The South had no maritime tradition. There were not many good harbors there. At the outbreak of war the South owned about one sixth of the nation's shipping, but much of that was tied up in the North, where it was quickly confiscated.
In the War of 1812 when every port from Baltimore north was spewing privateers by the score, Norfolk dispatched p151 only six; Wilmington, North Carolina, three; New Orleans, six; Savannah, five; Charleston, thirteen.
For all the careful wording of the law that authorized it, Confederate privateering was a catch-as‑catch‑can business. The Southerners were so heavily outnumbered in men, money, and material, that from the beginning it was clear that they must resort to unconventional methods. Their privateering fleet was a motley one.
The first vessel to be commissioned was the Triton schooner out of Brunswick, Georgia, which carried 20 men and one 6‑pounder swivel gun. The second was Phenix, a steamship rated at 1644 tons, carrying 7 guns and 243 men. Neither of these got anywhere.
At New Orleans there was built by private enterprise a steam ram, thus combining one of the oldest and one of the newest of sea‑fighting devices. It was designed to pay for itself by sinking the expected invasion vessels, for each of which the Confederate government would pay a bounty. However it never did amount to anything.
It was at New Orleans too that the first privateering submarine was built. Aptly named Pioneer, she was a cigar-shaped thing •20 feet long, her greatest inside beam •3 feet, 2 inches. She carried a propeller at each end, one for coming, one for going, and these were turned by two members of the crew of three, who worked a crank. She was fabricated of •quarter-inch iron sheets riveted together, and she must have been mighty uncomfortable. Like David Bushnell's Turtle in the Revolutionary War, Pioneer was not designed to do any real fighting, only to get close to an enemy vessel unseen and fasten an explosive. It did blow up a barge on its tryout in Lake Pontchartrain, but p152 when the submarine was put into the river it sank. Pioneer was rated at four tons, and its privateering commission was issued March 31, 1862.
The first prizes taken by the Confederates were captured in the Gulf of Mexico. Three New England whalers, John Adams, Panama, and Mermaid were seized by Calhoun, a converted tow barge out of New Orleans.
Retribution had originally been a Lake Erie tug, with the name Uncle Ben. The United States Government converted it into a gunboat, but at the outbreak of war it was seized in southern waters. Then its engine was taken out by the Southerners who rigged it as a schooner. Retribution made a good record, as Confederate privateers went.
The tiny Petrel, 2 guns, a former revenue cutter, tried to sneak out of Charleston. When chased by the 52‑gun U. S. frigate St. Lawrence she had the temerity to turn and fight. She was sunk with one broadside.
The Confederates put a great deal of faith in Rattlesnake, perhaps because the Rattlesnake of the War of 1812 had been successful. No fewer than twenty-seven residents of Charleston invested in this one, a steamship rated at 1220 tons and carrying a crew of 130. But Rattlesnake II never did get out of Ogeechee River to the open sea. She was sunk, in November of 1862, by blockading vessels.
Hatteras Inlet, just south of Hatteras Light, soon became a gathering place for the offshore privateers, small vessels that at a signal from the light would leap out, pounce upon some unsuspecting passer, plunder him, and scurry back to cover in a place too shallow for war vessels. The U. S. Navy soon stopped this by plugging the several entrances to the inlet with sunken hulks filled with stone.
p153 All of these events and others like them, however, were as nothing when compared with the consequences of two momentous cruises, those of the Savannah and the Jefferson Davis.
Savannah was a schooner, a former Charleston pilot boat. Of her twelve owners, two — T. Harrison Baker, a fine figure of a man with a red beard, and John Harleston, twenty-eight years old, a former Texas rancher — went with her as captain and mate respectively. Full of high hope, she headed for Hole-in‑the‑Wall, the Bahamas. She had but one gun, an old, short 18‑pounder mounted on a swivel amidships, a relic of the War of 1812. She had a crew of twenty, including a Chinese cook. They were mostly young men.
She stopped the brig Joseph, Rockland, Maine, with a cargo of sugar. She put a prize crew aboard and sent her back to Charleston, where she fetched $30,000. Meanwhile Savannah herself was running into hard luck. Joseph was not even out of sight when the U. S. brig-of‑war Perry appeared. Savannah ran, but she had lost some of her top hamper in a blow the previous day and she wasn't as fast as usual. Around eight o'clock that evening the brig caught up with her. They could barely see one another.
The brig was flying the Stars and Stripes, and now the schooner gallantly hoisted the Stars and Bars. Both opened fire, each aiming at the other's gun flashes. But Perry had six pieces, the privateer only that one old one, so the battle didn't last long. Savannah struck her colors, and then, since this might not be seen, struck her sails as well.
The prisoners were transferred to another vessel and sent to New York. Their landing caused vast excitement. p154 It was a Sunday. The men, handcuffed to one another, were paraded from the Battery to the Tombs through streets black with persons who had turned out to see the "pirates." Babies were held up, so that they too could see.
These men were in fact formally charged with piracy.
Immediately Jefferson Davis took pen in hand, and wrote a letter to President Lincoln himself. Lincoln refused to accept it, but it was opened at last by General Winfield Scott, top‑ranking officer in the United States Army. It was explicit:
". . . painful as will be the necessity, this Government will deal out to 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 the crew of the Savannah, that retaliation will be extended so far as shall be requisite to secure the abandonment 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."
No answer was made to this, but all the world waited to see if Lincoln would back down.
The single privateering cruise of the Jefferson Davis was much more eventful. She was a brig owned by eight Charleston men, one of whom, Louis M. Coxetter, a short, plump, gentlemanly personage with a goatee, was her skipper. She carried five iron guns, English, even older than Savannah's one swivel. She was painted black and had dark hempen sails, which must have given her a sinister appearance. She had formerly been a slaver, under the name Echo.
p155 Jefferson Davis headed north, and off the coast of Delaware picked up the brig John Welsh, heading from Trinidad for Falmouth with a cargo of sugar. Coxetter put a prize crew aboard and sent this back successfully.
Next they stopped a vessel that proved to be British, and Captain Coxetter apologized most profusely.
Jefferson Davis then picked up two small vessels, separately, but let each go as a cartel after each skipper had promised to continue his voyage to South America. Both promises were broken as soon as the Confederate was out of sight, the skippers hurrying home to give the alarm. That part of the ocean soon swarmed with U. S. Navy vessels.
The Confederate privateers next captured the schooner Enchantress, July 6, 1861, took off all her men except a Negro cook, Jacob Garrick, and put on a prize crew headed by Smith, a small, dark, heavily bewhiskered man. Enchantress, however, never got back to Charleston. Near there she was hailed by the U. S. S. Albatross, out of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. All might have been well but for the cook, Garrick, who should have been locked in the forecastle. Instead he was allowed the freedom of his galley. The prize crew answered the hail satisfactorily, posing as the original crew of this harmless vessel, and the Albatross, convinced, was turning away — when the cook bounded out on deck, waving his arms and shouting that he was a prisoner and that these men were Confederate privateers. The Albatross, understandably, took a better look. All the prize crew were sent to Philadelphia, where (excepting the cook, of course) they were thrown into Prison on a charge of piracy.
p156 Jefferson Davis seemed to have bad luck with her Negro cooks. There was another one aboard her next prize, the schooner J. S. Waring out of Brookhaven, Long Island. Again he was left on that vessel, which was staffed with a prize skipper, two prize mates, and two prize seamen, and sent back for Charleston. She, too, never reached Charleston. One fine night, when, apparently, no watch was kept — for the two seamen were in the forecastle, the captain and one mate were asleep in their bunks, and the other mate was snoozing on the poop deck — the cook, a burly man from Rhode Island named Tillman, took an ax and went on the prowl. He cut up the captain, then the first mate, then the second, the one on the poop. He had to hit them quite a few times, a very messy business, and he heaved each one overboard, though it was not certain that they were all dead. After this he did not have to hack the seamen into submission, one sight of that blood-smeared ax being enough. Then, incredibly, Tillman, who knew nothing about navigation, caused the J. S. Waring to be turned north, and, staying awake somehow, and being lucky in the weather, he sailed her all the way to Sandy Hook.
His arrival caused a tremendous sensation. The surviving seamen were, of course, arrested as pirates, but Tillman himself was made a great hero, and P. T. Barnum signed him up for his circus. For several months, then, while suckers gasped, Tillman displayed his toothy grin, his blood-stained ax, and the confiscated Confederate flag.
So now in Philadelphia and New York the federal government had fourteen men taken at sea and charged with piracy. What would be done with them?
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