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Guerrilla War on the High Seas

By Craig L. Symonds
1/2/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Confederate privateers and commerce raiders made life risky for Union shippers.

At 5 p.m. on September 4, 1862, U.S. Navy Commander George Preble, the senior officer of the blockading squadron off Mobile, Alabama, spotted a strange sail approaching from the southeast. It was flying the British Union Jack, but that meant little, since flying false colors was a common ruse. It seemed unlikely that this was a blockade runner, since it was still broad daylight and this vessel was making no effort to disguise its approach. Besides, it looked more like a warship than a merchantman.

When the vessel failed to respond to his signals, Preble closed on it in his flagship, Oneida, and hailed its deck. He got no reply, and the ship continued to steam on passively toward the entrance to the bay. Preble next fired a warning shot across its bow, but this did not elicit any response either. Concerned that it might be a Royal Navy warship, and unwilling to provoke an international incident, Preble fired two more warning shots before he finally fired for effect, his shells smashing into the hull and rigging of the ship. That, at least, provoked a response from the still-unidentified vessel: The British flag fluttered down. But the ship, actually the commerce raider CSS Florida, formerly known as Oreto, neither stopped nor fired back; as a frustrated Preble watched, it simply continued on toward Mobile Bay.

Preble was facing the consequences of a chain of events that began on April 17, 1861, five days after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, when Jefferson Davis invited “all those who may desire, by service in private armed vessels on the high seas, to aid this government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression” to apply for a “letter of marque.” Such a letter was literally a license to steal, for it authorized the person named to “subdue, seize and take any armed or unarmed vessel” of the enemy.

The French had pioneered this form of maritime economic warfare, and privateering was sometimes referred to by its French name, guerre de course, or war on commerce. All the expenses of fitting out a privateering ship and supplying it, as well as feeding and paying its crew, fell to the ship’s owner. Often privateer owners avoided the expense of paying a captain and a crew by making them junior partners in the enterprise. Typically in such cases the ship’s owner, often the captain, took half the proceeds from any prize as compensation for the expense of fitting out the ship. The officers split a quarter share, and the crew split the remaining fourth.

Davis’ privateer proposal was nothing new; the United States had effectively employed the tactic in two wars against Britain. But the announcement horrified Northern shippers and was very likely a factor in Abraham Lincoln’s decision to announce a blockade of the South two days later. Though the Declaration of Paris of 1856 had officially abolished privateering among civilized nations, the United States declined to sign the protocol because it had previously relied so heavily on privateering. Secretary of State William Seward tried to reverse that decision, but was told that while the United States was certainly welcome to accept the Declaration of Paris, its terms could not be applied ex post facto to the current war.

Seward let the matter drop, and he and Lincoln next adopted the position that while privateering might still be legal for nations that had not signed the Declaration of Paris, the Confederacy was not a real government, and therefore letters of marque issued in its name were invalid. Just as Britain had referred to American privateers during the Revolution as “pirates,” so did Lincoln declare that persons operating as privateers on behalf of the Confederacy would “be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy.” Very likely Lincoln hoped that his draconian declaration would act as a deterrent and prevent privateers from setting to sea, but that proved to be a vain hope.

But for all the panic it provoked, Confederate privateering soon played itself out. There were two reasons for this development.

The first was that privateers found it increasingly difficult to send their prizes into port, where they could be condemned and sold. On June 1, Britain announced that as part of its policy of strict neutrality, it would not allow prizes of either belligerent to be sent into its ports for condemnation. Other European powers soon followed suit, which meant that Confederate privateers had to send their prizes into a Confederate port rather than to Nassau, Bermuda or Havana. The waxing strength of the Union blockade along the Atlantic coast meant that sending prizes into Confederate ports was very risky. The prizes, after all, tended to be broad-beamed, sail-driven tubs with no turn of speed that were helpless against the faster, well-manned blockaders and were frequently recaptured.

The second reason privateering faded was there was more money to be made, and fewer risks, by blockade running. Many Confederate privateers quickly gave up on the notion of getting rich by raiding Union shipping and reconfigured themselves as blockade runners.

That was not the end of the Confederacy’s guerre de course strategy; it simply meant that the war against Union commerce would have to be conducted by government warships rather than by independent entrepreneurs. Convinced that the “capitalists of the North could only be reached through the destruction of Atlantic commerce,” the South set out to establish and maintain a strategy of commerce raiding by Confederate warships.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory had moved quickly to acquire more, bigger and better-armed ships for commerce raiding. To orchestrate this effort, he relied on Georgia-born 38-year-old former U.S. Navy officer James Dunwoody Bulloch, the uncle of then 4-year-old future president Theodore Roosevelt. Bulloch went to England to contract for a ship originally called Oreto, a bark-rigged wooden-hulled steamship with two 300-horsepower engines, an oversize suite of sails and a retractable brass propeller that allowed it to sail more efficiently. Bulloch ordered Oreto to sea on March 22, 1862, under the command of a British captain and with a British crew.

A month later Oreto arrived at Nassau. There it met a cargo vessel carrying its guns and ammunition, and a week later Confederate Navy Lieutenant John N. Maffitt arrived at Nassau on a blockade runner. At an isolated key in the Bahamas Maffitt took formal command, changing the ship’s name from Oreto to CSS Florida, in honor of Mallory’s home state. Maffitt had hoped that most of Oreto’s English crewmen would agree to sign on with the Confederate Navy, but only 13 of them did so. This was a serious setback because Florida required a crew of 140.

Working long hours in the August heat, the ship’s tiny crew struggled mightily to transfer the heavy guns brought out from Nassau onto Florida, but even though it was armed, Florida still could not fight, or even raid Union commerce, without a crew. Worse, yellow fever soon broke out on board, and it was evident that Maffitt would have to find a friendly port where he could lay up for a time, recruit a crew and allow his sick sailors to recover their health.

Maffitt first put in at Cardenas, Cuba, but—concerned that Federal warships might attack him at that semiremote port—sailed for Havana, where he thought Spanish officials were more likely to interpret the neutrality laws in his favor. Unable to obtain a crew there, Maffitt determined to take his ship into the nearest Confederate port, Mobile, which led to the confrontation with Commander Preble.

Maffitt could not return Preble’s salvos, not only because he lacked enough men to steam and fight at the same time but also because he did not have any rammers or sponges on board. He therefore simply held his course and hoped that he could make it safely into Mobile Bay before he was sunk by Union warships. Florida’s rigging was badly cut up, and at least two 11-inch shells hulled it. Once Florida reached the protection of Fort Morgan, on the eastern headland at the entrance to Mobile Bay, the Union ships hauled off. Preble was forced to report to the squadron commander, David G. Far ragut, that his quarry had “by his superior speed and unparalleled audacity managed to escape.”

Farragut replied that he was “much pained” to hear that a Rebel warship had run into Mobile right through the Union blockade in broad daylight, but “incensed” would have been more accurate. He reported the incident to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, bemoaning Preble’s failure to fire into the warship at once when it first failed to respond to his hail. Welles took the complaint to Lincoln, whose normal patience had recently been strained by his dealings with George McClellan, and who decided to make an example of Preble.

By order of the president, Preble’s name was struck from the rolls of the Navy and he was banished from the service. Even Farragut was shocked by this draconian punishment, and he responded that while Preble no doubt “deserved some censure,” his hesitation to fire into a vessel that he believed might be a British warship was perhaps understandable.

Preble bore one of the most honored names in the service; his grandfather, Edward Preble, had been the hero of the Barbary Wars back in the first decade of the century and the role model for a whole generation of officers. Moreover, George Preble’s service had been exemplary to that point. Even Gideon Welles suggested that Preble’s case deserved a second look. In response, Lincoln restored Preble to his former rank in February 1863.

By then through the blockade in the dark of a rainy night as easily as it had run in. With a full crew and all the necessary equipment, it began a campaign of maritime destruction. Florida was back at sea, running out Mallory’s orders were open-ended, instructing Maffitt to do Union trade “the greatest injury in the shortest time.”

He took his first prize on January 19, 1863, when he stopped a sailing brig off the coast of Cuba by firing a shot across its bow. The brig turned out to be Estelle of New York, bound from the West Indies to Boston with a cargo of sugar. Maffitt took its officers and crew—eight men—on board, and set it afire. The next day Maffitt put into Havana to recoal. He received a warmer welcome from Spanish authorities there than Raphael Semmes had at Cadiz. In general, the farther a port was from the political pressure of European capitals, the more welcoming the representatives of European governments were to Confederate visitors. Consequently, Maffitt was “enthusiastically welcomed” in Havana, though he was less pleased after putting back to sea the next day when he found that the coal he had purchased there was “worthless” and had to be thrown overboard.

That same afternoon, Florida took two more prizes: a Maine-built brig with another cargo of sugar, and a Philadelphia brig with a mixed cargo bound for Car – denas. Maffitt burned them both, though he was embarrassed when the latter vessel, still afire, drifted into the harbor at Cardenas, which may have moderated the enthusiasm of his welcome when he put in there soon afterward. After a week of fruitless cruising, Maffitt took Florida into the British port of Nassau in the Bahamas. Once again he received an enthusiastic welcome from a putatively neutral power, and though the coal he purchased there proved to be of good quality, he was chagrined when 26 of Florida’s crew deserted. Tasting sour grapes, Maffitt noted in his journal that only two of those sailors had been of much service anyway. He managed to recruit six new crewmen before leaving.

Florida had its way with every merchantman it encountered, but on February 1 the lookout espied an armed side-wheel steamer that Maffitt pegged as a Yankee warship. Though Florida was heavily armed— more heavily armed than most Union warships—Maffitt’s mission was not to fight but to pillage. He therefore turned away from this stranger, which began at once to pursue him. For most of two days the vessels raced across the ocean, Finally, with all sails set and the engines working at full capacity, Florida pulled away and left the Yankee warship over the horizon.

On February 12, Florida encountered the clipper ship Jacob Bell returning to New York from China with a cargo valued at more than $2 million. Jacob Bell also carried 41 passengers, including two women. Instead of burning the captured vessel, Maffitt put a prize crew on board and ordered it to keep in company. That proved difficult, however, and the two ships became separated in the night. Moreover, having Jacob Bell in company inhibited Florida’s movements. Maffitt reluctantly decided that he would have to burn the ship after all. He brought the passengers on board Florida and set fire to Jacob Bell.

Over the next seven months, Florida caught and burned 18 more ships before steaming into the harbor at Brest, France, for a refit. Among other things, its propeller shaft was so out of line that the resulting vibrations threatened to shake the ship to pieces.

Maffitt, too, was out of sorts by that time. After making his way overland from Brest to Paris to report his arrival to the Confederate minister, John Slidell, he declared that he was too ill to continue in command. Lieutenant Commander Charles M. Morris relieved him of duty in January 1864.

The success of Florida and other ships like CSS Alabama led to a significant jump in maritime insurance rates. Moreover, Rebel raiders engendered such fear within the American maritime community that many merchants abandoned American-flag ships altogether and shipped their goods in foreign bottoms. On the other hand, the raiders’ impact on the economy of the North was not nearly as devastating as the impact of the blockade was to the economy of the South.

After the war, the victorious Union states claimed that Britain should be held responsible for the role it had played in building and funding the Rebel raiders. An international court ruled that Britain should pay for the damage done by Florida and Alabama. In the 1871 Treaty of Washington, the British agreed to pay the United States the sum of $15 million.

 

This article is adapted from The Civil War at Sea, by Craig L. Symonds, copyright 2009 by Craig L. Symonds. Reproduced with permission by ABCCLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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