- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

The USS San Jacinto had been one of the great ships of the prewar navy. Launched in 1852, it displaced more than 2,000 tons, and by the time of the Civil War, it mounted 14 guns. Much of its prewar career had been passed in showing the flag in Caribbean and Asian waters.

With the coming of the Civil War, the San Jacinto returned from Africa to the Caribbean under the command of a famous explorer, Charles Wilkes, who had made a name for himself charting the coast of Antarctica.

Soon the San Jacinto was famous. On Nov. 8, 1861, Wilkes stopped a British mail steamer, the Trent, 230 miles east of Havana and removed two Confederate emissaries who he had learned were onboard, headed for Europe.

Wilkes’ action triggered a major diplomatic incident between the United States and Britain, one that was resolved only with the release of the Confederate emissaries and an apology by the U.S. government.

By fall 1862, San Jacinto had a new commander, Capt. William Ronckendorff, and was patrolling the Caribbean in search of Confederate raiders, especially the notorious Alabama.

The British-built Alabama, whose captain was Alabamian Raphael Semmes, had been commissioned in August 1862 and in two months had destroyed no fewer than 20 Northern merchantmen. To many, the Alabama was still known by its shipyard designation, No. 290.

Many Federal vessels had pursued the Alabama; the San Jacinto was the first to find it. Semmes had been coaling his ship at Fort-de-France, Martinique, on Nov. 19 when the San Jacinto appeared offshore. The Federal warship far outgunned the Alabama, but Semmes had one great advantage: He was anchored in neutral waters and presumably was immune from attack.

The executive officer on the San Jacinto, Ralph Chandler, urged his captain to ignore international law and destroy the pesky Confederate. However, Ronckendorff refused, and that night, Semmes and the Alabama escaped.

The San Jacinto resumed its search, but a letter from one of its warrant officers, who signed himself simply “Dana,” reflects some of the frustrations of the search. Writing from Martinique on Dec. 23, 1862, Dana, in a recently uncovered letter, told his father:

“We are still on our fruitless chase after the 290. Twice since I wrote you last have we been a dozen or fifteen miles of her, and twice more she has escaped us — a very easy job, for we haven’t troubled but one vessel, and that was this morning as we came in here. …

“Off Antigua we were signaled by what looked like one of our gunboats, but a few days after at Dominica we learned that Semmes had reported signaling us off Antigua bound to Southward — but as long as we don’t ever overhaul vessels as long as they show colors of some sort, and [as] he was rigged like a gunboat, we were in a blissful state of ignorance in regard to the proximity of our enemy.”

Dana recounted the San Jacinto’s futile search, which took up much of November and December and took his vessel all over the Caribbean. At Barbados, he learned that “our old acquaintance the Trent had seen the 290 at an island near the Spanish Main so we went after her. Went down to Margarita and Belen Ayre and called at Cumana on the mainland [and] didn’t find her. Then went to Blanquilla, an island at some distance from the mainland, [and] made it just before dusk and hove to for the night. …

“It was a long time before we found any inhabitants. When we did we learned that [the 290] left just at dark the night before, having seen a sail in the offing. In other words, she had seen us and made us out, so she concluded to clear out.”

The San Jacinto made its way to St. Thomas, where the U.S. consul told Ronckendorff that he had just missed two Confederate vessels. In Dana’s words, “We [then] went around and examined every bay and island in the Virgin Islands (St. John, Tortola, Virgin Gorday) and then went down to the Bird islands, a small group of coral islands at a distance from any of the other large islands. They are the first islands which bear the marks of undoubted coral construction.”

From there, Dana wrote, the San Jacinto returned to Martinique, the scene of its earlier embarrassment. “This time we are after coal. Where we are to cruise to next I don’t know but expect to go down among the lower Windward isles. I don’t see that there is much prospect of the ships going north for another month though. I hope she will for under the circumstances keeping her out here is only throwing away money and the services of the officers and men.”

Dana vented his frustration to his father: “I have got heartily sick of the navy. … There is no discipline on board the ship and to get along with a hundred men half disciplined, and not very much in a humor to obey one’s orders is more than my equanimity can stand.

“I have to take the law into my own hands occasionally. And this 290 business is the greatest farce that I’ve seen played yet — it beat watching the Merrimac. I wouldn’t stay here another year for twice the pay. … Capt. [Ronckendorff] is the poorest man to back his officers I ever was with. It is the universal complaint fore and aft [in] the ship.”

His term of service up, Dana was preparing to leave the Navy, as were several other warrant officers. “Mr. Jones has followed suit with me and resigned for the same reason for which I did. Keene says he shall do the same, though he would like to get an ensign’s berth.”

We can only wish Dana well in his later career. As for his ship, the San Jacinto served out the war without incident, most of it spent on blockade duty. On New Year’s Day 1865, however, it struck a reef off the Bahamas and was a total loss.

The Alabama, meanwhile, went on to become the scourge of the Union merchant marine, burning or bonding some 65 vessels before meeting its match against the USS Kearsarge off the French coast in June 1864.

John M. Taylor is the author of several books on the Civil War period, including “Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama.”

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