War put civilian merchant ships at risk as the opposing side sought to disrupt commerce. The Confederate raiders terrorized Yankee shipping on the high seas. The JOSEPH PARK of Searsport was burned by the Confederate privateer SUMTER.
A sister ship from Searsport, the DELPHINE with Captain William Greene Nichols and his wife Lillias aboard, was taken by the SHENANDOAH in the Indian Ocean on December 29, 1864. Lillias fought the Confederate’s fire with a tongue-lashing of her own. A newspaper article commemorating Lillias’ 90th birthday tells the tale:
The SHENANDOAH lulled her victims into a false sense of security by flying the English flag. Seeing another ship on the broad ocean provided crews and captains with a chance for a social call, and as Captain Nichols saw SHENANDOAH approach, he drew closer for a chat. Once in range though, the SHENANDOAH fired a blank shot and then began clearing away her two forward guns, which caused Captain Nichols to hove to. Lieut. Waddell of the SHENANDOAH informed Nichols that the vessel would be sunk, to which Nichols informed him that his wife was aboard and she was a delicate and nervous woman who would not survive the transfer to the Confederate ship. Waddell seriously considered allowing the DELPHINE go, but had the ship’s surgeon check on Mrs. Nichols, who turned out to be a robust woman with strong nerves and an acid tongue.
The transfer of Lillias, her son Phineas aged six, and the steward’s wife was effected by a bosun’s chair from the SHENANDOAH. Lillias insisted on bringing her canary bird in its cage and with perfect self-possession ordered the sailors of SHENANDOAH when to raise and lower the chair. Once aboard the Confederate vessel, she inquired of Lieut. Waddell what he intended to do with them and where they would be landed. When Waddell informed her they would be landed on the island of St. Paul, an inhospitable volcanic rock in the South Indian Ocean, she replied; “Never, I would rather stay with you.”
The SHENANDOAH set fire to the DELPHINE, and she drifted out of sight with her sails ablaze, a mass of flame and smoke. Capt. Nichols took the loss hard, and as he was pacing a Lieut. Chew of the SHENANDOAH tried to comfort him saying “Captain, just think that if at daylight this morning you had changed your course a quarter of a point, you would have passed out of our reach and sight.” To which Nichols replied: “That shows how darn little you know about it. This morning at daylight I just did change my course a quarter of a point and that’s what fetched me here.”
The SHENANDOAH took the prisoners to Hobson’s Bay in Australia near Melbourne. The books Lillias had brought onboard were returned to her, except for Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was tossed overboard and Capt. Nichols ship’s chronometer was kept. Lillias’ reaction was “If those chronometers and sextants were mine, I guess I’d make them give them to me.” Her last words to the SHENANDOAH crew were “I wish that steamer may be burned.”
As shipping traffic increased in the 1800s, the number of collisions between ships rose. The reason? “The other guy wasn’t paying attention and hit me” or “I had the right of way!” The rules of the road (sailing vessels with less maneuverability have right of way over small powered vessels, large tankers which have a slow response time in stopping or turning, have right of way over everyone) lessen the collisions, but only if there are no dare devils and if everyone is paying attention.
On the night of June 7, 1885, the ship CLARISSA B. CARVER of Searsport sailed into Hiogo Bay headed for the port of Kobe, Japan. Bearing down on her was the British steamer GLENMORGANSHIRE. Captain Leroy Dow of the CARVER ascertained that he had the right-of-way and his own vessel’s running lights were burning brightly, and ordered his helmsmen to hold his course. The GLENMORGANSHIRE stayed on the collision course until she was three lengths from the CARVER, then turned her helm hard-a-port to cross the CARVER’s bow, instead the collision sank the CARVER in 40 minutes and so severely damaged the steamer that she had to be beached. Luckily the wind was light and the sea smooth, and the crew of the CARVER was able to abandon ship, save the flag, and row ashore.
Dow immediately secured the services of British lawyer Lowder to institute proceedings against the steamer to recover damages. While he waited for the case to go to trial, Dow secured a job clerking for American ships discharging and loading cargo in Kobe. Dow was given an advance on the $1500 court fees by Dr. Charles Goddard Weld of Boston (one of the original rusticators on North Haven), who only asked that Dow send him the amount, with no interest, if Dow won the case. In all the case took a year and four months to try in British Admiralty Court. The owners of the CARVER sued for $100,000 in damages and the GLAMORGANSHIRE counter sued for $61,500.
The masters of both vessels, crew members, divers and nautical assessors were called in to testify. The case hinged on whether the steamer had seen the green starboard running light of the CARVER and had taken proper precautions to avoid her, as she had right-of-way. Testimony showed the light was burning brightly, but not observed by the steamer’s lookout, who one judge noted, was “not a sharp hand.” The judges ruled in favor of the CARVER, awarding $100,000 in damages.
As one can imagine, wooden ships and fire do not make for a good day at sea. Cargoes of case oil, charcoal, guano, and lime were prone to catching fire, spontaneously combusting or smoldering. Numerous vessels met their demise carrying these cargos.
The ship RAPPAHANNOCK of Bath, under the command of Captain Wiley Rogers Dickinson, carrying a cargo of soft charcoal spontaneously combusted while traveling from Liverpool to San Francisco around Cape Horn on November 2, 1891. The ship was just two years old. Capt. Dickinson had his wife and two daughters Grace and Bessie on board the vessel.
The vessel made it to Cumberland Bay, on the northern end of the South Pacific Island of Juan Fernandez about 400 miles off the Chilean mainland, where she was completely destroyed. The crew of three mates, 26 men, the Captain and his wife and two daughters took refuge on Robinson Crusoe Island, and were eventually rescued by the Chilean Government steamer HUEMIAL, which took them to Valparaiso, Chile.
Bessie Dickinson was given a Chilian Flag by Manuel Carera, on November 25, 1891, the morning she and the others of the left the island. As they were about to get into the boats, Manuel came running to the water’s edge where Bessie was standing. “Missy’, he said, ‘so many people ask Manuel for this flag’, clasping it to his breast,” so many offer Manuel money, but I do not give it to any of them.’ He pushed the flag into Bessie’s hands ‘I give it to the little Missy, so that someday when she is far away she will look at this flag and think of Manuel way down in these South Pacific Oceans. Maybe you will come back, maybe we will never see you, but you think of Manuel’. He brushed the tears from his eyes, as Bessie caught his two hands, her own eyes bright with tears at the unexpected gift, ‘Some day Manuel I hope we see you again, you’ve been so good to us. I don’t know what we would have done without you to help. I’ll always keep your flag.’ She ran down to the boat while Manuel stood there, a typical Robinson Crusoe, rugged as the hills that rose high in air back of him.”