Tuesday, June 28, 2011

150 Years Ago: the St. Nicholas

On Friday, June 28, 1861, a band of Confederates captured the side-wheel steamer St. Nicholas as it made its regular run between Baltimore and Washington.

The plan was hatched by two Marylanders, George Hollins and Richard Thomas.  Hollins, who had joined the U.S. Navy in 1814 at age 15, had recently resigned his commission.  He was commissioned a captain in the Confederate Navy on June 20, 1861.  Richard Thomas was a shady character who had dropped out of West Point in 1850.  In the years before the Civil War, he was said to have fought as a mercenary in China.  He was also said to have fought with Garabaldi in Italy.  When the war started, he was calling himself Richard Thomas Zarvona.

Their plan was to capture the St. Nicholas, a passenger ship that provided supplies to various Union vessels in Chesapeake Bay, and use it to capture the U.S.S. Pawnee, one of the U.S. Navy's most powerful warships.  Virginia Governor John Letcher was excited about the plan and gave them $1000 to carry it out.  Thomas traveled to Baltimore where he bought weapons and recruited members of the raiding party.

When the steamer left Baltimore on June 28, there were around 60 passengers on board, including 16 men who had been recruited by Thomas posing as paying passengers.  But Thomas was nowhere to be found.  George Watt, one of the recruits, later said, "What worried me a lot was I couldn’t find the Colonel or anyone who looked like him.  I could see the future of the whole expedition as also I could see myself behind bars in Ft. McHenry, and the picture didn’t look a bit good to me."

Thomas was on board, disguised as a flirtatious Frenchwoman named Madame LaForce.  Watt later described "her" as "a mighty pretty young woman, stylishly dressed, flirting outrageously with some of the young officers.  She talked with a strong French accent and carried a fan which she used like a Spanish dancer.  That young woman behaved so scandalously that all the other women on the boat were in a terrible state over it."  Other passengers said she was petite, wore a hoop skirt and covered her face with a veil that exposed only her bright red lips.  Mme. LaForce soon retired to her cabin to sort through three trunks of fine French hats.

George Hollins boarded the steamer at its first stop at Point Lookout.  Soon, the band of pirates met up in the Frenchwoman's room.  There, in the three trunks under the fine French hats, were the weapons.  They quickly armed themselves, then took over the ship.  With Hollins now in command, they locked the Union soldiers and the ship's crew in the hold, then landed on the Virginia bank of the Chesapeake to pick up a crew of Confederate soldiers.

They eventually learned that the Pawnee, the object of the mission, had been recalled to Washington, so they headed toward the Rappahannock.  En route they encountered and captured three more merchant vessels, the Monticello, loaded with 3500 bags of Brazilian coffee, the Mary Pierce and her 200 tons of ice, and the Margaret, with 270 tons of coal. 

The band became instant celebrities in the Confederacy.  Hollins soon received a promotion to commodore and was sent to New Orleans to command the naval forces there at the end of July.  Thomas met with Virginia Governor John Letcher, who commissioned him as a colonel in the active volunteer forces of the State.  On July 8, he would try another daring mission, to capture the Columbia, a sister ship of the St. Nicholas.  But the captain of the St. Nicholas was on board, on his way home after being released by the Confederate authorities.  He recognized the men and they were arrested.  Thomas was finally exchanged in 1863 and spent the remainder of the war in Europe.

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