By Jeff McCord
It’s no wonder that President Lincoln wanted the Virgin Islands. By 1863, the second year of the Civil War (which began in April, 1861), Union patience was being stretched thin by “rebel pirates” and “English rebel agents” frequenting then Danish and neutral St. Thomas, to quote Rear-Admiral Charles Wilkes, Commander of the U.S. West Indies Squadron in a dispatch to Washington, DC headquarters.
Admiral Wilkes was not a man to trifle with. Previously court-martialled for severe treatment of his own men during an Antarctica expedition he commanded, some believe Wilkes was the model for Herman Melville’s half-mad Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick.” And, searching for Confederate ships back in 1861, Wilkes had illegally blockaded the neutral British island of Bermuda and even fired upon the Trent, a Royal Mail Steamer, forcing it to stop. He then boarded the vessel and arrested two Confederate diplomats found on-board, causing a crisis that nearly led to war with Great Britain, which was profitably trading with the South.
Now, in early 1863, he commanded several formidable war ships in the West Indies and was keeping an eye on St. Thomas. With one of the best harbors and marine repair facilities in the Caribbean, Danish St. Thomas was the Western Hemisphere headquarters of the British Royal Mail Steamship company and a major provisioning port for steamers and sailing vessels crossing the Atlantic and traveling between South and North America.
Confederate blockade runners and privateers were also using St. Thomas for coaling, repairs and provisioning. They frequently attacked Union ships in nearby waters. “Rebel cruisers have been roving unrestrained upon the seas, terrifying our merchant ships, and committing fearful havoc upon our commerce,” Admiral Wilkes later explained when accused of overzealousness in the West Indies.
One example of “fearful havoc” by the Confederate privateer Retribution was the capture on January 17, 1863 of the J. P. Ellicott, a Bucksport, Maine-based merchant vessel. She was caught within one day’s sail of St. Thomas. First flying a U.S. flag, the Retribution approached the Ellicott and ordered it to “hove to” for boarding. The armed Confederate boarders led by Gilbert Hay found that the Ellicott’s small crew included the wives of the captain and first mate. Hay declared the boat a prize to be taken to a port and sold. He ordered all of the Ellicott’s crew removed to the Retribution, with the unfortunate exception of the First Mate’s wife who was held with the boarding party, the Bangor Daily News has reported.
During the night, when the Retribution had disappeared beyond the horizon, the “First Mate’s wife” (whose name was not revealed in reports due to Victorian era delicacy) either feared “bad usage” from her captors or may have been raped. Sources differ on whether she was assaulted. What happened next, however, made the First Mate’s wife a hero throughout the North. As suffragette Susan B. Anthony told the story in an 1881 history of women during the War, the captive “formed a bold plan” to capture the boat. Retrieving liquor stored in the main cabin, she enticed Confederate leader Hay and his second in command Thomas Gilbert to drink until they passed out. She then clapped them in irons. With the help of two disgruntled Confederate crewmen (who had naively thought the Retribution was a blockade runner rather than a privateer), she accurately navigated the Ellicott to St. Thomas.
One of Admiral Wilkes’ officers was in port when she appeared. He discovered that the privateer leader Hay, still safely in irons on board, was “an old offender,” having previously commanded another Rebel privateer. And, his associate Gilbert had previously deserted from an American ship visiting St. Thomas.
More importantly, though, it was learned that a few days before seizing the Ellicott, the Confederate privateer Retribution had itself been in St. Thomas for re-provisioning. There, she had been joined by another Southern ship, the Dixie, which, in violation of Danish neutrality, had transferred three new cannons, ammunition and rigging to the Retribution.
When Admiral Wilkes later arrived at St. Thomas with several warships, the Danish governor likely feared the U.S. Navy would take over the island. He promptly met with Wilkes and “attempted to excuse” the actions of the Retribution and Dixie, seeking to escape “all blame,” the Admiral said in a letter to Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy.
About one month later, on February 19, 1863, while the formidable U.S.S. Vanderbilt remained in St. Thomas harbor, a Danish ship brought in the crew and passengers of the S.S. Jacob Bell, a clipper ship returning with tea from China that had been captured and burned by the Confederate raider C.S.S. Florida. The outraged commander of the Vanderbilt told his superiors he would “scour the seas in pursuit and God defend the right.”
Rather than the Florida, however, just days later the Vanderbilt actually captured the British steamer Peterhoff, which had departed St. Thomas harbor where she had cleared Danish customs following a transatlantic voyage. Although the ship was officially bound for the Mexican port of Matamoras (located on the border opposite Confederate Brownsville, TX), a crew member let slip that she was really going to Brownsville. And, prior to being boarded, “a package sewed up in canvas weighted with lead so as to sink it, and was spoken of by the captain as dispatches” had been thrown overboard, according to testimony in a later court hearing. They were actually letters to Southern Secretary of State Judah Benjamin from his agents in Britain, Confederate Naval Records prove.
The Peterhoff, which was carrying mostly military stores no doubt destined for Texas, was condemned in a New York prize court, bought by the U.S. Navy and converted to help blockade the Southern port of Wilmington, NC (home of the privateer Retribution). Sadly, off Hampton Roads, VA, the Peterhoff was mistaken at night for a Confederate blockade runner and sunk by a Navy warship.
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on Amazon.com: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.