A Confederate Blockade-Runner

A Confederate Blockade-Runner

(1862, by John Wilkinson)

During the time of the American Civil War, the closing of seaports was a matter left in the hands of local officials. In a move to prevent the delivery of supplies and weapons from allies both domestic and foreign, President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade by Federal ships of all major Southern U.S. ports. Some historians later regarded this action as a constitutional breach of his authority, since it effectively meant redefining the newly formed Confederate States of America as a hostile, and autonomous, entity. The move gave rise to one of the most romantic figures of the war, the blockade-runner, who slipped past fleets of heavily armed Union ships on moonless nights and often under fire to bring food and medicine to desperate Southern cities. John Wilkinson (1821–1891) was perhaps the most famous of these. A twenty-year veteran of the Navy, Wilkinson attempted to resign his commission when Virginia seceded from the Union, but was upbraided and subsequently dishonorably discharged. Shortly after, he was dispatched to England, where he purchased the steamship Giraffe, renamed Robert E. Lee. On the night of 28 December 1862, Wilkinson ran his first blockade off the shores of Wilmington, North Carolina. Among his many adventures and narrow escapes, he once created a smoke cloud from the Lee’s funnels using low-grade North Carolina coal and coal dust to throw off the doggedly pursuing USS Iroquois, fastest of the Federal blockade cruisers. After the war, he resigned himself to life in Nova Scotia, but at last returned to his native Virginia and, in 1877, published a widely read account of his experiences.

The natural advantages of Wilmington for blockade-running were very great, chiefly owing to the fact, that there are two separate and distinct approaches to Cape Fear River, i.e., either by "New Inlet" to the north of Smith’s Island, or by the "western bar" to the south of it. This island is ten or eleven miles in length; but the Frying Pan Shoals extend ten or twelve miles further south, making the distance by sea between the two bars thirty miles or more, although the direct distance between them is only six or seven miles. From Smithville, a little village nearly equi-distant from either bar, both blockading fleets could be distinctly seen, and the out-ward bound blockade-runners could take their choice through which of them to run the gauntlet. The inward bound blockade-runners, too, were guided by circumstances of wind and weather; selecting that bar over which they would cross, after they had passed the Gulf Stream; and shaping their course accordingly. The approaches to both bars were clear of danger, with the single exception of the "Lump" … and so regular are the soundings that the shore can be coasted for miles within a stone’s throw of the breakers.

These facts explain why the United States fleet were unable wholly to stop blockade-running. It was, indeed, impossible to do so; the result to the very close of the war proves this assertion; for in spite of the vigilance of the fleet, many blockade-runners were afloat when Fort Fisher was captured. In truth the passage through the fleet was little dreaded; for although the blockade-runner might receive a shot or two, she was rarely disabled; and in proportion to the increase of the fleet, the greater would be the danger (we knew,) of their firing into each other. As the boys before the deluge used to say, they would be very apt "to miss the cow and kill the calf," The chief danger was upon the open sea; many of the light cruisers having great speed. As soon as one of them discovered a blockade-runner during daylight she would attract other cruisers in the vicinity by sending up a dense column of smoke, visible for many miles in clear weather. A "cordon" of fast steamers stationed ten or fifteen miles apart inside the Gulf Stream, and in the course from Nassau and Bermuda to Wilmington and Charleston, would have been more effectual in stopping blockade-running than the whole United States Navy concentrated off those ports; and it was unaccountable to us why such a plan did not occur to good Mr. Welles; but it was not our place to suggest it. I have no doubt, however, that the fraternity to which I then belonged would have unanimously voted thanks and a service of plate to the Hon. Secretary of the United States Navy for this oversight. I say inside the Gulf Stream, because every experienced captain of a blockade-runner made a point to cross "the stream" early enough in the afternoon, if possible, to establish the ship’s position by chronometer so as to escape the influence of that current upon his dead reckoning. The lead always gave indication of our distance from the land, but not, of course, of our position; and the numerous salt works along the coast, where evaporation was produced by fire, and which were at work night and day were visible long before the low coast could be seen. Occasionally the whole inward voyage would be made under adverse conditions. Cloudy, thick weather and heavy gales would prevail so as to prevent any solar or lunar observations, and reduce the dead reckoning to mere guess work. In these cases the nautical knowledge and judgment of the captain would be taxed to the utmost. The current of the Gulf Stream varies in velocity and (within certain limits) in direction; and the stream, itself almost as well defined as a river within its banks under ordinary circumstances, is expelled by a strong gale toward the direction in which the wind is blowing, overflowing its banks as it were. The counter current, too, inside of the Gulf Stream is much influenced by the prevailing winds. Upon one occasion, while in command of the R. E. Lee, we had experienced very heavy and thick weather; and had crossed the Stream and struck soundings about midday. The weather then clearing so that we could obtain an altitude near meridian we found ourselves at least forty miles north of our supposed position and near the shoals which extended in a southerly direction off Cape Lookout. It would be more perilous to run out to sea than to continue on our course, for we had passed through the off shore line of blockaders, and the sky had become perfectly clear. I determined to personate a transport bound to Beaufort, which was in the possession of the United States forces, and the coaling station of the fleet blockading Wilmington. The risk of detection was not very great, for many of the captured blockade-runners were used as transports and dispatch vessels. Shaping our course for Beaufort, and slowing down, as we were in no haste to get there, we passed several vessels, showing United States colors to them all. Just as we were crossing through the ripple of shallow water off the "tail" of the shoals, we dipped our colors to a sloop of war which passed three or four miles to the south of us. The courtesy was promptly responded to; but I have no doubt her captain thought me a lubberly and careless seaman to shave the shoals so closely. We stopped the engines when no vessel was in sight; and I was relieved from a heavy burden of anxiety as the sun sank below the horizon; and the course was shaped at full speed for Masonboro’ Inlet.…

… 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 a blue light; and immediately followed 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. I ordered a lot of rockets from New York. Whenever all hands were called to run through the fleet, an officer was stationed alongside of me on the bridge with the 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.…

The staid old town of Wilmington was turned "topsy turvy" during the war. Here resorted the speculators from all parts of the South, to attend the weekly auctions of imported cargoes; and the town was infested with rogues and desperadoes, who made a livelihood by robbery and murder.…The agents and employés of the dif ferent blockade-running companies, lived in magnificent style, paying a king’s ransom (in Confederate money) for their household expenses, and nearly monopolizing the supplies in the country market.…

SOURCE: Hart, Albert Bushnell, ed. American History Told by Contemporaries. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan, 1901.

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