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Sentinels and Saviors of the Sea – the Capture of the Revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil – Semper Paratus.

The Capture of the Revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing
Secretary Chase slammed his fist down onto his desk. Reports of a rebel raider ravaging the sea lanes continued. Telegrams from congressmen, statesmen, businessmen and others continued to pour upon his desk in a constant stream. Something, he demanded, had to be done. He quickly drew up a missive and ordered one of his officers to see that it was delivered immediately to Captain John McGowan in command of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Cuyahoga. The rebellious raiders were driving a distinctive spike in the slithery skin of the grip of the proverbial snake that was at the heart of Operation Anaconda. The Confederates would lose the war Secretary Chase knew if the suffocating grip of the naval strategy could be effectively met. A messenger transmitted the orders to the Cuyahoga. “Remember,” Secretary Chase wrote in his orders to Captain McGowan, “as the rebel may change to another vessel or may have other vessels engaged in like depredations, you will visit everyone you overhaul and satisfy yourself as to her true character, not allowing yourself to be deceived by any device such as change of vessel, rig, paint, or flag. Respect neutral ships and property, but capture whatever is rebel, however disguised.

Conceal the warlike character of your own ship as much as may be necessary. If your crew is not full, call for volunteers from other revenue vessels for this cruise.” In short order, the U.S. Revenue cutter set out into the Atlantic in search of the C.S.S. Clarence. It would be just one of the forty-seven armed vessels ordered to steam into the Atlantic Ocean to search for a lone mysterious rebel raider.
A few weeks earlier a young lieutenant aged only twenty-three and already a veteran of several naval engagements stopped as he reached the hatch to his commander’s quarters. He was not sure as to why he hesitated. He took a deep breath and collected his thoughts. He was resolved that his part to serve the Confederate forces at sea would be met best if he took the initiative. As he reached up to knock on the door he reflected that with nothing ventured nothing would be gained. He rapped heavily on the hatch. He was ordered to enter. “Good Day Lieutenant Read,” the captain offered. “What is on your mind?”
Lieutenant Charles W. Read, an Annapolis graduate from the class of 1860 had resigned his U.S. Navy commission to serve his native south was offered a seat and he immediately outlined his bold and daring plan. The young lieutenant dove directly to his point with his commanding officer. He requested the opportunity for command of the Clarence, a brig captured a few days earlier, so that he could set out and continue to harass and raid federal commerce along the eastern seaboard.[1] Captain John N. Maffitt eased back in his chair and stroked his beard. Maffitt had seen the lieutenant in action and was confident in his ability for command. He stood up and offered his hand to the lieutenant. The two Confederate naval officers shook hands. “The C.S.S. Clarence is yours Lieutenant Read. I wish you the best on the hunt.”
With his men selected, Lieutenant Read transferred a howitzer, small arms, and ammunition to his new charge. Shortly after and to the hearty cheers of their confederate shipmates lining the gunwales aboard the C.S.S. Florida Lieutenant Read and his band of twenty-one rebel rousers set off on their voyage northward to the waters of the Chesapeake. As the brig sliced through the waters of the Atlantic, Lieutenant Read drilled his sailors and readied them for combat. He also tasked the sailors with whittling fake long guns from wood to give the appearance to her intended victims that she was more potent. What the C.S.S. Clarence lacked in armament was buoyed by the spirit and resolve of the sailors and their fierce resentment for the federal government.
The bark Whistling Winds was the first war prize for the daring band of raiders. After a successful transfer of the bark’s officers and crew, the bark was set aflame. The following day C.S.S. Clarence captured the Alfred H. Partridge a schooner bound for Matamoras, Mexico with a cargo of arms and clothing for Texas. Convinced that the goods were bound for his fellow brethren of the south Lieutenant Read bonded the skipper for five thousand dollars and the schooner was permitted to proceed on her voyage. On the 9th of June, the brig Mary Alvina and her cargo of commissary stores was captured and burned. Three days later the bark Tacony and the schooner M.A. Shindle were captured in the waters off of the Chesapeake. Lieutenant Read had not been completely satisfied with the sailing efficiency of his sturdy brig Clarence and decided to transfer his rowdy rebels to the more seaworthy Tacony. While transferring the howitzer to the Tacony a schooner was seen on the horizon. As the howitzer was not yet secured and ready for action Lieutenant Read ordered his men to man the rails of the Clarence and Tacony with their wooden rifles. The befuddled and war-weary sailors aboard the schooner Kate Stewart were subsequently captured without incident. After burning the M.A.Shindle, Lieutenant Read bonded the Kate Stewart for seven thousand dollars and released her with fifty prisoners from his previous conquests. Later that same day the Arabella, a brig, was captured. As with Kate Stewart, Lieutenant Read bonded the brig for the full value of her thirty-thousand dollar cargo. The Kate Stewart, her decks heavy with the prisoners of the reign of high seas terror, was sent on her way.
While Lieutenant Read and his men ventured further north, the schooner Kate Stewart landed the freed prisoners in New Jersey. Captain Munday, the master of the captured Tacony, traveled to Philadelphia and dispatched word of the confederate raider to the Union Navy. The Navy Department dispatched word of the captures to Admiral Lee, in command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, as word spread of the rebel raider. Orders were quickly passed to the Navy Yards in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The orders were straightforward and concise. Immediately dispatch vessels to pursue the “pirate.” The hunter was to become the hunted.
On June 15th, Lieutenant Read and his men captured and burned the brig Umpire which had been bound for Boston from Cardenas with a cargo of sugar and molasses. Five days later they captured the packet ship Isaac Webb. With over seven hundred and fifty souls aboard Lieutenant Read bonded the vessel for forty-thousand dollars and permitted her to proceed on her voyage to New York. The schooner Micawbe also captured on the 20th of June was captured and ended her days in flames. The following day the clipper ship Byzantium and the bark Goodspeed met similar fates. On June 22, four of five fishing boats captured were burned.[2] The fifth, Florence, was bonded and sent on her way with seventy-five prisoners. On June 23rd two unnamed fishing schooners were captured and set on fire.
Based on intelligence gathered by the captured sailors and fishermen and from newspapers absconded from their wheelhouses it was clear to Lieutenant Read that the Union Navy was well aware of the piratical activities of the rebel raider. A description of the Tacony was now well known and Lieutenant Read was well aware that the lethal leopard had to change its spots if he planned to continue to be successful in his commerce raiding voyage. After capturing and bonding the Shatemus bound from Liverpool to Boston the raiders captured the schooner Archer. By the following morning, Lieutenant Read and his men had transferred their armament and gear to the Archer and the Tacony was set ablaze. The following day the Archer had reached the waters off of Portland, Maine. The steadfast and determined confederate crew had a bold idea. Lieutenant Read and his men would enter the harbor and set fire to many of the ships lying at anchor and moored along the waterfront. Feigning ignorance of the harbor’s channel, Read and his fellow “fishermen” asked for assistance. Two local fishermen offered their services and went aboard the Archer. Read and his men chummed it up with the fishermen for local information as they unknowingly piloted the floating confederate Trojan horse past the harbor’s defenses. In addition to local tide information, the rebels learned from the fishermen that the sleek and fast U.S. Revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing was resting quietly at anchor in the harbor. With the Archer anchored unmolested in the harbor and after thanking the departed fishermen who had provided them their nautical succor, Lieutenant Read conferred with his crew on his new deviation from their original devious plans.
The revenue cutter he explained would be an excellent raider. Better armed, they could continue on their warpath across the sea lanes and inflict more strife upon the merchant fleets. The men concurred with the bold plan with the only hesitation offered by his lone engineer Second Assistant Engineer E.H. Brown. Brown’s concern was his ability to light off the boilers before sunrise. Lieutenant Read understood the risk and despite that probability, the rebel raiders decided to proceed with the plan after the sun had set and the men aboard the cutter were becalmed by both their distance to the fight and their possible naiveté to the proximity of Confederate forces.
At one-thirty in the morning of June 27th, the Archer manned only with three of the rebels set free from its temporary anchorage and headed for the open sea. Lieutenant Read and his remaining confederates rowed two longboats across the harbor toward the quiet decks of the cutter. After nearly silently boarding the union craft, Lieutenant Read and several of his men slipped up behind the small watch on the aft deck. The well-placed barrels of their side arms to the rear of the men’s skulls removed any possibility of an alarm being sounded. As the revenue service enlistees on watch were quickly and adeptly slipped into irons and shuffled below decks the commanding officer Lieutenant Dudley Davenport was wrestled from his quarters and alighted to the main deck. As he stepped forth on the main deck to investigate the commotion he was faced with the business end of one of the rebel’s pistols. Lieutenant Read and his rebels had effectively captured the cutter without incident or bloodshed. Lieutenant Dudley Davenport cursed the raiders as he too was shackled and put below languishing with his fellow prisoners as Lieutenant Read and his men affected their escape from the Union port. While Engineer Brown went to work on getting the engine engaged, Lieutenant Read ordered his men to begin towing, utilizing the two small boats, toward the mouth of the harbor. By daylight, the cutter Caleb Cushing was underway under power.
News of the capture was reported to Jedidiah Jewett the collector of the port by eight o’clock in the morning. He immediately set forth to recapture the cutter and set out to get underway as soon as possible. Within one hour, he had three vessels ready and armed for battle. The steamer Forest City in addition to her normal crew took Major Andrews, in command of the Seventeenth United States Regulars, two of his officers and thirty-eight of his soldiers as well as forty-armed volunteers from Portland. The steamer was armed with one six-pound gun and one twelve-pound howitzer. Also aboard the Forest City were lieutenants Merryman and Richardson of the United States Revenue Cutter Service and fourteen of the Caleb Cushing’s crew who had been on liberty when the cutter was captured. The steamer Chesapeake was loaded with fifty bales of cotton to serve as barricades and armed with two brass six-pound guns. A detachment of soldiers from the Seventh Regiment of the Maine Volunteers, under the command of Colonel Mason, along with fifty-armed city volunteers were also aboard. The small flotilla of vessels navigated out of Portland Harbor in hot pursuit of the cutter turned confederate raider.
In short order the Caleb Cushing was spotted fifteen miles from Portland, Maine. The Forest City hove closest and Lieutenant Read knew just how to respond to the Yankee steamer’s antagonizing advance. A thirty-two pound shot slammed into the water close to the Forest City. The steamer’s captain John J. Liscomb continued to shorten the distance despite the glancing blow to the safety of his ship. A second well placed shot even closer to the hull seconds later though forced him to pause his wish for a naval baptism of fire. Captain Liscomb passed word to his engine room for revolutions on the steamer’s engine to be slowed as he had decided to abort his lone attack on the heavily armed cutter. Better the Forest City’s captain believed to wait for the Chesapeake advancing on her stern before re-engaging the cutter. After a brief council of war with the master of the Chesapeake, Captain Leighton and the master of the Forest City decided they would collectively run the retreating cutter down. The steamers reaching full speed continued in their hurried pursuit of the rebels.
Lieutenant Read was not going down without a fight. He fired a volley of three shots at the pursuers but none hit their target. The shots though would mark the last shots from the cutter’s guns lethality. Unable to convince his prisoners to identify the location of the cutter’s remaining ammunition Lieutenant Read and his raiders had only one course of action remaining. Lieutenant Davenport and his men were placed in lifeboats and cast free from the cutter. As they were shoved free from the cutter Lieutenant Read passed them the keys to their shackles. Read then passed word to ready the last two longboats. Placing the bulk of his raiders in the longboats he and the remaining confederates set the cutter aflame. As the fire spread Lieutenant Read cast off with the rest of his crew in their longboats and awaited the arrival of the pursuing flotilla and their accepted inevitable end.
Fearing an explosion from the cutter’s magazines the steamers pulled up alongside Lieutenant Read and his band of raiders instead of the cutter. Taken prisoner without incident the pursuers then set out to locate and capture the Archer. The schooner manned only by three men was quickly captured by the flotilla. Meanwhile, the magazines exploded and the destroyed cutter sank into the murky depths marking the last victim of Lieutenant Read and his rebel raiders. The flotilla returned to Portland and the confederate raiders were imprisoned at Fort Warren. Roughly a year later, Lieutenant Read and his men were exchanged as prisoners of war in Cox, Virginia.
Lieutenant Read would later learn that on June 26th a total of forty-seven armed vessels were actively pursuing him and his men. A single lieutenant and twenty-one sailors had raised furor in every harbor and port from Chesapeake to Maine over the course of twenty days. Upon his return to the land of Dixie Lieutenant Read resumed his unwavering support of the Confederate cause and was involved in both naval and land engagements on the James River taking command of the C.S.S. Scorpion at the Battle of Trent’s Reach. In April 1865 transferring to Louisiana he ran the C.S.S. Webb, a confederate raider destined for the Pacific Ocean, aground in a failed attempt to break the Union blockade. Forced under the circumstances to surrender to Union naval forces he was once again transferred to Fort Warren as a prisoner of war.
Though the reign of terror of Lieutenant Read and his compatriots was over, his twenty-one day spree of raiding had been successful with the capture or destruction of twenty-two vessels. Union forces were forced, due to the effective nature of Lieutenant Read and his rebel raider’s abilities, to force to sea forty-seven armed vessels to try and stop the confederate raider, therefore, pulling forty-seven vessels from other integral duties crucial to support the Union efforts already engaged in the heady days of the American Civil War. Lieutenant Read and his rebel rousers of the deep had completed their duty to Dixie when their last victim the U.S. Revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing was captured, burned and lost at sea on June 27, 1863 marking the last day of her service as a sentinel and savior of the seas.