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Chapter 9:

The commissioning of the Sumter, the first Confederate States' ship of war.

Fort Sumter surrendered on the 13th of April. The next day was a gala day in Montgomery. We had driven an insolent enemy from one of the strongest positions in the South, and the people were all agog to hear the news. A large Confederate flag was displayed from a balcony of the War Office, and the Hon. L. P. Walker, the Secretary of War, announced in a brief speech, to the assembled multitude below, amid repeated cheering, and the waving of hats, and handkerchiefs, the welcome tidings. The Union men, who have become so numerous since the war, had, if any of them were in the city, slunk to their holes, and corners, and the air was redolent, alone, of Southern patriotism, and Southern enthusiasm.

The driving of the enemy from Charleston harbor, decided the fate of Virginia, which had been trembling in the balance for some days. The grand old State could no longer resist her generous impulses. Under a proclamation of President Lincoln the martial hosts of an enraged and vindictive North were assembling, to make war upon her sisters, and this was enough—her ordinance of secession was passed, by a very gratifying majority. Patrick Henry had become a prophet, and the beautiful, and touching apostrophe of James Madison to the ‘kindred blood,’ and the ‘mingled blood’ of the American people, which was given to the reader a few pages back, had proved to be the mere chimera of an excited imagination.

The effect of the surrender of Sumter in the North was beyond conception. A prominent leader of the public press of that section had said of the American flag:— [90]

Tear down that flaunting lie,
Half-mast the starry flag,
Insult no sunny sky
With hate's polluted rag.

Instantly, and as if by the touch of a magician's wand, the polluted rag became the rallying cry of the whole Northern people, and of none more so, than of the very men who had thus denounced it. But there was method in this madness; the rag had only been polluted whilst it was the emblem of good faith between the North, and the South; whilst, in other words, it prevented the mad fanatics of the North from violating that slave property, which their ancestors had promised our ancestors, in the solemn league and covenant of the Constitution, should forever remain inviolate.

But now that the rag, instead of being an obstacle, might be made the means of accomplishing their designs, it was no longer necessary to pull it down. The moment it was fired upon, it became, in their eyes, a new flag, and the symbol of a new faith. It was no longer to represent the federative principle, or to protect the rights of States; it was henceforth to wave over yelling, and maddened majorities, whose will was to be both Constitution, and law. Strange that the thinking portion of the Northern people did not see this; strange that the hitherto conservative Democratic party did not see it. Or was it that the whole North had been wearing a mask, and that the mask was now no longer available, or desirable, to hide their treachery?

Perhaps the future historian, in calmer moments, when the waves of passion engendered by the late storm shall have sunk to rest, will be better able to answer this question. For the present it is sufficient to record the fact, mortifying, it must be confessed, to poor human nature, that all our quondam friends, without so many as half a dozen exceptions in a whole nation— I speak, of course, of prominent men—went over to the common enemy. The very men who had stood, shoulder to shoulder, with us, in resisting Northern aggression, who had encouraged us with pen, and voice, to resist, if need be, unto the death, who promised in case of secession, to stand between us, and the march of Northern armies of invasion, instantly, and [91] without even the salvo to their consciences of circumlocution, changed their political faith of a life-time, and became, if not straight-out Republicans, at least blatant War Democrats.

The reader cannot be at a loss to account for this change. It was caused by the purest, and most refined selfishness. Next to the love of wealth, the love of office may be said to be the distinguishing passion of the American people. In the hands of a skilful office-seeker, patriotism is a mere word with which to delude the ignorant masses, and not a sentiment, or a creed, to be really entertained. Our allies in the North were very patriotic, whilst there were still hopes of preserving the Union, and along with it the prospect of office, by the aid of the Southern people, but the moment the Southern States went out, and it became evident that they would be politically dead, unless they recanted their political faith, it was seen that they had no intention of becoming martyrs. Their motto, on the contrary, became sauve qui peut, and the d—l take the hindmost; and the banks of the new political Jordan were at once crowded with a multitude anxious to be dipped in its regenerating waters!

As the tidings of these doings in the North were flashed to us, over the wires, in Montgomery, it became evident to me, that the Light-House Bureau was no longer to be thought of. It had become necessary for every man, who could wield a sword, to draw it in defence of his country, thus threatened by the swarming hordes of the North, and to leave the things of peace to the future.

I had already passed the prime of life, and was going gently down that declivity, at whose base we all arrive, sooner or later, but I thanked God, that I had still a few years before me, and vigor enough of constitution left, to strike in defence of the right. I at once sought an interview with the Secretary of the Navy, and explained to him my desire to go afloat. We had, as yet, nothing that could be called a navy; not a ship indeed, if we except a few river steamers, that had been hastily armed by some of the States, and turned over, by them, to the Navy Department. The naval officers, who had come South, had brought with them nothing but their poverty, and their swords; all of them who had been in command of ships, at the secession of their respective States, having, from a sense of honor, delivered them back to the Federal Government. [92]

If a sense of justice had presided at the separation of the States, a large portion of the ships of the Navy would have been turned over to the South; and this failing to be done, it may be questionable whether the Southern naval officers, in command, would not have been justified in bringing their ships with them, which it would have been easy for them to do. But, on the other hand, they had been personally intrusted with their commands, by the Federal Government, and it would have been treason to a military principle, if not to those great principles which guide revolutions, to deliver those commands to a different government. Perhaps they decided correctly— at all events, a military, or naval man, cannot go very far astray, who abides by the point of honor.

Shortly before the war-cloud had arisen so ominously above the political horizon, I had written a letter to a distinguished member of the Federal Congress from the South, in reply to one from himself, giving him my views as to the naval policy of our section, in case things should come to a crisis. I make no apology to the reader for presenting him with the following extract from that letter, bearing upon the subject, which we have now in hand. ‘You ask me to explain what I mean, by an irregular naval force. I mean a well-organized system of private armed ships, called privateers. If you are warred upon at all, it will be by a commercial people, whose ability to do you harm will consist chiefly in ships, and shipping. It is at ships and shipping, therefore, that you must strike; and the most effectual way to do this, is, by means of the irregular force of which I speak. Private cupidity will always furnish the means for this description of warfare, and all that will be required of you will be to put it under sufficient legal restraints, to prevent it from degenerating into piracy, and becoming an abuse. Even New England ships, and New England capital would be at your service, in abundance. The system of privateering would be analogous to the militia system on the land. You could have a large irregular sea force, to act in aid of the regular naval force, so long as the war lasted, and which could be disbanded, without further care or expense, at the end of the war.’

Wealth is necessary to the conduct of all modern wars, and [93] I naturally turned my eyes, as indicated in the above letter, to the enemy's chief source of wealth. The ingenuity, enterprise, and natural adaptation of the Northern people to the sea, and seafaring pursuits, had enabled them, aided by the vast resources, which they had filched, under pretence of legislation, from the South, to build up, in the course of a very few years, a commercial marine that was second only to that of Great Britain, in magnitude and importance.

The first decked vessel that had been built in the United States, was built by one Adrian Block, a Dutch skipper, on the banks of the Hudson, in 1614, and in 1860, or in less than two centuries and a half, the great Republic was competing with England, the history of whose maritime enterprise extended back a thousand years, for, the carrying trade of the world I This trade, if permitted to continue, would be a powerful means of sustaining the credit of the enemy, and enabling him to carry on the war. Hence it became an object of the first necessity with the Confederate States, to strike at his commerce. I enlarged upon this necessity, in the interview I was now holding with Mr. Mallory, and I was gratified to find that that able officer agreed with me fully in opinion.

A Board of naval officers was already in session at New Orleans, charged with the duty of procuring, as speedily as possible, some light and fast steamers to be let loose against the enemy's commercial marine, but their reports up to this time, had been but little satisfactory. They had examined a number of vessels, and found some defects in all of them. The Secretary, speaking of the discouragement presented by these reports, handed me one of them, which he had received that morning, from the Board. I read it, and found that it described a small propeller steamer, of five hundred tons burden, sea-going, with a low-pressure engine, sound, and capable of being so strengthened as to be enabled to carry an ordinary battery of four, or five guns. Her speed was reported to be between nine, and ten knots, but unfortunately, said the Board, she carries but five days fuel, and has no accommodations for the crew of a ship of war. She was, accordingly, condemned. When I had finished reading the report, I turned to the Secretary, and said, ‘Give me that ship; I think I can [94] make her answer the purpose.’ My request was at once acceded to, the Secretary telegraphed to the Board, to receive the ship, and the clerks of the Department were set at work, to hunt up the necessary officers, to accompany me, and make out the proper orders. And this is the way in which the Confederate States' steamer Sumter, which was to have the honor of being the first ship of war to throw the new Confederate flag to the breeze, was commissioned. I had accepted a stone which had been rejected of the builders, and which, though, it did not afterward become the ‘chief corner-stone of the temple,’ I endeavored to work into the building which the Confederates were then rearing, to remind their posterity that they had struggled, as Patrick Henry and his contemporaries had struggled before them, ‘in defence of their liberties.’

The next day, the chief clerk of the Navy Department handed me the following order:

Confederate States of America, Navy Department, Montgomery, April 18, 1861.
Sir:—You are hereby detached from duty as Chief of the Light-House Bureau, and will proceed to New Orleans, and take command of the steamer Sumter (named in honor of our recent victory over Fort Sumter). The following officers have been ordered to report to you, for duty: Lieutenants John M. Kell, R. T. Chapman, John M. Stribling, and Wm. E. Evans; Paymaster Henry. Myers; Surgeon Francis L. Galt; Midshipmen, Wm. A. Hicks, Richard F. Armstrong, Albert G. Hudgins, John F. Holden, and Jos. D. Wilson. I am respectfully your obedient servant,

S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy. Commander Raphael Semmes.

The reader will observe that I am addressed as a ‘commander,’ the rank which I held in the old service. The Navy Department, in consultation with the President, had adopted the rule of accepting all the officers who chose to come to us from the old Navy—as the Federal Navy began now to be called —without increase of rank; and in arranging them on the Navy-list, their old relative rank was also preserved. This rule had two good effects; it did not tempt any officer to come to us, moved by the hope of immediate promotion, and it put us all on an equal footing, in the future race for honors.

I had been living in Montgomery as a bachelor, at the house [95] of Mr. Wm. Knox, an old friend—my family having gone to spend some time with a beloved brother, in Maryland, until I could see, by the light of events, what final disposition to make of it; It did not occupy me long, therefore, to make my preparations for departure, in obedience to my orders. I took a respectful, and affectionate leave of the officers of the government, with whom I had been associated, and embarked on the afternoon of the same day on which I had received my orders, on board the steamer Southern Republic for Mobile. At Mobile I fell in with Lieutenant Chapman, one of the officers who had been detailed to report to me, and he, being a minute-man like myself, took a hasty leave of a young wife, and we continued our journey together.

I found Mobile, like the rest of the Confederacy, in a great state of excitement. Always one of the truest of Southern cities, it was boiling over with enthusiasm; the young merchants had dropped their daybooks and ledgers, and were forming, and drilling companies, by night and by day, whilst the older ones were discussing questions of finance, and anxiously casting about them, to see how the Confederate Treasury could be supported. The Battle House, at which I stopped for a few hours, previous to taking the steamer for New Orleans, was thronged with young men in military costume, and all seemed going ‘as merrily as a marriage-bell.’ Alas! my poor young countrymen, how many of you had disappeared from the scene, when I next returned among you, near the close of the war, and how many poor mothers there were, weeping for the sons that were not. But your gallant and glorious record!—that, at least, remains, and must remain forever; for you have inscribed your names so high on the scroll of fame, that the slanderous breath of an ungenerous foe can never reach them.

I arrived in New Orleans, on Monday, the 22d of April, and at once put myself in communication with the commanding naval officer, the venerable Lawrence Rousseau, since gone to his long home, full of years, and full of honors. Like a true son of the South he had obeyed the first call of his fatherland, the State of Louisiana, and torn off the seal from the commission of a Federal captain, which he had honored for forty [96] years. I will not say, ‘peace to his ashes,’ for the spirit of a Christian gentleman, which animated his frame during life, has doubtless received its appropriate reward; nor will I say aught of his name, or fame, for these are embalmed in the memories of his countrymen. He was my friend, and in that name ‘friend’ I pronounce his eulogy. On the same day of my arrival, in company with Lieutenant Chapman, I inspected, and took possession of my new ship. I found her only a dismantled packet-ship, full of upper cabins, and other top-hamper, furniture, and crockery, but as unlike a ship of war as possible. Still, I was pleased with her general appearance. Her lines were easy, and graceful, and she had a sort of saucy air about her, which seemed to say, that she was not averse to the service on which she was about to be employed.

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