By Jerry MacMullen
If an international hot-spot develops anywhere from the Congo to Tibet and a naval vessel which is or has been based on San Diego is involved, it becomes local news. Had there been a newspaper in San Diego during the Civil War — and what a pity that there wasn’t one — it probably would have given due notice to the participation of the U. S. S. Cyane in a rollicking encounter with the Confederate Navy in, of all places, San Francisco Bay.
The Cyane’s connection with San Diego is, of course, well known. It was that sturdy vessel which, on July 29, 1846, arrived here from Monterey with Fremont, Kit Carson and the rest. And it was from her that Lt. Stephen Clegg Rowan, U. S. N., went ashore to attend to a little matter of raising the American flag over Old Town.
The Mexican war ended and the Cyane went on to other duties. The years tolled on, and during the Civil War she found herself defending California from a surprise attack by the Confederates.
California’s war-jitters were not entirely without foundation. A scheme to outfit a rebel privateer-schooner in San Francisco, go out and capture one of the Panama steamers and commission her as a raider, might have succeeded, had it been a little more adroitly planned. That pair of 24-pounders which they hastily set up near what now is the foot of Market Street, could well have had to speak in anger, rather than in mere target-practice. You never can tell when a raider may turn his attention to shore installations — especially when he has four stripes on his sleeve, and is only 25 years old.
The San Francisco affair was delightful in many ways, not the least of them being that its three outstanding characters were men with the practically Dickensian names of Asbury Harpending, Ridgeley Greathouse and Isaiah Lees. With such a cast, you can’t go wrong.
Harpending, who in his slightly younger days had looked not unlike Elvis Presley, was an ardent secessionist, in a period when Southern sympathizers were plotting in every dark corner of California, and there were plans even to take the state over into the Confederacy. The plan for outfitting a raider first was broached to him on a purely privateer basis, but he would have none of it. He, sir, was a Southern Gentleman and not a pirate. So, successfully running the blockade both ways, he got to the Confederate capital, obtained from President Davis a commission as a captain in the Confederate States Navy, and returned to San Francisco.
They shopped around, and picked up the schooner J. M. Chapman. She would be armed and, intercepting some hapless side-wheeler on her way to or from Panama, would take her over. The schooner then would be burned, and with the steamer they would make a real nuisance of themselves.
The schooner was duly registered to Ridgeley Greathouse as owner, and took in her cargo of what was manifested as “quicksilver, machinery and merchandise” for Mexican delivery. They said nothing about the six Dahlgren guns with shipboard carriages, or the side-arms and ammunition.
The selection of Greathouse as the pseudo owner proved to be unfortunate, as we may judge from later remarks in the Daily Alta California: ….a loud-mouthed secessionist, would to our mind attach suspicion to any movement she [the schooner] might make”. Their appraisal of Greathouse as a man of more words than discretion seems to have been correct, for hints about the real plans for the schooner began to leak out. They got to the Collector of Customs, to the Surveyor of the Port — and, worst of all, to Isaiah Lees.
Now Lees, although only 27, had worked his way up to the billet of Chief of Detectives of the San Francisco Police Department. And when he got his boys working on the case, they turned up practically everything. Lees went off, post-haste, to confer with Commander Shirley, commanding the Cyane, and with Colonel Drumm, the Army’s Chief of Staff for the whole western area.
It now was Saturday night — March 14, 1863 — and the schooner’s people were blissfully unaware of the fact that the night had unseen eyes. In her quiet berth at Jackson Street Wharf, the J. M. Chapman was being watched by those aboard the Cyane, anchored not far away, and aboard the steam tug Anashe, at a nearby wharf. The last of the contraband was stealthily passed down through the schooner’s hatch and, just before dawn, her crew hoisted sails.
As her mooring-lines dropped into the water and she slowly gathered ‘way under a light breeze, a lantern blinked on, and went out. Aboard the Cyane an officer smiled and nodded, and issued a few whispered commands. Silently, well-armed sailors went over her side and into awaiting boats. The schooner now was clear of the wharf and Lees, aboard the Anashe, directed her captain to follow her.
In mid-stream the tug swung alongside and Lees and four of his detectives clambered over her low rail. With drawn revolver he started to search the ship, even as the Cyane’s men swarmed up her sides. The search was fruitful; a small door, cut through a bulkhead, led them to fifteen men, several of them armed, crouching under the main hatch. Any ideas of resistance, however, were quickly discouraged by the boarding-party from the Cyane.
They towed her over to Alcatraz, where Colonel Drumm obligingly provided Harpending and his companions with cells. There they remained until they were brought to trial some seven months later. Two turned state’s evidence and were released; the rest were fined $10,000 each and sentenced to ten years in prison. Shortly afterward, however, under the General Amnesty Act, all were released.
There is some difference of opinion as to whether it was the Navy or the Police Department which effected the actual capture. At any rate, the good old Cyane could add to her San Diego flag-raising incident the credit for taking part in the only “action” against the Confederate Navy in California waters.