Capture by the Confederate Ship Sumter of Two Federal Merchant Barques off GibraltarThe Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1129, p. 113.
TWO FEDERAL MERCHANT BARQUES OFF GIBRALTAR
The gentleman to whom we are indebted for the Illustration on the next page writes as follows from Gibraltar, on the 18th ult. respecting the subject of his sketch:—"At 7.30 a.m., Jan. 18, the Confederate war-steamer Sumter, Captain Semmes, was seen from the signal-station to capture a large barque flying the Union colours. Having taken possession of her, she proceeded in chase of another, which in half an hour she also captured. These events occurred about two leagues from the shore. She then gradually drifted further into the Mediterranean; and at 2 p.m. one of the prizes burst into flames, and is now (4p.m.) one sheet of fire from stem to stern. The Sumter is now steering towards Gibraltar."
A letter from Gibraltar, dated Jan. 20, published in the Times, gives the following interesting account of the Sumter's doings in the Mediterranean, and of the condition of the ship and crew:—
You will have already heard by telegraph of the arrival of the Sumter in this bay. On Friday night (the 17th) a message was received here saying that she had left Cadiz, but that her course was not known. As the wind was favourable for the passage of vessels through the Straits to the westward, it was thought not unlikely that she would steam for Gibraltar, with the object of intercepting the many Federal merchantmen homeward bound.
On Saturday morning signal was made from the look-out on the summit of the rock that the Sumter was six miles to the eastward, capturing two large Federal ships. The news, as may be imagined, caused the greatest excitement, and everybody rushed out to catch a glimpse of the privateer and her prey.
The seizure was accomplished easily enough: no defence could be made. A boat's crew was sent on board, the Federal flag hauled down, and the thing was done. The cruiser was evidently used to her work. No time was lost in searching the prizes, the few valuable effects were removed, the match was lighted, and in another moment the blazing ship was fast drifting away with the current. When evening closed the flames were still visible, darting upwards in fitful flashes on the eastern horizon. The first ship taken was loaded with sulphur, consigned, as the master endeavoured to make out, to Baring Brothers; but, as Captain Semmes afterwards remarked, sulphur being the principal ingredient of gunpowder, and its exportation from England being just at this time prohibited, it was considered as well to destroy it, especially as the master had no papers to show. The other vessel taken, a large barque, proved to be laden with an English cargo; so she was released, and came in here yesterday.
In the evening of Saturday the Sumter anchored in this bay. On Sunday I went on board, most anxious to see the celebrated craft that has led the Federal Navy a dance over so many miles of ocean. When going alongside I could scarcely believe that so poor a vessel could have escaped so many dangers. She is a screw-steamer, with three masts, a funnel strangely out of proportion to her size, and a tall, black hull, so high out of water that she gives you the idea of being insufficiently ballasted. Four 32-pounders peeped from her sides, and a large 8-inch pivot-gun was on her main-deck forward. Before she was fitted for her present work she was a passenger-ship running between New Orleans and the Havannah. Her unsightly appearance arises from the alterations that have been made in her decks. In order to afford more accommodation, and to give more cover for the engines and guns, a light, temporary flush-deck has been built over what was originally the only deck of the ship. This raises her an additional ten feet out of water, and at the same time dwarfs her masts and funnel. She is crank and leaky. Her engines are partially above the lower-deck, and, with the object of preserving them from the effects of gunshot, they are surrounded by a cylindrical casing of 6-inch wood covered with half-inch bars—a very poor protection against an 8-inch shot. Her officers and crew number ninety in all. The latter are a hardy set of fellows, ready for any work—men who would stick at nothing. They are of all nations—even the Irish brogue was among them. The commander, Captain Semmes, is a reserved, determined-looking man, whose left hand knows not what his right doeth. He received me most courteously, and took me over his ship.
It is stated that the Sumter has been seen in Genoese waters, a few leagues off the port.