Thayer's Note: For following the geography in the text, the map provided on the book's endpages may be useful; it opens in a separate window.
The dreary routine of the Federal blockade continued for four years. The Lincoln Administration regarded the policing of Southern waters as the Union Navy's primary task. Yankee seamen regarded it as a perfect hell. In all kinds of weather, fair and foul, in raging seas and calm, gunboats steamed backwards, forwards, sometimes in circles on station, their lookouts scanning the ocean for strange sails.
For skill, this game of hide-and‑seek which British and Confederate skippers played with Massa Linkum's cruisers compared favorably with steeplechasing, big‑game shooting, and polo playing, but mere sport could not approach blockade-running in excitement and profit. Rewards were immense. For eight round trips from the West Indies, Banshee paid her stockholders 700 per cent on their investment. Four Southerners, purchasing a schooner loaded with cotton for $30,000, slipped past the Yankee blockaders, hauled into Nassau, and sold their craft for treble the initial outlay.
Four principal ports — Nassau, Bermuda, Havana, and Matamoros — served as intermediaries for the neutral trade with the Confederacy, where British and Rebel p64 captains exchanged English cannon for Southern cotton. Situated on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, Nassau became the most important neutral port, only •five to six hundred miles from Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, or a three‑day run.
Before the outbreak of the American war, the inhabitants of this lazy, old‑fashioned town eked out a living from fishing, but when the guns rattled in Charleston Harbor in April 1861, Confederate demands transformed Nassau into a bustling commercial emporium. Wharves groaned beneath piles of cotton and muskets. Out in the bay, bulky freighters from European ports discharged their cargoes into the holds of the rakish two‑pipers which ran the blockade.
During the early stages of the conflict, all sorts of vessels — sailboats, decrepit schooners, and Southern coasting steamers carrying Confederate pilots familiar with every inch of coast — easily eluded the undermanned and inexperienced Federal blockaders. But as Gideon Welles commissioned ship after ship and sent them steaming into southerly waters, the cordon around the South grew tauter. The schooners were overtaken and the small fry chased up the creeks and rivers.
English merchants soon discovered that the Confederacy was an Eldorado. Half crowns could be turned into sovereigns in a single venture. They adopted the plan of transshipment at Nassau and began employing two types of vessels, one for the long, innocent voyage p65 across the Atlantic to the Bahamas, the other for the short, illegal run.
Profit-seeking Britishers invested huge sums in blockade-running companies, lavished money in the construction of sleek, swift steamers, and sat back to watch their bankrolls fatten. Nothing was left undone to assure success. The Confederate Government, realising that imports were vital for survival, entered the field and shared in the business. Agents purchased ships in England, loaded them with munitions, manned them with Confederate naval officers under orders from Richmond, and saw them clear port flying the British flag and carrying an English sailing captain to comply with the law. In American waters these nimble side-wheelers broke out the Stars and Bars and began the business of sneaking into Charleston and Wilmington.
With the fast short-voyage runners in operation, stockholders, agents, and sea captains reduced blockade-running to a system. Built on the Clyde, these long, low side-wheel steamers of 400 to 600 tons burned a coal which emitted no visible smoke and were equipped with one or two telescopic, rakish funnels. Their hulls, painted a dull, neutral color for camouflage, rose only a few feet out of the water.
Skippers took departure from the Bahamas at a time which assured them a moonless night and a high tide when they reached the Confederate coast. When nearing their destination, sailors blacked out the ship, carefully covering the binnacle and the fireroom hatch, and engineers blew off the steam under water.
p66 The run through the Yankee dragnet was little feared. Seamen kept a sharp lookout for enemy cruisers, and their ship, by keeping at a distance, could generally pass unobserved. If, by accident, the runner came near a Union gunboat, her speed enabled her to escape in the darkness.
In this game of cat-and‑mouse, the advantage lay with the British and Confederates. They chose the time, the place, the weather. The blockader chose nothing. Patrolling the harbor entrances at night, they could only guess at a ship's identity and follow the faint streak of light made by the wake. If they fired, they usually missed and chanced hitting another blockader. If they warned another cruiser, the runner made similar false signals and, in the confusion which followed, left her pursuers far behind.
Once a runner was safely moored in a Confederate port, stevedores dumped her freight on the dock and lugged cotton into the holds. After the hatches were battened down for sea, loaders secured tiers of bales fore and aft in every available spot on deck, leaving openings only for the approaches to the cabins, the engine room, and the men's forecastle.
Wilmington, one of the chief ports of the Confederacy, had mushroomed since the outbreak of war. Speculators from all parts of the South descended on the town and regaled themselves in magnificent homes, paying a king's ransom in Rebel money for household expenses. They swarmed to the weekly auctions and bid against each other for the imported cargoes. Crime was rampant. Cutthroats infested the wharves, stealing, p67 carousing, brawling. Along the docks fist fights broke out between seamen and soldiers policing the area.
On the afternoon of 22 August 1864, the runner Lilian hauled away from the cotton press at Wilmington, glided down the Cape Fear River, exchanged signals with the forts at the entrance, dropped anchor, and waited. At nightfall, she got under way, her helmsman steering a course due east for the open sea. A warning shot rang out from the darkness. Instantly, Lilian's pilot ordered the helm hard to port and attempted to ram the Federal picket boat. The Union craft, firing signal rockets simultaneously with her bow gun, dropped astern and out of sight. Lilian had barely eluded this obstacle when she ran into a cross fire from Yankee cruisers. The roar was deafening. Pyrotechnics glared. Frightened Mickey Mahoney, the second steward, besought all the saints in the calendar for assistance, and tumbled headlong down the companionway with such shrieks that an officer thought the poor fellow was unhinged. More shells crashed over Lilian without damage, and in an hour, she had left the slower Federal ships astern.
Built for speed, runners like Lilian continued to dip in and out of Southern ports despite the vigilance of Union commanders. When the Navy clamped its blockade on the Confederacy in the spring of 1861, it had no guideposts, no doctrine, no precedents to follow in damming up Rebel harbors. Haphazardly, the Navy muddled through its assignments the first year, and as the months passed, the squadrons materially changed the character of the blockade. As Britishers constructed p68 agile side-wheelers for the traffic, the traditional idea of a blockade, a few frigates moving up and down before a port at a distance, gave way to the practice of stationing a large number of fast steamers at the harbor's entrance. The Navy Department assigned the swift, newly launched sloops of war and the recently purchased gunboats to blockade duty. Each month added to the experience of the blockaders.
In October 1861 Admiral Du Pont as well as other squadron commanders dispatched general orders to their ships that the blockade must be strict and absolute, that Union commerce must be protected from the depredations of privateers, and that a lawful blockade demanded the stationing of an adequate force off port entrances. Squadron chiefs inspected their cruisers every quarter, demanding that proper attention be given to order, discipline, efficiency, and cleanliness. Orders were clear‑cut; exercise small boats frequently in landing men and in attacking and boarding vessels of the enemy; keep a taut watch on deck at all times. On the sudden appearance of a suspicious craft, officers of the deck were to slip cables immediately, start the engines ahead full, drum all hands to battle stations, and fire at all queer moving objects. Compliance with these regulations forced crews to stand wearily at the guns for hours, warning, watching, cursing until the order came to secure. Frequently, bone-tired tars who had tossed themselves into their hammocks, clothes and all, were scarcely stretched out when they were startled by gunshots and roused by the beat to quarters.
p69 Complaints from the bluejackets increased as the war dragged monotonously on. They swore about everything. Blockade duty was the do‑nothing service. To the average seaman, who believed wars were won firing cannon, the quiet work of the blockade seemed to accomplish nothing. One sailor off Wilmington suggested in a letter home to his mother that she could get a taste of blockade duty if she were to go to the roof on a hot summer day, talk to a half dozen degenerates, descend to the basement, drink tepid water full of iron rust, climb to the roof again, and repeat the process at intervals until she was fagged out, then go to bed with everything shut tight.
Landlubbers groused about seasickness. Many wrote home damming the moldy beans, the sea biscuits, and the salt pork served nightly for supper. One officer was awakened at night by rats playing on him, nibbling his fingers and pulling his hair. Doctors kept busy patching up seamen who had engaged in fisticuffs and caring for scurvy, measles, rheumatism, hemorrhoids, fever, and sore eyes.
Such complaints and conditions led to desertion, insubordination, and disagreeableness. The strain broke many a sailor. "Give me my discharge, and let me go home," a coal heaver wailed. "I am a poor weak, miserable, nervous, half crazy boy . . . everything jars upon my delicate nerves." One boatswain tried suicide by cutting his throat with a razor and was found by his mates bleeding and senseless. Ships' logs record instances of homosexuality, of officers fraternizing with p70 Negro women, and numerous cases of insubordination, exemplified by one enlisted man calling the old man "a God‑damn Son-of‑a‑Bitch!"
Church services on the frigates of the squadrons and copies of the Bible, although little read, supposedly met the spiritual needs of the men. On the flagship Minnesota the log desk, draped with an American ensign and placed abaft a 9‑inch gun, served as a pulpit. Christians on board grumbled that their chaplain was the worst preacher they had ever heard.
The monotonous routine at sea started at 5:30 A.M., when petty officers rousted the crew from their hammocks. The decks fore and aft were swept, clothes scrubbed, and the bright work polished. Cooks served breakfast at 8 A.M., dinner at noon, and supper at 4:30. During the day's work sailors kept busy with the usual shipboard duties of cleaning guns, painting, polishing, standing watch, and drilling at the cannon.
Recreation was simple. From sunset to 8 P.M. all hands assembled in groups on the forecastle or fantail to sing, listen to the yarns of the old salts, or watch runaway Negroes dance jigs. Others whiled away the time, lounging on bitts, smoking, joking, making their own shoes, blouses, and grass hats. Wabash's pet bear delighted sailors by drinking champagne. Music was the staple morale raiser at sea. Vanderbilt's officers bought a full set of musical instruments and formed a minstrel band. Conscious of his men's welfare, Admiral Du Pont demanded that the Navy Department recruit bands and dispatch them to the squadrons. In one wardroom, those cunning asses, the officers, reported p71 an enlisted man, engaged in a combination grand ballet and Indian war dance. At the sound of a gong, junior officers sporting dresses made of coffee bags, tarpaulin hats, and heavy sea boots pranced until one tried to cut a pigeon wing and fell on the deck. In the evening on a sailing schooner, tars rehearsed a musical comedy and, after weeks of struggle, staged the skit Stage Struck, a dance, and the comic operetta Ethiopiana.
Music, dancing, and theatricals could not replace the companionship of women. Anchored in a friendly port after months at sea, bluejackets kept their eyes peeled for passing petticoats. When lookouts sighted women on steamboats, tugs, or ferries, men grabbed all available spyglasses and rushed to the side. A group of nurses broke the famine on Braziliera. To avert a mob scene, the captain drummed all hands to battle stations as the women neared the ship in a launch. Everything in the wardroom was delightful when the ladies entered. But in toasting the beauties, several officers consumed such quantities of that damnable liquor that they ended the evening totally drunk.
For if the topic of sex was foremost in the minds of the sailors, food and drink ran it a close second. Daily rations included bread, salt port, flour, dried apples, potatoes and vegetables, sugar, tea, molasses, rice, and butter. On Thanksgiving Day the ship's company of Vanderbilt ate hot bread and canned roast beef, while on another vessel officers demolished turkeys and champagne. For Christmas, crews downed pork and bean soup. Packages from home loaded with sugar p72 plums and fruit cake filled the void. Not satisfied with their Christmas boxes, two bluejackets swore that when they reached New York, they would lay in a supply of boiled ham, sardines, and bologna.
Drunkenness among the men drove commanders to despair. In 1862 Congress passed a law stopping the sailors' grog ration. When this decree was read, the enlisted men booed, swore, and wrote letters home to the congressmen demanding that the law be repealed. Bottles labeled "Navy Sherry" provided an excellent substitute. The executive officer of a ship maneuvering in Carolina waters went aft and found a mess kettle full of ale and an officer passed out from its effects. Petty officers rifled whiskey from the medical supplies of Powhatan. His men worn out from months at sea, Admiral John Dahlgren ordered six barrels from the Army to be used under medical direction. Secretary Welles in Washington denounced this act and suggested that the men use strong iced coffee or oatmeal mixed with water as a pick‑me‑up.
Memories of the girls they left behind and of Mom's home cooking did not divorce the seamen from reality. They discovered that the trickiest shore line to patrol was the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, which had two navigable outlets, •forty miles apart, guarded by two forts and coastal batteries. In 1864, when enough ships were under his command, the old man of the North Atlantic Squadron lined up his gunboats in two rows off each of these entrances. He stationed barely seaworthy, sluggish vessels near the beach with orders not to chase the runners out to sea. Skippers of this line p73 of defense salvoed at all unidentified craft and flashed their positions to the swifter cruisers policing the seas farther out. During the daylight hours in clear weather, the steamers anchored to conserve fuel, enabling the captain and his crew to sleep. This inshore patrol hoisted anchor half an hour before sunset, got under way, and as twilight fell, moved in toward the beach, keeping a taut watch on Rebel shore batteries.
The speedier vessels of the squadron operating off the Cape Fear River cruised •forty miles off shore, chased and picked off British and Confederate freighters, and signaled the inshore blockade regarding inbound runners.
Evading this outside patrol, runners could reach their destinations by hugging the beach, slipping past the endmost vessel of the inshore flotilla. Even on clear nights, a side-wheeler was invisible against the land, and the roar of the surf drowned out the noise of her paddles. Passing the blockaders, she showed a light on her inshore side, which was answered from the beach by a dim light followed by another above and beyond the first. By lining up the channel's range lights, a runner could ascertain her position and in moments be under the guns of the forts.
Not all vessels escaped. On one afternoon in June 1863 the blockader Florida bobbed listlessly at anchor. Suddenly the lookout hollered: "Sail ho! Two points off the port bow!" Florida got under way as the captain bellowed to the chief engineer to throw the throttle wide open. Florida trembled, frantically changed course, and shortened the distance to the runner. Gunners p74 fired. One shot geysered close to the runner's bow. She surrendered. The Union crew spotted British sailors jettisoning cargo and papers and preparing to abandon ship. "Train the two pivots on her," Florida's captain ordered as he raced to the bridge and hailed the Britisher. "Throw one more thing . . . overboard and I'll send a broadside into you, and let you go to the bottom!" A prize crew from Florida boarded the runner, Calypso, whose passengers were transferred to the Union gunboat.
As the war continued, blockading squadrons, bolstered with more ships and men, executed hit-and‑run commando raids along hostile shores. Yankees struck swiftly to demolish forts, beacon lights, and other military installations. Men on Ellis landed silently from rowboats on the coast of North Carolina and smashed a newly constructed saltworks which supplied Wilmington.a They tore down bricks, smashed copper and iron kettles, carved gaping holes in the flatboats, cut through the cisterns and waterworks, set fire to buildings, and dumped fifteen bushels of salt into the ditch. Two Confederate cannon opened up from a hill nearby. Dodging, twisting toward shore, Federals reached the boats without casualty and shoved out to sea.
A lieutenant hatched a daring plot in early February 1864. Twenty bluejackets in two boats rowed up the Cape Fear River one cloudy night and disembarked directly in front of a Smithville hotel. Three officers and one seaman crept up to the commanding general's headquarters and pounced on the chief engineer of p75 the river defenses. To their disappointment, the sailors discovered that the general had gone off to Wilmington. His chief aide, hearing the rumpus and thinking that his 1000 soldiers in nearby barracks had mutinied, scampered into the woods, clad only in his drawers, and neglected to turn in the alarm. The Federals hauled off their prisoner so quietly that Rebel sentries failed to notice. The Yankees were back on board ship before the chief engineer was missed.
Commando strikes, although minor in importance, roused the anxiety of the Confederate troops in North Carolina. More men were shuttled to the coastal areas. The top brass reasoned that if boat expeditions could go up to Smithville unnoticed, Yankees might load barges with troops, land on the beaches, and destroy the forts guarding the Cape Fear River.
Blockading operations sometimes met with disaster. James Adger captured the British runner Emily St. Pierre off Charleston in March 1862 and sent her off to Philadelphia under command of Acting Master Josiah Stone and a prize crew. The captain, a Mr. Wilson, the steward, and the cook of Emily St. Pierre remained on board. Heading northward along the Carolina coast, Wilson stepped on deck and conversed with Stone about the wind not weather. Wilson then asked Stone if he minded going into the cabin and showing him the ship's exact position on the chart. Once inside, Wilson pulled a belaying pin from under his vest, grasped the master by the collar, put two revolvers to Stone's temples, clamped him in irons, and locked him in a small compartment. The entire prize p76 crew was nabbed within an hour. By bribes and threats the Union sailors were forced to work the ship. Wilson nosed Emily St. Pierre toward England and, after thirty‑one days, triumphantly steamed into Liverpool.
Southerners exacted a heavy toll of ships anchored in lonely rivers and sounds. Stationed alone for twelve months in a Georgian sound, the skipper of the side-wheeler Water Witch complained that the place was so devoid of activity that his crew had forgotten the reality of danger. Their inertia played into the hands of the Rebels. Seven launches carrying 145 men armed with pistols and knives stormed Water Witch. Owing to the darkness and the laxity of the officer of the deck, the boats sneaked up to within thirty yards of the side-wheeler before they were hailed. The Southerners answered, firing revolvers: "Go to hell, you sons of bitches!" and yelling: "Rebels! Rebels!" swarmed all over Water Witch's paralyzed crew. A Union court-martial later found the Federal commander guilty of inefficiency and suspended him for two years. The immediate result of Water Witch's capture was to weaken the blockade of Charleston by siphoning off gunboats to meet the emergency in Georgia.
Anxious to note the movements of runners, squadron commanders gradually evolved the system of picket boats. The most hazardous service on the Federal blockade in 1864 was the picket-boat assignment in Charleston Harbor, bristling with forts, cannon, mines, and torpedo boats. Three types of picket boats, towed by tugs part of the way, stealthily entered the harbor at night and slunk up the channels toward Charleston. p77 If they spotted freighters or torpedo boats under way, alerted the squadron outside with a barrage of rockets and lights.
The smallest were the light and sharply built Yankee scout boats. Equipped with pistols, compasses, lanterns, rations of whiskey, and seven men, they maneuvered past the Rebel picket line, which stretched across the harbor's entrance, noted the position of enemy ships, and took soundings of the channels. These scout boats never attacked and banked on speed to avoid destruction. The cutters, each carrying nine men, cruised in front of the Southern lines, shot off guns, harassed shipping, and made themselves a nuisance, while the bulky launches, with fourteen men and a howitzer, abetted other boats and razed blockade‑runners. An assortment of nine picket boats steered toward Charleston each night.
Monetary reward for picking off runners buoyed the spirits of the Union bluejackets. Profits from the sale of a prize vessel were first split equally between the captors and the United States Government. After a 5 per cent cut to the squadron commander, who rarely was in on the kill, the blockader's portion was divvied up into twenty equal shares. The old man took three for himself; the lieutenants, masters, and warrants shared four; midshipmen and petty officers carved up six; the sailors gobbled up the remaining seven. Congress later tinkered with the law so that the ordinary seaman's percentage and morale dwindled.
When the little tug Aeolus pounced on Hope off Wilmington in October 1864, the master won $13,164; p78 the assistant engineer, $6657, or more than four years' pay; the seamen, over $1000 apiece; the cabin boy, $532. Nine days later, Aeolus assisted in nabbing Lady Sterling, which, with her cargo, sold for $509,454. Each seaman on board the tug reaped $2000 for the Britisher, making $3000 in prize money for ten days' work.
Officers sitting out the war on the beach protested against the prize system for obvious reasons. Admiral Dave Porter also complained that such laws weakened a strict blockade, since each man looked out for number one rather han co‑operating with his flotilla. Although Porter condemned the practice, newspapers dubbed his squadron, operating off Wilmington, the prize-money command, for most runners scurried for the Cape Fear River during the later stages of the war. Admiral Sam Lee, who was chief of this squadron for several years, piled up the largest chunk of prize money, netting $109,689, while the disapproving Porter banked $91,528. From July 1861 until May 1866 the Treasury Department shelled out $10,103,764 to the officers and men of the Union Navy for capturing a total of 687 blockade-runners.
Courtesy National Archives
The blockade-runner R. E. Leeb
To gauge with accuracy the blockade's efficiency or its influence on the final collapse of the Confederacy is extremely difficult. Shipowners and merchants failed to keep or, if they did, completely destroyed cargo statistics, arrival and departure reports, and lists of vessels engaged in the traffic. Manifests and arrival schedules, ships' papers and warehouse receipts are scattered in the official records of national, state, and local archives.
p79 Based oftentimes on gossip gathered at official receptions, letters from American State Department agents stationed in the West Indies are of little help. Statistics added up by British consuls in the South during the war are misleading, for they indicate all arrivals, not differentiating between freighters and tiny barges.
The Federal Navy's blockade was not perfect while Confederate ports remained open. Between 1861 and 1865 more than 2054 attempts were made to penetrate the Yankee squadrons off the Carolinas, a daily average of one and one half runs. Eighty-four per cent of the known attempts reached port safely. On 31 December 1864 the Richmond Dispatch carried the news of the Treasury's special report of imports into Charleston and Wilmington since the preceding October, a two‑month period. Runners slipped in 6,000,000 pounds of meat; 1,500,000 pounds of lead; 2,000,000 pounds of saltpeter; 546,000 pairs of shoes; 316,000 blankets; 69,000 rifles; and 43 cannons.
The blockade's effectiveness, however, lay not in the ships seized, but rather in the cargoes left rotting on Liverpool docks and in the British vessels that never got under way for Nassau. A large number of shipowners who would ordinarily have dumped freight upon Charleston and Wilmington wharves were deterred by nightmares of capture.
The blockade discomforted the Southerners, shutting them off from luxuries and most necessities. Shortages worked hardship. Prices zoomed. Brooms and chairs, baskets and brushes, pails and tubs, salt and soap, the common everyday essentials, were scarce. Butter p80 spread on bread passed out of existence and tea was reserved for the wealthy. The medical purveyor at Richmond pleaded for Virginia ladies of the cultivate the poppy so that opium might be administered to the sick and wounded. On street corners quacks palmed off substitutes for quinine. Angry fist-shaking mobs smashed into clothing shops; wild-eyed governors, their coasts threatened by Yankee armadas, snatched and hoarded rifles ticketed for Richmond; soldiers hobbled around barefoot. Shortly before Lee tramped into Maryland in 1862 for his battle with McClellan at Antietam, a nurse correspondent estimated that 40,000 pairs of shoes were needed by the General's army. The South could never depend on a steady flow of goods from abroad. The quantity of supplies which did slip in kept Southern armies fighting much longer than would otherwise have been possible.
By January 1862, Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal had fallen. Confederate ports were in jeopardy. Although the weakness of enemy shore defenses was not recognized by the Lincoln Administration, Southern coastal residents wondered where the next strike would be.
a The raid was that of October 29, 1862; the Ellis's commander was the daring young lieutenant William Cushing. The following month, he raided another saltworks, near Jacksonville, Florida, with less success: although he destroyed the saltworks, captured some munitions, and freed some slaves, he was obliged to set fire to the ship before retreating. Cushing's career continued in spectacular fashion with yet other daring raids — he was also the hero of the Smithville raid of the paragraph that follows above ("a lieutenant") — and hit its high point with his destruction of the CSS Albemarle (Short History of the United States Navy, pp350‑364), for which he is best known.
b The R. E. Lee is never mentioned in the book. Built in 1860 at Glasgow, Scotland, she was commissioned as the commercial steamer Giraffe, before joining the Confederate fleet in 1862. She was captured by the Federals in 1863 and converted to the warship Fort Donelson. The photograph seen here apparently dates to this latter period. Additional information, including a period engraving of her as the R. E. Lee, is given on this page at AmericanCivilWar.com.
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