How wise was the decision?

How wise was the decision by the state of North Carolina to buy the steamer Joseph Coffee and turn her into a state-owned commerce raider? Haywood W. Guion, one of the three original members of the state’s Military and Naval Board, warned board secretary Warren Winslow of the danger in taking prizes. He wrote from Beaufort, “As we are taking prizes, and privateers from Wilmington and Charleston are coming here, the U. S. will certainly make some efforts to break up this nest; that is, if they have not been bereft of their senses.

Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge, second in command of the USS Cumberland, wrote a letter to Secretary of War Gideon Wells dated 10 August 1861 suggesting just such an expedition to Hatteras. He describes the coast of North Carolina as “infested with a nest of privateers that have thus far escaped capture.” He identifies Hatteras Inlet as being their “principal rendezvous.” A formidable expedition sailed from Fortress Monroe for Hatteras on 26 August 1861 in response to this and similar suggestions.

How wise was the prize-taking decision? How much money did she bring into North Carolina’s coffers? Did the disruption caused to Northern commerce offset the cost to Southern commerce caused by the strengthening of the Union blockade in response to it? The Confederacy lost the northern coast of North Carolina, a major destination of blockade runners importing sorely needed contraband from the West Indies. They also lost the back door to Gosport, their most valuable shipyard. Gosport was abandoned eight months after the fall of Hatteras. Were sixteen sailing schooners and brigs worth that price?


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