During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the primary task of the Union Navy was to blockade the coast and ports of the Confederate States of America. The CSA had to import almost all its munitions of war, and to pay for them, had to export cotton and other commodities. Because of the immense need, enormous profits could be – and were – made by blockade runners and the companies that built and/or hired them, mainly British. The islands of Bermuda, the Bahamas (both British possessions) and Cuba (a Spanish possession) became very prosperous due to the blockade trade during the Civil War.
One of the most interesting books to come out of that period is “Running the Blockade: A personal narrative of adventures, risks and escapes during the American civil war” by British businessman Thomas E. Taylor.
Based in the Bahamas, Taylor ran the blockade many times as “supercargo” of the ships concerned, hiring them to carry his goods; selling them in Wilmington, North Carolina, and occasionally other ports; buying cotton and other goods to send back to Britain; and running them through the blockade on the return journey. He was one of the most successful and prosperous men involved in this trade.
The Banshee was one of the first purpose-built blockade running ships (as opposed to conventional sail- or steam-powered merchant vessels that were initially pressed into service). Click the image below for a larger view of her.
Here’s Taylor’s account of the Banshee’s first blockade-running voyage, to and from Wilmington.
CHAPTER IV – THE BANSHEE’S FIRST RUN IN
Wilmington was the first port I attempted; in fact with the exception of one run to Galveston it was always our destination. It had many advantages. Though furthest from Nassau it was nearest to headquarters at Richmond, and from its situation was very difficult to watch effectively. It was here moreover, that my firm had established its agency as soon as they had resolved to takeup the blockade-running business. The town itself lies some sixteen miles up the Cape Fear river, which falls into the ocean at a point where the coast forms the sharp salient angle from which the river takes its name. Off its mouth lies a delta, known as Smith’s Island, which not only emphasises the obnoxious formation of the coast, but also divides the approach to the port into two widely separated channels, so that in order to guard the approach to it a blockading-force is compelled to divide into two squadrons.
At one entrance of the river lies Fort Fisher, a work so powerful that the blockaders instead of lying in the estuary were obliged to form roughly a semicircle out of range of its guns, and the falling away of the coast on either side of the entrance further increased the extent of ground they had to cover. The system they adopted in order to meet the difficulty was extremely well conceived, and, did we not know to the contrary, it would have appeared complete enough to ensure the capture of every vessel so foolhardy as to attempt to enter or come out.
Across either entrance an inshore squadron was stationed at close intervals. In the daytime the steamers composing this squadron anchored, but at night they got under weigh and patrolled in touch with the flagship, which, as a rule, remained at anchor. Further out there was a cordon of cruisers, and outside these again detached gun-boats keeping at such a distance from the coast as they calculated a runner coming out would traverse between the time of high water on Wilmington bar and sunrise, so that if any blockade-runner coming out got through the two inner lines in the dark she had every chance of being snapped up at daybreak by one of the third division.
Besides these special precautions for Wilmington there must not be forgotten the ships engaged in the general service of the blockade, consisting, in addition to those detailed to watch Nassau and other bases, of free cruisers that patrolled the Gulf-stream. From this it will be seen readily, that from the moment the Banshee left Nassau harbour till she had passed the protecting forts at the mouth of Cape Fear river, she and those on board her could never be safe from danger or free for a single hour from anxiety. But, although at this time the system was already fairly well developed, the Northerners had not yet enough ships at work to make it as effective as it afterwards became.
The Banshee‘s engines proved so unsatisfactory that under ordinary conditions nine or ten knots was all we could get out of her; she was therefore not permitted to run any avoidable risks, and to this I attribute her extraordinary success where better boats failed. As long as daylight lasted a man was never out of the cross-trees, and the moment a sail was seen the Banshee‘s stern was turned to it till it was dropped below the horizon. The lookout man, to quicken his eyes, had a dollar for every sail he sighted, and if it were seen from the deck first he was fined five. This may appear excessive, but the importance in blockade-running of seeing before you are seen is too great for any chance to be neglected; and it must be remembered that the pay of ordinary seamen for each round trip in and out was from £50 to £60 [then equivalent to $250 to $300, at a time when a seaman’s monthly wage was less than a tenth of that].
Following these tactics we crept noiselessly along the shores of the Bahamas, invisible in the darkness, and ran on unmolested for the first two days out, though our course was often interfered with by the necessity of avoiding hostile vessels; then came the anxious moment on the third, when, her position having been taken at noon to see if she was near enough to run under the guns of Fort Fisher before the following daybreak, it was found there was just time, but none to spare for accidents or delay. Still the danger of lying out another day so close to the blockaded port was very great, and rather than risk it we resolved to keep straight on our course and chance being overtaken by daylight before we were under the Fort.
Now the real excitement began, and nothing I have ever experienced can compare with it. Hunting, pig-sticking, steeple-chasing, big-game shooting, polo — I have done a little of each — all have their thrilling moments, but none can approach “running a blockade”; and perhaps my readers can sympathise with my enthusiasm when they consider the dangers to be encountered, after three days of constant anxiety and little sleep, in threading our way through a swarm of blockaders, and the accuracy required to hit in the nick of time the mouth of a river only half a mile wide, without lights and with a coast-line so low and featureless that as a rule the first intimation we had of its nearness was the dim white line of the surf.
There were of course many different plans of getting in, but at this time the favourite dodge was to run up some fifteen or twenty miles to the north of Cape Fear, so as to round the northernmost of the blockaders, instead of dashing right through the inner squadron; then to creep down close to the surf till the river was reached: and this was the course the Banshee intended to adopt.
We steamed cautiously on until nightfall: the night proved dark, but dangerously clear and calm. No lights were allowed — not even a cigar; the engine-room hatchways were covered with tarpaulins, at the risk of suffocating the unfortunate engineers and stokers in the almost insufferable atmosphere below. But it was absolutely imperative that not a glimmer of light should appear. Even the binnacle was covered, and the steersman had to see as much of the compass as he could through a conical aperture carried almost up to his eyes.
With everything thus in readiness we steamed on in silence except for the stroke of the engines and the beat of the paddle-floats, which in the calm of the night seemed distressingly loud; all hands were on deck, crouching behind the bulwarks; and we on the bridge, namely, the captain, the pilot, and I, were straining our eyes into the darkness. Presently Burroughs made an uneasy movement — “Better get a cast of the lead, Captain,” I heard him whisper. A muttered order down the engine-room tube was Steele’s reply, and the Banshee slowed and then stopped. It was an anxious moment, while a dim figure stole into the fore-chains; for there is always a danger of steam blowing off when engines are unexpectedly stopped, and that would have been enough to betray our presence for miles around. In a minute or two came back the report, “sixteen fathoms — sandy bottom with black specks.” “We are not as far in as I thought, Captain,” said Burroughs, “and we are too far to the southward. Port two points and go a little faster.” As he explained, we must be well to the northward of the speckled bottom before it was safe to head for the shore, and away we went again. In about an hour Burroughs quietly asked for another sounding. Again she was gently stopped, and this time he was satisfied. “Starboard and go ahead easy,” was the order now, and as we crept in not a sound was heard but that of the regular beat of the paddle-floats still dangerously loud in spite of our snail’s pace. Suddenly Burroughs gripped my arm, —
“There’s one of them, Mr. Taylor,” he whispered, “on the starboard bow.”
In vain I strained my eyes to where he pointed, not a thing could I see; but presently I heard Steele say beneath his breath, “All right, Burroughs, I see her. Starboard a little, steady!” was the order passed aft.
A moment afterwards I could make out a long low black object on our starboard side, lying perfectly still. Would she see us? that was the question; but no, though we passed within a hundred yards of her we were not discovered, and I breathed again. Not very long after we had dropped her Burroughs whispered, —
“Steamer on the port bow.”
And another cruiser was made out close to us.
“Hard-a-port,” said Steele, and round she swung, bringing our friend upon our beam. Still unobserved we crept quietly on, when all at once a third cruiser shaped herself out of the gloom right ahead and steaming slowly across our bows.
“Stop her,” said Steele in a moment, and as we lay like dead our enemy went on and disappeared in the darkness. It was clear there was a false reckoning somewhere, and that instead of rounding the head of the blockading line we were passing through the very centre of it. However, Burroughs was now of opinion that we must be inside the squadron and advocated making the land. So “slow ahead” we went again, until the low-lying coast and the surf line became dimly visible. Still we could not tell where we were, and, as time was getting on alarmingly near dawn, the only thing to do was to creep down along the surf as close in and as fast as we dared. It was a great relief when we suddenly heard Burroughs say, “It’s all right, I see the ‘Big Hill’!”
The “Big Hill” was a hillock about as high as a full-grown oak tree, but it was the most prominent feature for miles on that dreary coast, and served to tell us exactly how far we were from Fort Fisher. And fortunate it was for us we were so near. Daylight was already breaking, and before we were opposite the fort we could make out six or seven gunboats, which steamed rapidly towards us and angrily opened fire. Their shots were soon dropping close around us: an unpleasant sensation when you know you have several tons of gunpowder under your feet. To make matters worse, the North Breaker shoal now compelled us to haul off the shore and steam further out. It began to look ugly for us, when all at once there was a flash from the shore followed by a sound that came like music to our ears — that of a shell whirring over our heads. It was Fort Fisher, wide awake and warning the gunboats to keep their distance. With a parting broadside they steamed sulkily out of range, and in half an hour we were safely over the bar. A boat put off from the fort and then, — well, it was the days of champagne cocktails, not whiskies and sodas — and one did not run a blockade every day. For my part, I was mightily proud of my first attempt and my baptism of fire. Blockade-running seemed the pleasantest and most exhilarating of pastimes. I did not know then what a very serious business it could be.
CHAPTER V – FORT FISHER AND WILMINGTON
It was now that I made the acquaintance — soon to ripen into a warm friendship — of Colonel William Lamb, the Commandant of Fort Fisher, — a man of whose courtesy, courage, and capacity all the English who knew him spoke in the highest terms. Originally a Virginian lawyer and afterwards the editor of a newspaper, he volunteered at the outbreak of the war, and rising rapidly to the grade of colonel was given the command of Fort Fisher, a post which he filled with high distinction till its fall in 1865. With the blockade-runners he was immensely popular; always on the alert and ever ready to reach a helping hand, he seemed to think no exertion too great to assist their operations, and many a smart vessel did his skill and activity snatch from the very jaws of the blockaders. He came to be regarded by the runners as their guardian angel; and it was no small support in the last trying moments of a run to remember who was in Fort Fisher.
So much did we value his services and so grateful were we for them, that at my suggestion my firm subsequently presented him with a battery of six Whitworth guns, of which he was very proud; and good use he made of them in keeping the blockaders at a respectful distance. They were guns with a great range, which many a cruiser found to its cost when venturing too close in chase down the coast. Lamb would gallop them down behind the sandhills, by aid of mules, and open fire upon the enemy before he was aware of his danger. Neither must I forget his charming wife (alas, now numbered among the majority); her hospitality and kindness were unbounded, and many a pleasant social evening have I and my brother blockade-runners spent in her little cottage outside the fort.
. . .
Having obtained pratique (for the quarantine was very strict) and a local pilot, rendered necessary by the river being unbuoyed and strewn with torpedoes, we ran up at once to Wilmington. Here I found our agent Tom Power, who had an outward cargo ready for me, and the cheerful heartiness with which the slaves set about discharging our inward one was a pleasant surprise; if I hadn’t been told they were slaves I should never have discovered it. Everything had to be done at high pressure, for it was important to get out as quickly as possible, so as to try another run while the dark nights lasted, and loading went merrily on. I therefore did my best to win the goodwill of the officials, on whose favour I was of course in a great measure dependent for a rapid turn round.
Wilmington was already sadly pinched and war-worn. There never was too much to eat and drink there, and the commonest luxuries were almost things of the past; so when it became known that there was practically open house on board the Banshee friends flocked to her. She soon attained great popularity, and it was really a sight when our luncheon bell rang to see guests, invited and uninvited, turn up from all quarters. We made them all welcome, and when our little cabin was filled we generally had an overflow meeting on deck.
What a pleasure it was to see them eat and drink! Men who had been accustomed to live on corn-bread and bacon, and to drink nothing but water, appreciated our delicacies; our bottled beer, good brandy, and, on great occasions, our champagne, warmed their hearts towards us. The chief steward used to look at me appealingly, as a hint that our stores would never last out; in fact we were often on very short commons before we got back to Nassau. But we had our reward. If any special favour were asked it was always granted, if possible, to the Banshee, and if any push had to be made there was always some one to make it.
Whether due to the luncheon parties or not need not be said, but we were within a very few days able to cast off our moorings and drop down the river ballasted with tobacco and laden with cotton — three tiers even on deck. Such things are almost incredible nowadays. The reckless loading, to which high profits and the perquisites allowed to officers led, is to a landsman inconceivable. That men should be found willing to put to sea at all in these frail craft piled like hay waggons is extraordinary enough, but that they should do so in the face of a vigilant and active blockading force, and do it successfully, seems rather an invention of romance than a commonplace occurrence of our own time. True, running out was a much easier matter than running in, for the risks inseparable from making a port, so difficult to find as Wilmington, without lights, and with constant change of courses, were absent, and as soon as the bar was crossed navigation at least gave no anxiety.
Steele and I had hit on a plan for getting out that promised almost a certainty of success. Its security lay in its impudence, a cardinal virtue of blockade-running, which, as will be seen later on in some of the more critical scenes, approached the sublime. The idea was perhaps obvious enough. As has been said, the flagship during the night remained at anchor, while the other ships moved slowly to and fro upon the inner line, leaving, as was natural enough, a small area round the Admiral’s ship unpatrolled. This was enough for us. Bringing up the Banshee behind Fort Fisher, where she could lie hidden from the blockaders till nightfall, we rowed ashore to get from Colonel Lamb the last news of the squadron’s movements and to ascertain which ship bore the Admiral’s flag. She proved to be the Minnesota, a large sixty-gun frigate: her bearings were accurately taken, and as soon as night fell the Banshee stole quietly from her concealment, slipped over the bar, dark as it was, and by the aid of Steele’s observations ran in perfect security close by the flagship and out to sea well clear of the first cordon.
In trying to pass the second, however, we were less successful, for we ran right across a gunboat; she saw us and at once opened fire; but slow as the Banshee was, luckily the Northern gunboats for the most part were slower still, so we had no difficulty in increasing the distance between us till it was felt we were out of sight again. Our helm was then put hard over, giving us a course at right angles to the one we had been steaming, and after keeping it a few minutes we stopped. It was a manœuvre nearly always successful, provided the helm was not put over too soon, and this time it achieved the usual result. As we lay perfectly still, watching the course of the gunboat by the flashes of her guns and by the rockets she was sending up to attract her consorts, we had the satisfaction of seeing her labouring furiously past us and firing wildly into black space.
There still remained the danger at daybreak of the third cordon, and with anxious eyes the horizon was scoured as the darkness began to fail. A daylight chase with the Banshee in her present condition could not be thought of, but fortunately not a sign of a cruiser was to be seen. All that day, and the next and the next, we steamed onward with our hearts in our mouths, turning our stern to every sail or patch of smoke that was seen, till, on the evening of the third day, we steamed into Nassau as proudly as a heavy list to starboard would allow.
So ended my first attempt, a triumphant success! Besides the inward freight of £50 a ton on the war material, I had earned by the tobacco ballast alone £7000, the freight for which had been paid at the rate of £70 a ton. But this was a flea-bite compared to the profit on the 500 odd bales of cotton we had on board, which was at least £50 per bale.
No wonder I took kindly to my new calling, and no wonder I at once set to work to get the Banshee reloaded for another run before the moonless nights were over.
Taylor made a total of twenty-eight runs through the blockade, in and out, which he called “a record, I think, for any Englishman during the war, and considering the narrow squeaks that I had, and that I only came to grief once in the Night Hawk, I had a great deal to be thankful for.”