Wednesday, July 06, 2011

150 Years Ago: the Sumter's Prizes

Portrait drawing of American Civil War Confede...Image via Wikipedia

On Saturday, July 6, 1861, Confederate raider Raphael Semmes, commanding the C.S.S. Sumter, arrived at Cienfuegos, Cuba, with seven prizes of war -- "the brigantines Cuba, Machias, Ben Dunning, Albert Adams, Naiad; and barques West Wind and Louisa Kilham, property of citizens of the United States."

After running the blockade on June 30, Semmes had been a busy man.  On July 3, he captured an American merchant vessel, the Golden Rocket, off the coast of Cuba.  The ship's Northern ownership was confirmed and she had no cargo (she was searching Cuban ports for a load of sugar), so there was nothing left to adjudicate.  Semmes ordered the Golden Rocket burned.

On July 4, he captured two more merchant vessels, the Cuba and the Machias.  These were U.S. ships with neutral cargoes, so, following the laws of the sea, Semmes took them to a neutral port for adjudication of the cargoes.  Cienfuegos was convenient, but Semmes had another reason for taking them to Cuba.  From his official report:
I have sought a port of Cuba with these prizes, with the expectation that Spain will extend to cruisers of the Confederate States the same friendly reception that in similar circumstances she would extend to the cruisers of the enemy; in other words, that she will permit me to leave the captured vessels within her jurisdiction until they can be adjudicated by a Court of Admiralty of the Confederate States.
The Sumter arrived at Cienfuegos on the evening of July 5 with her prizes, but it was too late to enter the harbor.  While loitering outside the harbor, two ships were spotted.  The Sumter gave chase and soon captured them as well.  Before she could enter the harbor on the morning of July 6, a steamer was spotted towing three more U.S. ships out of the harbor.  Semmes waited until the ships were in international waters, then captured them too.

The Cuban authorities were at a loss.  They had no instructions for a situation such as this.  While the Cubans waited to see if Spain would, like England and France, declare its neutrality, Semmes appointed a local citizen as a "prize agent" to protect the ships and their cargo.

Semmes hoped "that some of the nations, at least, would give an asylum for my prizes, so that I may have them formally condemned by the Confederate States Prize Court, instead of being obliged to destroy them."

Spain soon issued a proclamation of neutrality, and the Cuban authorities released the vessels to the United States.
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