The blockade runners of the American Civil War were seagoing steam ships that were used to make their way through the Union blockade that extended some 3,500 miles (5,600 km) along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines and the lower Mississippi River. To get through the blockade, these ships, many of them specially built for speed, had to cruise by undetected, usually at night. If spotted the runners would then attempt to outmaneuver or simply outrun any Union ships on blockade patrol. The typical blockade runners were privately-owned vessels often operating with a letter of marque issued by the Confederate States of America.
These vessels would carry cargoes to and from neutral ports often located in Nassau and Cuba where neutral merchant ships in turn carried these cargoes, usually coming from or destined to England or other points abroad. Inbound ships usually brought badly needed supplies and mail to the Confederacy while outbound ships often exported cotton, tobacco and other goods for trade and revenue while also carrying important mail and correspondence to suppliers and other interested parties in Europe, most often in England. Most of the guns and other ordinance of the Confederacy was imported from England via blockade runners. Some blockade runners made many successful runs while many others were either captured or destroyed. There were an estimated 2500-2800 attempts to run the blockade with at least an 80% success rate. However, by the end of the Civil War the Union Navy had captured more than 1,100 blockade runners and had destroyed or run aground another 355 vessels.
When the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, the newly formed Confederate States of America had no ships to speak of in its navy. In the months leading up to the war the Confederate government was well aware of the naval supremacy of the north and sought the help of Great Britain, which had great interests in the plantations of the South. The British became the primary ship builders and sources of supply for the Confederate government for the duration of the civil war. Several courses of action soon developed.
In 1861 the Southern fleet only consisted of about 35 ships, of which 21 were steam-driven. The Confederacy was also in dire need of many basic supplies and without the resources of the industrial north it had to look to other venues for its supplies. Coming to their aid, an experienced and former U.S. naval captain, Raphael Semmes, devised a plan by which to thwart the naval supremacy of the North. He proposed a militia of privateers which would both strike at the North's merchant ships and provide supplies to the south by out running or evading the ships of the Union blockade. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved of the plan.
On April 15 President Lincoln issued his first proclamation, calling out 75,000 troops in response to the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter On April 17 Davis issued a proclamation, offering a letter of marque to anyone who would offer their ship in the service of the Confederacy. To this end British investors were the most prolific in offering such aid. The North refused to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy along with its right to issue letters of marque and in little time on April 19, Lincoln issued a second proclamation, threatening the Confederacy with a blockade along its coastlines. i.e., Scott's Anaconda plan extended along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coastlines and up into the lower Mississippi River. Lincoln's proclamation also contained a threat that any actions against the Union by crews of ships acting under a Confederate letter of marque would be treated as pirates and subject to prosecution for such crimes, which usually called for the death penalty. In response Davis countered with threats of retaliation, while the British also proclaimed its refusal to concur with Lincoln's proclamation in nearby Nassau and its territorial waters.
Lincoln's proposed blockade was met with mixed criticism among some of his contemporaries. Thaddeus Stevens angrily referred to it as "a great blunder and a absurdity" arguing that "we were blockading ourselves" and in the process, would be recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent of war.
Soon after Lincoln announced the blockade, the profitable business of running supplies through the blockade to the Confederacy began. At first the actual blockade was slow to materialize as the task of patrolling thousands of miles (6 thousand km) of coastline was enormous, and the blockade was considered by some to be little more than a 'paper blockade'. Wilmington, NC was not blockaded until July 14, 1861, three months after Lincoln's proclamation.
An enormous naval industry evolved which brought great profits for shipbuilders, shippers, and suppliers alike. Throughout the conflict mail was carried also by blockade runners to and from ports in the West Indies, Nassau and Bermuda.
But soon Federal forces began to more effectively enforce the coastal blockade and established squadrons at the various Southern ports, while also setting up roving patrols just outside British territorial waters in the Caribbean, most notably in the Bahamas. As the risk of capture or destruction increased, amateur blockade runners began to cease operations with most of the trade now being handled by courageous sea captains who were soon using specially-made steamers that allowed them to evade or outrun Union ships on blockade patrol.
General Winfield Scott was one of the few senior men in Washington who realized that this could be a long war, and he developed an appropriate naval strategy that would make a decisive impact on the war's outcome. This was part of his famous Anaconda Plan that employed a naval blockade around the coastline of the Confederacy with the idea of adversely affecting its economy and supply lines. Because of the thousands of miles of coastline (6 thousand km), with its many rivers, bays and inlets, the blockade proved largely ineffectual during the first couple of years of the war. This allowed blockade runners to import military supplies to the Confederacy with relative ease. Deliveries of armaments and military supplies to the South and cotton to England were coordinated by military agents like Major Walker, who played a key role in supplying the Con agent. Lincoln's proclamation raised issues with England and other powers relating to international law. In the midst of a naval blockade, the Confederacy received an almost steady supply of arms and other goods from Europe, along with mail. At the same time, it was exporting cotton and other commodities to France and England, whose textile industries were greatly dependent on these southern exports. Outgoing runners would also carry mail.
During the course of the Civil War, most of the attempts to run the blockade succeeded, but as the months passed, the captains and crews on blockade patrol became more seasoned and grew wiser to the various tactics employed by blockade runners. During the last two years of the war, the only vessels capable of getting though the blockade were the blockade runners that were specifically designed for speed.
During the first year of the Civil War, the southern ports in the Gulf of Mexico experienced a great deal of blockade-running activity. In the first ten months, New Orleans, Louisiana, the largest cotton port in the world, gave port to more than 300 blockade runners. When New Orleans fell to Union forces on April 25, 1862, the center for blockade-running activity shifted to Mobile, Alabama. With New Orleans and the Mississippi River secured, blockade efforts by the Union Navy along the Gulf coast were greatly increased, forcing blockade runners to use the port at Galveston, Texas. When Mobile and its port came under siege in the summer of 1864, all activity there moved to Galveston. Blockade runners used Havana as a stopover point, for transferring cargoes to and from neutral ships.
Supplying the Confederacy
The newly formed Confederacy (C.S.A.) was not officially recognized by the various foreign powers, a situation that led the seceded states to seek the aid of various private shipping companies and other businesses, especially overseas where there was interest and willing compliance to sell and ship the much-needed supply and ordnance to the Confederacy. To handle its important supply dealings and various business affairs, the Confederate government turned to John Fraser & Company, a well-known, patriotic, and respected Charleston-based importing and exporting company which was well connected in England, France, and elsewhere. Established in 1835, John Fraser (Sr.) had turned the business over to his son, John Augustus Fraser and his senior partner George Alfred Trenholm, who would later become Confederate Secretary of the Treasury.
Fraser, Trenholm and Company operated out of Liverpool, England and New York. By 1860 the company had five seagoing vessels, among them the Kate, the Cecil and the Herald, making shipping runs from Liverpool to New York and Charleston, and back again. When the southern states seceded from the Union, it opened the door to even greater business, and in little time nearly all of their business was with the C.S.A. The firm of Fraser, Trenholm & Company in Liverpool became the common connection for the Confederacy's naval and financial dealings in Europe.
Prior to the actual battles of the war, Fraser & Company had already begun negotiations for steamship service between England and points along the southern coast of the Confederacy. Taking advantage of the fact that neither side was fully prepared for war, George Trenholm and his partners began shipping arms from Liverpool and New York to Charleston. The state of South Carolina was the buyer for these first shipments, which in turn sold them to the Confederate government for a substantial profit.
Before war broke out, military arms for the C.S.A. states were in short supply. There was also little gunpowder stored among the seceded states, and the availability of fuses and percussion caps was also very limited (the caps in the South amounting to only a half a million). There was no machine to produce them in any of the Confederate states. Powder supplies in Florida were so low that, in April 1861, General John B. Grayson warned Jefferson Davis in Richmond:
thirty days, she will fall into the hands of the North. Nothing human can prevent it."
The same urgent demand for military ordnance and supplies was dispatched to Richmond from every military center throughout the South. Because of the incursions of the Union Army, the Confederate Navy was also in very short supply of coal, with the only domestic sources being located in North Carolina and Alabama.
At this time the Confederate government depended almost entirely on privately owned blockade runners. However the leaders of the Confederacy had enough foresight to realize that the federation needed its own vessels to bring in supplies. Acting for the Confederate Navy Department, James Dunwoody Bulloch began procuring vessels in Europe, most notably the CSS Atlanta which made its famous run into Savannah carrying ten thousand Enfield rifles, a million cartridges, two million percussion caps, and 400 barrels of gunpowder, along with swords, revolvers, and other military supplies.
Coordinating the business affairs of the C.S.A. with shipbuilders, purchasing agents, suppliers, and shippers in Liverpool, Nassau, Wilmington and other ports involved the concerted efforts of a number of notable men and shipping firms. Foremost in this effort were Major Josiah C. Gorgas and Fraser, Trenholm and Company - who worked closely with Gorgas, the Confederate Naval Secretary, and other agents.
Josiah C. Gorgas
Because the South lacked the industrial resources of the North, it was forced to seek military supplies from other, often overseas, sources. Blockade runners became the chief means of supplying the blockaded Confederacy. Ships of the Confederate Navy used for running the blockade were employed by Confederate Chief of Ordnance, Major Josiah Gorgas, a West Point graduate of 1841 who prior to the war had worked in the United States Ordnance Bureau and had served in nearly every arsenal in the nation. While working in the South he became sympathetic to the secessionist movement and eventually sided with the Confederacy, becoming the head of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau. Gorgas liaised with Charles Prioleau who headed Trenholm's Liverpool office, arranging for the shipping of arms and other supplies. Most of the arms sent to the Confederacy departed from Liverpool. During the summer of 1861 Gorgas stockpiled supplies and prepared his first load of cargo, while Trenholm's company procured a suitable ship for the voyage. A 1,200-ton iron-hulled steamer, the Bermuda, was chosen to make the voyage.
To coordinate the business and the buying of weapons and supplies in England Gorgas relied on agents Captain Caleb Huse and Major Edward C. Anderson. Under Gorgas' direction Huse served as an arms procurement agent and purchasing specialist, well known for his successful acquisition of weapons contracts with various European nations including the United Kingdom and Austria, among others. Anderson was also sent to aid Huse and check on his activity.
Huse arranged the sale and procurement of rifles and other ordnance from the London Armoury Company which became the chief supplier of arms to the Confederacy throughout the war. By February 1863 the Armoury had shipped over 70,000 rifles to the Confederacy. Huse was also owner of several seagoing steamers used in blockade running and made several trips to Europe and back aboard these vessels. While in Europe Huse represented the Confederate War Dept. and Ordnance Bureau throughout the entire war and arranged for credit to be extended when funds were short. These men also acted as liaisons with Charles Prioleau of Fraser, Trenholm & Co. in Liverpool. Through him they would procure the vessels and arrange for the shipment of goods to the Confederacy. Bulloch would work in close correspondence with Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory in the procurement of several British-made blockade-running vessels.
James Dunwoody Bulloch
The half-brother of noted C.S.N. officer Irvine Bulloch, James Dunwoody Bulloch was the Confederacy's chief foreign agent in Great Britain. Inside two months after the attack on Fort Sumter, Bulloch arrived at Liverpool where he established his base of operations. As his first order of business he made contact with Confederate Commissioners, Hon. William Yancey and Hon. Dudley Mann, in London. After being welcomed they discussed the diplomatic situation, since they had not been officially received by the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs - as the Confederate government had not permanently established themselves as an independent foreign power. Bulloch then established a relationship with the shipping firm of Fraser, Trenholm & Company, where he set up a conference with the Fraser-Trenholm officials who were the designated financial agents of the new Confederate government. They arranged for the buying and selling of cotton, being ultimately responsible for shipping approximately seven-eighths of all the cotton exported from the Southern states during the war. Bulloch also arranged for the construction and purchase of the Florida, the Alabama and the Shenandoah.
In 1863 Bulloch contracted with the Laird shipyard for the construction of two ironclad rams to be used against the Union blockade. However, if it could be proven that the contract (or commission) for building these ships was in violation of Britain's neutrality law, the ships could be seized. The Union's minister to Britain, Charles F. Adams, tried to do just that; but he could only gather circumstantial evidence, as Bulloch went to great lengths to conceal his movements. Adams threatened the British government with reprisal: that if the rams escaped, the United States would consider it an act of war. After further consideration, British authorities seized the two vessels and from that point on kept a close watch on Bulloch and other such propositions made by the Confederate government, forcing C.S.A. officials to turn to the French for future commissions. Following that turn of events Bulloch then commissioned a shipbuilder in France to construct the Stonewall, an other armored ram.
John Newland Maffitt
On April 11, 1862, George W. Randolph, the new Confederate Secretary of War appointed John Newland Maffitt, an officer of the Confederate Navy and a notorious privateer with a long success record, to be the acting agent in Nassau for the Confederacy. Nassau was one of several off shore stopover points for shipments coming into or leaving the Confederate States. Maffitt's duties were broad. "You are authorized to take entire control of all vessels loaded with arms and munitions for the Confederate States." Maffitt's duties included selecting ports of entry and discharging and replacing officers and crews as needed. His only condition was that he first confer with Louis Heylinger, Confederate agent in Nassau. Maffitt would later be given command of the CSS Albemarle.
The ships employed in blockade-running were almost all privately owned, many of them built by the British or French who sought to maintain trade with the southern states. The Confederate government only had about eleven ships of its own that were employed in the blockade-running effort. Among the most famous blockade runners was the CSS Robert E. Lee a Scottish built iron-hulled, steamer which was eventually captured by Union forces in 1863 and the privately owned SS Syren which made a record 33 successful runs through the Union blockade. The blockade runners had a specific function in the handling of cargoes headed for the Confederacy. Purchases of supplies made in England were first shipped to Nassau in the bottoms of British vessels where the cargoes would be transferred to blockade runners, ships of lighter draft and greater speed. From Nassau they would make their way to ports in Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah. Lewis Heylinger of New Orleans was the agent and representative in Nassau for the Confederacy throughout the war. His job was to coordinate the transferring of cargoes arriving from England to the blockade runners and then arrange for shipping to the Confederacy.
The first outbound blockade runner to elude the blockade made its way to Nassau, landing there on December 5, 1861. Blockade runners would typically export cotton to Nassau where it would be stored, then transferred to a neutral ship and sent to England, usually Liverpool. By the end of the war, 397 ships sailed from the Confederacy to Nassau, and 588 went from Nassau to the Confederacy.
Oftentimes vessels departing from various ports in Bermuda ran to Wilmington and Charleston from where most of the supplies were then shipped by rail to Augusta, the main depot for the Western armies, or to Richmond, the main eastern depot. Imports shipped to Galveston were also sent by rail to Houston. By 1863 Union attacks along the Confederate coast made running the blockade more difficult, forcing blockade runners to use other ports besides those at Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah. After the capture of New Orleans in 1862 the ports in Mobile and Galveston were the next choice, used in conjunction with Havana as a transfer point.
Unlike Charleston and Savannah, Wilmington was the central depot for blockade runners throughout most of the Civil War. The Union made several attempts to stop the ships coming and going; but it proved to be a futile effort, as the blockade runners were built for speed. This was made plainly evident on December 23, 1864, when the largest Union fleet ever to assemble in the Atlantic attacked Fort Fisher, a massive fortification protecting the Cape Fear River entrance and Wilmington. While the fleet of 125 Men-of-war and transports were blockading the harbor, an incoming blockade runner passed through the fleet and took refuge upriver. The last blockade runner to make its way into Wilmington's port was the SS Wild Rover, on January 5, 1865. The fort was attacked a second time on January 13, and after a two-day siege it was captured on January 15 by the Union Army and Navy. Several blockade runners previously docked upriver managed to escape in the midst of the battle. Prior to the capture of the fort Rear Admiral Porter, in command of the eastern flotilla, wrote to the war department,
- "Blockade running seems almost as brisk as ever, the new class of blockade runners are very fast and sometimes come in and play around our vessels, they are built entirely for speed.
Eventually, Union attacks were also being made along the Bermuda coast, where Union man-of-war ships often seized neutral vessels and their cargoes. This outraged Lewis Heyliger, who was appointed by the Treasury of the Confederacy as head of the "depository" of Confederate funds in Nassau, Bahamas. Among his chief duties was to coordinate shipments of cotton and tobacco to England, and to organize and conduct the purchase of incoming cargoes.
The first blockade-runners
Soon after Lincoln's proclamation blockade-runners were being produced, lighter vessels specifically designed to evade and outrun Union ships on blockade patrol. Many of the vessels were built in English ship yards and were designed to be used as fast transports for dispatch purposes, carrying important (often business) correspondence and light cargoes. Inbound vessels carried general mail and other correspondence and typically imported firearms, military ordnance, and paper, a simple commodity that was scarce throughout the agrarian south and badly needed by the Confederate government and general population.
The Confederate Navy had a small number of its own seagoing ships used in blockade running efforts, but most of the ships employed were privately owned vessels. Many of these ships were built and designed in England by various shipping companies and other interested parties for the express purpose of getting through the blockade quickly. The ships that emerged from this enterprise were all side-wheel steamers, long and narrow vessels with a shallow draft allowing them to cut through the water more efficiently. Many were painted a dark gray color so they would blend in better with the backdrop of the night sea. A few ships were painted white to help obscure their profile against the daytime horizon. While crossing great expanses of ocean the steamers would burn normal coal that produced a dark smoke but when they were about to approach land they would often switch to burning a smokeless anthracite coal which greatly reduced their profile along the horizon. Sometimes these ships would use cotton soaked in turpentine as fuel as it gave off little smoke and produced intense heat that resulted in a marked increase in ship's speed.
The first Confederate blockade runner left Charleston and arrived at Nassau on December 5, 1861 with 144 bales of cotton. The trip between Charleston and Nassau took a first-class steamer approximately 48 hours to complete, taking another three days to unload and load again and to recoal.
Notable blockade runners
The first Confederate ship to put to sea was the CSS Sumter, a former Spanish screw steamer of 500 tons, that was outfitted with cannons and other provisions for war time use. On April 18, 1861 Commander Raphael Semmes took command of the vessel and a dozen officers and crew. On June 30 the Sumter sailed from the mouth of the Mississippi and was promptly chased by a Union steamer, USS Brooklyn, but managed to get out to sea and make her way to Cuba where it engaged other merchant ships and took them as prizes.
Among the notable blockade runners were privately owned vessels like the Syren, a 169-foot (52 m) steel-hulled sidewheel steamer that made a record 33 successful runs through the Union blockade. and the CSS Advance that completed more than 20 successful runs before being captured. After its capture it was renamed USS Advance in 1864 and USS Frolic in 1865.
The first ship to evade the Union blockade was the A and A, a bark from Belfast, making its way from Charleston harbor. The General Parkhill, a British ship built in Liverpool, England, was the first blockade runner to be captured by the USS Niagara also at Charleston harbor.
- CSS Florida (1862), (cruiser 1862-1864). Commissioned August 17, 1862 at Green Cay, Bahamas. Commanded by Capt. John Newland Maffitt. Sailed to Cardenas and Havana, Cuba before making the famous run into Mobile Bay, Alabama on September 4, 1862.
- SS Fingal (1861) , (CSS Atlanta ironclad 1862-1863). An iron merchant screw-steamer of 462 tons built by J & G Thomson Govan at Clyde, Scotland 1861. Sold to John Low for the Confederate States Navy. Fingal was the last blockade runner to enter Savannah, November 1861, with a large cargo of Enfield rifles, cannon and military supplies. After two unsuccessful attempts to break out of the blockade, she was converted into the ironclad CSS Atlanta (1862–1863). On its second sortie she was out-dueled by two Union monitors, captured and put into service on the James River as the ironclad USS Atlanta.
- SS Laurel (1861–1864). A 207-foot iron hull single screw steamer, commanded by Lt. John F. Ramsey, CSN, made 1 successful blockade run as CSS vessel, owned by the CSA, renamed Confederate States and survived the war.
- CSS Sumter (1861), (cruiser 1861-62). A 437-ton screw steamer cruiser, was built at Philadelphia as the merchant steamship Habana Purchased by the Confederate Government at New Orleans in April 1861, she was converted to a cruiser and placed under the command of Raphael Semmes. While coaling and getting supplies at Martinique she was blockaded by Federal sloop of war USS Iroquois, but ran the blockaded and made her way out to sea. Sumter captured another six ships from late November into January 1862, while cruising in European waters. In January 1862 the Sumter was sent to Gibraltar but was unexpectedly captured by Federal men-of-war ships and was later sold, thus ending her career as a blockade-runner. [CSS Sumter is not the CSS General Sumter cottonclad river gunboat (1861–1862), then named USS Sumter on capture and deployed in the Gulf blockade.]
- CSS Advance (1863–64), also A.D. Vance. A side-wheel steamer, built at Greenock, Scotland, in 1862, purchased by the CSA (North Carolina) under the name Lord Clyde in 1863, renamed Advance for running Union blockade. Vessel made 20 blockade runs before its capture on September 10, 1864 by USS Santiago de Cuba off Wilmington, North Carolina. Renamed USS Frolic in 1865.
- CS Eagle a Spofford & Tileston steamship.
- CSS Flamingo, three stacked, sloop rigged steamer, Confederate Navy owned. One of the largest types of blockade running vessels operating out of ports in England that carried high priority cargoes.
- CSS Kate (1861–1862). A 165-foot wooden sidewheel steamer of 477 tons, made 20 successful blockade runs. Built in New York and purchased by John Fraser & Co, it eventually ran aground at Cape Fear, November 18, 1862.
- CSS Robert E. Lee (1862–1863). A schooner-rigged, iron-hulled, paddle-steamer of the Confederate Navy, used as a blockade runner, commanded by Lieutenant Richard H. Gayle. Captured November 9, 1863 off the coast of North Carolina by USS James Adger and USS Iron Age.
- SS Lynx (1861–1864). A 220-foot steel hull sidewheel steamer, made 9 successful blockade runs, owned by Fraser Trenholm & Co., destroyed trying to leave Wilmington, September 25, 1864.
- SS Tristram Shandy (1864). An iron-hulled sidewheel steamer completed in 1864 at Greenock, Scotland, used as a blockade runner, captured May 15, 1864 by the USS Kansas.
- SS Syren (1863–1865). A privately owned iron-hulled sidewheel steamer, built at Greenwich, Kent, England in 1863 for a blockade runner. Owned by the Charleston Importing and Exporting Company, she made her first run on November 5, 1863, running supplies from Nassau to Wilmington. The Syren completed a record 33 runs through the blockade, the most of any blockade runner. Her career as a blockade runner came to an end when the Syren, along with the other steamers Celt, Deer and Lady Davis, were captured in Charleston harbor at the Ashley River where she had successfully run in through the blockade the night before, on February 18, 1865. See also: Wilmington, North Carolina in the American Civil War.