Victims of their own success

Governor Ellis began purchasing ships to protect the sounds of North Carolina even before North Carolina seceded from the Union on 20 May 1861. I haven’t been able to trace down the date of the first purchase, the Joseph E. Coffee out of Norfolk, but it had to occur between May 1st and 12th of 1861.

The Coffee was stopped while on her regular run to the Eastern Shore by the USS Cumberland on May 1st. The blockade had begun. On May 6th, the brig Lydia Frances ran aground near Hatteras Inlet. On May 12th, the Winslow (formerly the J.E. Coffee) captured the captain and crew, taking them to Hatteras Inlet. Between the 1st and 12th the Coffee had been purchased and fitted out as a commerce raider (actually a state-owned privateer). A short 32-pdr on a pivot had been mounted amidship. A smaller brass cannon had been placed back on top of the cabin.

For the next 12 weeks, privateering saw its heyday off Cape Hatteras. The location was a natural, very close to the shipping lanes with shallow inlets nearby to dash back into with prizes should the large-draft ships of the US Navy attempt to pursue them. A privateer could be out and back with a prize within the same day.

The Winslow had the cape to herself until mid-July, capturing around six prizes before any other privateers came to share this prime territory. The schooner Willet S. Robbins was towed into Ocracoke Inlet in early June, followed by the schooner Transit on June 23rd, the schooner Hannah Balch on the 25th, and the schooner Herbert Manton on the 3rd of July. The bark Linwood ran aground on the 16th of July and was captured by the Winslow the following day. The schooner Charles Roberts,captured in mid-July, turned out to be Confederate on her way to Wilmington.

The Willet S. Robbins, Transit, Hannah Balch, and Herbert Manton were towed to New Bern, where they were to be auctioned off by a prize court. The Transit sold for $2960 and the Herbert Manton for $5000. The Hannah Balch proved to be a Confederate ship in the hands of a prize crew from the USS Flag. Her original crewmen were freed and allowed to sail on to Savannah with her cargo of molasses.

The masters of the Lydia Frances and the Linwood were taken to Raleigh, where they were issued passports and sent back to New Bern. On July 31st, they were allowed to leave New Bern in an open boat purchased by Master Penny of the Linwood. After being detained one day by the commander at Oregon Inlet, they were picked up off the coast by the USS Quaker City and carried to Hampton Roads.

Competition arrived for the Winslow during the third week of July. The Gordon was commissioned as a privateer in Charleston on July 15th. She ran the blockade on the 17th and worked her way up the coast to Hatteras. There she was joined by the tug Mariner from Wilmington and the pilot boat York from Norfolk.

The privateers and the Winslow had a feeding frenzy for the next two weeks. The four ships together accounted for nine prizes in the next eleven days, drawing unwanted attention from northern marine insurance companies and the New York Board of Underwriters. The Federal government found itself under growing pressure to do something about the problem at Hatteras. The privateers were about to become victims of their own success.

The frenzy kicked off on the 25th of July with the Gordon bringing in the brig William McGilvery and the Mariner hauling in the Nathaniel Chase. This was followed by the Gordon capturing the schooner Protector and the York taking the B. T. Martin on the 28th. The Gordon took its third prize in three days on the 29th when it towed the schooner Gordon into port. July ended with the Gordon’s capture of the Priscilla on the 31st.

The biggest day for the privateers came on August 4th; three ships were brought into port on the same day. The Gordon brought in two prizes: the schooner Sea Witch and the schooner Henry Nutt. The venerable Winslow brought in her 9th and final prize: the schooner Itasca.

Five northern marine insurance companies and three members of the New York Board of Underwriters brought pressure on the US Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy with letters on the 9th and 11th of July, respectively. The buck stopped when it reached Admiral Stringham of the Northern Atlantic Blockading Squadron; he had no one to pass the buck to so he took action. Stringham and General Butler began developing plans to attack Hatteras Inlet.

The era of the privateer was about to come to an end at Hatteras. On August 7th, the York captured the George B. Baker from a prize crew of the USS South Carolina. On the 8th, the USS Union captured her back. On August 9th, the York was destroyed by her captain to avoid capture. No more prizes were taken out of Hatteras or Ocracoke Inlets after August 7th. On August 29th, Hatteras Inlet fell to a combined assault by the forces of Admiral Stringham and General Butler. The ere was over.


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