A Confederate “pirate” — as the Northern press deemed him — so detested abolitionists that he really enjoyed burning a ship from a state he equated with the anti-slavery Republican Party.
In spring 1861, Confederate Navy Commander Raphael Semmes received command of the CSS Sumter, a 473-ton, steam-powered merchant ship recently bought by the Confederate government. Semmes was to take the Sumter to sea and capture Yankee merchant ships.
As if the Union blockaders watching the Mississippi River passes did not annoy him sufficiently, the impatient Semmes experienced great frustration in simply getting the Sumter underway. “My patience is sorely tried by the New Orleans mechanics,” he rumbled on Thursday, May 30. They had not yet finished building water tanks for his ship, and other promised components had not yet arrived.
“Saturday, June 1, finds us not yet ready for sea,” Semmes muttered in the ship’s log that day. Not until Tuesday, June 18, “after many vexatious delays, I have been enabled to leave the city of New Orleans.”
Pursued by mosquitoes thriving in the heat and humidity, Semmes took on gunpowder at “the barracks magazine” and “steamed down the river” on a “night clear and beautiful.”
Between delays caused by Union blockaders and the reluctance of local pilots to guide the CSS Sumter through the passes, Semmes could not slip out of the Mississippi. Union sailors were aware of his ship’s proximity, and Semmes, via a guard boat and a Confederate privateer, kept an eye on the enemy ships.
At 10:30 a.m., Sunday, June 30, “a boatman pulled under our stern and informed us that the Brooklyn (a large Union warship) was no where to be seen, and that the pass was clear,” Semmes noted. The USS Brooklyn, which guarded Pass a l’Outre, had moved off to investigate a strange sail; “we immediately got underway and steamed down the pass,” according to Semmes.
Alerted by the black smoke rising from the Sumter’s boilers, the Brooklyn raced to catch Semmes and his ship. The Sumter burst out of the pass, and “a deeply exciting chase commenced,” observed Semmes, admitting that “I was for some time doubtful of my success.”
Both skippers poured on the steam as their ships steered north-northeast, then northeast by north, then northeast, and finally northeast by east. Her proximity startling Semmes, the Brooklyn suddenly popped out of a rain squall, but the Sumter gradually pulled away.
At 3:30 p.m. “the Brooklyn … gave up the chase,” Semmes said. He ordered his sailors into the rigging, led them in “three cheers for the Confederate flag,” and then led his officers in a wine toast to their escape.
And so “a hunting we will go” became Semmes’s theme as his ship steamed across the Gulf of Mexico toward Cuba, where Union merchant vessels called at various ports.
Dawn on Wednesday, July 3 broke cloudy, with a wind from the east to east-southeast “and some sea,” Semmes noted. Soon after 9 a.m., a lookout spotted “two sail nearly ahead … off Cape Corrientes” in Cuba.
He chased and caught both ships, the “first … a Spanish brig,” the second “the U.S. ship Golden Rocket, of Bangor, Me., in ballast.” Launched only three years earlier, the 690-ton Golden Rocket had evidently headed to the Cuban port of Cienfuegos to load sugar; the “ballast” carried aboard the ship was likely either granite paving stones or bricks made in Brewer. Either material could be sold in Spanish-held Cuba.
Semmes released the Spanish ship. Scouring the Golden Rocket, his sailors stole “some provisions and a few other articles for the use of the ship (Sumter)” and transferred the Bangor ship’s “master and crew” to the Confederate warship.
Then the Confederate sailors set the Golden Rocket afire around 10 p.m. The cloudy sky reflected the flames onto the water, and Semmes enjoyed the arson.
“Our first prize made a beautiful bonfire and we did not enjoy the spectacle the less because she was from the black Republican State of Maine,” chuckled Semmes, estimating his first victim “was worth from $30,000 to $40,000.”
The phrase “black Republican” referred to Abraham Lincoln, Hannibal Hamlin, and other members of the Republican party who wanted to abolish slavery. Semmes was so proslavery that he smeared Maine as 100-percent abolitionist.
The next day, the Sumter captured two more American merchant ships, including “the U.S. brigantine Machias, of the everlasting State of Maine,” Semmes noted. Both ships had sailed from Trinidad de Cuba “loaded with sugar and molasses, for English ports. Cargoes stated in the papers to be Spanish property.”
According to the laws of war, Semmes could not burn the ships. Hitching tow lines to both, he headed for Cienfuegos to dispose of his victims and their crews. Along the way he scooped up two more Yankee merchant ships.
Ultimately Semmes had to leave the Machias and his other three prizes at Cienfuegos, and Spanish officials released the ships after the CSS Sumter disappeared over the horizon.
Source: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.