CSS Sumter was a merchant vessel converted into a commerce raider by the Confederacy very early in the American Civil War, becoming the first warship to fly the Confederate flag.
CSS Sumter was originally the bark-rigged steamer Habana of New Orleans, built at Philadelphia in 1859 for McConnell's New Orleans & Havana Line. Purchased at New Orleans in April 1861 and converted to a cruiser by Captain Raphael Semmes, CSN, Sumter was commissioned there 3 June and put to sea on the 30th to strike at Union shipping. Eluding sloop-of-war Brooklyn in hot pursuit, Sumter cruised the West Indies and south to Maranhao, Brazil, capturing several prizes. Returned to Martinique, she was discovered in the act of coaling by USS Iroquois; Capt. J. S. Palmer, USN, promptly protested to local authorities and took position to intercept Sumter leaving St. Pierre. But 9 days later the raider escaped by night and steered for Spain, anchoring at Cadiz, 4 January 1862. Allowed only to make necessary repairs there, without refueling, she was forced to run for Gibraltar and lay up. Disarmed and sold at auction 19 December 1862 to the Fraser-Trenholm interests, Sumter quietly continued her service to the Confederacy under British colors as the blockade runner Gibraltar of Liverpool.
Though her career as a fighting ship had lasted scarcely six months, Sumter had taken 18 prizes, of which she burned 8, released or bonded 9; only one was recaptured. The diversion of Federal blockade ships to hunt her down had been in itself no insignificant service to the Confederate cause.
As Gibraltar, she ran at least once into Wilmington, N. C., under Captain E. C. Reid, a Southerner. He sailed from Liverpool 3 July 1863 with a pair of 22-ton Blakely guns and other particularly valuable munitions, returning with a full load of cotton. The beginning of this voyage is recorded only because the U.S. Consul at the British port passionately protested Gibraltar's being allowed to sail — ostensibly for Nassau — days before formal customs clearance: "She is one of the privileged class and not held down like other vessels to strict rules and made to conform to regulations." That summer another vessel named Sumter met with tragedy in Charleston (this vessel, an Army troop transport, met with friendly fire from Fort Moltrie on August 30, 1863, resulting in the loss of the ship and 40 dead), which caused some confusion with Admiral John A. Dahlgren's intelligence over the Confederate raider's arrival in Wilmington, a problem which was not resolved until the following November.
It was long maintained that Sumter went down in a gale near the spot where the Alabama was sunk, but no date was given for her loss; one source suggests 1867. The last official report of her seems to have been by the U.S. Consul at Liverpool, dated 10 July 1864: "The pirate Sumter (called Gibraltar) is laid up at Birkenhead."
Part of the text is incorporated from the United States Navy's Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, a work in the public domain.