The CSS Sumter, a bark-rigged screw steam cruiser, was originally built as the merchant steamship ‘Habana’ (Sometimes referred to as 'Havana') and purchased by the Confederate Government in New Orleans in April 1861, before being hastily converted to a cruiser. When this had been completed, the Havana was quickly renamed CSS Sumter, after the Sourthern Fort Sumter which had already fallen to Union troops on the 13th April 1861.
This ship was originally a barque rigged steamer of 473 tons, having a length of 184 feet, her beam, 30 feet, and she drew only 12 feet of water. In trials she made about nine knots and coal bunkers were of enough capacity to enable her maintain steam for eight days. Built in Philadelphia in 1859 for McConnell's New Orleans & Havana Line and used to ferry both passengers and freight both ways, on the run between New Orleans and Havana.
As the CSS Sumter, she was transformed into a formidable fighting ship for her size, with a single 8 inch pivot gun and four 32 pounders available for broadsides. This small vessel took the honour of being the first warship to fly the Confederate States Flag.
Raphael Semmes was appointed Captain of the 'Sumter' and quickly recruited a crew of 22 Officers, 72 Seamen and 20 Marines. In his report to Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Navy he wrote. "I have an excellent set of men on board, though many are green and will require some little practice and drilling of guns to enable them to handle them credibly. Should I be fortunate enough to reach the high seas, you may rely on my explicit obedience to your instructions. That is to do the enemy’s commerce the greatest injury in the shortest time. "
By the time Semmes was ready to attempt running the blockade, he was faced by several Union vessels including the 21 gun 'USS Brooklyn', plus three of the heaviest and fastest steam ships of the USN, the 52 gun, 3,307 ton 'Minnesota', the 32 gun, 4,582 ton 'Niagra' and the 16 gun, 3,765 ton 'Powhatan'. From trials that Semmes had conducted with his new command, he knew that nine knots was the top speed he might expect to achieve, whilst 'Niagra' had at least a two knot advantage. He also realised here was little chance he could fight his way out into the open sea as the opposing fire power was overwhelming in both size and numbers. On the 18th June 1861, Semmes navigated the Sumter down the Mississippi River between Fort Jackson and Fort St.Philip in the hope of slipping through this blockade; but found the USS Powhatan was waiting. A short distance beyond the USS Brooklyn was also on station, both vessels effectively blocking any free passage into the Gulf of Mexico.
'Sumter' was anchored between the two forts and at sunset the Semmes learned that USS Powhatan had left her position to chase two ships incoming blockade runners. Semmes immediately ordered the anchor raised and steamed towards the point where the Mississipi River opens into three separate segments known as the Head of the Passes but by morning, his lookouts reported the 'Powhatan' was back in position, effectively frustrating Semmes plan to break free.
Over the next nine days, a cat and mouse game ensued which saw the Unionists putting a Telegraph Station out of action, believing it was reporting the movements of their blockading ships. Semmes’ men removed the lighting equipment from a number of lighthouses but this did little to enable the Confederate Cruiser to escape. At last, on the 29th June, news came that the USS Brooklyn was "Nowhere to be seen." Semmes didn’t wait for confirmation and commenced his run, steering for the estuary at full speed. Aided by a strong current the 'Sumter' gathered speed and safely crossed the bar. After much delay, Raphael Semmes commanded the first Confederate Cruiser at sea.
Although the 'Brooklyn' gave chase and at one stage looked as if she would overhaul the CSS Sumter, the Confederate ship was able to ensure her pursuer was deprived of the prevailing wind. Her combined screw and sails allowed her to slowly draw ahead and eventually, to the relief of Semmes and his crew, the Union ship gave up her pursuit.
Semmes took his vessel south towards Cuba, and on the 3rd July sighted the Union ship 'Golden Rocket' out of Maine. The 'Maine’s' Captain was first indignant then shocked to learn he, his crew and his ship were the first victim of the new Confederate Navy. The crew were taken aboard 'Sumter' and the captured ship was destroyed by fire. One of Semmes’s Officers Lieutenant John Kell described their feelings as they torched this ship: “It was a sad sight to a sailor’s eyes, the burning of a fine ship. We had not then grown accustomed to the sight with hardened eyes.”
Early next morning, two more sailing ships were sighted and a blank shot from a 32 pounder gun brought them smartly to a stop but their neutral cargo saved these two brigs, 'Machias' and 'Cuba' from burning. With prize crews on board these were taken under tow towards the Cuban port of Cienfuegos. Semmes however, was forced to cut the tow lines to his captured vessel and under cover of darkness the 'Cuba' escaped. Undeterred, Raphael Semmes gained two more prizes close to Cienfuegos, this time sugar traders and again, neutrality saved them from destruction.
Semmes remarkable first voyage didn’t end there. Escorting his three prizes into port, a tug with three ships in tow all flying American flags came into sight and Semmes resolved to add these to his ‘collection’ just as soon as all were clear of Spanish jurisdiction. Ironically, when trying to enter harbour with his fleet of captured ships, a fort at the entrance opened fire with muskets, not recognizing the new Confederate flag – but after some delay and forthcoming explanations, he was finally allowed to enter port - but by 7th July, Semmes and the 'Sumter' were at sea again, this time headed for Curacao. Here he allowed his crew a few days in port and ordered some urgent repairs to his his ship. It was also an opportunity to take on board, 115 tons of British coal.
By the end of July, Semmes successes were giving the Federal authorities some grave concerns. Two vessels, the thirteen-gun steamship 'Keystone State' and USS Powhatan, were ordered to track down the 'Sumter' and destroy her at all costs. Their reasoning was later revealed. The Northern Light, carrying $2 million in gold bullion needed to support the war effort, would soon be passing through waters in which the Confederate ship was thought to be operating and the Union could not allow her to be captured. The Federal ships in pursuit had their own problems however. The USS Powhatan’s elderly boilers consumed immense amounts of coal, seven hundred tons compared to the 'Sumter' using only one hundred tons. Inevitably, the chase had to be abandoned and the 'Powhatan’s' captain, David Porter ordered his ship ‘about’.
By the 6th August, the CSS Sumter was in the Atlantic, and over the following six weeks, 'Sumter' stopped no less than fifteen neutral ships and despatched two Union ships. Despite Semmes personal disappointment, there was little doubt that the presence of his ship and his threatening the trade routes, was having a great effect on America’s merchant marine. Ships could not find cargoes, insurance rates had soared and to avoid capture, Union vessels were forced to take long detours to try and avoid the waiting arms of the cruiser.
For a single ship, she was having a disproportionate effect on strangling American trade, and Semmes and the Southern cause could be well pleased with this result. Had it not been for a perilous encounter with the formidable, eight-gun steam-sloop, the USS Iroquois (See photo right) under the command of Commander James Palmer, this may well have continued but escaping a carefully planned trap, Semmes set his command on a course to take her across the Atlantic to Europe. More prizes followed but the 'Sumter' was soon overflowing with prisoners from burned or sunken ships. Added to this, the small Cruiser had to cope with a raging Atlantic storm which took its toll; and a serious leak threatened the safety of the ship. Semmes ordered they make towards Cadiz, still some five hundred miles away. With the weather barely improving it was on the 4th January 1862 they finally made port and relative safety. Unfortunately for Semmes, the local authorities prohibited any repairs to be made and eight of his crew members deserted. Semmes was forced to abandon Cadiz and set sail for Gibraltar where he hoped for a more favourable reception by the British.
Hamstrung by financial demands from the British authorities, Semmes and the CSS Sumter remained holed up in Gibraltar’s admiralty dockyard awaiting repairs. Time was ticking away as far as 'Sumter' was concerned. The Union Navy were able to rally two fast armed screw ships to the area, the USS Kearsarge and 'Tuscarora', both watching and waiting patiently for Semmes and the 'Sumter' to make a move. Semmes’ plight worsened with the arrival of USS Ino plus a sailing sloop of war, 'Constellation' and three additional warships joined the blockade. (See artist's impression left)
Some satisfaction may have been taken in that one small Confederate ship was effectively tying up seven Federal warships that might well have been better employed in pursuing other objectives for the Union.
As a result of pressure from the US Consul, Semmes could not buy coal and now work ceased on the installation of new machinery. Without coal and effective repairs, the 'Sumter' could not risk going back to sea. Leaving a caretaker crew aboard, he travelled to London with some of his fellow Officers. The remainder of the crew were subsequently paid off and the 'Sumter' lay anchored at Gibraltar for another six months, tying up the Union fleet assigned to keep guard.
Despite pressure, Britain did not intern 'Sumter' or her crew, which either or both chould have been done under International law. It suited the British to cause the greatest aggravation to the Union Merchant Fleet, and so weaken America’s grip on world maritime commerce which had proven a real threat to the dominance previously held by the British Mercantile Marine. Semmes eventually sailed from England for home but on reaching Nassau, was promoted to Captain and ordered to return to England to take command of CSS Alabama.
The abandoned CSS Sumter languished at Gibraltar for several months; but in December 1862, the ship was auctioned, and sold to a Liverpool Merchant, who renamed the ship 'Gibraltar'. Now flying a British flag she had gained immunity from attack by the waiting Union ships, and sailed away in February 1863 to refit in Liverpool. Gibraltar, subsequently worked as a blockade runner from 1863 making several successful runs before the end of the conflict. Sadly, the ship was reportedly lost in an English Channel storm in about 1867.
Although the CSS Sumter
did not achieve the spectacular successes of those that followed, in capturing eighteen ships and burning seven of them, she nonetheless served her fledgling nation well. Acting as a training ground for Raphael Semmes, he cut his teeth in her for the relentless struggle at sea against a superior foe yet to come. Together they started a fear campaign for US ship owners and forcing many Union warships, to leave their main task of blockading Confederate ports. Semmes was critised for abandoning his ship but in reality, he could have achieved little else.
Many of the 'Sumter's' gallant crew including several of its officers (See photo right) would serve again with their Captain and in other cruisers like the CSS Florida, 'Alabama' and 'Shenandoah'. The indomitable spirit of the CSS Sumter and her captain, Raphael Semmes, had set the standard by which many more would be judged in the years that followed.