Singing Freedom’s Song – Texas, the Irish and the War for Southern Independence – Part VI – The Blockade Runners

One of the great joys of historical research in things happened upon. We have done an entry on the Anaconda plan which was the starvation blockade the union attempted to strangle the Confederacy with it and while it may have ultimately succeeded, at a terrible human cost to civilians,  it was another infamous miscalculation by Lincoln that caused foreign governments to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate belligerent under international law and probably actually prolonged the war. We have done an entry on the blockade runners – many of them actually the financiers and facilitators rather than the seamen – and of the ports and logistics of the coastal war and the raiders but there was something missing.

In doing the research for the Christmas entries we came across an article from the New York Times reprinted in the Galveston Daily News on the 24th of December 1892 issue under the title of In Confederate Days – How Blockades Were Run by the Rebel Cruisers – Some of the Daring Exploits of Davis and Ryan – Throwing Cotton Overboard to Lighten Ship. While we could hardly use it for Christmas it did have the humanity that so much other history – especially that which has to be condensed or where accurate sources are thin – often lacks.

The article, which we present in its entirety, is actually an extension of a piece published by the New York Times on the 4th of September 1892 under the title Running the Blockade – Reminiscences of an Old Confederate Captain – The Last Voyage of the Pet, One of the Most Fortunate Vessels – Fortunes Made in the Daring Business – Experiences of a Veteran Blockade Runner. While some may suspect parts of the narrative of being a “sea story” there are parts of it, corroborated by other sources, that give it the good solid ring of truth.

There is the description out of the Galveston Tri-Weekly News of the 19th of April 1865, “Upon arriving alongside, all were anxiously looking to see Capt. Maffitt, who was standing in the gangway of his ship to receive us, but none could recognize him, as we expected to find him fixed up with gold lace &c., but it was not so. He looked more like a cool, unconcerned passenger than a Captain in the C.S. Navy, with a Scotch cap, a torn coat, and a pair of rubber shoes, without socks. This was the condition in which we found him, but any sailor knows full well how to meet another.” Somewhere in the archives of the Port of Houston there is a picture of the author with the master of the m/v Kostas Konialides on the occasion of her maiden voyage to the port. Those looking at the picture will see the master with his blue jacket and the four gold bars on his epaulets. They will not see that, like Maffitt, he was in shorts and slippers. No one who has been involved in the trade has failed to meet people like Captain Ryan who wanted his ship out of port with all possible haste and the bean counters from the office who would turn paper into the stoutest mooring line on the seven seas.

Not that the entire story is made up of human interest vignettes – there are sea chases and desperate hours, as indeed the entire enterprise of blockade running was made up of voyages of tedious anxiety coupled with sheer terror at the thought of falling prey to a union ship killer that carried no cargo but only fuel and munitions in search of their next unarmed merchantman. If captured there was the possibility of being hanged as a pirate or being shipped to an old stone fort in Boston Harbor to be held with no heat, little food and a regimen of brutality that would pale Abu Ghraib.

There were a number of blockade runners in the civil war who were northern men by birth. Many of  them hailed from the New England states, and of  this latter number Captain Edwin Davis, of whom mention has been recently made in the Times, was one. In nearly every instance, though, where a northern-born man was engaged in running the blockade his wife was a Southern woman.

Charleston, South Carolina where the War for Southern Independence began

Charleston, prior to the war, was a port of no inconsiderable size. A number of fine ships hailing from Charleston were employed in the European trade, and many of these ships were commanded by northern born  sailing masters. These men, having allied themselves closely with Charleston’s interests, remained true to the city when war broke out.

As the number of ships engaged in running the blockade [out of Charleston] was never more than 200 in all, and from 1863 to 1865 not more than seventy-five to as low as twenty. The captains employed were picked men. It was not sufficient that a man should simply be able to maneuver and handle a craft and navigate it. He must in addition be possessed of a personality embodying indomitable will, great courage, and, above all, perfect nerve in time of danger. Any man deficient in one or more of these essentials never attempted, if he was a wise man, and never was allowed, if he was known, to enter into blockade running.

Captain John Newland Maffitt, born onboard a ship bound for New York from Ireland, one of the most successful blockade runners of the war and a visitor to Galveston on the CSS Owl

Ships and cargoes were too valuable to be risked in the hands of men of doubtful stamina, and so it was that when Charleston merchants cast about at the outset of the war for good, trustworthy captains they at once had recourse to those men known to them of old in the trade between Charleston and Europe. First and second mates found themselves offered commands and often a mate of 25 or 26 years of age would suddenly find himself in command of a fine runner.

A fast blockade runner, like the CSS Owl - Maffitt's last ship, with twin telescoping funnels, schooner rigged masts and paddle wheels.

In the majority of cases though, the blockade running captains had a year or more of experience in command of merchant vessels prior to the war, and many were men of ten and fifteen years’ standing as shipmasters. The recommendation of one of these old and tried shipmasters of a mate’s qualities went a long way in securing a command for an ambitious officer.

Captain John Ryan proved one of the ablest of those blockade-running captains who had been raised from the post of mate. Ryan sailed as a mate for a year or two before the war, with Captain Edward Davis, and in the latter’s opinion he was just the man for ticklish work. He never lost a ship, and what is more, he made the greatest number of round trips on record for one ship during the war. He made with his vessel seventeen runs between Nassau and the ports of Charleston and Wilmington. He was never
captured. Ryan’s salary alone for those seventeen runs amounted in all to a little less than $125,000.00.

Ryan never waited for wind or tide. His vessel drew a little over nine feet of water and this enabled him to hug the shore close – closer, in fact, than federal ships dared follow him. It was told of him that once, when in Nassau with his ship and had just loaded for another trip to Charleston, the Confederate commissioner at that port sent down word to him to hold his ship for fifteen minutes.

“Fifteen minutes!”, roared Ryan to the messenger, “In fifteen minutes I will be four miles at sea. Cast off those lines!” and away went Ryan, his impetuous nature not permitting him to hold his ship even for a minute.

Ryan was determined to make more runs than any other captain in the business, and records of the blockade-running enterprise show that he succeeded. Ryan has since died.

It is no wonder, in view of the fact that the blockade-running captains were picked men, that they often opened their eyes in amazement at some of the seamanship, to say nothing of judgement, displayed by the officers of the federal ships.

David Dixon Porter, USN admiral and half-brother of David Glasgow Farragut spent the war in command of mortar ships

Captain Edwin Davis told the Time’s correspondent the other day that on one occasion, when running for Abaco, a point off the Bahamas, he made out a schooner-rigged craft ahead of him and “lying to” almost directly across his path. Davis has command of the Pet at the time, an iron Clyde-built propeller. On the day in question a heavy sea, Captain Davis says, was running from the northward, but as the Pet was running before it she was making good weather.

“When I took a look at the schooner ahead,” he said, “the fellow had all the appearances of a merchant craft. His mainsail was partly lowered at the time and a couple of men astride the main boom were apparently engaged in some work there. I kept along my course which was on a line that would run into comparatively close to the stranger. I was walking back and forth on the bridge, paying little or no attention to the chap, when, do you know, that schooner opened on me with a twenty-four pounder howitzer – and that, too, while I was fully 600 yards to windward of him.

“Now that really made me mad. I would not have cared very much had I fallen in with a craft that might have given me chase, but for that fellow lying there ahead to fire on me while I was to the windward of him was equivalent to calling me a fool and the rubbing it in. Why, if he had only let me pass him and then waited until I was some 500 yards beyond, he would have been able to run alongside me, since the weather gauge was has and the Pet not able to do more than eight knots an hour. In the breeze then blowing the schooner should have been able to log off twelve knots per hour.

“But no, the fool was so much of a lubber that he fired on me while I was still windward of him. Of course I immediately doubled on my course, and when a mile distant stopped the engines and took a look at the chap. I let the Pet lie in that position until nightfall and then rounded off to the westward and soon afterword made Abaco. I felt very much that day like trying iron against wood and had I found myself fired at when to the leeward I should have most certainly rammed the fellow.

“The schooner,” said Captain Davis, “was one of Porter’s mortar boats. She was making a passage to the north at the time I believe.”

One of the richest prizes of the war was the blockade runner Victory. She was captured by the Santiago de Cuba, Wyman’s ship, and had a cargo of 1100 bales of cotton. The Victory had run out from Charleston for Nassau and was about making Hole in the Wall when she sighted a vessel ahead, first one the another, two in all, in quick succession. She at once turned tail and ran back on her course for a couple of hours.

Confederate blockade runners sailing down from Charleston would pass east of the north end of the Bahamas using the Hole in the Wall lighthouse at the south end of Abaco island to guide them to Nassau - sailing west via Freeport was too dangerous due to union patrols in Florida Waters while sailing east gave the maximum room for evasive maneuvers

It was about 9 o’clock in the morning when she first sighted the strangers. Not seeing anything of the pursuit she again made for Hole in the Wall, when she made out plainly enough two federal ships, who sighted as quickly as she did them. The ships in question were companions of the Santiago de Cuba, all three ships having just mobilized off Hole in the Wall from a cruise to Port Royal for coal.

Port Royal - the only Atlantic coaling station for union vessels south of Hampton Roads

The Victory led off the chase in fine style, the two following ships being by no odds her equal. Just as everybody aboard – and there were a number of passengers – was congratulating himself that a few hours more of running would drop the federal ships from sight, a pair of ominous looking masts appeared directly astern, rising slowly – so slowly as to be imperceptible – above the horizon. The pair grew larger and larger, and men about deck looked at each other wonderingly and asked what ship it could be.

Whoever it was a racer, for there was the old Victory tearing along at the top of its speed, and yet each minute the approach of some fast, powerfully engined ship was being made apparent.

Captain Edwin Davis was a passenger at the time aboard the Victory. He was en route then to Nassau to take command of the Petit and during this chase he was assisting the Victory’s captain in every way possible. It was Davis who first made out the owner of the spars on the horizon, and when he laid down his glass and turned to the captain of the Victory he spoke in a whisper. Captain Davis said but one word and when he said that word he and the Victory’s captain walked hurriedly forward. A few seconds later and the chief engineer of the Victory was seen to hurry on deck to the captain, receive some instructions and again hurry below.

If anybody had watched the mouth of the smokestack of the Victory he would have seen a bright bluish-red flame lapping the lips of the stack, and had the same observer worked his way to the fireroom he would have seen the firemen shovelling in a great heap of resin into the furnace. It was resin that was occasioning that intense heat, but it was something better than resin that was needed to enable the Victory to cause those spars on the horizon, now so plainly in sight, to cease increasing in size.

What was being done aboard the Victory was a forlorn hope, for when Captain Edwin Davis leaned over and whispered in the ear of Victory’s captain he spoke volumes when he said in his cool, calm way, “Santiago de Cuba.” It was the Santiago de Cuba that was in chase of the Victory, and nobody knew better than Wyman, the relentless captain of that ship, that when he trod on her deck he had under him the fastest all-around cruising ship in the American [union] navy. The only hope now for the Victory was to hold on until darkness set in.  Once night came it would be an easy matter to elude pursuit by steering off into the darkness.

U. S. S. Santiago de Cuba photographed in harbor during the civil war - photo from Library of Congress

To aid still further the blockade-runner her crew began heaving overboard, from forward, bales of cotton. By doing so the stern was immersed to a greater depth of water, giving the propeller additional efficiency. The companions of the Santiago de Cuba, as they followed the chase, stopped and engaged in picking up these bales, and so did a yankee brig which found itself on the ground at the time of the chase.

At 5 o’clock in the afternoon the Santiago de Cuba, which, for the last half hour had been belching away with he bowgun, swerved off a point, just enough to bring its broadside guns to bear, and as it did so the Victory ran up a white flag, stopped its engines, and waited for the Santiago de Cuba to range up alongside. The captain and a number of  prominent passengers were sent north in the Victory, the captain being placed in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor. Among the passengers sent to Fort Warren was Mr. William B. Bird, a prominent citizen of this city and now doing business here. Mr. Bird’s wife, who was a passenger on the Victory, received permission from Captain Wyman to accompany her husband north, the plucky woman being determined to share her husband’s vicissitudes.

Memorial to the Confederate POWs who died at the union prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor erected by the Boston chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy

Captain Edwin Davis was transferred aboard a tender to the Santiago de Cuba and was allowed to proceed to Nassau, Wyman finding nothing more in him than an ordinary passenger desirous of making his way out of the Confederacy. Inside of three days afterward Davis had the Pet under his feet.

The day following the capture of the Victory the Santiago de Cuba scoured the waters all over the ground of the chase for the yankee brig seen the previous day picking up cotton. He had made off  with twenty or more bales, and cotton then paid $1,60 per pound. Each bale averaged 500 pounds.

The use of resin on the Victory was injurious. Some of the survivors of the vessel living today declare that the Victory never made the speed after she began to use resin that she made in the early part of the day. It was said that the resin clankered the grate bars and deadened the draft necessary to the fires. Captain Davis rather laughs at all of this. To the Times correspondent Captain Davis said that the Victory was doomed the moment the Santiago de Cuba have in sight. She had been signalled to by the federal ships first sighted, and in response followed the course of the chase. Davis had seen her before and knew her spars the moment he clapped his eyes on them.

Prior to the war the Santiago de Cuba was engaged in the trade between Havana and New York. She was a side-wheel, ocean-going steamer, with high freeboard and a splendid battery. She carried a crew of 200 men. On the whole the Santiago de Cuba captured more ships than any other federal vessel. Some of her officers came out of the war with more than $50,000.00 prize money to their credit. It is said that her captain received as his share of prize money nearly $100,000.00. A number of his crew received as high as $15,000.00, and some even as much as $25,000.00, according to their rating.

The hull of the Santiago de Cuba is occasionally to be seen in the harbor of New York as a coal barge. She was razed down and stripped of her overhang when thus converted. Her fine engines are still doing service and are, in fact, mounted in the big excursion steamer in Columbia of Baltimore, Md., the sister to the Grand Republic of New York.

The excursion steamer Columbia

Why, given the risks, did merchants underwrite blockade runners and captains compete for commands and crews sign on – the short and simple answer is money. Just as the entire war was about money – the north and west wanted railroads without sharing the bounty with the South and the South still had adequate representation in the House but especially in the Senate to demand a voice – and only by destroying the plantation system that gave them that voice could the north and west proceed to remain honest politicians by honoring the old adage that an honest politician is one that, once bought,  stays bought. If the north and west were truly concerned about the poor slaves why did they not set a new territory aside for them where they could be forever free? In part because they were as profoundly racist, if not more so, than the South and part of their plan to dispossess the South was to expropriate the plantations in order to give 40 acres and a mule to each member of the newly franchised majority after the war. The success of the railroads and the failure to assimilate the former slaves into the larger society – and their eventual abandonment to, as Lincoln said, “Root, hog or die,” proves how much sway the abolitionists held after their votes had been delivered and their sons used as cannon fodder.

Nassau in the Bahamas matched Bagdad on the Rio Grande which had been described by the New York Herald’s correspondent as, “an excrescence … Here congregated . . . blockade runners, desperadoes, the vile of both sexes; adventurers . . . numberless groggeries and houses of worse fame. … decencies of civilized life were forgotten, and vice in its worst form held high carnival . . . while in the low, dirty looking buildings . . . were amassed millions”. In the New York Times article of the 4th of September 1892 the correspondent tells us, “The profits resulting from blocklade-running caused the port of Nassau to be fairly overrun with money. The scenes at this West India port resembled those of San Francisco during the gold fever period. The banks of Nassau became so heavily taxed with deposits that the vaults on many occasions were unable to contain all the specie presented and it soon became quite common to see gold sovereigns lying in great heaps on the floor of a bank with a soldier standing guard. Previous to the war Nassau was but little known. Blockade running made the little port one of the most prominent of England’s possessions. “

The master of a blockade runner could be very well paid, again Captain Davis reports his experience with the Pet, “I was offered as my compensation for the command of the Pet $7,000.00 for every round trip I should make [Wilmington to Nassau], the money to be paid in gold, one-half at Nassau and one-half at Wilmington, each payment to be made immediately upon my arrival at the places named.”

The shipowners got rich off of the blockade runners as the correspondent reports about the Pet, “Although the Pet was lost on her eighth run, she had more than paid for herself on her first voyage. It was expected that a newly purchased vessel should clear herself on her first run. Every succeeding run meant enormous profits to her owners. Money was so plenty in Nassau that men gambled, drank and seemed crazy to get rid of their money. Prodigious wagers were put up by blockade runners in their efforts to spend gold. The cause of this was that the Confederates were paying the English importers and jobbers at Nassau large prices for goods, but these figures or coasts were multiplied enormously in the Confederacy. the price of cotton was not increased in the same ratio, and this large difference in values gave the enormous profits which induced these voyages. Ten dollars invested in quinine in Nassau would bring from $400.00 to $600.00 in Charleston.

As an item of curiosity, indicating the prices of imported goods in Confederate Currency, the following bill of purchases from a blockading company [is dated] 15th of October 1863:

  • 1 box containing 400 doz Coates Spool Cotton @ $12.50/doz. = $5,000.00
  • 17 rolls sole leather, Weight 3,204 lbs @ $9.25/lb = $29,637.00
  • 5 rolls sole leather, Weight 575.5 lbs @ $9.25/lb = $5,323.37
  • 4 cases foolscap paper, 50 reams each – 200 reams @ $72.00 = $14,400.00
  • 1 case yellow envelopes no. 46, 100M envelopes @ $40.00 = $4,000.00
  • 3 cases steel pens, no. 405-507 500 gross each, 1500 gross @ $8.50 = $12,750.00
  • 6 gross in case, 18 handles @ $35.00 = $630.00
  • 40 doz. spades @ $180.00 per dozen = $7,200.00″

This is merely a single consignment within a cargo so the total value of the cargo carried could be $500,000.00 or more. With less than $25,000.00 in cost and expenses for a voyage it is easy to understand the attractiveness of the trade. Cotton exports and shipping tonnage was reduced by well over 90% during the war but bankers still found a way to prosper.

This cruel war is not over. Neither for the nation nor for this blog. While we agree with the sentiment that, “Lee surrendered, I didn’t,” we will let the barrels cool and the smoke clear for awhile and steer a course back to Galveston and Margaret Edythe Young and her family for the next several issues. Just remember, “The South shall rise again!”





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