The blockade runner that a Maine sailor helped capture off Cuba became an American warship.
A Rockland merchant captain, E.C. Healy, joined the Navy as an acting master and wound up aboard the USS Somerset, a side-wheel ferry launched at a Brooklyn, New York yard in early 1862. Measuring 151 feet in length and 32 feet, 4 inches wide, the steam-powered Somerset drew 16 feet and displayed 529 tons.
The Navy purchased the ship on March 4, 1862 and equipped her at the New York Navy Yard with six cannons: two nine-inch smoothbores and four 32-pounders. Commanded by Lt. Earl English, the crew numbered 110 officers and enlisted men when the Navy commissioned the Somerset on April 3.
Healy was aboard when the warship left New York to join the East Coast Blockading Squadron. After reaching Key West on April 27, the Somerset reached took on coal, then steamed across the Florida Straits on May 1 to search for Confederate blockade runners off Cuba.
With Spain neutral in the American Civil War, ships inbound from Europe unloaded Southern-bound cargo at Havana for transferal to blockade runners. Similar scenarios existed in the British-held Bahamas and Bermuda.
English was patrolling about 10 miles off the Cuban coast, “near Bahia Honda,” on Sunday, May 4 when his lookouts spotted “a large English-built steamer, the Circassion [sic], of London,” reported the Boston Journal. Displaying an American flag, the Somerset “stood toward the stranger,” which displayed an English flag.
“I stood down for her, crossed her bow, rounded to, and hailed, having hoisted the American ensign,” English reported. “Ordered her to heave to, so as to allow me to send a boat alongside, to which he made no audible reply, but proceeded directly on his course.”
“She answered the hail of the American evasively and declined to stop,” the newspaper reported, so English “ordered a blank shot fired, which they paid no attention to, keeping under full speed.”
English then ordered “a ball … fired across her bow, and another over her stern,” but the Circassian ignored the shells. “When a shell was thrown clear over her and was seen to explode far beyond the ship,” English realized the vessel “was still pressing on, and being much the fastest vessel was likely to escape.” the newspaper recounted.
This would not do/ English “then told his men to hit her, which they did,” the well-aimed shot “carrying away the main rigging on one side,” the Boston paper reported.
“I ordered a shell to be fired into him, which took effect in his fore rigging,” English wrote.
The Circassian hove to, and English sent a boarding party to examine the ship and crew.
Her holds crammed with “a cargo of tea, silk, coffee, and munitions of war, of a value reported as high as $1,000,000, the Circassian was “an old vessel, sparingly fitted out, and in bad order,” according to the Boston Journal. The ship’s papers “were found to be irregular, but showed” the cargo was loaded “at Bordeaux and consigned nowhere in particular [original italics].
“Two persons were found on board who claimed to be passengers, but who are believed to be [the] owners, or supercargoes,” the Boston Journal noted.
“Finding (so far as I am able to judge) his papers not in accordance with the customary forms, and from statements made by some of his crew, I felt justified in taking possession of her, which I did,” English wrote.
He put aboard a prize crew commanding by Acting Master William A. Arthur, and both ships sailed for Key West.
On May 7 “quite a stir was caused in our town … by two steamers seen running for our harbor, both moving slow and in line,” noted the Boston Journal’s Key West correspondent.
The Somerset towed the Circassian to the Navy station, and “the ship was at once placed in the custody of the Admiralty Court, which is now engaged in the examination of the case,” he wrote.
The Circassian’s crewmen, still aboard the ship, “all refused to do any further labor” as of May 6, and if they knew the ship’s ultimate destination, they did not talk. The Boston Journal reporter said, “There is no doubt but the whole enterprise was designed for the use and benefit of our rebels.”
Flag-Officer William M. McKean, who commanded the East Gulf Squadron, had ordered English “to send his prizes, if seaworthy, to … Boston for adjudication.” Because the Circassian’s “engineers … having refused duty immediately upon her capture” and because the ship “would require a large engineer force to work her to the North,” McKean ordered the ship’s fate “adjudicated” at Key West.
Because Healy was a local man, the Rockland Gazette published the Journal’s story and noted that Healy “must be entitled to a very handsome sum of prize-money, as his share of so valuable a prize.”
The Circassian measured 241 feet from stem to stern and displaced 1,750 tons. The prize court learned the ship was in much better shape than the Boston reporter thought, so the Navy bought the Circassian on November 8, 1862.
Re-equipped in New York and commissioned on December 12, the USS Circassian served as a supply ship throughout the war, but did capture two Confederate vessels.
Sources: Capture of the Circassian, Rockland Gazette, Thursday, May 29, 1862; Lt. Earl English, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 17, pp. 231-232; Flag-Officer William N. McKean, ORN, Series 1, Vol. 17, pp. 232
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Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.