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Chapter 7:

The commerce-destroyers.

The Confederate naval authorities early recognized that the most vulnerable point of their enemy, as a maritime power, lay in his merchant marine. In 1861 the United States still occupied the second place among commercial nations. Of the total registered tonnage, however, less than one-tenth belonged to the seceding States ; and this rapidly disappeared. In a warfare against commerce, the Confederates could strike heavy blows, without fear of being struck in return. Accordingly, it was against commerce that they immediately took the offensive; and, they maintained their position until the end of the war—after the end, in fact. The Federal Government, on the other hand, could not make use of commerce-destroyers, because there was no enemy's commerce to destroy. It follows that the history of the ocean warfare during the conflict falls naturally into a recital of the doings of Southern cruisers.

The policy of systematic operations against the merchant fleet of the United States was adopted at the outset. As early as April 17, 1861, Davis published his famous proclamation, announcing his purpose of issuing lettersof-marque. At this time, the practice of privateering had been somewhat discredited by the general concurrence of European States in the Declaration of the Congress of Paris. But the Southern leaders counted upon a support abroad [169] that would not be weakened by the influence of sentimental considerations; and as the United States had not subscribed the Declaration, neither party was bound by its articles. When the circular invitation of the Powers was sent to this Government in 1856, Secretary Marcy proposed to amend the rules by the addition of a new article, exempting private property at sea from capture. No action was taken on the proposal, and the negotiations were suspended until President Lincoln's accession to office. About a week after Davis's proclamation was issued, the Department of State instructed the Minister of the United States at London to reopen negotiations, and offered to accede unconditionally to the Declaration. This proposal seemed to point too strongly to an effort to clothe Southern privateering with an illegal character, and the British Government refused to make an agreement which should be applicable to the existing war. As the United States were thus debarred from any present advantage to be derived from the adoption of the rule, the whole question was dropped.

A volunteer navy may in some degree supply the place of privateers, supposing that plenty of time and an elastic organization are at command, with a flourishing merchant marine upon which to draw; but at the South, in 1861, there was no merchant marine. Still less was there time or organization. In fact, the scheme of a volunteer navy was tried by the Confederate Government later in the war, and proved a signal failure. Accordingly, the naval administration of the Confederacy was wise in turning over its work to private parties, and thus saving its own energies. The ocean was covered with an unsuspecting and unprotected commerce, which lay at the mercy of any one whose hostile intentions were backed by a single gun. Few and indifferent as were the vessels available for privateering, a score of [170] prizes had been brought into New Orleans by the end of May, six weeks after the issue of the proclamation.

It was necessary to decide at the outset in what light the acts of the Southern privateers should be regarded. Though the Confederate Government was recognized by the courts as belligerent, and a state of war was held to exist, the legal authority of the United States over its subjects could not come to an end, even while these subjects were enemies. According to the strict legal view, neither the fact of a civil war, nor its express recognition, involved any abrogation of the powers of the Government over its subjects in revolt. The Constitution defines treason to be the levying of war against the United States and giving aid and comfort to the enemies thereof; and it was competent for the State to bring to trial for treason those whose acts came within the constitutional definition. But the insurrection assumed such large proportions in the beginning, and was directed by such complete governmental machinery, that every consideration of policy and necessity, as well as of humanity and morality, prescribed a course of action under which the insurgents should be treated as belligerents, and, when captured, as prisoners of war.

An attempt was made to put those engaged in hostilities at sea upon a different footing, and to bring them to trial for piracy. The proclamation of April 19 gave expression to this principle. In it the President said:

‘And I hereby proclaim and declare that if any person under the pretended authority of the said States, or under any other pretence, shall molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board of her, such person will be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy.’

The policy of the Government, as set forth in the proclamation, [171] was never carried out, because it was found to be impracticable. Certain of the crews of the captured privateers were tried, and as their acts fell specifically under the provisions of the law defining piracy, conviction was in some cases obtained; but the Confederate authorities threatened retaliation, and they were in a position to carry out their threat. The Government therefore went no further with its prosecutions. Nor is it clear, if they had continued, upon what ground they could have been justified. The fact that the war was a civil war afforded no reason for a distinction between combatants at sea and combatants on land. As naval warfare is no more criminal than land warfare, those captured in the one occupation are as much entitled to be treated as prisoners of war as those captured in the other. The only explanation of the prosecution of the ‘Savannah pirates,’ as the reports designate them, is the fact that the Government, having taken a definite position in the proclamation of April 19, before the magnitude of the insurrection was fully realized, was unwilling to recede until the courts had sustained its action.

During the first year of the war the privateers met with moderate success. A considerable number of small vessels were fitted out, old slavers, tugs, fishing-schooners, revenue cutters, and small coasters of all descriptions. Many of them would he securely in the inlets on the coast of the Carolinas, and issue forth when they sighted a stray merchantman off the coast, returning to cover when they had made their capture. Others went to work more boldly, but nearly all had a short career. The brig Jeff Davis, a condemned slaver, after cruising off the New England coast and making several valuable prizes, was wrecked on the coast of Florida. The Beauregard, a Charleston schooner, was captured by the U. S. bark W. G. Anderson. The schooner Judah was [172] burnt at her wharf, at the Pensacola Navy Yard, by a party of officers and men from the flagship Colorado. The Savannah, a Charleston pilot-boat of fifty-four tons, was captured when three days out by the brig Perry, one of the blockading force, and was carried into New York, where the trial of her crew for piracy led to the threat of retaliation upon prisoners in Southern hands. The Petrel, which had formerly been a revenue cutter, was sunk by a shell from the frigate St. Lawrence, cruising off Charleston.1

In spite of the successes of the sailing-vessels of the navy against the early privateers, it took some time to drive off or capture all these mosquitoes of ocean warfare. In fact, the practice of privateering may be said to have died out rather than to have been broken up. The blockade was indirectly instrumental in killing it. Its principal object was gain, but there was little to be gained when prizes could not be sent into port. The occupation of commercede-stroying pure and simple, however useful and patriotic, is not lucrative; and it was therefore left to the Confederate naval officers, who took it as a part of their duties. The privateers hitherto employed in it were soon diverted to the more profitable pursuit of carrying contraband. The work which they had abandoned was then taken in hand by the Confederate Government, and it was carried on by the navy during the rest of the war with results that exceeded the most sanguine expectations.

The first, or nearly the first, of the regularly commissioned naval vessels, as distinguished from the privateers, was the Sumter. Indeed, she was one of the first vessels of any kind [173] fitted out for hostile purposes at the South, as Semmes was ordered to command her on the 18th of April, 1861. She was a screw-steamer of five hundred tons, and was lying at New Orleans, being one of a line of steamers plying regularly between that port and Havana. The frame of the vessel was strengthened, a berth-deck was put in, the spar-deck cabins were removed, and room was found for a magazine and additional coal-bunkers. She was armed with an Viii-inch pivot-gun between the fore and main masts, and four 24-pound howitzers in broadside.

Semmes had hoped to get his vessel out before the blockade began; but on the 26th of May the Brooklyn appeared off the mouth of the liver, where she was soon after joined by the Powhatan. Later, the Massachusetts and South Carolina were added to the squadron, and both the passes were closed.

The Sumter was not ready for sea until the 18th of June. At this date, she dropped down the river to the forts, and thence to the Head of the Passes, where she remained at anchor for nearly a fortnight, watching for an opportunity to run out. Here Semmes had every advantage, as he could obtain accurate information of the movements of the blockading vessels, while they were ignorant of his presence. The Brooklyn had made an effort to ascend the river, but after grounding once or twice gave up the attempt. If the vessels could have taken a position at the Head of the Passes, they might have guarded securely all the outlets, instead of keeping up an imperfect blockade while lying off the bar at the different mouths. Twice a report that one or another of the blockaders had left her station led Semmes to run down one of the Passes; but each time he failed to escape. The second time he remained in Pass-à--Loutre, a few miles from the bar, unobserved by the Brooklyn; and after a few hours [174] of waiting, at a moment when the latter had, left her anchorage in chase of a sail, he made for the mouth of the Pass. The Brooklyn, upon sighting him, left her chase, and attempted to head him off; but he reached the bar and got out to sea. The Brooklyn followed, and carrying sail and steam, was still gaining on him; but by hauling up a couple of points, Semmes brought the wind so far ahead that his pursuer took in her sails, and she gradually dropped astern, having lost the opportunity of destroying, at a single blow, nearly the whole sea-going navy of the Confederacy.

When only three days out, the Sumter made her first prize, the bark Golden Rocket, which was burnt. By the 6th of July, or in less than a week after running the blockade, she had captured seven other merchantmen. One of these was ordered to New Orleans with a prize-crew, and was recaptured. The remaining six were taken in to Cienfuegos, where they were afterward released by the Spanish authorities. During the next two months, the Sumter cruised in the Caribbean Sea, and along the coast of South America. She received friendly treatment in the neutral ports which she visited, and was allowed to stay as long as she liked. She coaled without hindrance at Curacao, Trinidad, Paramaribo, and Maranham. Only at Puerto Cabello, in Venezuela, was she required to depart after forty-eight hours. There was no concealment about her character or her movements; but none of the vessels that were sent in pursuit of her were able to find her. Among these were the Niagara and the Powhatan, from the Gulf Squadron, and the Keystone State, Richmond, Iroquois, and San Jacinto.

After leaving Maranham, Semmes shaped his course for the calm-belt. Here he expected to overhaul many merchantmen; but he only captured two, both of which he burnt. Neither was an important capture, except that from [175] one of them the Sumter was enabled to replenish her stock of fresh provisions.

After two months of cruising in the Atlantic, the Sumter put in to St. Pierre, in the island of Martinique, for coal and water. She had been here only five days when the Iroquois came in, a very fast sloop-of-war, under Captain Palmer. The usual warnings in regard to the neutrality of the port were administered by the French authorities, and the American sloop, after reconnoitering the Sumter closely, came to anchor. Finding that the rule forbidding either vessel to leave port within twenty-four hours of the other would be rigidly enforced, Palmer lost no time in getting under way again, to take a position outside. The coast at St. Pierre forms an open roadstead, twelve miles wide; and here Palmer waited, standing off and on, as near as he could venture without laying himself open to the charge of hovering within neutral waters. So matters remained for a week.

On the night of the 23d of November, when the Sumter had finished all her preparations, she weighed anchor and stood out. Arrangements had been made for signalling her movements from one of the American schooners in port; and Semmes, with his quick perception and ready resource, took advantage of the fact to throw his enemy off the scent. Heading for the southern point of the roads, he held his course until he was sure that the

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