Confederate Privateers

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,995
Dispargum
I've seen the claim made in several places that during the Civil War Confederate privateers devastated the US merchant marine. I have seen very few accounts of naval battles against Union merchant ships. The CSS Alabama is always mentioned, and she did have a highly successful career, but considering the high number of Union merchant ships, one warship, even the Alabama, isn't going to make much of a difference. To truly devastate the Union merchant marine would require dozens, if not hundreds, of warships. Where are the other accounts?

What I have seen is quotes about the number of merchant tonnage under US flags in 1860 and in 1865. Yes, there is a decline, but there was also a decline in the 1840s, the 1850s, the 1870s, and in the 1880s. What happened in the 1860s appears to be a small part of a larger trend that had nothing to do with the war. The American economy was booming in the 19th century. American capital was drawn away from merchant shipping to more profitable sectors of the economy.

So does anyone have accounts of Confederate warships other than the Alabama attacking Union merchant ships? Preferably more than one or two isolated instances.

Does anyone have documentation of Union merchants ships refusing to sail because of the risk of Confederate capture?

Did the Union navy ever convoy merchant ships to protect them from Confederate raiders? That would seem to be a common sense practice if the Confederate threat was as severe as some people claim.

*For purposes of this thread we don't need to distinguish between Confederate warships like Alabama and privateers.
 

Edric Streona

Ad Honorem
Feb 2016
4,543
Japan
The ship JCCalhoun took the first merchant ship of the war and made 6 captures before being burned.
The Jefferson Davis captured 9 ships before being run aground.

there is a list of confederate privateers on Wikipedia but it only gives details for some of them.
 
Jun 2017
734
maine
So does anyone have accounts of Confederate warships other than the Alabama attacking Union merchant ships? Preferably more than one or two isolated instances.
The Jeff Davis took the Mary Goodspell, the Mary E. Thompson, the William McGilvery, the Windward, the Santa Clara and the John Carver.
The York took the BT Martin
The Dixie took The Glen
The Winslow took the Mary Alice and the Itaska
The Sallie (or Sally) took the Gremada, the Betsey Ames, the Elsinore and the BK Eaton
The Retribution took the JP Elliott and the Emily Fisher
The Calhoun took the State of Maine, the Ocean Eagle and the Ariel
The Lady Davis took the AB Thompson
The Savannah took the Joseph
The Sumter took the Golden Rocket and 14 other northern merchant ships
(the list goes on--and on--but you get the idea)
The usual ploy of the Confederates was to display British colors until it was too late.
Does anyone have documentation of Union merchants ships refusing to sail because of the risk of Confederate capture?
Personally, I don't keep naval documentation of anything but I should think that a search of the records of individual shipping companies would turn something up. Losses to the Jeff Davis alone were over $225k--and merchants aren't keen on that kind of thing.


Did the Union navy ever convoy merchant ships to protect them from Confederate raiders? That would seem to be a common sense practice if the Confederate threat was as severe as some people claim.
I don't know of actual convoys but I do know that the USN looked out for northern merchant ships and always acted to protect them.
 
Jun 2011
316
The Old Dominion
Sumter, Alabama, Florida & Shenandoah, for example, were commissioned warships of the provisional navy of the Confederate States, commanded by commissioned CSN officers. They were not privateers which were civilian owned and operated under letters of marque and reprisal granted by the Confederate Congress. CSN ocean raiders, such as those mentioned, did far more damage to the US merchant shipping interests than did the privateers.

Convoying was only used when a gaggle of ships were all going to one place, usually for some amphibious operation. Ocean going CSN raiders never even attempted to interfere even in the unlikely circumstance of near proximity . . . was not their mission.
 
Last edited:
Jun 2017
734
maine
One of the two instances of Confederate activity in Maine was the Battle of Portland (June 1863). Lt. Charles Reade, who had a "roving commission" from CSA, sailed to Maine and took the Tacony near Mt. Desert Rock; he transferred his crew onto that ship. The he took 10 more Maine ships, including the Archer onto which he transferred some of his men onto (he burned the Tacony). Reade and entered Portland harbor (disguised as fishers); he then took a coast guard cutter, the Caleb Cushing. The mayor of Portland and the Collector of the Port (Jacob McClellan & Jedediah Jewett) and others gave chase in steamers--they caught up with the Cushing and the Archer, exchanged shots and eventually destroyed the now-southern ship Cushing. I don't know what happened to the Archer--perhaps it was returned to its fishing crew.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
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One of the two instances of Confederate activity in Maine was the Battle of Portland (June 1863). Lt. Charles Reade, who had a "roving commission" from CSA, sailed to Maine and took the Tacony near Mt. Desert Rock; he transferred his crew onto that ship. The he took 10 more Maine ships, including the Archer onto which he transferred some of his men onto (he burned the Tacony). Reade and entered Portland harbor (disguised as fishers); he then took a coast guard cutter, the Caleb Cushing. The mayor of Portland and the Collector of the Port (Jacob McClellan & Jedediah Jewett) and others gave chase in steamers--they caught up with the Cushing and the Archer, exchanged shots and eventually destroyed the now-southern ship Cushing. I don't know what happened to the Archer--perhaps it was returned to its fishing crew.
This is interesting, but it's probably the worst thing that happened to Maine maritime trade during the entire war since it's the story that is most remembered today. It would be a mistake to assume that this sort of thing happened every day, or even every month.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,995
Dispargum
During the Civil War "Shipping to the amount of 104,605 tons was destroyed by hostile cruisers, and 774,652 tons were sold to foreign flags." so the Confederates only accounted for 14% of the decline in the US merchant marine between 1861-65. Registered tonnage of the US merchant marine was 2,302,190 tons in 1856 but declined 42% to 1,314,402 tons in 1880. Using the 1856 figure, the Confederates sank less than five percent of the US merchant marine - hardly devastating.

"The protective tariff [of 1861] may be considered as having contributed to the decline of our commerce in various ways, and the popular theory upon which such measures are founded is directly opposed to the increase of foreign commerce and the prosperity of the merchant marine. Allusion has been made to the effects of the war on our shipping, and it is only necessary to point out that our share of our own trade fell from 66 per cent, for the year ending June 30, 1861, to 28 per cent, for the year ending June 30, 1865." In other words, Americans were still trading during the war, but American imports and exports were increasingly carried in foreign ships because Americans were getting out of the shipping business and selling their ships to foreign companies. Not because of the Confederates but because of the tariff.

 
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Jun 2017
734
maine
This is interesting, but it's probably the worst thing that happened to Maine maritime trade during the entire war since it's the story that is most remembered today. It would be a mistake to assume that this sort of thing happened every day, or even every month.
It didn't--although the fear of repetition was real. The Battle of Portland is an aside--but the seizing of Maine (and other northern) ships was not a one time occasion. Going back to my post #3, ships were seized up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Confederate ships even got into Narraganset in Massachusetts. Confederate ships were far flung (the Shenandoah was so far out to sea that it didn't know to surrender until months after the CSA armies had laid down arms). Wikipedia states that the impact of the privateers was so great that "the American flag virtually disappeared from international waters". In 1871, Britain agreed to pay the US $15 million in compensation for the damage that the British backed and supplied Confederate ships had done.
 

pikeshot1600

Ad Honoris
Jul 2009
10,092
I've seen the claim made in several places that during the Civil War Confederate privateers devastated the US merchant marine. I have seen very few accounts of naval battles against Union merchant ships. The CSS Alabama is always mentioned, and she did have a highly successful career, but considering the high number of Union merchant ships, one warship, even the Alabama, isn't going to make much of a difference. To truly devastate the Union merchant marine would require dozens, if not hundreds, of warships. Where are the other accounts?

What I have seen is quotes about the number of merchant tonnage under US flags in 1860 and in 1865. Yes, there is a decline, but there was also a decline in the 1840s, the 1850s, the 1870s, and in the 1880s. What happened in the 1860s appears to be a small part of a larger trend that had nothing to do with the war. The American economy was booming in the 19th century. American capital was drawn away from merchant shipping to more profitable sectors of the economy.

So does anyone have accounts of Confederate warships other than the Alabama attacking Union merchant ships? Preferably more than one or two isolated instances.

Does anyone have documentation of Union merchants ships refusing to sail because of the risk of Confederate capture?

Did the Union navy ever convoy merchant ships to protect them from Confederate raiders? That would seem to be a common sense practice if the Confederate threat was as severe as some people claim.

*For purposes of this thread we don't need to distinguish between Confederate warships like Alabama and privateers.
This sounds like an historical example for the Small Navies thread in Military History. Why don't you think about addressing the CSA navy and write up something that we can argue about? ;)
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,995
Dispargum
... ships were seized up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
This is typical of the comments I see in CW history books. I'm sure many ships were seized, but how many ships were not seized? A percentage of ships seized would be more helpful. In post 7 I quoted 5% of US merchant ships were sunk by Confederates. That is far more useful in assessing alleged devastation than just 'many ships were seized.'

Wikipedia states that the impact of the privateers was so great that "the American flag virtually disappeared from international waters".
Another sweeping generalization that is never supported by data. In post 7 I cited a source that I just found today. It says most of those American flags disappeared for other reasons than being sunk by Confederates or being scared by them.

In 1871, Britain agreed to pay the US $15 million in compensation for the damage that the British backed and supplied Confederate ships had done.
Yes, but if the value of all American ships sailing the seas was a theoretical $300 million then a $15 million loss doesn't seem so bad, does it? $15 million by itself has no value. It needs to be put into some kind of context.