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Chapter 12:

  • Brief sketch of the officers of the Sumter
  • -- her first prize, with other prizes, in quick succession -- her first port.

Captain poor, the commander of the Brooklyn, was greatly censured by his Government, for permitting the escape of the Sumter. It was even hinted that there had been treason, in the engine room of the Brooklyn, as one or more of the engineers had been heard to express sentiments favorable to the South. There was no truth, of course, in this report. It had its origin in the brain of a people, who, having become traitors, themselves, to their former principles, were ready to suspect, and to impute treason to every one else. The greatest offence which had been committed by Captain Poor, was that he had probably permitted his cupidity to draw him away from his station. He had chased a prize, in his eagerness to clutch the prize-money, a little too far—that was all. But in this, he sinned only in common with his countrymen. The thirst of gain, as well as the malignity of hate, seemed, from the very first days of the war, to have seized upon a majority of the Northern people. The Army, and the Navy, professions hitherto held honorable, did not escape the contamination. They were soon found, first plundering, and then maliciously burning private houses. The spectacle of cotton-thieving was more than once presented by the highest dignitaries of the two services—the Admiral quarrelling with the General, as ignoble rogues are wont to quarrel, as to which rightly pertained the booty.

The evening of the escape of the Sumter was one of those Gulf evenings, which can only be felt, and not described. The wind died gently away, as the sun declined, leaving a calm, and sleeping sea, to reflect a myriad of stars. The sun had gone down behind a screen of purple, and gold, and to add to [121] the beauty of the scene, as night set in, a blazing comet, whose tail spanned nearly a quarter of the heavens, mirrored itself within a hundred feet of our little bark, as she ploughed her noiseless way through the waters. As I leaned on the carriage of a howitzer on the poop of my ship, and cast a glance toward the quarter of the horizon whence the land had disappeared, memory was busy with the events of the last few months. How hurried, and confused they had been! It seemed as though I had dreamed a dream, and found it difficult, upon waking, to unite the discordant parts. A great government had been broken up, family ties had been severed, and war— grim, ghastly war—was arraying a household against itself. A little while back, and I had served under the very flag which I had that day defied. Strange revolution of feeling, how I now hated that flag! It had been to me as a mistress to a lover; I had looked upon it with admiring eyes, had dallied with it in hours of ease, and had had recourse to it, in hours of trouble, and now I found it false I What wonder that I felt a lover's resentment?

My first lieutenant now approached me, and touching my elbow, said, ‘Captain, had we not better throw this howitzer overboard? it can be of no further service to us, and is very much in the way.’ My waking dream was dissolved, on the instant, and I returned at once to the duties of the ship. I assented to the lieutenant's proposition, and in a few minutes more, the poop was cleared of the incumbrance. It was the howitzer—a heavy, awkward, iron field-piece with huge wheels—which we had received on board, when we lay between the forts, as a protection against the enemy's boats. The rest of the night, to a late hour, was devoted to lashing, and otherwise securing such heavy articles, as were likely to be thrown from their places, by the rolling of the ship; getting the anchors in-board and stowing them, and, generally, in making the ship snug. I turned in after a day of excitement, and slept too soundly to continue the day-dream from which I had been aroused by my first lieutenant.

The sun rose in an unclouded sky, the next morning, with a gentle breeze from the south-west, or about abeam; our course being about south-east. The look-out at the mast-head, after [122] having carefully scanned the horizon in every direction, informed the officer of the deck, that there was nothing in sight. The awnings were soon spread, and the usual routine of a man-of-war, at sea, commenced. The crew was mustered, in clean apparel, at quarters, at nine o'clock, and a division of guns was exercised, the rest of the crew being dispersed in idle groups about the deck; the old salts overhauling their bags, and seeing that their tobacco, and soap, and needles, and thread were all right for the cruise, and the youngsters discussing their recent escape. At noon, we found ourselves in latitude 26° 18′, and longitude 87° 23′. I had provided myself with two excellent chronometers, before leaving New Orleans, and having had much experience as a master, I was always enabled, when the sun was visible, at the proper hours, to fix my position within from a quarter, to half a mile, or, what is the same thing, within from one to two seconds of time. I appointed my junior lieutenant, navigating officer, pro forma, but always navigated my ship, myself. I had every confidence in the ability of my young lieutenant, but I always found, that I slept better, when surrounded by danger, after I had fixed the position of my ship, by my own observations.

We held on our course, during the rest of this day, without the least incident to break in upon the monotony—not so much as a sail having been descried in any direction; not that we were in want of excitement, for we had scarcely regained our equilibrium from the excitement of the previous day. An occasional swash of the sea against the ship's sides, the monotonous beating of time by her propeller, an occasional order from the officer of the deck, and the routine ‘calls’ of the boatswain's whistle, as dinner, or grog was piped, were the only sounds audible, beyond the usual hum of conversation among the crew.

If the reader will permit me, I will avail myself of this interval of calm before the storm, to introduce to him some of my officers. This is indeed but a courtesy due him, as he is to be a passenger in our midst. On the afternoon of our escape from the Brooklyn, the officers of the ward-room were kind enough to invite me to drink a glass of wine with them, in honor of our success, and I will avail myself of this occasion, [123] to make the presentations. I am seated at one end of the long mess-table, and my first lieutenant at the other. The first lieutenant, as the reader has already been informed, by an inspection of the Sumter's muster-roll, is from Georgia. John McIntosh Kell is a descendant from one of the oldest families in that State, having the blood of the McIntoshes in his veins, through one branch of his ancestors. He was bred in the old Navy, and my acquaintance with him commenced when he was in trouble. He was serving as a passed midshipman, on board the old sailing sloop Albany, and being ordered, on one occasion, to perform what he considered a menial duty, he resisted the order. Some of his brother passed midshipmen were in the same category. A court-martial resulted, and, at the request of the young gentlemen, I defended them. The relation of counsel, and client, as a matter of course, brought us close together, and I discovered that young Kell had in him, the making of a man. So far from being a mutineer, he had a high respect for discipline, and had only resisted obedience to the order in question, from a refined sense of gentlemanly propriety. The reader will see these qualities in him, now, as he sits opposite me. He has developed since the time I speak of, into the tall, well-proportioned gentleman, of middle age, with brown, wavy hair, and a magnificent beard, inclining to red. See how scrupulously neat he is dressed, and how suave, and affable he is, with his associates. His eye is now beaming gentleness, and kindness. You will scarcely recognize him, as the same man, when you see him again on deck, arraigning some culprit, ‘at the mast,’ for a breach of discipline. When Georgia seceded, Lieutenant Kell was well on his way to the commander's list, in the old Navy, but he would have scorned the commission of an admiral, if it had been tendered him as the price of treason to his State. To have brought a Federal ship into the waters of Georgia, and ravaged her coasts, and fired upon her people, would have been, in his eyes, little less than matricide. He forthwith resigned his commission, and joined his fortunes with those of his people. When it was decided, at Montgomery, that I was to have the Sumter, I at once thought of Kell, and, at my request, he was ordered to the ship—Commodore Tattnall, with [124] whom he had been serving on the Georgia coast, giving him up very reluctantly.

Seated next to myself, on my right hand, is Lieutenant Robert T. Chapman. This gentleman is from Alabama; he is several years younger than Kell, not so tall, but stouter, in proportion. His complexion, as you see, is dark, and he has jet-black hair, and eyes—the latter remarkable for their brilliancy, and for a twinkle of fun, and good humor. Chapman is the life of the mess-table; always in a pleasant mood, and running over with wit and anecdote. Though he has a fashion, as you see, of wearing his hair closely cropped, he is the very reverse of a round-head, being a preux chevalier, as ready for the fight as the dance, and having a decided preference for the music of the band, over that of ‘Old Hundred.’ He is the second lieutenant, and has, consequently, the easiest berth among the sea lieutenants, being relieved from the drudgery of the first lieutenant, and exempt from the calls for extra duty, that are sometimes made upon the junior lieutenant. When his watch is over, and his division drilled, he is a gentleman at large, for the rest of the day. You see by his build—a slight inclination to corpulency—that he is fond of his ease, and that he has fallen as naturally into the place of second lieutenant, as if it had been cut out for him on purpose. He also was bred in the old Navy, and was found to be of the pure metal, instead of the dross, when the touchstone of secession came to be applied to separate the one from the other.

At Lieutenant Kell's right hand, sits Lieutenant John M. Stribling, the third lieutenant, and a native of the glorious little State of South Carolina. He is of medium height, somewhat spare in build, with brown hair, and whiskers, and mild and expressive blue eyes; the mildness of the eye only dwelling in it, however, in moments of repose. When excited at the thought of wrong, or oppression, it has a peculiar stare of firmness, as much as to say,

This rock shall fly,
From its firm base as soon as I.

Stribling was also an éleve of the old Navy, and, though tied [125] to it, by cords that were hard to sever, he put honor above place, in the hour of trial, and came South.

Next to Stribling, sits Lieutenant William E. Evans, the fourth and junior lieutenant of the ship. He is not more than twenty-four years of age, slim in person, of medium height, and rather delicate-looking, though not from ill health. His complexion is dark, and he has black hair, and eyes. He has a very agreeable, riante expression about his face, and is somewhat given to casuistry, being fond of an argument, when occasion presents itself. He is but recently out of the Naval Academy, at Annapolis, and like all new graduates, feels the freshness of academic honors. He is a native of South Carolina, and a brother of General Evans of that State, who so greatly distinguished himself, afterward, at the battle of Manassas, and on other bloody fields.

If the reader will now cast his eye toward the centre of the table, on my right hand, he will see two gentlemen, both with black hair and eyes, and both somewhat under middle size, conversing together. These are Dr. Francis L. Galt, the Surgeon, and Mr. Henry Myers, the Paymaster, both from the old service; the former a native of Virginia, and the latter a native of South Carolina; and opposite these, are the Chief Engineer, and Marine Officer,—Mr. Miles J. Freeman, and Lieutenant B. Howell, the latter a brother-in-law of Mr. Jefferson Davis, our honored President. I have thus gone the circuit of the wardroom. All these officers, courteous reader, will make the cruise with us, and if you will inspect the adjoining engraving, and are a judge of character, after the rules of Lavater and Spurzheim, you will perceive in advance, how much reason I shall have to be proud of them.

We may now take up our narrative, from the point at which it was interrupted, for the purpose of these introductions. Day passed into night, and with the night came the brilliant comet again, lighting us on our way over the waste of waters. The morning of the second of July, our second day out, dawned clear, and beautiful, the Sumter still steaming in an almost calm sea, with nothing to impede her progress. At eight A. M. we struck the north-east trade-wind, and made sail in aid of steam, giving orders to the engineer, to make the most of his fuel, by carrying only a moderate head of steam. Toward [126] noon, a few trade squalls passed over us, with light and refreshing showers of rain; just enough to cause me to take shelter, for a few moments, under the lee of the spanker. At noon, we observed in latitude 23° 4′ showing that we had crossed the tropic—the longitude being 86° 13′. The reader has seen that we have been steering to the S. E., diminishing both latitude, and longitude, and if he will look upon the chart of the Caribbean Sea, he will perceive, that we are approaching Cape San Antonio, the south end of the island of Cuba; but he can scarcely conjecture what sort of a cruise I had marked out for myself. The Secretary of the Navy, in those curt sailing orders which we have already seen, had considerately left me carte blanche as to cruising-ground, but as I was ‘to do the greatest injury to the enemy's commerce, in the shortest time,’ the implication was, that I should, at once, throw myself into some one of the chief thoroughfares of his trade. I accordingly set my eye on Cape St. Roque, in Brazil, which may be said to be the great turning-point of the commerce of the world. My intention was to make a dash, of a few days, at the enemy's ships on the south side of Cuba, coal at some convenient point, stretch over to Barbadoes, coal again, and then strike for the Brazilian coast. It is with this view, that the Sumter is now running for the narrow outlet, that issues from the Gulf of Mexico, between Cape Antonio, and the opposite coast of Yucatan. I shaped my course for the middle of this passage, but about midnight, made the light of Cape Antonio right ahead, showing that I had been drifted, northward, by a current setting, at the rate of from three fourths of a mile, to a mile per hour. We drew off a little to the southward, doubled the Cape, with the light still in view, and at nine o'clock, the next morning, we found ourselves off Cape Corrientes.

The weather had now become cloudy, and we had a fresh trade-wind, veering from E. to E. S. E., with some sea on. At meridian, we observed in latitude 21° 29′, the longitude being 84° 06′. Running along the Cuban coast, between it and the Isle of Pines, of piratical memory, at about three in the after noon, the cry of ‘Sail ho!’ was heard from the mast-head, for the first time since we had left the mouths of the Mississippi. The look-out, upon being questioned, said that he saw two [127] sail, and that they were both right ahead. We came up with them, very rapidly, for they were standing in our direction, and when we had approached within signal distance, we showed them the English colors. The nearest sail, which proved to be a brig, hoisted the Spanish colors, and, upon being boarded, was found to be from Cadiz, bound for Vera Cruz. She was at once permitted to proceed. Resuming our course, we now stood for the other sail, which, by this time, there was no mistaking; she being plainly American, although she had not yet shown her colors. A gun soon brought these to the peak; when, as I had expected, the stars and stripes unfolded themselves, gracefully, to the breeze. Here was our first prize, and a most welcome sight it was. The capture, I find, upon looking over my notes, was recorded in a few lines, barren of all incident, or remark, except only that the doomed ship was from the ‘Black Republican State of Maine;’ but I well recollect the mingled impressions of joy, and sadness, that were made upon me by the event. The ‘old flag,’ which I had been accustomed to worship, in my youth, had a criminal look, in my eyes, as it ascended to the peak of that ship. How strangely we sometimes invest mere inanimate things with the attributes of life! When I had fired the gun, as a command to the stranger to heave to, and show his colors, I had hauled down the English, and hoisted my own flag. The stars and stripes seemed now to look abashed in the presence of the new banner of the South; pretty much as a burglar might be supposed to look, who had been caught in the act of breaking into a gentleman's house; but then the burglar was my relative, and had erst been my friend—how could I fail to feel some pity for him, along with the indignation, which his crime had excited? The boarding officer soon returned from the captured ship, bringing with him the master, with his papers. There were no knotty points of fact or law to embarrass my decision. There were the American register, and clearance, and the American character impressed upon every plank and spar of the ship. Nothing could exceed the astonishment of the master, who was rather a mild, amiable-looking gentleman, not at all disposed to go either into hysterics, or the heroics. ‘A clap of thunder in a cloudless sky could not [128] have surprised me more,’ said he to me as I overhauled his papers, ‘than the appearance of the Confederate flag in these seas.’ ‘My duty is a painful one,’ said I, ‘to destroy so noble a ship as yours, but I must discharge it without vain regrets; and as for yourself, you will only have to do, as so many thousands have done before you, submit to the fortunes of war— yourself and your crew will be well treated on board my ship.’ The prize bore the name of The Golden Rocket, was a fine bark, nearly new, of about seven hundred tons, and was seeking, in ballast, a cargo of sugar in some one of the Cuban ports. Boats were dispatched to bring off the crew, and such provisions, cordage, sails, and paints as the different departments of my ship stood in need of, and at about ten o'clock at night, the order was given to apply the torch to her.

The wind, by this time, had become very light, and the night was pitch-dark—the darkness being of that kind, graphically described by old sailors, when they say, you may cut it with a knife. I regret that I cannot give to the reader the picture of the burning ship, as it presented itself to the silent, and solemn watchers on board the Sumter as they leaned over her hammock rails to witness it. The boat, which had been sent on this errand of destruction, had pulled out of sight, and her oars ceasing to resound, we knew that she had reached the doomed ship, but so impenetrable was the darkness, that no trace of either boat, or ship could be seen, although the Sumter was distant only a few hundred yards. Not a sound could be heard on board the Sumter, although her deck was crowded with men. Every one seemed busy with his own thoughts, and gazing eagerly in the direction of the doomed ship, endeavoring, in vain, to penetrate the thick darkness. Suddenly, one of the crew exclaimed, ‘There is the flame She is on fire!’ The decks of this Maine-built ship were of pine, calked with old-fashioned oakum, and paid with pitch; the wood-work of the cabin was like so much tinder, having been seasoned by many voyages to the tropics, and the forecastle was stowed with paints, and oils. The consequence was, that the flame was not long in kindling, but leaped, full-grown, into the air, in a very few minutes after its first faint glimmer had been seen. The boarding officer, to do his work more effectually, had applied [129] the torch simultaneously in three places, the cabin, the mainhold, and the forecastle; and now the devouring flames rushed up these three apertures, with a fury which nothing could resist. The burning ship, with the Sumter's boat in the act of shoving off from her side; the Sumter herself, with her grim, black sides, lying in repose like some great sea-monster, gloating upon the spectacle, and the sleeping sea, for there was scarce a ripple upon the water, were all brilliantly lighted. The indraught into the burning ship's holds, and cabins, added every moment new fury to the flames, and now they could be heard roaring like the fires of a hundred furnaces, in full blast. The prize ship had been laid to, with her main-topsail to the mast, and all her light sails, though clewed up, were flying loose about the yards. The forked tongues of the devouring element, leaping into the rigging, newly tarred, ran rapidly up the shrouds, first into the tops, then to the topmast-heads, thence to the topgallant, and royal mast-heads, and in a moment more to the trucks; and whilst this rapid ascent of the main current of fire was going on, other currents had run out upon the yards, and ignited all the sails. A top-gallant sail, all on fire, would now fly off from the yard, and sailing leisurely in the direction of the light breeze that was fanning, rather than blowing, break into bright, and sparkling patches of flame, and settle, or rather silt into the sea. The yard would then follow, and not being wholly submerged by its descent into the sea, would retain a portion of its flame, and continue to burn, as a floating brand, for some minutes. At one time, the intricate net-work of the cordage of the burning ship was traced, as with a pencil of fire, upon the black sky beyond, the many threads of flame twisting, and writhing, like so many serpents that had received their death wounds. The mizzen-mast now went by the board, then the fore-mast, and in a few minutes afterward, the great main-mast tottered, reeled, and fell over the ship's side into the sea, making a noise like that of the sturdy oak of the forests when it falls by the stroke of the axeman

By the light of this flambeau, upon the lonely and silent sea, lighted of the passions of bad men who should have been our brothers, the Sumter, having aroused herself from her dream of vengeance, and run up her boats, moved forward on her course. [130] The captain of the Golden Rocket watched the destruction of his ship from the quarter-deck of the Sumter, apparently with the calm eye of a philosopher, though, doubtless, he felt the emotions which the true sailor always feels, when he looks upon the dying agonies of his beloved ship, whether she be broken up by the storm, or perish in any other way.

The flag! what was done with the ‘old flag’? It was marked with the day, and the latitude and longitude of the capture, and consigned to the keeping of the signal quartermaster, who prepared a bag for its reception; and when this bag was full, he prepared another, and another, as the cruise progressed, and occasion required. It was the especial pride of this veteran American seaman to count over his trophies, and when the weather was fine, he invariably asked permission of the officer of the deck, under pretence of damage from moths, to ‘air’ his flags; and as he would bend on his signalhalliards, and throw them out to the breeze, one by one, his old eye would glisten, and a grim smile of satisfaction would settle upon his sun-burned, and weather-beaten features. This was our practice also on board the Alabama, and when that ship was sunk in the British channel, in her engagement with the enemy's ship Kearsarge, as the reader will learn in due time, if he has the patience to follow me in these memoirs, we committed to the keeping of the guardian spirits of that famous old battle-ground, a great many bags full of ‘old flags,’ to be stored away in the caves of the sea, as mementos that a nation once lived whose naval officers prized liberty more than the false memorial of it, under which they had once served, and who were capable, when it became

Hate's polluted rag,

of tearing it down.

The prisoners—what did we do with them? The captain was invited to mess in the ward-room, and when he was afterward landed, the officers generously made him up a purse to supply his immediate necessities. The crew was put into a mess by themselves, with their own cook, and was put on a footing, with regard to rations, with the Sumter's own men. [131] We were making war upon the enemy's commerce, but not upon his unarmed seamen. It gave me as much pleasure to treat these with humanity, as it did to destroy his ships, and one of the most cherished recollections which I have brought out of a war, which, in some sense, may be said to have been a civil war, is, that the ‘pirate,’ whom the enemy denounced, with a pen dipped in gall, and with a vocabulary of which decent people should be ashamed, set that same enemy the example, which he has failed to follow, of treating prisoners of war, according to the laws of war.

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