Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Privateering Begins !!

On 17 April 1861 (two days prior to Lincoln’s declaration of a blockade), CSA President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation authorizing privateering against Union commercial shipping by southern vessel owners (see post by Gordon on 14 April 2011). This authorization was subsequently ratified by the Confederate Congress. Privateering was often the strategy used by an inferior navy against a superior one; and this was in fact the strategy used by the US Navy against the British in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Confederate privateers were thus the first naval blow of the Civil War struck against the Union.

Just over a week after Davis’ proclamation, a sidewheel steam towboat emerged from the mouth of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico as the CS Privateer Calhoun. Commanded by Capt. John Wilson, possessing a Letter of Marque and Reprisal from the CSA government, over the next two weeks this ship captured six Union merchant vessels; three cargo vessels (the bark Ocean Eagle, the freighter Milan, and the schooner Ella) and three whalers (the schooners John Adams and Mermaid and the brig Panama). The Calhoun’s exploits were ended by the arrival of the steam sloop USS Brooklyn off the Mississippi in late May (post by yours truly on 12 June 2011). The prizes captured by the Calhoun were adjudicated in the CS District Court for Louisiana, in New Orleans, for a total of $26,650, which was distributed to the owners, officers and crew of the privateer. As the war progressed, this type of profit became less expected, due to the difficulty of getting prizes back through the blockade, the eventual financial poverty of the Confederacy, and the refusal of European powers to allow prizes to be adjudicated in their courts. The Calhoun was eventually captured by the US Navy blockade in January 1862 and converted into a US gunboat under the same name.

Over on the Atlantic Coast, an active area of privateering developed off the North Carolina coast in the Hatteras Inlet area during July-August 1861. Ships of the NC Navy (the NCS Winslow, Raleigh, and Beaufort) and the “true” privateer CS Gordon would hide in the shallow bays and sounds behind the barrier islands and strike out of the inlet, capturing a number of Union merchant ships. This appears to be one of the factors driving the Union raid against the Inlet in August of 1861 (more to come on that in a couple weeks).

Finally, off the South Carolina coast, a fast sailing brig was converted into the privateer CS Jefferson Davis. Under the command of Capt. Louis M. Coxetter (a former US Navy officer), she terrorized Union shipping. Armed with five ancient English guns, and a crew of 75 well armed with small arms and cutlasses, she captured prize after prize, sending them back to Charleston for adjudication. The “Jeff Davis” ended her career wrecked off St. Augustine after a gale; recent underwater archaeological work in the area appears to have found her remains, and they are currently being explored and recovered. Coxetter earned a reputation for treating the officers and crews of the captured vessels in an exceptionally decent manner, and went on to earn greater glory in the CW as a captain of blockade runners.

NOTE ON SOURCES – I have found that a good source for information on the Confederate Navy is the series of books written by R. Thomas Campbell. Some of these are edited works presenting accounts by CS Navy personalities, others are original compilations discussing the privateers, the Confederate fleets, the commerce raiders, the ironclads, etc. You can find his books at his web site:


Campbell, R. Thomas. Fire & Thunder. Exploits of the Confederate States Navy. Shippensburg: Burd Street Press, 1997.

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships:

Fowler, William M., Jr. Under Two Flags. The American Navy in the Civil War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Simson, Jay W. Naval Strategies of the Civil War. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2001.

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