Sunday, October 14, 2012

Playing With Fire off the Cuban Coast, October 1862

A route frequently used by Anglo-Confederate blockade runners went from Matamoros, Mexico to Havana, Cuba, ending at Mobile, Alabama.  The ships would pick up Texas cotton in Matamoros shipped across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. They would then steam east towards the Cuban coast, hug the coastline as close as possible, and then enter the friendly, Spanish-controlled port of Havana.  From Havana, the ships would pick up guns, ammunition, and other manufactured goods and make a run towards Mobile.

Commander Charles S. Hunter oversaw the converted merchant steamer USS Montgomery, which patrolled off the coast of Havana.  One ship in particular Hunter was on the look out for was the blockade runner General Rusk (sometimes referred to as Blanche).  The ship already navigated the Matamoros-Havana-Mobile run six times. 

On the seventh attempt, one of Montgomery's watches spotted her trying to enter Havana with 569 bales of cotton (retail price of $142,000 on the English market).   Unfortunately, General Rusk's captain misread his charts and ran aground.  The captain, believing that since he was in Spanish waters and flying a Spanish flag, thought he was safe.  He was not. 

Hunter was under the impression he had Admiral Farragut's personal endorsement to get this particular blockade runner by any means necessary.  U.S. Navy sailors from two of Montgomery's small boats formally captured General Rusk.  During the boarding master's interrogation of General Rusk's captain, the ship mysteriously caught on fire, forcing everyone off the boat.  Though he did not capture the ship, Hunter thought himself a hero for finally eliminating the elusive blockade runner. 

USS Montgomery, a converted steam merchant ship and
vessel of Commander Charles S. Hunter.
A week later,  watches spotted the blockade runner Caroline in the Gulf of Mexico.  Montgomery fired seventeen shots and struck Caroline twice, who stopped running after being hit. This capture was a bit more clear cut as the ship was carrying French muskets and ammunition.  She was also caring thirty-two five-gallon demijohns of Cuban rum.  Hunter felt "it was his moral duty" to get rid of the rum immediately.  He had his company open up all the bottles and pour the alcohol out.   

Caroline's master objected to being seized, stating he was, like General Rusk, a Spanish ship bounded for Matamoros.  Montgomery's boarding officer is to have replied, "I do not take you for running the blockade, but for your damned poor navigation. Any man bound for Matamoros from Havana and coming within twelve miles of Mobile light has no business to have a steamer."

Blockade runner Caroline, later USS Arizona
For the next several months, Hunter thought himself a "master hunter" of blockade runners, capturing one more and was waiting to chase CSS Florida.  That was until he received a court-marital summons.  While Hunter was crowing, the Spanish government threatened to declare war over Hunter's violation of its territorial waters by capturing and burning General Rusk.  Secretary of State Seward was forced to issue a formal apology and pay reparations of over $300,000.  While the court-martial board cleared him of charges military misconduct (for burning the ship), it found him guilty of violating neutral waters and removed him from service. 

Hunter's brother officers, including Farragut, believed Hunter was getting a raw deal and fought to have him reinstated.  But the  civilian authorises rejected their arguments.  Sixty years later, Admiral Albert Gleaves wrote a passionate defense of Hunter in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute.  Gleaves concluded, "do what is right, even when you know its wrong."

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