The president of the American States in Confederation was gathering an army and navy for the defense of the South as the war clouds of 1861 burst over a divided land. And it was Jefferson Davis who personally selected Raphael Semmes to fit out and command the first of a long line of Confederate commerce destroyers. Resigning his commission as a commander in the United States Navy and withdrawing from the Lighthouse Board, Semmes was commissioned a commander in the Confederate States Navy on February 18, 1861, and was immediately ordered to assume command of the steamer Sumter, at the time of her commissioning the South’s only national war vessel.
The Sumter was a merchant screw-steamer of 501-tons burden. Originally named the Havana, she had operated as a packet ship between Cuba and New Orleans. In converting the ship to a man-of-war, the long range of upper cabins was removed, a berth deck was laid, and the main deck strengthened to support the heavy 8-inch, smoothbore, pivot gun mounted on the center line between the fore- and mainmasts, and the four 24- pounder howitzers, mounted two on each broadside. Additional coal bunkers, a magazine, and shellroom were also provided.
On May 27, with the Sumter almost ready for sea, the United States sloop of war Brooklyn suddenly appeared and began a blockade of the Mississippi. The following day brought the heavy frigates Minnesota and Niagara to make a brief stay off the mouth; and when, on June 1, Commander Semmes desired to put to sea, he was annoyed to discover that the “back-door” passage he had fondly believed was unguarded, harbored an alert blockader in the form of the frigate Powhatan.
Regardless of the unfavorable outlook Semmes shipped a full crew comprising four lieutenants, paymaster, surgeon, lieutenant of marines, four midshipmen, four engineers, boatswain, gunner, sailmaker, carpenter, captain’s and purser’s clerks, twelve marines, and seventy-two firemen and seamen. He then dropped down the river and anchored under the guns of Forts Philip and Jackson to wait for a favorable opportunity for running the blockade.
He waited almost a month, for it was not until the morning of June 30 that the Brooklyn left her station unguarded while she pursued a strange sail to the westward. The impatient Semmes at once made a dash for the open sea.
The Sumter had not reached within six miles of the harbor bar when her movements were sighted on the Brooklyn, which broke off the chase at once and headed back at top speed for the racing Confederate. At length the Sumter crossed Pas a l’Outre and scurried along the edges of the mud banks to the eastward. As she did so, the Brooklyn's pivot gun spoke, but the shot fell short, and then the chase began in earnest.
Passing through successive rain squalls, the Brooklyn, under a dangerous press of canvas, and with her engines working to capacity, gained steadily on her quarry. Seeing this, Semmes hauled two points to windward thus bringing the wind so far forward that the Brooklyn was no longer able to carry sail. The Sumter then began to draw away from her pursuer, but the forcing of her boilers caused them to begin priming furiously, and a slackening of speed was necessary which permitted the Brooklyn to recover the distance she had lost. Then gradually the foaming in the Sumter’s boilers ceased and, working up to sixty-five revolutions a minute, she steadily dropped the Brooklyn astern, until that ship gave up the chase and turned back to her station.
Steering southeasterly down the Gulf of Mexico, the Sumter was off Cape Antonio on July 3, when she captured and burned her first prize, the bark Golden Rocket, 690 tons, of Bangor, Maine. By July 6 she had taken seven other merchant vessels. One of these, the barkentine Cuba, was ordered to New Orleans with a prize crew, and was recaptured by a United States ship. The remaining six were taken in to Cienfuegos, where they were seized and and afterward returned to their northern owners by the Spanish authorities.
The next two months saw the Sumter cruising in the Caribbean Sea and along the coast of South America. She coaled at Curaçao, Trinidad, Paramaribo, and Maranhão. During this time she was searched for but never sighted by the United States ships Niagara, Powhatan, Iroquois, Richmond, San Jacinto, and Keystone State.
Departing from Maranhão, Semmes cruised in the “calm belt” of the Atlantic for two months, but only two prizes came his way. These he burned. Shortage of coal and water then compelled him to put in to St. Pierre on the island of Martinique. Here he was discovered by the U.S.S. Iroquois, a fast sloop of war.
Finding that the French intended to enforce the rule that belligerent vessels must leave port twenty-four hours apart, Captain Palmer of the Iroquois immediately stood out to sea. The open roadstead at St. Pierre being twelve miles wide, Palmer cruised back and forth just outside the three-mile limit for a week before the Confederate showed signs of departure.
The Sumter go under way on the night of November 23, her departure being signaled to the Iroquois by an anchored United States merchant schooner. Semmes headed south, his lights bright until he was sure the northerner was in pursuit. Then doubling suddenly into the smother of a fortunate rain squall, he raced northward, while the Iroquois chased furiously to the south. By the time Palmer had discovered the ruse, the Sumter was safely away.
Semmes cruised to the eastward, burning three prizes, but a series of gales so battered his little ship, that he ventured into Cadiz to refit, arriving there early in January, 1862. The Spanish authorities would not permit her to stay long, so after effecting only the most vital repairs, the Sumter limped on to Gibraltar. On the way she managed to capture her last two prizes, one of which she burned. The other, having a neutral cargo, was released on a ransom bond.
The career of the South’s first commerce raider now came to an end. With an unseaworthy ship, and deprived of an opportunity to secure coal, Semmes cabled his situation to the Confederate Navy Department which was considering the transfer of the Sumter’s officers to a new ship when the U.S.S. Tuscarora aided their decision by arriving at Gibraltar.
This ship immediately began an effective blockade of the Confederate cruiser, and was shortly reënforced by the Kearsarge and the Ino. A survey of the Sumter revealed that her hull was strained and her engines and boilers in bad condition, so the famous little ship was condemned for further naval service and later sold to private parties who used her as a blockade runner.
During her cruises the Sumter had made seventeen prizes, of which seven were released by the Spanish authorities, two were ransomed and two were recaptured. Aside from delays due to interrupted voyages, the total injury inflicted upon northern commerce by the Sumter amounted to the loss of six sailing vessels and their cargoes.
The “Florida.”—Long before the cruise of the Sumter came to an end, the Confederate government awoke to the realization that the South lacked facilities for building cruising ships of war and took steps to have them built abroad. With a British statute in force imposing a penalty for the “equipping or arming of a vessel intended to commit hostile acts against a friendly state,” it was necessary to undertake elaborate evasions of this law to secure the needed ships.
This was accomplished by having the ships built for fictitious commercial owners, and sent to sea without armament, ammunition, or a full crew. The needed guns, munitions, and men were then sent in another vessel to a rendezvous outside of British jurisdiction. When the two vessels met, a transfer took place and the new cruiser became a Confederate ship of war.
The Florida was the first of the commerce raiders of English origin. She was built at Liverpool in the fall and winter of 1861-62, and ingenious measures were taken to conceal ownership and destination. On March 22, 1862, the Florida cleared without cargo from Liverpool under the name of Orelo, for Palermo, it having been announced that she was built to the account of a merchant of that port. Guns and ammunition for the new cruiser were shipped at about the same time in the steamer Bahama from Hartlepool for Nassau.
The Oreto arrived at Nassau on April 28, and was taken over by Commander James N. Maffitt of the Confederate Navy, who, after securing the release of his ship from a British government libel action, sailed into Green Cay, an uninhabited island in the Bahamas, where her battery of two 7-inch rifled pivot guns and six 6-inch smooth bore guns was taken aboard and her name changed to Florida. She sailed on her first cruise under the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.
Because her original crew had deserted rather than engage in warfare, Commander Maffitt had been forced to seek a crew in Nassau, but was able to sign only twenty-two men. As soon as he put to sea yellow fever appeared on board. As if these troubles were not sufficient, he found that, in the hurry of departure from Green Cay, some of the essential equipment for his battery had not been transshipped. He was without elevating screws, sights, locks, sponges, and rammers.
These conditions forced him to break off his cruise and head for the coast of Cuba. Avoiding the United States cruisers, he arrived at Cardenas with his small crew so reduced by sickness that only three men were able to work the ship. Here he was attacked by the fever, but recovered after a serious illness.
After a week in Cardenas, during which Stribling, the first lieutenant, shipped eleven more men, but could do nothing to remedy the lack of gun equipment, Maffitt took the Florida to Havana. Obtaining nothing there he at once made for Mobile. Proceeding directly from Havana, the cruiser sighted the blockading squadron and Fort Morgan on September 4. The United States ships on the station were the screw sloop of war Oneida, the gunboat Winona, and the schooner Rachel Seaman. The senior officer present was Commander George H. Preble of the Oneida.
In view of the helpless condition of the Florida and her crew, Stribling advised delaying the attempt to run the blockade until night at least. But Maffitt decided that the boldest course was the safest, and he dashed straight for the harbor entrance.
Believing at first that the stranger was an English war vessel inspecting the blockade, Preble did not become suspicious until two shots across her bow failed to stop the newcomer. Realizing when it was almost too late that he had the Florida under his guns, Preble then poured a hasty broadside into the cruiser. But the Florida, though hit several times, did not slacken speed, and made no attempt at resistance. The chase was continued until the Confederate crossed the bar, when the blockaders hauled off and Maffitt anchored safely under the guns of Fort Morgan.
After remaining four months at Mobile, the Florida came out during the night of January 16, 1863. The blockaders now numbered seven, but in the darkness and confusion the cruiser ran off to the Cuban coast where she burned three small prizes next day, while Union ships were looking for her in the Yucatan channel.
A month later, the Florida ran into Barbados for coal, after which her most important cruise began, for in the following five months she took and destroyed fourteen northern merchant ships. This cruise extended from the latitude of New York to the southward of that of Bahia.
On May 6, the Florida captured the brig Clarence off the coast of Brazil. Armed with light guns, and with Lieutenant Read in command, Maffitt sent the Clarence away as a ship of war on an independent cruise. Read proceeded north, and during the month of June, made lively work of it between the Chesapeake and Portland. He captured five vessels, four of which he burned. The fifth was the schooner Tacony, and finding her a faster vessel, Read burned the Clarence after transferring his guns and crew to the prize.
In the next two weeks the Tacony took ten prizes. The last, the schooner Archer, then became a commerce raider, and the Tacony shared the fate of the Clarence. The Archer’s career was short. Two days after she was taken, Read ran into Portland with a party in small boat and captured the revenue cutter Caleb Cushing. Next morning he was attacked by northern gunboats, and, after setting fire to the cutter, he put off in his small boats for the Archer, but was captured.
After refitting and coaling at Bermuda in July, the Florida sailed for Brest. Here she remained nearly six months for docking and repairs. Maffitt was relieved by Captain Barney, who in turn gave way to Captain Morris. The cruiser sailed from Brest in February, 1864, and, after cruising for four months, arrived at Teneriffe in early August. Crossing the Atlantic again Morris put in to Bahia on October 5.
The United States screw sloop of war Wachusett, Commander Napoleon Collins, was lying at this time in Bahia. The Florida came to anchor near the shore, less than a mile from the Union vessel, and immediately a Brazilian corvette fearing a disturbance took a position between the two ships.
The Florida had received permission to stay in port for forty-eight hours, and Collins made up his mind to capture her before this time had expired. Accordingly, before dawn on the morning of October 7, he got under way and crossed the Brazilian’s bow. He intended to run the Florida down and sink her at anchor, but the Wachusett’s bow, striking the Confederate on the starboard quarter, only cut down her bulwark and carried away her mizzenmast and mainyard.
A few pistol shots were fired from the Florida, as the Wachusett backed off, which were returned with a volley of small arms and the discharge of two broadside guns. The Florida then surrendered.
Captain Morris and several of his officers and crew were ashore at the time, and Lieutenant Porter, the senior officer left in the Florida, came aboard the Wachusett with sixty-nine officers and men. A hawser was carried to the surrendered cruiser, and she was towed out of the harbor. The Wachusett had three men slightly wounded —the only casualities in the engagement.
In the protest of Collins’ action made by the Brazilian government, it was claimed that immediately after the Wachusett opened fire an officer was sent from the Brazilian corvette to inform Collins that the forts and vessels would fire upon him if he persisted in attacking the Florida. The capture having already been made, the Wachusett’s officer of the deck agreeably promised to desist from further gunfire. The corvette’s boat then returned, the Brazilian captain fired a gun to “ratify his intimation,” as he expressed it, and all was quiet again.
As the Wachusett steamed out of the harbor with her prize, the Brazilians made a pro forma demonstration without stopping the two ships, and the latter proceeded to Hampton Roads. Here the Florida was sunk, according to the official statement of the United States Navy Department through “an unforeseen accident” when she collided with an army transport.
The capture of the Florida was a deliberate violation of the rights of a neutral. In the words of the Secretary of State, it was “an unauthorized, unlawful, and indefensible exercise of the naval force of the United States within a foreign country, in defiance of its established and duly recognized government.”
However, the action of Collins met with approval and satisfaction throughout the North, in spite of official utterances; for the slight regard neutrals had shown for their obligations toward the United States, and the use of their own territories which they had permitted to the Confederate cruisers had roused a storm of indignation.
Commander Collins refers to the previous conduct of Brazil to justify his action, when he says in his report:
I thought it probable the Brazilian authorities would forbear to interfere, as they had done at Fernando de Noronha, when the rebel steamer Alabama was permitted to take three United States merchant ships into the anchorage, and to take coal from one of them while lying within musket shot of the fort; and afterward to set on fire those unarmed vessels. I regret, however, to state that they fired three shotted guns at us, while we were towing the Florida out.
What the Brazilian vessels should have done was to engage the Wachusett and prevent the capture. What they tried to do, apparently, was to pursue a combined course of action and inaction, so that their government would avoid trouble with either belligerent. It is clear that they did not propose to engage the Wachusett; but at the same time they did enough to make a diplomatic defense in case the Confederacy should ever be in a position to call their government to account.
There are few absolute principles, but still there are some. When you try to lay down a principle concerning war, at once a great number of officers, thinking they are solving the question, exclaim: “Everything depends upon circumstances, you must sail according to the wind.” But if you do not know beforehand what arrangement of sail agrees with what wind and what course, how can you sail according to the wind?—Bugeaud.