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One-ship Navy Escaped Union's Grip With Sly Maneuvers

At the start of the Civil War, the Confederacy was without a navy to protect its shores and conduct trade with other nations. In June 1861, the CSS Sumter, under the command of Raphael Semmes, made its maiden voyage as the only ship in the Confederate Navy. In doing so, the Sumter deftly escaped a Federal vice at the mouth of the Mississippi River heading for adventure on the high seas.

Semmes, who had served in U. S. Navy during the Mexican War, was living in Mobile, Ala., prior to the Civil War. Upon Alabama’s secession, Semmes offered his services to the Confederacy. In April 1861, Semmes was sent to New Orleans to convert the cruiser Havana into the commerce raider, CSS Sumter.

The Sumter would serve the Confederacy as a commerce raider, attacking Union merchant vessels on the high seas to disrupt commerce for the North. In essence, Semmes and fellow seamen were privateers hired by the Confederacy to serve as the country’s navy. The attacks on merchant vessels and disruption of commerce forced the Federal navy to deploy ships to protect these vessels from raider attacks. Such a necessity served to weaken the Union blockade of Confederate ports.

While in New Orleans, Semmes oversaw the conversion of the Havana into the Sumter. The deck was strengthened to accommodate cannon and unneeded structures removed to make the vessel faster on the seas. For Semmes, speed was essential to outrun the Federal fleet which vastly outnumbered the Confederacy in vessels. On June 3, 1861, the Havana’s conversion was complete and the vessel was officially commissioned the CSS Sumter.

Now that the Confederacy had a one-ship navy, the next order of business was escaping New Orleans, safely navigating the mud shoals at the mouth of the Mississippi River and entering the Gulf of Mexico. This would prove even more difficult as Federal vessels Brooklyn, Niagara, Minnesota and Powhattan were positioned at the mouth of the Mississippi to block any blockade runners.

On June 21, 1861, news reached Semmes that the Powhattan had left its position, leaving a potential avenue of escape for the Sumter. Semmes proceeded to Pass a l’Outre, La. Once there, Semmes inquired about the availability of a pilot to guide the Sumter past the mud bars at the mouth of the Mississippi and into the Gulf.

At first, no pilots would take the responsibility of guiding the Sumter out to sea. The proximity of Federal vessels made the pilots see the need to show loyalty to the Union as well as the Confederacy. Semmes quickly resorted to threats to get pilots to escort his vessel to sea.

Semmes’ opportunity to escape passed while trying to line up a trustworthy pilot as the Powhattan returned to its post. Semmes remained at anchor, waiting eight days for the next opportunity to escape.

On June 30, 1861, the Brooklyn left its post to chase another vessel. Upon finding this out, Semmes ordered the Sumter forward at best possible speed. One river pilot lost his nerve, momentarily dashing the hopes of the Sumter crew, but another arrived to guide the vessel out to sea.

As the Sumter cleared the mouth of the Mississippi and entered the Gulf, the Brooklyn spotted the Confederate vessel. The Brooklyn quickly broke its chase of one vessel to pursue a greater prize, the Sumter.

At this point, the crew of the Sumter had to rely on the vessel’s steam power as the Brooklyn had long range guns and superior speed that could make their dash for freedom a short trip.

Four hours after clearing the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Sumter outran the Brooklyn and safely entered the Gulf waters. Semmes’ command of the Sumter only lasted six months. During that time, the Sumter raided commercial shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, capturing 18 merchant vessels while deftly eluding the Federal warships.

In January 1862, the Sumter’s career as a commerce raider ended at Gibraltar. Needing repairs, the Sumter was in for repairs when Union warships blockaded the port. Semmes sold the vessel and escaped to England. After being promoted to captain, Semmes and crew were ordered to the Azores to oversee the changing of the British ship Enrica into the famed CSS Alabama.

As skipper of his new vessel, Semmes and the Alabama would earn world wide fame during 1862 -1864, capturing 65 Union merchant vessels.