The story of the running of the blockade into and out of the ports of the Confederacy during the Civil War is a highly colorful one. The history of the exploits of the vessels which engaged in the hazardous business of running the blockade is replete with glamour, adventure, cupidity, maritime skill, huge profits, and international litigation. The fortunes of the Confederacy waxed and waned according to the success of the desperate mariners who attempted to evade the vigilance of the federal blockading squadrons and to bring merchandise and the sinews of war to the people of the Confederate States and to the government of Jefferson Davis. Just as the English Navy, in the World War, finally reduced the Central Powers to a state of submission by cutting off from them all food and war materials from outside sources, so did the United States Navy in the Civil War, by its unremitting blockade of the southern ports, bring the people and the armies of the South to the point of exhaustion and the brink of starvation.
At the beginning of the war the United States Navy was weak, disorganized, and ineffectual. The warships in commission were old and few in number and the morale of the personnel was low. Many of the officers and men had scant appetite for the arduous task of remaining at sea in all weathers, for long periods of time, in the small and antiquated vessels which were assigned to blockade duty.
The blockade of the coast of the Confederacy, from Virginia to the Mexican border, was a stupendous task. In fact, many people considered it to be a task impossible of accomplishment. In April, 1861, when President Lincoln proclaimed the federal blockade of the coast of the Confederacy, most well-informed people in North America and the best naval minds abroad considered that the blockade could not possibly be enforced, and that it would become a “paper” blockade, which, according to the code of international law of the time, was not considered binding.
Let us suppose that the blockade had not, in fact, been successful and binding. In such an event, the Confederacy could have received from abroad a constant stream of manufactured articles, food, and strategic raw materials in return for her almost invaluable cotton. The rebel government might even have brought in mercenary troops. Certainly France and England would have been strongly tempted to recognize the Confederate government, which action would doubtless have meant ultimate success for the Confederacy.
Also had the Union blockade not made the risk too great, the huge profits to be realized from the ventures would have tempted many merchants and shippers of the northern states to smuggle merchandise into southern ports.
From the very beginning of the war, the Confederate States were in desperate and continuous need of food, clothing, medicines, machinery, and manufactured articles of all kinds. The area embraced by the Confederate States was almost entirely agricultural. There were, to all intents and purposes, no factories in the South. Cotton cloth of a crude quality was manufactured in limited quantity; shoes were entirely handmade, and machine shops were few and inadequately equipped. The South, however, in its cotton crop, had a commodity which was of tremendous value to Europe and especially to England. Jefferson Davis and the members of his cabinet were confident that the cotton of the Confederacy could be exchanged for all the articles of commerce and munitions of War which were needed for the successful prosecution of the war. The results of the first few months of the war justified them in this opinion. Before the vessels of federal blockading squadrons became familiar with the intricacies of the southern coast, many blockade runners carrying valuable cargoes of arms, ammunition, and military stores landed their cargoes in Charleston and Port Royal, South Carolina, and slipped safely out with cargoes of cotton.
The capture, by the Union forces in November, 1861, of Port Royal with its excellent harbor, was the first serious setback to the Confederate plans for the wholesale importation of contraband supplies through the ports of South Carolina. With Port Royal in the possession of the Union Navy, the efficiency of the blockade was much enhanced. However, in spite of the federal occupation of Port Royal, and of the continued improvement in the efficacy of the blockade, Charleston remained to the end of the war one of the Principal ports of entry for the blockade runners. In fact, the great bulk of the contraband of war delivered into the Confederacy by the blockade runners entered through the ports of Charleston and Wilmington, N.C.
These two ports were strategically well situated with relation to the somewhat meager railroad facilities of the South and they were also only five or six hundred miles from Bermuda and Nassau, the starting point of hundreds of vessels which were, from time to time, engaged in the blockade traffic.
Within a few months after the beginning of the war, both the Confederate statesmen and the European shippers realized that, as the war went on, the Union blockade would render access to the southern ports more and more difficult. They, therefore, set their minds earnestly to the task of devising ways and means to evade the blockading forces and to maintain the flow of supplies to the Confederacy and to insure the continued transportation of cotton to Europe.
In August, 1861, the firm of Fraser, Trenholm and Company of Liverpool chartered the Bermuda, a Liverpool iron screw steamer of 1,000 gross tons, 210 feet long, 30 feet beam, just off the building ways. This steamer was fitted out for the blockade trade and loaded with a valuable cargo of goods, chiefly for the Confederate War and Navy Departments. A few passengers were carried and the Bermuda made a successful crossing and entered Savannah in September, 1861, without having encountered any vessel of the blockading force. Having discharged her almost priceless cargo, the Bermuda loaded a large cargo of cotton and returned to Liverpool.
The successful and highly profitable voyage of the Bermuda whetted the appetites of the European shippers for the great gains to be had from similar ventures. In February, 1862, the Bermuda essayed another voyage to Savannah, but while proceeding from Bermuda to Nassau, en route to Savannah, she was seized by the U.S.S. Mercedita off Great Abaco Island and sent in charge of a prize crew to Philadelphia for adjudication.
The European shippers quickly realized the strategic advantages of Bermuda and Nassau as starting points for blockade running ventures to Charleston and Wilmington. Cargoes consigned to these British ports could be readily warehoused and transshipped to Confederate territory. Also it is a well-established fact that a great proportion of the provisions for the Confederate Army were bought from northern merchants, landed at Bermuda or Nassau and run into southern ports by blockade runners which were owned and operated by European shippers. These usually somnolent British colonial ports suddenly shook off their customary lethargy and became the scenes of hectic and intense commercial and shipping activity. Warehouses were constructed, shipping offices were opened; masters, pilots, and seamen from every quarter of the globe poured in to gather the golden fruits of the blockade trade. Vessels of every description were bought or chartered and they soon filled the harbors of Bermuda and Nassau ready to load and make a dash for the coast of the Carolinas.
The game between the blockade runners and the federal navy now began in earnest. Like the game between the German submarines and the allied fleets in the World War, it was for a long time a close and thrilling game with each side daily adopting new ruses to outwit the other.
The risk on the part of the blockade runners was great; but on the other hand, the profits from a successful voyage were enormous. Two successful voyages usually yielded sufficient profit to pay all the original expenses of the venture and place a handsome sum in the pockets of the backers. Some idea of the extent of the profits to be made from these contraband cargoes may be had by referring to freight rates and quoted values of certain commodities in the Confederacy in 1863. At that time the inward freight on war material was from $200 to $300 a ton and on tobacco and luxuries it was even higher. The outward cargo consisted principally of cotton. The freight on this valuable commodity was from $250 to $300 a bale. In September, 1863, the prices of medicines in the South were approximately as follows: quinine per ounce $100, calomel $20, morphine $100, soda $5.00. At the same time in Richmond tea was $16 per pound, soap $1.10, butter $1.75, salt $2.50, and sugar $1.15.
The above prices were in Confederate money at the prevailing rates of exchange but the equivalent gold prices were sufficiently high to render the profits on smuggled goods extremely alluring.
The pay of the masters, pilots, and sea-men who engaged in the blockade trade was correspondingly high. The masters were recruited from all the ports of the world and included in their ranks were men of the highest ability and of the greatest integrity as well as rascally swashbuckling adventurers who, between voyages, dissipated their easy gains in wild orgies at Bermuda and Nassau.
The best and most successful of the masters were officers of the Confederate States Navy who cheerfully performed the arduous task of blockade running without extra pay or any compensation, other than the adventurous thrills of dangerous duty and the sense of valuable work well done for their flag and country. Other masters were drawn into this dangerous traffic by the lure of high salaries and the chance for immense profits. Some of them were British naval officers on furlough, but the majority were adventurous merchant captains. Many of them who had never before in their lives received more than $50 or $75 per month, were paid $10,000 in gold for a round trip from Bermuda or Nassau, besides being allowed cargo space to smuggle into the Confederacy, on their own account, contraband goods which commanded fabulous prices, and also to bring out cotton worth $500-$600 per bale. Few of them, however, had the foresight to cache any of their sudden wealth, and when the Confederate cause was finally lost practically all of them were penniless.
The crews of the blockade runners were also well compensated and the ports of Bermuda and Nassau were thronged with adventurous seamen who were eager for the thrills and gains of the blockade running service. The commander of the British naval forces at Bermuda experienced considerable difficulty with desertion from British men-of-war, so attractive were the billets on the blockade runners. The members of the crews of the runners were paid $250-$300 in gold per round trip and the smuggling of goods by them was regarded with extreme tolerance.
The chances of success in running the blockade, particularly during the last two years of the war, depended, to a large extent, on the courage and skill of the pilots. Good pilots who were willing to take the necessary risks were exceedingly hard to find. The risk of capture was great, and if captured they were held as prisoners of war and were never exchanged. Their pay was proportionate to the risk, and frequently amounted to $3,000 or $4,000 for a round trip. Most of the pilots were recruited from the vicinity of Charleston and Wilmington and while they were, in most cases, unversed in offshore navigation, they possessed an intimate knowledge of the shoals, bars, landmarks, and character of the bottom and of the coast line off the entrance to Charleston and the entrance to the Cape Fear River which was the channel leading, under the protection of Fort Fisher, to Wilmington. Some of the more successful blockade runners carried pilots for both Charleston and Wilmington, since conditions before one of these Ports sometimes made it expedient not to attempt entry but to risk entry into the other port instead.
The personnel engaged in blockade running did not have a complete monopoly of the gains from this lucrative trade. When captured and condemned the blockade runners were valuable prizes and the crews and commanders of some of the more lucky of the vessels of the federal blockading fleet were awarded large sums in prize money. The vigilance of the blockading fleet was naturally much enhanced by the prospect of the capture of rich prizes.
Just as in the German submarine warfare against allied commerce, there were a few skilled and resourceful U-boat captains who accounted for most of the tonnage sunk; likewise in blockade running during the Civil War, there were a few captains whose success in evading the blockade was phenomenal. Quite a number of the vessels commanded by these skillful masters made from twenty to sixty successful trips before being captured, sunk or driven ashore; and some of those that had made many successful trips were still engaged in running the blockade when the war ended.
Strangely enough, the factor of speed did not prove to be a particularly valuable asset to the blockade runners. For one thing, the installation of power plants adequate to produce high speed reduced the cargo-carrying capacity of the runners out of all proportion to the gain in the chance of eluding the blockade. Also the Union blockading vessels before Charleston and Wilmington were disposed on an inner and an outer cordon and the vessels in each cordon were within easy visual communication with each other. Once a blockade runner was sighted the alarm was quickly given, the pursuit begun and in most cases the runner was stopped by gunfire, intercepted and captured or forced into shoal water where she stranded.
The masters of the blockade runners were quick to realize that stealth and invisibility were their greatest aids in successfully penetrating the blockade. The most skillful of these masters picked dark, moonless nights for their ventures and they chose, when possible, misty nights when conditions of poor visibility obtained. Such visibility conditions were not infrequent off Charleston and Wilmington.
The vessels which were specially constructed for blockade running were, in general, small, low-lying, rakish craft with short masts, little top hamper and with speed of from 9 to 13 knots. They were painted a dull leaden gray and when in the vicinity of the blockade cordons, all lights were extinguished, tarpaulins were placed over boiler and engine-room hatches, the crew were warned to keep below and to make no outcry or unnecessary noise.
The usual procedure for a runner approaching port was as follows; the position of the vessel would be fixed as accurately as possible just before nightfall and when just to seaward of visibility range from the outer cordon of blockading vessels. When darkness fell the runner would proceed at slow speed, keeping a sharp lookout for blockading vessels and relying on not being sighted. If the first cordon of blockading vessels was safely passed, the runner speeded up and regulated course and speed to pass through the inner cordon before dawn.
The pilots were adept in locating themselves by soundings, and the hand lead was used to guide them into shallow water where the runner was hove to until ranges and landmarks could be made out when, under full steam, the master and pilot would head for the harbor entrance and the protection of the harbor defense guns.
Sometimes, however, circumstances demanded the assumption of greater risks than usually attended the ventures of the blockade runners. The following incident, quoted from The Narrative of a Blockade Runner by Captain J. Wilkinson, C.S.N., while this officer commanded the blockade runner R. E. Lee, will serve to show with what skill and resourcefulness Captain Wilkinson handled his command.
The Lee continued to make her regular trips either to Nassau or Bermuda, as circumstances required, during the summer of 1863; carrying cotton and naval stores, and bringing in “hardware,” as munitions of war were then invoiced. Usually the time selected for sailing was the dark of the moon, but upon one occasion, a new pilot had been detailed for duty on board, who failed in many efforts to get the ship over the “rip,” a shifting bar a mile or more inside the true bar. More than a week of valuable time had thus been lost, but the exigencies of the army being at that time more than usually urgent, I determined to run what appeared to be a very great risk. The tide serving at ten o’clock, we succeeded in crossing the “rip” at that hour and as we passed over New Inlet bar, the moon rose in a cloudless sky. It was a calm night, too, and the regular beat of our paddles sounded to our ears ominously loud. As we closely skirted the shore, the blockading vessels were plainly visible to us, some at anchor, some under way; and some of them so near to us that we saw, or fancied we saw, with our night glasses, the men on watch on their forecastles; but as we were inside of them all, and invisible against the background of the land, we passed beyond them undiscovered. The roar of the surf breaking upon the beach prevented the noise of our paddles from being heard. The Lee's head was not pointed seaward, however, until we had run ten or twelve miles along the land so close to the breakers that we could almost have tossed a biscuit into them, and no vessel was to be seen in any direction. Discovery of us by the fleet would probably have been fatal to us, but the risk was really not so great as it appeared; for, as I had been informed by a blockade runner who had been once captured and released, being a British subject, the vigilance on board the blockading fleet was much relaxed during the moonlit nights. The vessels were sent to Beaufort to coal at these times. My informant was an officer in the British Navy, and was the guest, for a few days after his capture, of Captain Patterson then commanding the blockade fleet off the Cape Fear. Speaking of the arduous service, P. remarked to him, that he never undressed or retired to bed during the dark nights; but could enjoy these luxuries when the moon was shining. On this hint I acted.
Captain Wilkinson’s resourcefulness is further illustrated in the following quotation from his Narrative:
It was about this time that I adopted an expedient which proved of great service on several occasions. A blockade runner did not often pass through the fleet without receiving one or more shots, but these were always preceded by the flash of a calcium light, or by two rockets thrown in the direction of the blockade runner. The signals were probably concerted each day for the ensuing night, as they appeared to be constantly changed; but the rockets were invariably sent up. Whenever all hands were called to run through the fleet, an officer was stationed alongside of me on the bridge with a supply of rockets. One or two minutes after our immediate pursuer had sent up his rockets, I would direct ours to be discharged at a right angle to our course. The whole fleet would be misled, for even if the vessel which had discovered us were not deceived the rest of the fleet would be baffled.
And again Captain Wilkinson relates how, on yet another occasion, the R. E. Lee gave her pursuers the slip. He says: . . . Very soon afterwards the vigilant lookout at the masthead called out “sail ho!” and in reply to the “where away” from the deck, sang out ‘right astern, sir, and in chase.” The morning was very clear. Going to the masthead I could just discern the royal of the chaser; and before I left there, say in half an hour, her topgallant sail showed above the horizon. By this time the sun had risen in a cloudless sky. It was evident our Pursuer would be alongside of us by midday at the rate we were then going. The first orders given were to throw overboard the deck load of cotton and to make more steam. The latter Proved to be more easily given than executed; the chief engineer reporting that it was impossible with the wretched coal filled with slate and dirt. A moderate breeze from the North and East had been blowing ever since daylight and every stitch of canvas on the square-rigged steamer in our wake was drawing. We were steering East by South, and it was clear that the chaser’s advantage could only be neutralized either by bringing the Lee gradually head to wind or edging away to bring the wind aft. The former course would be running toward the land, besides incurring the additional risk of being intercepted and captured by some of the inshore cruisers. I began to edge away, therefore, and in two or three hours enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing our pursuer clew up and furl his sails. The breeze was still blowing as fresh as in the morning, but we were now running directly away from it, and the cruiser was going literally as fast as the wind, causing the toils to be rather a hindrance than a help. But she was still gaining on us. A happy inspiration occurred to me when the case seemed hopeless. Sending for the chief engineer I said “Mr. S—let us try cotton saturated with spirits of turpentine.” There were on board, as part of the deck load, thirty or forty barrels of spirits. In a very few minutes, a bale of cotton was ripped open, a barrel tapped, and buckets full of the saturated Material passed down into the fireroom. The results exceeded our expectations. The chief engineer, an excitable little Frenchman from Charleston, very soon made his appearance on the bridge, his eyes sparkling with triumph, and reported a full head of steam. Curious to see the effect upon our speed, I directed him to wait a moment until the log was hove. I threw it myself, nine and a half knots. “Let her go now, sir,” I said. Five minutes afterwards I hove the log again, thirteen and a quarter. We now began to hold our own, and even to gain a little upon the chaser; but she was fearfully near, and I began to have visions of another residence at Fort Warren, as I saw the big “bone in the mouth” of our pertinacious friend, for she was near enough at one time for us to see distinctly the white curl of foam under her bows called by that name among seamen. I wonder if they could have screwed another turn of speed out of her if they had known that the Lee had on board, in addition to her cargo of cotton a large amount of gold shipped by the Confederate government? There could be a very slight change in our relative positions till about six o’clock in the afternoon, when the chief engineer again made his appearance with a very ominous expression of countenance. He came to report that the burnt cotton had choked the flues, and that the steam was running down. “Only keep her going till dark, sir,” I said, “and we will give our pursuer the slip yet.” A heavy bank was lying along the horizon to the South and East: and I saw a possible means of escape. At sunset the chaser was about four miles astern and gaining upon us. Calling two of my most reliable officers, I stationed one of them on each wheelhouse, with glasses, directing them to let me know the instant they lost sight of the chaser in the growing darkness. At the same time I ordered the chief engineer to make as black a smoke as possible, and to be ready to cut off the smoke by closing the dampers instantly, when ordered. The twilight was soon succeeded by darkness. Both of the officers on the wheelhouse called out at the same time, “we have lost sight of her,” while a dense volume of smoke was streaming far in our wake. “Close the dampers,” I called out through the speaking tube, and at the same moment ordered the helm “hard a starboard.” Our course was altered eight points, at a right angle to the previous one. I remained on deck an hour, and then retired to my stateroom with a comfortable sense of security . . .
Shortly after this thrilling and successful escape, Captain Wilkinson again ran the Lee safely into Wilmington, where she loaded a cargo for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and still under the command of this redoubtable officer, she ran the blockade and arrived safely at Halifax, where Captain Wilkinson was detached and charged with an important confidential mission for the Confederacy. The Lee, without the expert skill and resourcefulness of Captain Wilkinson, was captured off the coast of North Carolina, before completing the return voyage from Halifax.
The Lee had, under the command of Captain Wilkinson, successfully run the blockade twenty-one times, and had carried abroad between six and seven thousand bales of cotton, worth about $2,000,000 in gold, and had carried into the Confederacy cargoes of merchandise and munitions of war of inestimable value to the Confederate government.
Of the blockade runners commanded by officers of the Confederate States Navy, almost none were captured. When the commanders saw that the game was up, they would, if time permitted, beach their vessels. Otherwise a powder charge or a few oil-soaked bales of cotton and a slow burning powder train sent the vessel to the bottom or burned her to the water’s edge. Many of the less capable and courageous masters did, however, permit their vessels to be captured by the blockading fleet and a great many of these captured vessels were refitted in northern navy yards and commissioned as blockading vessels, thus constantly strengthening the blockade and rendering the successful running of the blockade more and more difficult.
Although the bulk of the blockade trade was carried on between Wilmington and Charleston and Nassau and Bermuda, there was considerable contraband traffic into Florida and Gulf ports. However, the lack of railroad transportation in this part of the Confederacy made it much more desirable to land the contraband cargoes further north at Charleston and Wilmington. The yacht America, the same America that is now retained as a histone relic at the United States Naval Academy was engaged in blockade running to Florida ports and made several trips before she was finally beached and scuttled in the St. John’s River, Florida. She was later raised, towed north and restored.
The value of the blockade trade to the Confederacy and the magnitude of the traffic may be realized by the perusal of some approximate statistics. The number of blockade runners estimated to have been captured is in excess of eleven hundred, of which about one-quarter were steamers. There were over three hundred blockade runners sunk, burned, or run ashore. The value of these vessels and their cargoes is estimated at $40,000,000. Many of these vessels had made several round trips before their careers were ended, and the value of the cargoes which they delivered into the Confederacy was many hundreds of millions of dollars in money. The value to the Confederacy the receipt of food, medicines, clothing) munitions of war, and other manufactured articles and of the export of cotton can never be estimated. Certainly tins traffic enabled the Confederacy to prolong the war for at least two years, and in addition, the morale of the southern leaders was, for a long period, kept buoyant by the hope that European nations would intervene.
The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one. The maneuver which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle.—Winston Churchill.