The Capture of the Circassian

Not being an especially wealthy man, I’ve always wondered about my lack of ancestral fortunes. Ask my late father how much money he made and he always replied, “A dollar ninety-eight.” His father was alleged to have passed on partnering with Howard Johnson and the guy who invented the reclining arm chair.  There have always been many “woulda-coulda-shoulda”  regrets expressed during cocktail hour on the back porch.

But Captain Thomas Chatfield, my great-great grandfather, did pretty well by the standards of 19th century Cape Cod by doing his part to make the Right Whale a very endangered species and by assisting in the capture of a British prize ship during the Civil War.. All of which combined managed to afford a really nice old house in the center of the village.

Chatfield couldn’t have made too much money from his whaling years because he was captain for only one voyage of the whaling ship Massachusetts, the same ship he went to the Pacific three times before in his teens and early twenties. In 1858, when he was 27 years old, he was given command of the ship on the recommendation of his wife’s grandfather, Seth Nickerson.  Chatfield sailed from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to the northern Pacific for his one and only voyage as captain, his last aboard the Massachusetts.

I couldn’t figure out how he managed to support himself into his 90s from a single voyage that took place in his late 20s. Whaling captains were very well paid on a share system that saw them get the biggest portion of the profit after the owners, with the remainder divided among the officers, boatsteerers (harpooners) and the ordinary seamen. So there was upside to be earned, but a whaler’s wages never seemed to me to be the kind of pay day that would keep the wolf from the door for six more decades.

Chatfield lived  12 years in row aboard the Massachusetts beginning when he was 17 and first shipped out as a cabin boy.  In 1859, after rescuing his brother-in-law Bethuel Handy from a shipwreck in the ice of the Okhotsk Sea, Chatfield docked the Massachusetts in San Francisco,  shipped her cargo of oil and bone east on a clipper ship, then sold the old Mattapoissett whaler to a local San Francisco merchant, put Bethuel in command and because he missed his wife and daughters, he shipped himself back to Cape Cod via the Panama isthmus.

When the Civil War broke out Chatfield immediately volunteered and was commissioned an “acting volunteer lieutenant” in the U.S. Navy. A lot of whaling captains shipped out on Union war ships, handling the navigation and seamanship while the career officers and Naval Academy graduates managed the gunnery, tactics, and other war stuff. Chatfield received orders to report to the New York Navy Yard where he was given his commission signed by the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, as well as a uniform, saber, and orders to sail to report aboard a freshly built Staten Island steam ferry, the U.S.S. Somerset.

Chatfield described the Somerset in his Reminiscences:

“The Somerset was simply a Ferry boat of the size of those plying in Boston Harbor. She had been bought by the government while on the stocks, had been strengthened to enable her to support a battery, and was designed for service on the blockade, and for river work. Her battery consisted of two nine-inch smooth bore Dahlgren guns placed on pivot carriages, one on each end, and four long thirty-two pounders in broadside: a very effective fighting craft in smooth water, but next to worthless in a sea. Her crew consisted of one naval lieutenant, commanding, four acting masters, and four acting master’s mates – these of the line. Her staff officers were one acting first assistant (chief), and three second assistant engineers, paymaster and surgeon, with enlisted men sufficient to number one hundred and thirty, of all ranks: and she had no spars, simply two flag-staffs.”

U.S.S. Somerset

The Somerset was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Earl English, a 33-year old graduate of the Naval Academy who had been severely wounded only a few years before in the assault on the Barrier Forts at Canton during the Opium Wars of 1856. He had started his career in 1840 as a midshipman aboard the U.S. frigate Constellation, then was assigned to Annapolis, graduating in ‘46 and then assigned to the frigate Independence on the California coast during the Mexican War. Chatfield’s peer in age, but superior by far in naval credentials, English was highly respected by Thomas is his letters home to his wife in Cotuit and later in his reminiscences.

The orders to take a double-ended, flat-bottomed Staten Island ferry out of New York Harbor and into the open Atlantic was cause for concern as the Somerset received orders directly from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to sail to Key West and join the East Gulf Squadron and its blockade of the Florida coastline. The fact that the ferry was steam powered and could out-maneuver any sailing vessel would have made it an invaluable vessel. On April 13, 1862, the Somerset and her sister-ship the U.S.S. Fort Henry sailed south in company, only to have to put in at Hampton Roads, Virginia when the Henry’s machinery made it impossible to go in reverse. There Chatfield was able to tour the ironclad Monitor, fresh from its battle with the Merrimac.

Thos. Chatfield

After an uneventful voyage from the Chesapeake to Key West, the Somerset refueled and reprovisioned, let its boilers cool down, and was then ordered to patrol the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. That same spring of ‘62, Admiral David Farragut and the West Gulf Squadron had successfully attacked and captured New Orleans. Welles ordered English and the crew of the Somerset to keep a keen eye for any Confederate blockade runners trying to rush cotton to England’s mills as the ports of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were closed by the Union Navy.

On her maiden patrol in the Straits of Florida, the Somerset steamed within sight of the coast of Cuba west of Havana. What ensued that Sunday, May 4, 1862 wouldn’t conclude until a Supreme Court decision three years later.

Chatfield writes:

“I think it was the fourth day out: the weather was a beautiful morning, wind light, sea smooth: and being Sunday the crew were dressed in white. I had charge of the deck from eight to twelve. At nine o’clock we sighted a large, square rigged steamer coming from the eastward. We were then some half way between Havana and Matanzas, and some six miles off shore. I headed the Somerset for the steamer, shaping her course so as to intercept her, and notified Capt. English: and very soon everyone was one deck, all agog for what might turn up. We passed within easy hail. We were turning the helm astarboard to fall quickly in her wake. Capt. English hailed “What ship is that?” The answer came: “The British ship Circassian.” Then from our Captain: “This is the U.S. Str. Somerset. Hove too, I’ll send a boat aboard of you.” The answer came quick “Havn’t got time.”

“This conversation lasted say thirty seconds. Immediately the order “Beat to Quarters” was given, and the drummer was ready with his drum, and within not more than two minutes a blank cartridge (a peremptory order to hove to) loomed from gun No. 1. No notice was taken of that. Next came the order: “Solid shot across her quarter point blank. Don’t hit her,” and a minute after the shot plunged up the water a short distance of her starboard quarter. No notice was taken of that either. Next the order came “Load pivot with five-second shell: elevate seventeen hundred yards. Fire to hit.” Now that order might seem inconsistent. The five-second shell would explode at thirteen hundred yards: four hundred yards short, had the ship been distant seventeen hundred yards. But Captain English did not wish to injure the ships hull, but to explode the shell over her. The aim was true, and the distance well estimated: the shell cut one gang of her forerigging off just under the top, and exploded over her forecastle, scattering the pieces about her deck. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her engines stopped immediately, and she came too with helm aport, and lay until we came up to her.”

The Circassian

The Somersets boarding party examined the ship’s papers, learned she was British owned and sailing under British flag and therefore ostensibly a neutral ship. But finding irregularities with the Circassian’s lack of a destination, Commander English declared the ship was a blockade runners and seized her and her cargo as a prizes of war. The British captain argued that the ship was very neutral despite having sailed from New Orleans before Farragut captured it, and now that he had captured it, the blockade of the port was no longer in effect because Farragut lifted it when he occupied the city and took it for the Union. Doubtlessly perturbed by the Captain’s convoluted interpretation of admiralty law, English ignored the protests and had the Circassian taken under tow by the Somerset because his own engineers didn’t know how to start the captured ship’s boilers and her own black gang refused to cooperate.

Chatfield writes:

“We took the big brute in tow, first transferring her crew, with the exception of her officers, steward and two of her engineers, to the Somerset, placing them under guard: and in that shape started for Key West: and with the help of the Gulf Stream were off Sand Key (entrance of Key West Harbor) early the next forenoon: and a novel sight it must have been to onlookers. That ferry boat, looking more like a big sea turtle than a war ship, creeping into the harbor with that big square rigged ocean steamer in tow..”

A fan of of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubreyad gets the concept of naval prizes. Basically it was a very legal and enriching form of commercialized sailing with large amounts of gunpowder involved. It was the basis of some big British admiralty fortunes and was still in effect during the Civil War for officers and crews in both the Union and Confederate fleets, not to be discontinued for another couple decades.

If an enemy vessel — naval or merchant — was captured, it was then auctioned off by a Naval Prize Court who dispersed the proceeds on a formula not too different from the share system used on New England whalers. The Admiral overseeing the operation, even if not aboard the victorious ship, got a percentage. The commander of the ship got a big share, and then every other officer and sailor got a piece of the action. If the ship was full of gold, then an ordinary seaman could receive as much as five years pay from a single prize. Often the capture got tied up in the courts, which was the story of the Circassian in the decade following the end of the Civil War. If you want to read the Supreme Court opinion, click here. The opinion was penned by Justice Salmon Chase and gives all the details a lawyer or admiralty law geek could ask for. The New York Times published an editorial  on the matter which basically said “huzzah” to the court and sneered “…we think that foreign Governments will hesitate before they treat the judgments of that tribunal as so wanting in equity as to justify reprisals.”

While the cargo was disposed of and the Circassian’s owners lawyered up, the Somerset went on to have an illustrious series of actions along the western coast of Florida, freeing slaves, busting up saltworks and maintaining the blockade. A great and very detailed history (sourced in part from Chatfield’s war letters and accounts) of the ship’s subsequent actions can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.

The New York Times  reported on the sale of the Circassian’s cargo. It was a very rich prize:

“A portion of the cargo of the prize steamer Circassian, was sold yesterday at No. 18 Murray-street, by Mr. JONES, auctioneer, by order of JAMES C. CLAPP, Esq., United States Marshal for the District of Florida. There was a large attendance of buyers, and the bidding was very spirited, as the articles offered were, in the main, of a superior description.

The sale opened with a case of porcelain articles embracing vases, fruit dishes, wine coolers, and mantel ornaments, 30 pieces, which were purchased at $140. One case of hardware containing one dozen carpenter’s pencils, one dozen tower nippers, quarter dozen coach wrenches, four dozen C.S. gimlets, assorted: two dozen boxwood rules, half dozen Kent hammers, half dozen saddler’s hammers, half dozen bright garden hammers, half dozen hatchets, half dozen claw hatchets, hail dozen turn-screws, London, was sold at $295.

A case containing miscellaneous articles of French manufacture, glass tubes, leather spectacle cases, and fancy articles in general, was bought by Mr. S. HOUSEMAN at $1,200. There were 107 lots offered in all, which brought prices varying from $25 to $1,200. The proceeds of the sale will amount to about $100,000.

In August last, the first part of the cargo of this steamer was sold for $125,000. The vessel has since been appraised and taken by the Government at $107,000. The brandies she had on board will be sold on Tuesday next, by Mr. HEWLETT SCUDDER, at the store in Park-place, and it is expected they will realize $100,000.”

By war’s end the Circassian stood as one of its richest prizes with a gross value of $352,313.

How much of that went into the ancestral pocket will never be known. Chatfield was a frugal guy who supported a big family of daughters and son-in-laws as well as his own siblings and parents back in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson. How he managed to finish his whaling career at the age of 33, spend three years in the Navy, then return home to Cotuit and prosper is probably due in part to some of the Circassian prize money. That windfall and his own thriftiness probably allowed him to own the Joseph Eaton, a coastal schooner he captained until his 50s hauling granite from Maine to Albany for the construction of the State Capitol. He also managed to own two Greek Revival houses across the street from each other in Cotuit’s center, using one for sleeping the other for eating, with a Wampanoag woman cooking in a shed called “Little Mashpee”, and daughters, son-in-laws and grandchildren scattered between two other cottages. In his reminiscences he mentions the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that sparked a two-decade “Long Depression.” He never was wealthy, but by Cape Cod standards any whaling captain was the 19th century equivalent of a hedge fund cowboy. It has been said that Nantucket and New Bedford were the wealthiest cities in the world per capita at the zenith of the whale oil market in the 1820s and some substantial Quaker fortunes live on to this day such as the Howland’s (Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street”). At least one of Chatfield’s daughters married a wealthy man, Freeman Hodges, an Osterville native who worked for Henry Flagler as his real estate “front man” — buying up the land that would be the right-of-way for Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that ultimately would terminate in Key West.

In his retirement Chatfield made and mended sails in the sail loft at 854 Main Street, the same loft where he held the first meeting of Cotuit’s Masonic Mariner’s Lodge. His sailmaker’s bench, his leather sailmaker’s palm, massive fids for splicing hawsers, blocks and sheaves: all still hang from the rafters.

The sad end to this story is the wreck of the ill-fated Circassian in the late fall of 1876 on the southern shore of Long Island near Shinnecock Inlet. Despite several very heroic small boat rescues and weatherong two gales and multiple attempts to float her steel hull ship off the beach, the Circassian went down with a skeleton crew of Shinnecock Indians put aboard to salvage her, but who were trapped by a third fatal storm that killed all but four survivors.

A great story published by TheHamptons.com describes the end of the Circassian:

“Every home on the Reservation had been affected because so many of their lost men belonged to the same families and so many of the families were interrelated. The two Walkers were brothers; the three Bunns cousins. The Cuffees too were of the same family, two brothers and a cousin. Andrew Kellis had left work on the Circassian a week before to start on a whaling voyage; now another Kellis brother was out on the beaches looking for Oliver. Every house was in mourning. All three of the tribe s Trustees were dead, and all of the men lost were married with the exception of William Cuffee. In one house a woman lost a husband and a brother; in another a husband and a brother-in-law. Her daughter, with several young children, was also made a widow. In all, nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children were left behind. Long Island history has never seen any shipwreck so devastating to so many closely related families. Brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins were all lost. “

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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