Marauders of the Sea, Confederate Merchant Raiders During the American Civil War
CSS Sumter. 1861-1862. Captain Raphael Semmes
This ship was a barque rigged steamer of but 437 tons, having a length of 184 feet, her beam, 30 feet, and she drew only 12 feet of water. In trials she made about 9 knots, and coal bunkers were fitted to enable her to steam for 8 days.
She had belonged to Mc Connell of New Orleans, and had been used to ferry both passengers and freight both ways, on the run from New Orleans/Havana.
Sumter was now transformed into a formidible fighting ship for her size, an 8 inch pivot gun was fitted, plus 4 by 32 pounders available in a broadside.
Semmes quickly went about choosing his crew of 22 Officers, 72 Seamen and 20 Marines, and we find him reporting by letter, in the following terms, to the order he had received from his Secretary of the Navy:
CSS Sumter’s break out.
From trials that Semmes had conducted with his new command, he knew that 9 knots was the top speed he might expect to achieve, whilst Niagra had at least a 2 knot advantage. How was he to break out of this straight jacket? He could not attempt to fight his way out into the open sea, the opposing fire power available was overwhelming, he would be no match with his armament.
On the 18th. of June 1861, Sumter was navigated down the Mississippi River between Fort Jackson and Fort St.Philip, but Powhatan was waiting off S.W. Pass, and off Pass a L’Outre stood Brooklyn, both vessels blocking any free passage into the Gulf of Mexico.
Sumter had anchored between the two forts, and at sunset the Captain learned that Powhatan was no longer blocking his exit, reportedly she was off chasing two ships. The anchor was recovered, and the ship steamed towards the place where the Mississipi River opens into three separate segments known as the Head of the Passes. A pilot could not be obtained, and by morning his lookouts told their Captain that the Union block ship Powhatan was once more in position, foiling the fuming Southerner, anxious to break free.
Semmes sent off one of his officers to demand from the Pilot’s association that they send three or four Pilots to his ship, Lieutenant Stribling returned with several not very happy Pilots, one was selected.
Over the next 9 days, a cat and mouse exercise took place, the Unionists putting a Telegraph Station out of action, as they thought it was reporting the movements of their blockading ships, then Semmes removed the lighting equipment from a number of lighthouses. All this endeavour may have filled in the days, but did little to enable the Confederate Cruiser to escape.
It seems strange that the Union ships made no concerted effort to just steam up to the Sumter and attack her, they were in force, and had vastly superior fire power.
At last, on the 29th. of June, Brooklyn was "Nowhere to be seen."
Semmes rushed his ship down the channel, alas, the report was false, Brooklyn was anchored in her usual station just outside the bar.
The next morning, Sumter took aboard fresh provisions and coal delivered by a river boat, and stopped close to the pilot’s station, a small boat rowed alongside by a fisherman reported the good news that Brooklyn was off station running down a sailing ship.
Semmes commenced his run, at the last minute the Pilot lost his nerve, saying he did not have any knowledge about the bar at the Pass a L’Outre, surely a ploy on his part, probably not wanting to be accused by Unionists, on his return, of aiding the escape to sea of a Confederate vessel.
Semmes was about to risk all, and steer for the bar at full speed, when a boat manned by four strong young negroes, with a young Pilot aboard, came alongside.
Sumter gathered speed, aided by a swift current and safely crossed the bar, easing just long enough to disembark this intrepid Pilot.
Finally, the first Confederate Cruiser was finally free and at sea.
Although Brooklyn soon gave chase and at one stage looked as if she would overhaul Sumter, the Rebel ship was able to ensure her pursuer was deprived of the prevailing wind. Her combined screw and sails allowed her to slowly draw ahead, and the Union ship gave up her pursuit.
Semmes took his Raider south towards Cuba, and on the 3rd. of July sighted the Union ship Golden Rocket of 607 tons out of Maine, her Captain most suprised to find himself, his crew, and his ship, the first victim of a Confederate Cruiser. The crew were taken aboard Sumter, and a prize crew soon prepared their capture to be destroyed by fire. One of Semmes’s Officers Lieutenant John Kell described their feelings as they torched this ship:
Early the next morning two more sailing ships were sighted, a blank shot from a 32 pounder gun brought them smartly to a stop, but the neutral cargo for these two brigs, Machias and Cuba saved them from burning. With prize crews on board they were taken under tow towards the Cuban port of Cienfuegos, France under a Proclamations of Neutrality had stopped belligerants from bringing prizes into French ports, but to date Spain had not made up her mind in this regard. By International law, cargoes remained the property of any neutral owners, but their ships were claimed as prizes by their captors.
Whilst under tow, the reduced speed of Sumter forced the cutting of the tow lines, and Semmes told the captured vessels to follow him into port, but under darkness the crew of Cuba overcame the small prize crew to reclaim their ship, and she was gone, no where to be seen.
When close to Cienfuegos, two more prizes were taken, sugar traders Albert Adams and Ben Dunning, again neutrality saved their destruction.
As Semmes was sheperding his three prizes into port, a tug with three ships in tow, all flying American flags came into sight, he now intended to add these ships to his prize list, just as soon as they were clear of Spanish jurisdiction.
When the Pilot joined Sumter, imagine his suprise, when Semmes informed him that he would first capture the three ships just towed down to the ocean by the tug, and then he wished to be Piloted into port, but by then with six prize ships in hand. The new vessels were Louisa Kilham from Boston, Naiad ex New York, and West Wind of Westerly, Rhode Island.
When trying to enter the harbour with his captured brood, a fort at the entrance opened fire with muskets, the Confederate Flag not being recognised, and being thought to be flying from a Pirate ship. All was soon sorted out and Semmes given approval to enter port.
The local Governor referred the request of Semmes for these prizes to be retained by the Confederate States to Madrid. Of course in those times, all mail travelled by sea, and took weeks to arrive, then the matter in hand needed study, and any decision in turn, took weeks to arrive back at its point of origin.
When the Governor of Cientfuegos was ducking giving Semmes a straight answer to his request, he was unaware that his Queen back in Spain had, on the 17th. of June, already decided to take the same stance on neutrality as had France and Great Britain.
Semmes took on 100 tons of coal, and on the 7th. of July was again at sea.
His first few days at sea had resulted in a flurry of activity and success, but in the end all this effort for little material gain.
It was much later before Semmes learned that Spain had returned his captured prizes to their owners, indicating these ships were taken inside Spanish territorial waters. The Captain of Sumter was furious at this decision, he hoped that when the Southern States were victorious, they would annex Cuba and divide it into a further two new Confederate States, but in hindsight, we know that was never to be.
He had however kept all the crews from his prizes on board, reasoning that without their crews, the Union ships, whatever their fate, would remain idle in Cuba for a long time to come.
The Cuba, after overthrowing the Sumter prize crew had reached New York, here they were commited on a charge of piracy, but subsequently all were exchanged.
After a number of fruitless days at sea Semmes headed for Curacao, although an experienced sailor, like the famous British Admiral Lord Nelson, the Capain of Sumter suffered the agony of sea sickness, which at times threatened to lay him low, but he was determined to pursue his life at sea for the Confederate cause.
Off Curacao, as it was dark, the Pilot refused to enter port until daylight, in the meantime on shore, the US Consul was putting pressure on the Dutch Governor to refuse Sumter approval to enter port. His entreaties proved successful, as Semmes had but one day’s coal available, he sent his Lieutenant Chapman ashore asking for his rights as a belligerent under International Law. In the meantime, to hasten a favourable reply, Semmes indulged in a spot of target practice, and fired off a few shells, soon his boat was on it’s way back to the ship, and he was allowed to enter port.
A few days in port allowed his ship to refit, and load 115 tons of excellent British coal.
A New York schooner of but 180 tons, Abbey Bradford, became the Raider’s next victim, she was towed into Puerto Cabello on the 26th. of July, but the Union Consul wielded too much influence here, and Semmes took his latest capture off to sea once more. He placed his quartermaster in charge of this prize, ordering him to sail her back to New Orleans and seek further orders from Commodore Rousseau, he also gave him a report on his activities to deliver to Secretary Mallory.
It was not to be, off the Louisana coast, the Union USS Powhatan caught up with Abbey Bradford, and her despatches revealing the future plans of Sumter, and the Union ship promptly set off to try and intercept the Confederate vessel.
Semmes at this stage was unaware that Spain had now proclaimed her neutrality, so Hicks had to leave immediately, on clearing the port, he thought a Spanish ship was a Union warship, and ran his new command aground to avoid capture, an ignominious end to his short period in command, he and his crew leaving the wreck and rowing back into Cienfuegos.
By the 30th. of July, Sumter had arrived at Trinidad, although the British were friendly, the matter of providing coal became a subject of debate, when it was forthcoming, the inferior quality gave her engineers great problems, and it was the 5th. of August before the Rebel ship was again at sea.
The Northern authorities added the 13 gun steamship Keystone State to USS Powhatan, with orders to track down Sumter and destroy her.
The Northern Light carrying $2 million in gold would soon be passing through waters in which the Confederate ship was known to be operating, and the Union could not allow her to be captured.
Powhatan was an immense gobbler of steaming coal, whereas Sumter used 100 tons of the precious mineral, the Union ship consumed 700 tons, her boilers were showing the strain, forcing her Captain, David Porter to give up his chase.
By the 6th. of August, Sumter was in the Atlantic, and on the 15th. he entered the French penal colony at Cayenne, but they insisted on a five day quarantine wait before allowing any crew member to land, the local Union Consul held sway here,and Semmes was informed that coal was not available and his ship and crew were not welcome.
Off he went making for Dutch Guiana, and anchored on the 18th. of August at the entrance of the Surinam River.
Against the protests of the American Consul, the Dutch offered the Raider their hospitality, including coaling her, by the 29th. of August Sumter was again at sea setting a course for Brazil.
For the past four weeks, Semmes had achieved little, and on the 6th. of September, he risked not taking a pilot, and took his vessel over the shoals at the entrance to Sao Luis de Maranhao, Brazil. All appeared to be be fine, but his ship suddenly came to an abrupt stop, aground on a sand bank, with the help of a strongly running tide, and the engines set astern at full bore, the ship slowly slipped into deeper and safe waters. They entered port, and anchored off Sao Luis, the locals were friendly, and all supplies needed were loaded on board.
Off they sailed again on the 15th. of September, but four days ahead of Powatan who was desperately trying to catch the Raider to dispose of her.
It was not until the 25th. of the month that at last, the monotony was broken by sighting a sail, it proved to be Joseph Park a 244 ton Brigatine ex Boston, but she was in ballast, the known presence of Sumter in the general area had precluded the availability of a cargo, potential shippers wary of losing their shipped goods to the Raider.
Semmes decided to retain this vessel as a lookout for him, and placed Lieutenant Evans in command, but after another four days of inactivity, the prize crew were taken back onboard Sumter, and after some target practice for his gun’s crews, the prize was disposed of by fire.
Another month was spent drifting around in the doldrums, and finally on the 27th. of October, a 200 ton schooner Daniel Towbridge was overtaken. To everyone’s delight, this ship was crammed full of goodies, top quality pork, beef, hams, cheese flour, and over three days she was stripped bare, and then burnt.
Although over more than six weeks, Sumter had stopped 15 neutral ships and only despatched two Union ships, there was little doubt that her presence threatening the trade routes was having a great effect on drying up the activity of the American Merchant Marine. Ships could not find cargoes, insurance rates had soared, and to avoid capture, Union vessels were forced to take long detours to try and avoid the waiting arms of Sumter.
For a single ship, she was having a disproportionate effect on strangling American trade, and Semmes and the Southern cause could be well pleased with this result.
By the 9th. of November we find Sumter at French Martinque, where the Governor goes against the wishes of the American Consul and offers coaling and repair facilities to the tired Raider.
Word of Sumter at Martinique had reached St.Thomas, although a free port, it was reputed to act as a base for Union warships, and on the 14th. of November the 8 gun steam sloop USS Iroquois took up a position at the northern end of Martinique. Trying to fool Semmes, the Union Captain, Commander James Palmer closed his gun ports, and flew a Danish flag. However, the Confederate sailor was too experienced, he could pick the lines of a warship any day, and made the comment: “The very disguise only made the cheat more apparent.”
Palmer sailed his ship into the harbour, but did not anchor, by so doing he would under International Law have needed to wait 24 hours before going off to sea again, he consulted his Consul, and steamed off again, taking up a blocking position about two miles from the harbour entrance.
Now Palmer approached Sumter again, the latter going to action stations, prepared to “Rebel Boarders.” but the Union ship merely lay close by their quarter, this movement was repeated several times over the dark hours of the night.
The French Governor now entered this charade, he sent off his steam warship Acheron, ordering Palmer to either anchor in the harbour, or to proceed to sea outside the 3 mile limit, and Palmer chose the latter option.
Semmes sent regular protests off to the French Governor about these breaches of French neutrality by Palmer, who in turn knew that he could not afford to let Sumter slip away.
The local citizenry gathered at sightseeing points not wishing to miss any ensuing battle, and bets were offered and taken on a possible outcome.
Anchored close to Sumter was an American merchant ship, which was set up to telegraph any move made by Semmes to the waiting Palmer.
On the 23rd. of November Semmes was ready to chance his hand, and his ship, they quietly raised the bow anchor, cut the stern cables, slowly steaming ahead, passing close to the anchored French Acheron. The American Merchant Ship showed two red lights at her masthead, one above the other, indicating Sumter was under way steaming south.
A large towering cliff at the southern end of the town threw a long shadow well into the bay, Semmes navigated his ship hugging the southern shoreline, and could see Iroquois under way, quickly going to the spot where Palmer estimated the two ships would meet. At the crucial moment Semmes altered course to double back to the northern end of Martinque, at this time his engines started to overheat, and he was forced to lay low for 20 minutes.
Semmes was able to sneak out to sea, and by the following morning had put 150 miles between himself and his enemy.
Secretary Welles back in Washington was furious when he got the news of Sumter’s escape, his first reaction was to dismiss Palmer from his command, but on reflection, he was reinstated four months later, and over the length of the war was promoted to Captain, and then to Commodore. But on that 23rd. of November 1861, Semmes had made a complete fool of him!
Sumter was now set on a course to take her across the Atlantic to Europe, he came across the 1,083 ton Montmorenci loaded with coal for St.Thomas, but this load was covered and protected by British Certification, and Semmes was stopped from burning her by neutrality.
He issued a ransom bond of $20,000, the ship value, and not covering her neutral cargo, and released the vessel, if the Confederates were successful in gaining independence, then the value of this bond would be added as prize money to be shared out amongst the crew members.
Soon another ship was stopped, the American 121 ton schooner Arcade, her cargo only barrel staves, she was soon burned.
Early in December some hundreds of miles South East of Bermuda Sumter came upon the 1,100 ton Vigilant, practically a new vessel out of Bath in Maine, she had newspapers from New York on board, they ironically reported that Sumter was bailed up at Martinique by USS Iroquois, very soon the American was a blazing wreck.
Semmes now shaped a course for Cadiz in Spain, and on the 8th. of December came upon a bark which he deduced was a whaling vessel, so he hoisted the American flag, to find his quarry did likewise. This was Eben Lodge, on her way to whaling areas in the Pacific Ocean, and was suprised to find she was now confronted by a Confederate Cruiser. Her crew of 22 were removed as well as a quantity of warm clothing, very much in demand by Sumter’s crew, who were ill equipped to cope with the vagaries of an Atlantic winter.
The whaling vessel was now burned, her prisoners now brought the total on board Sumter to 43, space was at a premium, but amongst the captive’s crew were ten negroes, and these were set free, to join the Cruiser’s company.
Semmes, with so many prisoners on board his ship was worried about security, he could ill afford an insurrection from them, and was forced to place half of them in single wrist irons, then on the following day they would be released, whilst it became the turn of the second half of the prisoners to don the single wrist irons.
The small Cruiser now had to cope with a raging Atlantic storm, at one stage the Captain was called by his Quartermaster and informed that:
But by the time he struggled on deck, he found that the trusted Lieutenant Kell, had it all in hand, and a barrier from planks were already in position.
I can feel for Captain Semmes and his crew facing an Atlantic gale in their small ship, largely dependent upon her sails for locomotive power, and these often a hindrance in bad weather and raging winds.
During 1940/1941 in WW2, I had experienced the blunt end of the Atlantic Ocean and it’s terrors during winter, and I was serving in a large heavy cruiser, HMAS Australia, that could be frightening enough, let alone in a relatively tiny sailing ship.
Almost at year’s end, and sailing in an area where many of the world’s ships passed through as they made their journey to and from Europe, Semmes kept his sailors busy inspecting cargo manifests as they boarded ship after ship. They climbed aboard 19 different ships, but not a single American vessel was boarded. Recent British newspapers provided intelligence that a fellow Confederate Cruiser CSS Nashville, was making it’s presence felt in the English Channel, and Sumter did not feel she was on her own in these foreign waters.
The storm had taken it’s toll, and the leak threatened the safety of the ship, fuel for bit four more days remained, and Sumter still had about 500 miles between them and Cadiz to negotiate.
New Year’s day for 1862 had come and gone before Cadiz was raised on the 4th. of January.
Once again we find the influence of the US Consul being brought to bear on Spanish authorities, the Military Governor pursuaded to grant Semmes a meagre 24 hour stay in port.
Semmes needed all his skills as a letter writer to plead his case for his rights as a belligerent, indicating that repairs were needed to his ship, and he was forced to “Decline obedience to the order which I have received until the necessary repairs can be made.” He added grist to his mill, twisting the arm of the American Consul by reminding the Military Governor:
This letter had the desired effect, and Sumter was given permission to stay, and on the 12th. of January consent to limited repairs was given by the government.
However, the local authority would not allow any boiler repairs to be made, and eight crew members deserted, and no protest by Semmes could move the locals to assist with getting them back to the Confederate ship.
Sumter sailed from Cadiz bound for Gibraltar, where she was hopeful of more favourable treatment at this British owned base, sitting at it’s strategic position guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean.
Just off the Gibraltar light, were a number of ships waiting for suitable winds which would enable them to sail off into the Atlantic, one, the 322 ton American bark Neapolitan had on board, 50 tons of sulphur, which Semmes deduced would be used to assist in manufacturing gun powder. Although her Captain protested that his ship had immunity from any Confederate raider, Semmes destroyed this ship by fire anyway.
The small bark Investigator, hailing from Maine and carrying iron ore, was desperately seeking to reach safety inside the 3 mile limit, was hampered by light winds, and lost her battle, being forced to surrender.
This cargo was carried under a Britsh seal forcing Semmes to put the ship under a ransom bond, but he only collected $51 from her Captain, and the raider’s pay master was almost out of cash with which to pay the crew.
Sumter now entered Gibraltar and anchored, not withstanding his provocative act of torching Investigator, when Semmes called on the Port Admiral, he was received graciously, and the Governor General placed the dockyard facilities at his disposal.
Because of lack of funds, we find Semmes lamenting his ability to have swept through the Mediterranean to clean out American ships, it took 16 days for adequate funds to be cleared for his use, and the boilers needed time for repairs to be made.
Because of the time ticking away whilst Sumter was holed up at Gibraltar, the Union Navy were able to rally two fast armed screw ships to the area, Kearsarge and Tuscarora. One waited in the bay, and the other squatted in a Spanish anchorage adjacent to Gibraltar, both watching and waiting patiently for Semmes to make a move. At the moment they had Sumter effectively bottled up in Gibraltar, and they formed the cork in this bottle.
The noose tightened further with the arrival of USS Ino plus a sailing sloop of war Constellation, and to add further to this blockade, three warships joined the throng.
The only real benefit to the Confederate cause was the fact that one small rebel ship was effectively tying up 7 Union warships, that might well have been better employed in pursuing other objectives for the Unionists.
A Spanish Lieutenant called on Semmes to register his Government’s protest about the burning of Neapolitan within Spain’s territorial waters, it became apparent the complaint had emanated from charges made by the US Consul at Gibraltar.
Semmes shrugged off the complaint, the ship’s fate was already fact, if they felt the need: “The Spanish Government should address any complaint to the Confederate Government.”
Semmes could not buy coal, and now the British stopped installation of new machinery, without coal, Sumter could not escape, even if she might elude the 7 Union ships waiting like a pack of maraudering wolves outside the British base.
The ship’s Paymaster together with Tom Tunstall, a Southerner and a former US Consul at Cadiz went off in a French packet, Villa de Malaga, she traded around ports in the Mediterranean, and they hoped to buy coal at Cadiz and tranship it back to Sumter at Gibraltar. Whilst this French ship was docked at Tangier, the two coal buyers went ashore to view the local sights, Moroccan soldiers took them prisoner. It was later learned that the US Consul in Tangier was behind this act, the arms of various US Consuls around the world were indeed long, and acted on behalf of their country with great zeal.
The two prisoners were shackled in irons, and found themselves taken aboard USS Ino, they were trans shipped to a merchant vessel Harvest Home, transported to the US and put in prison in Fort Warren. It took some time for them to get parole as prisoners of war.
This rather bizarre action, later resulted in James De Long, the Consul for the US in Morocco being removed from his position there.
Semmes, sitting at Gibraltar, with his ship still without coal, was stymied, he decided he could not force an escape, Sumter also had corroded boilers, so her Captain left a small crew aboard, abandoned his command, and left for London with some of his fellow Officers. The remainder of the crew were paid off, Sumter sat, anchored at Gibraltar for another six months, still tying up Union ships that were assigned to keep tabs on her.
Britain did not intern Sumter and her crew, which no doubt she should have done under International law, but it suited them to cause the greatest aggravation to the Union Merchant Fleet, and so weaken America’s grip on world maritime commerce, which had proven a real threat to the dominance previously held by the British Mercantile Marine.
Semmes sailed from England for home, but on reaching Nassau he was promoted to Captain, and ordered to return to England and take over command of CSS Alabama, and we will hear much more of his exploits in that ship in due course.
But back to his old command, Sumter still languishing at Gibraltar, by now her presence there was somewhat of a problem for the local auuthorities. In December of 1862, the ship was auctioned, and $19,500 was paid for her by a Liverpool Merchant, who renamed the ship Gibraltar. Now flying a British flag she had gained immunity from attack by the waiting Union ships, and sailed away in February 1863 to refit in Liverpool.
Gibraltar managed to beat the blockade to enter Wilmington North Carolina, in July, but it was not until the following December loaded with cotton she was able to get to sea once more, sailing for Liverpool.
Post Civil War, the US government pleaded before the Admiralty Court to be awarded the ship as a prize, but lost to her owners, the ship wrote her own last chapter by foundering in a gale in the North Sea.
Although Sumter did not achieve spectacular success, capturing 18 ships, and burning but 7 of them, she had served her fledgling nation well, acting as a training ground for Raphael Semmes, who cut his teeth in her for the relentless struggle at sea against a superior foe.
Together they started the fear campaign for US ship owners, and they tied up Union warships forcing them to leave their main task of blockade against Confederate ports.
Captain James Dunwoody Bulloch. Confederate Agent in Great Britain.
He was knowledgeable about Naval ships, he had supervised the construction of 2 ships that he was to command, he had commerce and shipping business acumen.
In short, a well rounded person in all aspects of being a professional seaman, when the Civil War erupted on the 13th of April 1861, Bulloch offered his services to the Confederates. At this time he was in command of a United States mail steamer Bienville, and insisted that he must first sail his ship back to her New York owners.
On reaching that port, Bulloch found a message from the Confederate Attorney General, “Requesting he come to Montgomery without delay.”
Honouring his promise, Bulloch returned Bienville to New York, and promptly set off for the south to arrive in Montgomery on the 7th. of May.
Mallory not losing any time, asked Bulloch the very next morning if he would be prepared to go to Europe on Confederate business. His quick response was:
Quite an understatement, he had a great future in New York, his home was there, and reportedly he had only recently married.
Bulloch had a half sister Martha, whose new baby Theodore, he used to visit, this nephew, when grown up, became the 26th. President of the United States.
Mallory appointed James Bulloch, the Confederate Naval Agent in Great Britain, where he arrived on the 6th. of June 1861, his task to buy, or contract for the building of suitable ships for the Confederate Navy, to have them fitted out, crewed and sailed to defeat any Union move to stop them.
His choice as Naval Agent was an inspired one, he achieved more for the Southern cause than probably any other man serving abroad.