sailor, who [149] has been bred in the sailing-ship, and the modern sailor of the steamship, that there is between the well-trained fox-hound, who chases Reynard all day, and the cur that dodges a rabbit about, for half an hour or so. The sailing-ship has a romance, and a poetry about her, which is thoroughly killed by steam. The sailor of the former loves, for its own sake, the howling of the gale, and there is no music so sweet to his ear, as the shouting of orders through the trumpet of the officer of the deck, when he is poised upon the topsail-yard, of the rolling and tumbling ship, hauling out the ‘weather ear-ring.’ It is the ranz de vache, which recalls the memory of his boyhood, and youth, when under the tutelage of some foster-father of an old salt, he was taking his first lessons in seamanship.

It used to be beautiful to witness the rivalry of these children of the deep, when the pitiless hurricane was scourging their beloved ship, and threatening her with destruction. The greater the danger, the more eager the contest for the post of honor. Was there a sail to be secured, which appeared about to be torn into ribbons, by the gale, and the loose gear of which threatened to whip the sailor from the yard; or was there a topmast to be climbed, which was bending like a willow wand under the fury of the blast, threatening to part at every moment, and throw the climber into the raging, and seething caldron of waters beneath, from which it would be impossible to rescue him, Jack, noble Jack was ever ready for the service. I have seen an old naval captain, who had been some years retired from the sea, almost melt into tears, as he listened to the musical ‘heaving of the lead’ by an old sailor, in the ‘chains’ of a passing ship of war.

But steam, practical, commonplace, hard-working steam, has well-nigh changed all this, and cut away the webbing from the foot of the old-time sailor. Seamanship, evolutions, invention, skill, and ready resource in times of difficulty, and danger, have nearly all gone out of fashion, and instead of reefing the topsails, and club-hauling, and box-hauling the ship, some order is now sent to the engineer, about regulating his fires, and paying attention to his steam-gauges. Alas! alas! there will be no more Nelsons, and Collingwoods, and no more such venerable ‘bulwarks upon the deep,’ as the Victory, and the [150] Royal Sovereign. In future wars upon the ocean, all combatants will be on the dead level of impenetrable iron walls, with regard to dash, and courage, and with regard to seamanship, and evolutions, all the knowledge that will be required of them, will be to know how to steer a nondescript box toward their enemy.

Our first night under canvas, I find thus described, in my journal: ‘Heavy sea all night, and ship rolling, and tumbling about, though doing pretty well. The propeller revolves freely, and we are making about five knots.’ The next day was Sunday, and the weather was somewhat ameliorated. The wind continued nearly as fresh as before, but as we were now running a point free, this was no objection, and the black, angry clouds had disappeared, leaving a bright, and cheerful sky. A sail was seen on the distant horizon, but it was too rough to chase. This was our usual muster-day, but the decks were wet, and uncomfortable, and I permitted my crew to rest, they having scarcely yet recovered from the fatigue of the last few days.

There is, perhaps, no part of the world where the weather is so uniformly fine, as on the Spanish Main. The cyclones never bend in that direction, and even the ordinary gales are unknown. We were already beginning to feel the influence of this meteorological change; for on Monday, the 15th of July, the weather was thus described in my journal: ‘Weather moderating, and the sea going down, though still rough. Nothing seen. In the afternoon, pleasant, with a moderate breeze, and the clouds assuming their usual soft, fleecy, tradewind appearance.’ The next day was still clear, though the wind had freshened, and the ship was making good speed.

At nine A. M. we made the land, on the starboard bow, which proved to be the island of Oruba, to leeward, a few miles, of Curacoa. For some hours past, we had been within the influence of the equatorial current, which sets westward, along this coast, with considerable velocity, and it had carried us a little out of our course, though we had made some allowance for it. We hauled up, a point, or two, and at eleven A. M. we made the island of Curacoa, on the port bow. We doubled the northwest end of the island, at about four P. M. and hauling up on the [151] south side of it we soon brought the wind ahead, when it became necessary to put the ship under steam again, and to furl the sails.

The afternoon proved beautifully bright, and clear; the sea was of a deep indigo-blue, and we were all charmed, even with this barren little island, as we steamed along its bold, and blackened shores, of limestone rock, alongside of which the heaviest ship might have run, and throwing out her bow and stern lines, made herself fast with impunity, so perpendicularly deep were the waters. Our average distance from the land, as we steamed along, was not greater than a quarter of a mile. There were a few stunted trees, only, to be seen, in the little ravines, and some wild shrubbery, and sickly looking grass, struggling for existence on the hills' sides. A few goats were browsing about here, and there, and the only evidence of commerce, or thrift, that we saw, were some piles of salt, that had been raked up from the lagoons, ready for shipment. And yet the Dutch live, and thrive here, and have built up quite a pretty little town—that of St. Anne's, to which we were bound. The explanation of which is, that the island lies contiguous to the Venezuelan coast, and is a free port, for the introduction of European, and American goods, in which a considerable trade is carried on, with the main land.

We arrived off the town, with its imposing battlements frowning on either side of the harbor, about dusk, and immediately hoisted a jack, and fired a gun, for a pilot. In the course of half an hour, or so, this indispensable individual appeared, but it was too late, he said, for us to attempt the entrance, that night. He would come off, the first thing in the morning, and take us in. With this assurance we rested satisfied, and lay off, and on, during the night, under easy steam. But we were not to gain entrance to this quaint little Dutch town, so easily, as had been supposed. We were to have here a foretaste of the trouble, that the Federal Consuls were to give us in the future. We have already commented on the love of office of the American people. There is no hole, or corner of the earth, into which a ship can enter, and where there is a dollar to be made, that has not its American Consul, small or large. The smallest of salaries are eagerly accepted, and, as a [152] consequence, the smallest of men are sometimes sent to fill these places. But the smaller the place, the bigger were the cocked hats and epaulettes the officials wore, and the more brim-full were they of patriotism.

At the time of which I am writing, they called one Wm. H. Seward, master, and they had taken Billy's measure to a fraction. They knew his tastes, and pandered to them, accordingly. His circular letters had admonished them, that, in their intercourse with foreign nations, they must speak of our great civil war, as a mere rebellion, that would be suppressed, in from sixty, to ninety days; insist that we were not entitled to belligerent rights, and call our cruisers, corsairs, or ‘pirates.’ Accordingly, soon after the pilot had landed, from the Sumter, carrying with him to the shore, the intelligence that she was a Confederate States cruiser, the Federal Consul made his appearance at the Government-House, and claimed that the ‘pirate’ should not be permitted to enter the harbor; informing his Excellency, the Governor, that Mr. Seward would be irate, if such a thing were permitted, and that he might expect to have the stone, and mortar of his two forts knocked about his ears, in double quick, by the ships of war of the Great Republic.

This bold, and defiant tone, of the doughty little Consul, seemed to stagger his Excellency; it would not be so pleasant to have St. Anne's demolished, merely because a steamer with a flag that nobody had seen before, wanted some coal; and so, the next morning, bright and early, he sent the pilot off, to say to me, that ‘the Governor could not permit the Sumter to enter, having received recent orders from Holland to that effect.’ Here was a pretty kettle of fish The Sumter had only one day's fuel left, and it was some distance from Cura-çoa, to any other place, where coal was to be had. I immediately sent for Lieutenant Chapman, and directed him to prepare himself for a visit to the shore; and calling my clerk, caused him to write, after my dictation, the following despatch to his Excellency:—

Confederate States steamer Sumter, off St. Anne's, Curacoa, July 17, 1861.
his Excellency Governor Crol:—
I was surprised to receive, by the pilot, this morning, a message [153] from your Excellency, to the effect that this ship would not be permitted to enter the harbor, unless she was in distress, as your Excellency had received orders from his Government not to admit vessels of war of the Confederate States of America, to the hospitality of the ports, under your Excellency's command. I most respectfully suggest that there must be some mistake here; and I have sent to you the bearer, Lieutenant Chapman, of the Confederate States Navy, for the purpose of an explanation. Your Excellency must be under some misapprehension as to the character of this vessel. She is a ship of war, duly commissioned by the government of the Confederate States, which States have been recognized, as belligerents, in the present war, by all the leading Powers of Europe, viz.:—Great Britain, France, Spain, &c., as your Excellency must be aware.

It is true, that these Powers have prohibited both belligerents, alike, from bringing prizes into their several jurisdictions; but no one of them has made a distinction, either between the respective prizes, or the cruisers, themselves, of the two belligerents—the cruisers of both governments, unaccompanied by prizes being admitted to the hospitalities of the ports of all these great Powers, on terms of perfect equality. In the face of these facts, am I to understand from your Excellency, that Holland has adopted a different rule, and that she not only excludes the prizes, but the ships of war, themselves, of the Confederate States? And this, at the same time, that she admits the cruisers of the United States; thus departing from her neutrality, in this war, ignoring the Confederate States, as belligerents, and aiding and abetting their enemy? If this be the position which Holland has assumed, in this contest, I pray your Excellency to be kind enough to say as much to me in writing.

When this epistle was ready, Chapman shoved off for the shore, and a long conference ensued. The Governor called around him, as I afterward learned, all the dignitaries of the island, civil and military, and a grand council of State was held. These Dutchmen have a ponderous way of doing things, and I have no doubt, the gravity of this council was equal to that held in New Amsterdam in colonial days, as described by the renowned historian Diederick Knickerbocker, at which Woutter Van Twiller, the doubter, was present. Judging by the time that Chapman was waiting for his answer, during which he had nothing to do but sip the most delightful mint juleps—for these islanders seemed to have robbed old Virginia of some of her famous mint patches—in company with an admiring crowd of friends, the councillors must have ‘smoked and talked, and smoked again;’ pondered with true Dutch [154] gravity, all the arguments, pro and con, that were offered, and weighed my despatch, along with the ‘recent order from Holland,’ in a torsion balance, to see which was heaviest.

After the lapse of an hour, or two, becoming impatient, I told my first lieutenant, that as our men had not been practised at the guns, for some time, I thought it would be as well to let them burst a few of our eight-inch shells, at a target. Accordingly the drum beat to quarters, a great stir was made about the deck, as the guns were cast loose, and pretty soon, whiz went a shell, across the windows of the council-chamber, which overlooked the sea; the shell bursting like a clap of rather sharp, ragged thunder, a little beyond, in close proximity, to the target. Sundry heads were seen immediately to pop out of the windows of the chamber, and then to be withdrawn very suddenly, as though the owners of them feared that another shell was coming, and that my gunners might make some mistake in their aim. By the time we had fired three or four shells, all of which bursted with beautiful precision, Chapman's boat was seen returning, and thinking that our men had had exercise enough, we ran out and secured the guns.

My lieutenant came on board, smiling, and looking pleasantly, as men will do, when they are bearers of good news, and said that the Governor had given us permission to enter. We were lying close in with the entrance, and in a few minutes more, the Sumter was gliding gracefully past the houses, on either side of her, as she ran up the little canal, or river, that split the town in two. The quays were crowded with a motley gathering of the townspeople, men, women, and children, to see us pass, and sailors waved their hats to us, from the shipping in the port. Running through the town into a landlocked basin, in its rear, the Sumter let go her anchor, hoisted out her boats, and spread her awnings,—and we were once more in port.

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