Friday, December 13, 2013


The Richmond Daily Dispatch
December 14, 1863
Side wheel Steamer Chesapeake out of New York, captured  off  Portland, Me.
by British subjects claiming to be Confederate raiders. (Harper's Weekly)
Capture of a New York steamer — she is Run off.
They are having a terrible excitement in New York. The ship steamer Chesapeake, Capt. Willetts, which left New York Saturday evening for Portland, Me., was captured twenty miles North of Cape Cod Monday morning, about 1 o'clock, by Confederates in disguise, who had taken passage on her. She is a splendid steamer of 460 tons burthen, and carries two guns. She is very fast, and is the same vessel that chased and captured Lt. Reed, of the Tacony, who had captured the ship revenue cutter Cushing. A telegram from St. Johns, N. B., says:
      The ship steamer Chesapeake, Capt. Willetts, from New York for Portland, Me., was taken possession of on Sunday morning last, between 1 and 2 o'clk, by sixteen rebel passengers. The second engineer of the steamer was shot dead and his body thrown overboard. The first engineer was shot in the chin, but was retained on board. The first mate was badly wounded in the groin. Eleven or twelve shots were fired at the captain.
      After being overpowered, the captain was put into irons, and the passengers were notified that they were prisoners of war to the Confederate States of America. The steamer came to off Partridge Island at about 1 o'clock this morning. The crew and passengers, except the first engineer, were put on board a boat and sent to this city. The steamer then sailed in an easterly direction, and was subsequently seen alongside another vessel. It is supposed that she took on board a supply of coal from her.
     The attack took place about twenty-one miles east of Cape Cod. Captain Willetts and the passengers per the Chesapeake are now at the Mansion House. The steamer and cargo were valued at one hundred and eighty thousand dollars. The steamer sailed from New York on Saturday at 4 o'clock P. M., and was one of the regular line plying between New York and Portland.
      The New York Herald has the following additional particulars of the capture:
From all we can learn there were only seven passengers who purchased passage tickets for Portland, Me., while a dozen or more persons, dressed shabbily, some as returned soldiers, went on board and purchased their tickets of the clerk of the boat. This not being an unfrequent method of doing business, of course would not create any suspicious either in the mind of the clerk or captain. Among the seven passengers who obtained their tickets at the office was one person who stated to the clerk that he was an old sea captain, and preferred this mode of reaching Portland on account of its being the pleasantest and cheapest. Before she started some fifteen persons were counted on her deck; but even at the office nothing was thought of it.
      She was full of freight, consisting of cotton, rags, provisions and general merchandise. She only carries about thirty tons of coal, which is enough to last her for the round trip, and had not more than three days coal at the time of her capture, so that the rebels cannot get very far with her. She carried two guns, six-pounders, one brass and the other iron, several revolvers, and some other fire-arms.
      It is not known whether there was any powder on board, but it is supposed there was not much. --Her sails are small and cannot be depended upon. There was no war risk, and the value of the vessel is over sixty thousand dollars. It is not known whether the cargo was insured. The Captain is expected to arrive here to-day, and then the full particulars will be obtained.
        The ship steam propeller Chesapeake was owned by H. B. Cromwell, of this city, and was a splendid vessel in every respect. She was built in 1853, by J. A. Westerville, was 460 tons burthen, and eleven feet draft of water, built of oak, schooner rigged, and had a direct acting engine of two hundred horse power, one cylinder of forty inches, and forty-two inch piston. She has always been a popular boat on this route.
       The Chesapeake carried a crew of about twenty persons, who were, no doubt, so scattered throughout the vessel that they did not have time to collect and retain possession of the steamer.
The Navy Department was greatly exercised over this capture. The Agawam, from Portland the Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, Sebago, and Dawn, from New York, and the Ticonderoga and Hendrick Hudson, from Boston, were all to sail on Monday in chase of the daring raiders.

The Rest of the Story

Naval History & Heritage Command

Chesapeake was the wooden steamer Totten, built in Philadelphia in 1853 and first registered there. She was rebuilt in 1857, being renamed Chesapeake 27 August and described at that time as schooner-rigged with single funnel, owned by H. B. Cromwell & Co., New York. She was involved in the Caleb Cushing (q.v.) affair in June 1863, being one of the ships that set out from Portland, Me., to recapture the revenue cutter.

She was sailing as a regular New York-Portland liner on 7 December 1863 when she became a cause celebre upon being taken over as a Confederate vessel by a group acting in the name of the Confederacy under alleged authority of a second-hand letter of marque issued 27 October to the former captain of a privateer sold as unseaworthy in Nassau some months earlier— whereas her relief captain, mastermind of this later expedition, was found to be a British subject, having acted under an assumed name and without authorization by the Confederacy. The Halifax, N.S., Court of Vice-Admiralty found, 15 February 1864, that the capture "was undoubtedly a piratical taking. But in its origin, * * * in the mode of the recapture, in short, all the concomitant circumstances, the case is very peculiar." Chesapeake was restored to her owners and served in commerce until 1881. The captors were dismissed: "This court has no prize jurisdiction, no authority to adjudicate between the United States and the Confederate States, or the citizens of either of those States. The prisoners were not surrendered to the United States under the Ashburton treaty for trial "on charges of murder and piracy."

"Colonel" John Clibbon Braine, Henry A. Parr and a dozen fellow-conspirators took over Chesapeake 20 miles NNE of Cape Cod, 7 December, having boarded her twonights before in New York as passengers. In the takeover, her second engineer was killed and her chief officer and chief engineer wounded; Captain Isaac Willett, his bona fide passengers and all but five of his crew were landed at St. John, N.B., 8 December; Capt. John Parker (actually Vernon G. Locke) joined in the Bay of Fundy and took command. They coaled at Shelburne, N.S., the 12th, shipped four men and were seeking enough fuel to make Wilmington, N.C., when USS Ella & Annie (v.William G. Hewes)captured Chesapeake, the morning of the 17th, in Sambro, a small harbor near the entrance to Halifax, N.S., with three crewmen—only one being of the boarding party.

Comdr. A. G. Clary, USS Dacotah, prevented Ella & Annie from taking the recaptured prize into Boston and accompanied her that day to Halifax, where she wasturned over to local authorities the 19th—conceding that her recovery in neutral waters of Canada had been extra-legal—and the prisoners with her.

Eight Federal ships hastily summoned to search out Chesapeake returned home the 19th; the same day Secretary of State J. P. Benjamin appointed James B.Holcombe special commissioner to represent the alleged Confederate raiders in Halifax and try to gain possession of the prize steamer. Holcombe found ultimately, "That the expedition was devised, planned, and organized in a British colony by Vernon G. Locke, a British subject, who, under the feigned name of Parker, had been placed in command of the privateer Retribution by the officer who was named as her commander at the time of the issue of the letter of marque.***Locke assumed to issue commissions in the Confederate service to British subjects on British soil, without* **authority for so doing, and without being himself in the public service of this Government. ***there is great reason to doubt whether either Braine, who was in command of the expedition, or Parr, his subordinate, is a Confederate citizen * * * Braine *** after getting possession of the vessel and proceeding to the British colonies, instead of confining himself to his professed object of obtaining fuel for navigating her to a Confederate port, sold portions of the cargo at different points on the coast, thus divesting himself of the character of an officer engaged in the legitimate warfare.***The capture of the Chesapeake, therefore,***is disclaimed.***men who, sympathizing with us in a righteous cause, erroneously believed themselves authorized to act as belligerents against the United States by virtue of Parker's possession of the letter of marque issued to the privateer Retribution" could not be accepted after the fact as Confederate volunteers. 
[Editor's note: some of the crew were later tried by British authorities and found not guilty on a technicality.]

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