The Escape of the CSS Sumter

Sunday, June 30, 1861

For more than a week, the USS Brooklyn had her eye on the CSS Sumter, a converted merchant-class steam cruiser, in Pass a l’Outre, forty miles southeast of New Orleans. Also, for more than a week, the Sumter‘s Commander, Raphael Semmes, wondered why the Brooklyn did not attack. Along with the Brooklyn, the Union Navy had several other ships close by, including the Powhatan. It would have been easy to capture the Sumter, her crew and her anchorage in the southern delta of the Mississippi River.

Instead, Semmes and the rest of the Sumter waited patiently for their chance to break through the Federal blockade. The day before, the pilot called down that the Brooklyn was nowhere to be seen. The Sumter got up a head of steam and chugged four miles down the pass when she saw the Union ship at anchor before them. Discouraged and beaten, Semmes returned his vessel to her original position.

On this bright, Sunday morning the Sumter received fresh provisions from a supply ship, including 100 barrels of coal. The crew were washing up for Sunday muster when the supply ship returned with the message that the Brooklyn had gone off chasing a suspected blockade runner.

Here was their chance. Within ten minutes, the steam was up, the men ready to push off and the anchor raised. She cruised along at a good clip, heading towards the bar of Pass a l’Outre. After several miles at full steam, the Sumter glided past one of the fingers of the delta. The Brooklyn may have gone chasing after a sail, but she had not go far. There she was, eight miles to the west and steaming full speed towards the Confederate vessel.

Fortunately for the Sumter, she had the advantage of swimming with the current while the Brooklyn had no such help. The Brooklyn, however, was a faster ship. How much faster would determine the outcome of this race. Several lieutenants spoke up, saying that there was no way to escape. Still, Semmes pressed on. They sailed past the lighthouse and over the bar. The Confederates were on the high seas!

Their full attention was then turned to the Brooklyn, now no more than four miles away. She was clearly the faster ship. Both ships set their sails to employ the wind in their effort. Here, the Sumter had a slight advantage, being able to lay nearer the wind than her adversary.

The bright morning quickly turned gray as a rain storm blew over both ships, hiding them from each other. When the rain blew off, the Brooklyn was close enough for Semmes to see her crew on the main deck peering at them through looking-glasses. Though the Sumter was within the range of her guns, she did not fire. Still, this was so dyer that the paymaster was ordered to prepare to throw the ships papers over the side if they were about to be boarded.

To their great delight, the breeze picked up again, pushing them a bit farther away from the Union ship. However, as the Sumter pulled ahead, the Brooklyn fell into her wake, let loose all of her sails and made one last attempt to catch her.

The chase, however, was all but over. The baffled Brooklyn slowed as the Sumter sailed out to the open seas. No celebratory shots were fired, but the Rebel crew gave three cheers to the stars and bars as the Brooklyn turned away defeated.1

___________________

In western Virginia, Union General Rosencrans’s brigade finished their march from Clarksburg to Buckhannon to oppose Confederate General Garnett’s men near Beverly. Started on the 27th, the cautious march was relatively uneventful. Along the way, the Union troops strung up and maintained a telegraph line all the way back to General McClellan’s headquarters in Clarksburg.

Rosencrans wired back that the Buckhannon and Weston roads were secure and that his men had reached their camp safely.

McClellan would join them in a few days.2

Meanwhile, in Hagerstown, Maryland, Union General Patterson had been expected by General-in-Chief Scott to cross the Potomac River to approach General Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah. Still waiting for more artillery and more reinforcements, Patterson had balked.

With the promise of both, however, he was now ready to make his move:

“I cross at daylight to-morrow morning.”3



  1. Rebel Raider: Raphael Semmes’s Cruise in the C. S. S. Sumter by Lieutenant Commander Harpur All Gosnell, University of North Carolina Press, 1948. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p213. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p735. []

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