The following is excerpted from The Maple Leaf. Copyright 1993 by St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc.


Confederate Prisoners Capture Maple Leaf

The  Maple Leaf sailed a great number of voyages during her 19 months of service with the Army, but records of only a few of the voyages have been found.  Fortunately, the voyage on which Confederate officers gained control of the ship is one of them.  The incident began on the morning of June 9, 1863,  when the Maple Leaf waited at  anchor in Hampton Roads, just off Fort Monroe, Virginia.  Captain Dale was prepared to receive 50 Confederate prisoners of war on board.  All officers, the Rebels had  arrived the previous afternoon on board another steamer, the Cahawba, bound from New Orleans to New York, and carrying, in addition to the prisoners, an escort consisting of the 6th New York Zouaves, who were returning home for mustering out.  The Southern officers wee quickly brought aboard, and the Maple Leaf departed for nearby Fort Norfolk, roughly some 35 miles away.

Early the next morning, an additional 47 Rebel officers, who had been held at Fort Norfolk, were brought aboard. One of them, Captain A. E. Asbury, later wrote:

...having been cooped up in a room 12 by 30feet, with but one barred window, in Fort Norfolk, (we) were surprised and much gratified at the order to prepare for removal to Fort Delaware, and at once were taken out into the flesh, glorious air and placed upon the magnificent United States Steamer Maple Leaf.

Immediately thereafter, the ship began its return journey to Fort Monroe.

The prisoners held at Fort Norfolk, as well as those who arrived from New Orleans aboard the Cahawba, had been told they were on their way to nearby City Point, Virginia, some 60 miles up the James River from Norfolk, to be released by exchange (or parole pending exchange) as provided in the Dix-Hill Cartel.  They now learned, however, that exchanges and paroles had been suspended, and they were on their way to an indefinite period of confinement at Fort Delaware.

At 1:30 P.M. on June 10, the Maple Leaf again departed Fort Monroe, now with a total of 97 Confederate officers, representing some 65 units and, it was claimed, every state in the Confederacy.  A 12- man guard detail escorting the prisoners was commanded by Lieutenant William E. Dorsey, 3rd Pennsylvania (Heavy) Artillery.

Among the prisoners from New Orleans was Captain Oliver J. Semmes, son of the commander of the commerce raider CSS Alabama. Another prisoner was Captain Emelius W. Fuller, a veteran gunboat commander, who had been in charge of the Confederate ram Queen of the West at the time it was destroyed by the combined forces of General Nathaniel P. Banks and Admiral David G. Farragut in connection with the Battle of Irish Bend.

The change of plans for the Rebel officers, and the prospect of spending an indefinite period of time - perhaps the remainder of the war - imprisoned at Fort Delaware, caused several of the men to begin thinking of means of escape. Led by Captain Fuller, Captain Semmes, and Colonel Witt, a group of the Confederates devised a plan. It was quite simple. The 12-man guard detachment served in three shifts, with only four guards on duty at any one time. Fuller arranged for selected Confederates to form in four teams of three to four men each. At a given signal, the ringing of the ship's bell, each group was to overthrow and disarm one of the four guards on duty. Fuller and the other plotters were encouraged to find virtual assurance that the plan would succeed when they discovered that the muskets of the guards were not loaded.

Only a few hours from Fort Monroe, the bell rang out, and the guards were quickly subdued. Dale was informed that Captain Fuller was now in command of the Maple Leaf and ordered to proceed south after passing Cape Henry. It appeared that Captain Dale made at least one attempt to turn the ship back toward Hampton Roads, an effort which he must have known would be futile, considering that he was surrounded by dozens of watchful Confederate officers.

A "council of war" was held among the Confederates and Captain Dale. They gave brief consideration to the possibility of sailing for Nassau, but abandoned the idea because of a shortage of coal and the prospect of being intercepted by the Federal blockading squadrons. They then determined to land on the Virginia shore and attempt to make their way to safety.

A number of Confederates, including Captain Fuller, were wounded or ill, and in no condition to travel any great distance on foot. But for the plight of the wounded, the Confederates would have run the Maple Leaf aground and burned her.  Others, some of the men from the group that had come on board at Fort Norfolk, elected not to participate in the escape because of the paroles they had given earlier in St. Louis. They said they would cooperate with their captors. (These paroles had been given in return for promises of lenient treatment, which some felt the Federals had not lived up to at Fort Norfolk.)

In all, 27 of the officers elected to remain with the Maple Leaf At a point approximately 30 miles south of Cape Henry and one-half mile from the shore, the other 70 used the ship's small boats to make their way to land, and command of the Maple Leaf was restored to Captain Dale. Before leaving the ship, however, the Rebel officers had demanded, and obtained from Dorsey, Dale and other ship's officers, their written promises they would proceed on their original course to Fort Delaware, and would not report the escape until reaching that destination.

Once the ship was under way, Dale and Dorsey collectively decided, notwithstanding their promises to proceed to Fort Delaware, to return immediately to Fort Monroe, and they arrived there about midnight. The next morning, Dorsey reported the matter to Lieutenant Colonel William H. Ludlow, inspector general and Federal "agent for exchange". Acting in the absence of Major General John A. Dix, the commander of Fort Monroe, Ludlow promptly dispatched messages to Federal commanders in the area where he supposed the Rebel officers to be, asking that cavalry be sent in pursuit. Later that day Ludlow conducted a brief investigation into the escape. That afternoon, General Dix returned from his visit to Williamsburg, and on hearing the distressing news, sent a message to General Henry W. Hillock, the general in chief in Washington:

I have just returned from Williamsburg, where I went at 10 o'clock yesterday morning. At 1:30 the Maple Leaf left for Fort Delaware, with 97 rebel officers. They rose on the guard, overpowered it, took possession of the steamer, and landed below Cape Henry. Thirty of the officers refused to participate in the transaction, remained on board, and are here. Our cavalry is in pursuit of the others.

The next morning the Maple Leaf once again departed for Fort Delaware, this time with only 27 prisoners, and with a different commander of the guard.

The Confederates who had left the Maple Leaf learned from friendly civilians, soon after reaching shore, that they were in Princess Anne County, Virginia, very near the North Carolina border. They promptly elected Captain Semmes as their commander, and proceeded south toward the vicinity of Dismal Swamp. For nearly two weeks, the Confederates received constant aid and assistance from Southern sympathizers in the area, and from Captain Willis B. Sanderlin, commander of a guerrilla company of the North Carolina militia, who served as their primary guide. The Federal cavalry came quite close to capturing some of the Confederates, who soon split their group into three smaller squads for ease of management and evasion.

Although acting generally independently and relying on local guides, all but two of the Rebel officers reached the Seaboard and Roanoke railway at about the same time, and rendezvoused in Weldon, North Carolina. The two, Lieutenant Colonels Daugherty and Seckel, apparently set off on their own, and arrived - by way of the same railway - in Richmond two days ahead of the main body.

The bulk of the officers, 68, accompanied by Sanderlin, arrived in Richmond on June 22. After a welcome rest at the Spotswood Hotel, they met with Brigadier General John H. Winder, the provost marshal and local military commander, received their back pay and, after a few days rest, proceeded to return to their units.

Returning briefly to the Federals at Fort Monroe, Ludlow concluded in his report of the investigation that blame for the escape rested with Lieutenant Dorsey, for failure to assure that the muskets of the guard were loaded. On June 20, 1863, Dorsey was administratively dismissed from the Army at the direction of the President.

Dedicated to the memory of Bessie Webre Theriot
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