On May 30, 1861, the USS Powhatan seized seized the schooner Mary Clinton off one of the entrances to the Mississippi River south of New Orleans. Small coastal trading vessels like brigs and schooners were the first victims of the blockade. These small sailing vessels were a crucial link in the South's prewar transportation system. Sails provided these ships with a cheap, efficient means of propulsion. Sails took up little cargo space and did not require expensive fuel like steam powered vessels. On the other hand, the small sailing ships were fatally vulnerable to steamships that could move at will, regardless of the direction of the wind.
The USS Powhatan was commanded by a talented and extremely ambitious lieutenant named David Dixon Porter. Porter had been the officer who diverted the Powhatan from the expedition to relieve Fort Sumter and took her to Fort Pickens instead. With the outbreak of war and the proclamation of the blockade, Porter began operating against Southern shipping in the Gulf of Mexico.U.S. STEAM SLOOP POWHATAN,Off South West Pass, Mississippi River, May 30, 1861.
SIR: I have the honor to inform you that I have captured and sent home the schooner Mary Clinton, of New Orleans, for attempting to run the blockade after being warned by the frigate Niagara not to approach the Southern coast.
Gunner Duycker goes in charge of her, and is directed to proceed to New York to turn over the crew, whose times are mostly out. I beg leave to request that Gunner Duycker may be sent back to this ship by the first favorable opportunity, and if we have to send North many prizes (which is more than probable) I request that an addition may be made to our crew by the first vessel that comes out.
I desire to draw your attention to the fact that the present allowance of crews to vessels is for peace establishment and is not suited at all to times of war, if it is intended that the vessels shall be efficient. I also request that this ship may be supplied with four midshipmen, as we have no masters mates, and no one to take charge of the boats.
I am at present engaged in blockading the South West Pass of the Mississippi, which will be done effectually.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
DAVID D. PORTER,Lieutenant, Commanding.
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.
The USS Powhatan was a sidewheel steam sloop of war commissioned in 1850. She displaced 3,825 tons, was about 250 feet long, and 45 feet wide. A fairly big ship for her day, the Powhatan nevertheless sacrificed some firepower due to her sidewheel propulsion. The Powhatan's sidewheels took up space along the vessel's broadsides, limiting the number of guns that could be sited along her sides. Powhatan nevertheless mounted a formidable armament of ten 9-inch Dahlgren guns on her broadside, a single 11-inch Dahlgren gun on a pivot, and five smaller 12-pounder cannon.