Naval Operations Along the Coast and at Sea

The new Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Sumter under Captain Raphael Semmes had escaped the Federal blockade on June 30 to begin the Confederacy’s first major raid on U.S. commercial shipping. Three days later, she captured her first prize: the 700-ton bark Golden Rocket off the coast of Cuba. The Sumter brought the vessel to Cienfuegos, Cuba. On the 6th, the Sumter brought seven more prizes to Cienfuegos: the Cuba, Machia, Ben Dunning, Albert Adams, Niad, West Wind, and Lewis Kilham.

Since Cuba was a Spanish colony at the time, Semmes informed the Spanish officials at Cienfuegos that he had brought his prizes there “with the expectation that Spain will extend to cruisers of the Confederate States the same friendly reception that in similar circumstances he would extend to the cruisers of the enemy…” However, the Spanish government later released the captured ships on the grounds that Spain had not recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation.

The C.S.S. Sumter | Image Credit: Wikipedia

This month, the Federals continued working to strengthen their blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but they still had less than 40 vessels to cover 189 Confederate ports along a 3,549-mile coastline. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens expressed confidence that “in some way or other (the blockade will) be raised, or there will be revolution in Europe… Our cotton is… the tremendous lever by which we can work our destiny.”

The U.S.S. South Carolina under Commander James Alden began blockading duty off the important port of Galveston, Texas. On the 4th, the South Carolina seized the Confederate blockade-runners Shark, Venus, Ann Ryan, McCanfield, Louisa, and Dart. At the vital port of Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate privateer Petrel ran the blockade and made it out to sea. North of Charleston, the U.S.S. Daylight under Commander Samuel Lockwood began blockading duty off Wilmington, North Carolina, another key port.

Meanwhile, the Federal Navy Blockade Strategy Board recommended to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that the navy purchase old vessels weighing at least 250 tons each, load them with heavy stones, and sink these “stone fleets” to block southern waterways. The idea was based on Confederates who had sunk four hulks in Charleston’s Main Ship Channel on January 11, after the merchant vessel Star of the West tried provisioning Fort Sumter.

The Board justified the plan by reiterating the importance of cutting off Confederate shipping. Welles approved, and 25 vessels were filled with 7,500 tons of stone. These vessels were to be manned by specially recruited captains, seamen, and mates. The Board also proposed dividing the Atlantic Blockading Squadron into a North and South Atlantic Squadron, with the division between North and South Carolina.

As the C.S.S. Sumter threatened Federal shipping and the Federal blockade threatened Confederate commerce, Confederate privateers operated along the Atlantic coast. These vessels operated mainly from Hatteras Inlet, where they could be hidden by the Outer Banks. The inlet was protected by two forts, from which Confederate guns could drive off any Federal pursuers. The Confederate engineer at the forts declared, “I now consider this inlet secure against any attempt of the enemy to enter it.”

The most prominent privateer was the Jefferson Davis, under Commander Walter W. Smith. The Davis seized the brig John Welsh and the merchant schooner Enchantress off southern Delaware. The Confederates seized five crewmen and $13,000 worth of cargo. This was an important event because of the Federal government’s strong opposition to Confederate privateering on the high seas.

Just over two weeks later, the U.S.S. Albatross captured the newly Confederate-manned Enchantress off Hatteras Inlet. The Enchantress was brought to North Carolina; the Confederates were placed in irons and transported to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to be prosecuted for piracy, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s policy against privateers. Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to Lincoln regarding this policy, specifically the treatment of the crew of the Savannah which had been captured in early June. He also issued a warning:

“A just regard to humanity and to the honor of this Government now requires me to state explicitly that painful as will be the necessity this Government will deal out to the prisoners held by it the same treatment and the same fate as shall be experienced by those captured on the Savannah; and if driven to the terrible necessity of retaliation by your execution of any of the officers or crew of the Savannah that retaliation will be extended so far as shall be requisite to secure the abandonment by you of a practice unknown to the warfare of civilized man, and so barbarous as to disgrace the nation which shall be guilty of inaugurating it… I now renew the proposition made to the commander of the blockading squadron to exchange for the prisoners taken on the Savannah an equal number of those now held by us according to rank.”

Neither Lincoln nor any member of his administration replied to this letter.

On the 7th, the Jefferson Davis moved northward and seized the schooner S.J. Waring some 150 miles off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The Confederates transferred the Waring’s charts, supplies, and quadrant to the Davis, along with Waring Captain Francis Smith, two mates, and two seamen. They left two seamen, a passenger, and a black steward named William Tilghman aboard the Waring, along with five unarmed crew members from the Davis. The Waring’s new Confederate captain ordered the U.S. flag lowered, shredded, and sewn into a Confederate flag. Tilghman vowed revenge for this insult.

His revenge came nine days later, when he took advantage of unwitting Confederate seamen on relief duty late at night by killing the Confederate captain and his first and second mate with an axe as they slept. The seamen quickly surrendered and were spared death by promising to bring Tilghman and his fellow Federals to a northern port. The Waring arrived in New York on the 22nd under Tilghman’s command. He received $6,000 for his efforts to retake the ship and became the first black hero of the war.


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