Thursday, December 15, 2011

CSS Sumter Escapes-Again

Commander James Palmer, commanding officer of the steam sloop USS Iroquois, received word in mid-November 1861 that the Confederate cruiser CSS Sumter had made anchor on the French island of Martinique. The Confederate raider and her captain Raphel Semmes had already taken eight prizes since the ship's dramatic breakout from the Head of Passes earlier in the war.

For eight days, Palmer and his company watched Sumter as French authorities showed Semmes and his company all the hospitality they could offer. Palmer informed Secretary Welles that there was a good chance that Sumter would make a break for it during a moonless night. He was right. On November 25, Sumter made her break with an experienced pilot on board.

Per international rules governing warring parities in a neutral port, Palmer had to wait a full 24-hours before taking up a pursuit. Palmer was well aware of the escape as he had spies on shore. Colonial authorities objected to use of such spies. Palmer, however, commented that the French would just "have to pocket" such objections as he believed he had followed every single protocol.

Sumter made a successful escape and proceeded to the east to the open waters of the Atlantic. Palmer received intelligence that Semmes had bought several dozen articles of cold weather gear.  This lead Palmer to believe that Sumter was heading for Europe, specifically Gibraltar, and not another tropical port (as some thought).  He was right again.

Several people, including officers on board Iroquois, accused Palmer of disloyalty and/or incompetence for letting Sumter escape.  Palmer simply responded "[if] I had committed an error of judgement, which I may have, I may be at once relieved of command."  He was not relieved and Palmer retired a commodore at the end of his career.

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