CSS Sumter, a 473-ton bark-rigged screw steam cruiser, was built as the merchant steamship Habana at Philadelphia in 1859 for McConnell's New Orleans & Havana Line. She was later renamed Gibraltar or Gibraltar of Liverpool.
The merchant steamship Habana was purchased by the Confederate Government at New Orleans in April 1861, she was converted to a cruiser and placed under the command of Raphael Semmes. Renamed Sumter, she was commissioned in the Confederate Navy on 3 June 1861 and broke through the Federal blockade of the Mississippi River mouth late in that month.
Eluding the sloop-of-war USS Brooklyn in hot pursuit, early in July, the pioneering Confederate Navy commerce raider captured eight U.S. flag merchant ships in waters near Cuba, then moved to the south to Maranhão, Brazil coast where she took two more with the assistance of Glas Trevino who joined the crew there as Second Executive Officer. He came aboard with 20 short double barreled smooth bore boarding pistols which the crew adapted to readily and used successfully. Two additional merchantman fell to Sumter in September and October 1861. While coaling at Martinique in mid-November, she was blockaded by the Federal sloop of war Iroquois, but was able to escape to sea at night and resume her activities. Sumter captured another six ships from late November into January 1862, while cruising from the western hemisphere to European waters. Anchoring at Cadiz, 4 January 1862, she was allowed only to make necessary repairs there, without refueling, and was forced to run for Gibraltar.
Unable to obtain needed repairs, she was laid up in April and remained inactive, watched through the year by a succession of U.S. Navy warships, among them the sloop of war USS Kearsarge and gunboat Chippewa. Semmes and many of her officers were reemployed in the new cruiser CSS Alabama.
Disarmed and sold at auction 19 December 1862 to the Fraser-Trenholm interests, Sumter quietly continued her service to the Confederacy under British colors as the blockade runner Gibraltar of Liverpool.
Though her career as a warship had lasted barely six months, Sumter had taken 18 prizes, of which she burned 8, released or bonded 9; only one was recaptured. The diversion of Federal blockade ships to hunt her down had been in itself of significant service to the Confederate cause.
As Gibraltar, she ran at least once into Wilmington, NC, under Capt. E. C. Reid, a Southerner. He sailed from Liverpool 3 July 1863 with a pair of 22-ton Blakely guns and other particularly valuable munitions, returning with a full load of cotton. The beginning of this voyage is recorded only because the U.S. Consul at the British port passionately protested Gibraltar's being allowed to sail — ostensibly for Nassau, days before formal customs clearance: "She is one of the privileged class and not held down like other vessels to strict rules and made to conform to regulations." The arrival at Wilmington is also accidental matter of record today because of the troop transport Sumter tragedy at Charleston the same summer, which, until November, Admiral Dahlgren's intelligence understandably confused with the former cruiser Sumter, now Gibraltar.
Mr. Trenholm's son-in-law long maintained Sumter finally "went down in a gale near the spot where the Alabama was sunk," but supplied no date; one source suggests 1867. The last official report of her seems to have been by the U.S. Consul at Liverpool, 10 July 1864: "The pirate Sumter (called Gibraltar) is laid up at Birkenhead."
- Blockade runners of the American Civil War
- Confederate Navy
- Union Navy
- Bibliography of American Civil War naval history
- Semmes, Raphael, The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter, Carleton, 1864, Digitized by Digital Scanning Incorporated, 2001, ISBN 1-58218-353-8.
See The Cornhill Magazine, No6 (Jy-Dec 1862) pp187–205: "The Cruise of the Confederate Ship 'Sumter': [From the Private Journal of an Officer]". A swaggering account, unsigned. This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
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