Believing she was threatened with rape, a Maine woman turned the tables on her Confederate captors one dark night in the Caribbean in early January ’63.
That month found the 233-ton brig J.P. Ellicott (out of Bucksport) sailing from Boston to Cienfuegos in Cuba to pick up cargo. Aboard the two-masted ship were some crewmen; its master, Captain A. (Alfred) Devereaux*, his wife Augusta**, and the first mate and his wife.
Alfred would have been 26 or 27, Augusta 22 or 23. Despite extensive research, I cannot identify the first mate and his wife.
As the J.P. Ellicott sailed at latitude 28° 12″ north and longitude 68° 55″ west on Saturday, January 10, 1863, Devereaux noticed an American-flagged schooner approaching his ship. “Fore-and-aft rigged,” the 150-ton schooner “carries gaff-topsails and staysails, and is pretty well found aloft,” the Boston Traveler reported weeks later.
The schooner was “almost flat upon the floor, has sharp ends, and off the wind sails very fast, but close-hauled, having little depth of keel, and not being coppered, she is not weatherly,” the paper noted.
A Confederate flag suddenly replaced the American flag on the approaching schooner. Both ships hove to as the Confederate captain hailed the J.P. Ellicott; “stand by for boarding” would adequately paraphrase what the Southern sailor hollered.
Devereaux quickly noticed the enemy ship’s armament: a “rifled 34-pounder” mounted “amidships” and two 12-pounders, mounted “one on each side,” according to the Boston Traveler.
A boat filled with armed sailors pulled from the Confederate ship to the J.P. Ellicott. An officer accompanied the boarding party; he probably was not a Confederate Navy lieutenant named Gray, later identified as the officer who boarded the Massachusetts schooner Hanover off Haiti on January 30.
Described by the Hanover’s master as “a mere boy, a Southerner … who appeared to be ill at ease at the business in which he was engaged; he was quite courteous,” Gray definitely would not have precipitated what happened next aboard the J.P. Ellicott.
The Southern officer was almost certainly Gilbert Hay, a native Scot. He previously commanded the CSS Beauregard, a Confederate privateer captured earlier in the war by a Union warship.
The Confederate sailors packed Alfred and Augusta Devereaux, the first mate, and the crewmen off to the Confederate schooner, the CSS Retribution of Captain Vernon Locke, born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. He had “a crew of 12 beach-combers, principally British subjects or escaped convicts,” the Boston Traveler indicated.
Why the wife of the first mate was left aboard the J.P. Ellicott is not known; such behavior was forbidden by the rules of naval warfare. “Mrs. First Mate,” as we will call her, was kept aboard the brig by Hay; over on the Retribution, Vernon Locke clapped her husband, Alfred Devereaux, and the brig’s crewmen in irons.
Locke apparently extended some courtesy to Augusta Devereaux.
Surely Alfred Devereaux and his first mate vigorously protested the exclusion of the mate’s wife; complicit in Hay’s decision, Locke was responsible for the safety of the frightened woman.
Locke assigned Hay as prize master aboard the J.P. Ellicott; with Hay went John Gilbert as mate and five sailors, “who were mostly, if not all, negroes from [Danish] St. Thomas,” according to the Ellsworth American.
Locke and the Retribution had appeared earlier in the month at St. Thomas, to be joined one night by the laden Confederate schooner Dixie. Crewmen aboard the Retribution transferred cannons and ammunition to the Dixie after dark, and both vessels soon exited the harbor, only to meet “at the island of Blanquilla, in latitude 11° 52´ N., longitude 64° 41´ W,” U.S. Navy Commander Edward T. Nichols soon informed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
The cannons and ammunition were moved from the Dixie to the Retribution, which went off to capture Yankee ships, “and the Dixie sailed, supposed for Turk’s Island for salt, thence to a Southern port,” Nichols reported.
Before night fell upon the Retribution and the captured J.P. Ellicott, Locke ordered Hay to stay in sight during the night; on Sunday, Locke would give him new orders as to what to do with the Maine brig.
As the sun set, the situation for Mrs. First Mate went from bad to worse aboard the J.P. Ellicott. Hay and Gilbert apparently expressed what they would like (or planned) to do with her; one later historical reference claims, without citation, that she was raped. Something horrible did happen or was about to happen to that brave woman after darkness settled over the two ships.
“This woman had cause to fear bad usage at the hands of the prize-master and his mate,” Yankee newspapers soon reported. The phrase “bad usage” was a polite period reference to rape.
To head off a potential assault, Mrs. First Mate lulled Hay and Gilbert into sharing liquor with her, probably with the trio seated at the table in the captain’s cabin aboard the J.P. Ellicott. The scene would have been remarkable to behold: In a low-ceiling cabin poorly lit by swaying lanterns, a frightened, but clear-thinking Maine woman plied the alcohol to the scurvy pirate scum.
The lure of the booze momentarily outweighed the lust of the flesh, hoped Mrs. First Mate, who probably kept the small talk focused on Hay, Gilbert, the war, and the liquor rather than on herself.
She “managed to get them intoxicated”; with her captors passed out, the woman implored the five ordinary seamen “to make them prisoners, and to capture the vessel,” according to press accounts.
Being black, the sailors realized what would happen to them if the brig reached a Southern port. Mrs. First Mate “took iron handcuffs from her trunk,” and with the sailors’ help (especially that of Thomas Coin and John Wilson), “put the rebels in irons, and took possession of the vessel.”
When dawn broke on Sunday, an astonished Locke discovered the J.P. Ellicott had vanished in the night. An experienced blue-water traveler, Mrs. First Mate “had studied navigation on the voyage with her husband”; she set sail for Danish St. Thomas, “spoke to a French vessel which gave her the right course,” and sailed into St. Thomas around suppertime on Sunday, January 18.
After the brig anchored well offshore, Mrs. First Mate sent messages to United States Consul John T. Edgar and to Commander Nichols, whose warship, USS Alabama, was moored in the harbor. With some armed sailors, Nichols and Edgar boiled aboard the brig, got the facts from her unusual skipper and crew, and left “an officer and four armed men in charge” for the night.
Edgar met with the Danish governor before bringing the J.P. Ellicott into the harbor on Monday, January 19. Mrs. First Mate turned over the brig to Edgar, and Nichols yanked Hay, Gilbert, and the five black sailors aboard his warship.
Nichols said little about Mrs. First Mate in his report, but “I would respectfully recommend the five [black] men composing the crew [of the J.P. Ellicott] to the clemency of his Excellency the President of the United States,” he told Welles.
And so Mrs. First Mate passed into history, but not before Union newspapers proclaimed her “a Yankee Heroine” and stressed, “Vessel recaptured from Rebel Pirates by a Maine woman.”
The J.P. Ellicott survived the war. Under Captain Jonathan Bray, the brig was carrying lumber from Bangor to Port-au-Prince in Haiti when dismasted during the Great Hurricane of 1866. The brig wrecked on a reef outside Harbour Island, but the entire crew was saved.
*The exact identity of A. Devereaux was a bit mysterious until I started researching this tale. Newspaper accounts and an Official Records listing identify the skipper of the J.P. Ellicott as Captain. A. Devereaux. The 1860 U.S. Census identifies 22-year-old sailor Augustus R. Devereaux as living in Penobscot with his parents, Reuben and Ursula, sister, and two brothers. Augustus seems too young to have the experience to be entrusted with a valuable brig like the J.P. Ellicott.
**One online source, Civil War Talks (http://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-navy-had-a-few-female-sailors-too.89746/), identifies the wife of the Ellicott’s master as Augusta.
The 1870 census identifies 34-year-old Alfred Devereaux (a ship’s master) and his 30-year-old wife, Augusta, as living in Bucksport with their 4-year-old daughter, Jennie. Also living in Bucksport is 32-year-old sailor Charles Devereaux, his 26-year-old wife Abbie, and their 2-year-old daughter Mabel. The Deverauxs may have been related; all six people are listed as being born in Maine.
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Sources: Ellsworth American, February 27, 1863; Boston Traveler, March 15, 1863; Washington Republican, reprinted in the New York Times on March 1, 1863; report of Commander Edward T. Nichols, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 2, pp. 65-66; OR, Series I, Vol. 1, pp. 603-604.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.