The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - January 28, 2020

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
A contemporaneous drawing of the view from the deck of a Union vessel in pursuit of a blockade runner. Wikimedia

16. The crews delivered other things to Wilmington besides their ship’s cargo

The crews of the ships which arrived in Wilmington were allowed liberty in the town, and provided a boost to its economy. As noted, blockade runners were well paid, and the bars, saloons, and brothels of the city were frequented by the visiting sailors, especially early in the war. Officers purchased goods in shops, and were welcomed into the homes of the more genteel members of Wilmington society. Often the visits were extended. Ships had to wait not only for a cargo, but for coal to power their engines. Refitting and maintenance were only able to be completed in port took up weeks, especially when parts needed to be fabricated for the engines, or boilers repaired or replaced.

In 1862, blockade runner crews brought to Wilmington the Yellow Fever which was rampant in the Caribbean. Nearly 1,000 people, about 10% of the city’s population, were stricken with the disease, and the bustling harbor was brought to a standstill. Those who did not contract the disease refused to go out, such was the fear of being stricken. Over 300 townspeople and visitors died before the epidemic ended later in the year. Wilmington was not the only port which was exploited by blockade runners, but it was the most important to the economy of the Confederacy until late in 1863, when some blockade running firms changed their focus.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
In 1863 blockade runners began to focus on the shipment of luxury goods for the Southern markets. Wikimedia

17. Luxury goods began to replace military supplies in autumn, 1863

Blockade runners carried some luxury goods in the earliest days of their operation. In 1863 it became apparent to some of the merchant companies that shipping luxury goods were more profitable than munitions and food for the Confederate Armies. Ships owned by the Confederacy continued to trade at Nassau and the island ports for war materiel, but privately owned blockade runners began to focus their trade on other items, which arrived at Nassau on ships of neutral nations. Wine, brandy, and whiskey replaced medicinal spirits. Linen, silk, and finished goods such as hats and boots replaced material for uniforms. Canned meats replaced barrels of salt pork and beef.

By early 1864, the flow of military supplies into the Confederacy from the blockade runners was reduced to a trickle, but the ships continued to ply back and forth from the British colonies, and Spanish Cuba. In the coastal cities, blockade runners were seen with contempt for profiteering by many. The fictional Rhett Butler was an example of a blockade runner flaunting his wealth as the South began to collapse. The Confederate government in Richmond established a regulation that 50% of all overseas trade by private firms had to be of products of a military nature. All of the cargoes carried by state-owned ships had to be military supplies or medicines.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
Some blockade runners, such as George Trenholm, accumulated substantial fortunes during the war. Wikimedia

18. Confederate agents monitored the cargoes at their points of origin

By 1864, officers of the Confederate government operated in all of the island ports. Their role was to inspect cargoes bound for the Confederacy to ensure they were in compliance with the new shipping regulations. Many proved to be susceptible to bribes. Though the flow of military supplies increased in late 1864, it never returned to its peak levels of early 1863. More salt beef and pork replaced cannon and rifles, and as Lee’s army withdrew from Grant’s during the Overland Campaign it subsided primarily on salt meat provided by blockade runners carrying it to Wilmington.

Sherman left Atlanta in ruins and the Southern railroad network to the west was destroyed in late 1864. Supplies still penetrating the Union blockade sat in warehouses, the means of getting them to the remaining troops in the field gone. In December, Savannah fell to the Union, though its port had been closed since the earliest days of the war. Blockade runners continued to use Galveston as a destination, but goods from Texas could not be sent to the rest of the Confederacy since the Mississippi River was controlled by the Union and patrolled by the Union Navy.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
The Trenholm Mansion in Charleston. Trenholm ran a blockade runner business in partnership with British agents in Nassau and Liverpool. National Archives

19. The popular image of the Civil War blockade runner is a largely mythical one

Rhett Butler has long been the image of the successful blockade runner, a Southern gentleman of dash and courage. There were, of course, captains of blockade runners from the Southern states. But they were relatively few. One of the problems which faced the Confederate Navy at the war’s outset was a shortage of trained seamen in the South. The majority of the blockade runners which penetrated to deliver valuable cargoes to the Confederacy were foreign born, and the majority of those were from Great Britain. Both British and American firms hired them to serve. They served in ships which were, for the most part, built in Great Britain.

The image of a ghostly ship unloading its cargo in a hidden inlet or unknown cove in the dark of night is also, for the most part, a myth. It may have happened at one time or another, but ships needed ports in which to unload their cargoes, which then needed a means of being transported elsewhere to be of service. By the 1860s, transport of large cargoes meant railroads. Some blockade runners did operate in lesser known and used ports, but they dealt almost exclusively with consumer goods, rather than those intended for the support of the Confederate Armies in the field. The organized blockade runners relied on the ports to operate, and by 1864 they were running out of them.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
The US Navy grew steadily more powerful and skilled at intercepting blockade runners throughout the war. US Navy

20. The risks of blockade running increased as the war went on

In 1861 and 1862, the chance of a blockade runner being captured on the run to the British ports and back was about 1 in 9. By the end of 1863, it was about 1 in 3. By war’s end, the odds were fifty-fifty, and the practice had all but been suppressed. There were several reasons for the once-lucrative practice being brought to the end. One was the increase in the size of the Union Navy. The Navy retained many of the blockade runners it captured, and unconcerned with carrying cargo, armed them. This gave the Navy ships of equal speed to their quarry, and superior firepower. The Navy also gained experience in monitoring the routes taken by the blockade runners.

The single greatest factor was the reduction of usable ports. Savannah was lost in the opening months of 1862, when Fort Pulaski was taken, effectively closing the port. New Orleans was easily sealed early in the war, and captured in April, 1862. Only three major ports were available east of the Mississippi River as 1863 began – Mobile, Charleston, and Wilmington. A greater number of suitable ships to guard a decreasing number of ports foreordained the results. After 1863 about half of the British investors in the business withdrew with their profits. The remainder reinvested theirs until the end of the war, an act which lost them considerable sums of money.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
CSS Atlanta in the Savannah River, before its capture by Union ironclads. Wikimedia

21. One ship served as a blockade runner and a warship in both contending Navies

SS Fingal was a Clydebank steamer which operated out of Glasgow and Greenock before it caught the eye of Confederate agents in Scotland. It was purchased for the Confederate Navy, loaded with military supplies in Greenock, and sailed to the Bahamas. Upon arrival, the British crew was informed the ship’s destination was Savannah, and it arrived in that port in November 1861. It became trapped in the Savannah River after the fall of Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island, and did not sortie as a blockade runner again. Instead, it was converted to an ironclad of the casemate type, and renamed CSS Atlanta. It tried twice to break the blockade without success.

In June, 1863, Atlanta fought an engagement with two ironclads of the turreted type, during which the Confederate ship ran aground and was captured by the Union Navy. The ship was refloated, repaired, and commissioned in the Union Navy as USS Atlanta. It spent most of the remainder of the war in the James River, and was present when President Lincoln arrived to consult with General Grant at City Point in early 1865. After the war, the ship was laid up until it was sold to private interests supporting an insurrection in Haiti. The ship was lost at sea with all hands in late 1869, thought to be in the waters off Cape Hatteras.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
Officers and men of the USS Atlanta, photographed in the James River in late 1863. National Archives

22. About 1,400 blockade runners were lost over the course of the war

1,400 ships engaged as blockade runners were lost during the American Civil War, the majority of them built in British ports and operated by British crews. By late 1864, nearly all of the blockade running was directed toward the port of Wilmington. Over 8.5 million pounds of salt pork and beef entered the port, bound for Lee’s army in Virginia. The port also provided tons of lead, saltpeter for making gunpowder, hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, Enfield rifles, artillery pieces and other badly needed supplies. By January 1865, Wilmington was the last major port open to the South, and Richmond on the navigable James River was connected to it tenuously by railroad.

Of the 1,400 blockade runners lost, about three hundred of them were sunk, run aground by pursuing Union ships, or lost at sea in storms. Cape Hatteras, known darkly as the graveyard of ships, claimed many of them. Still, ships continued to get through the Union fleet assembled to reduce Fort Fisher and capture the port and city of Wilmington. Blockade runners upriver escaped to the open sea during the Navy’s massive bombardment of Fort Fisher on January 13-14, simply outrunning their pursuers as they raced to the sea. They never returned. Wilmington fell to Union forces on January 15.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
The magnitude of the naval blockade can be imagined by the length of coastline it covered. Wikimedia

23. The United States took several measures to curtail British blockade runners

Anthracite coal in Great Britain was imported from the United States and to a lesser extent Canada. When spies in Nassau, St. George, and other island ports reported its presence, where it had been shipped, the United States government passed legislation banning its exportation for the duration of the war. The British were forced to use bituminous coal, most of which came from mines in Wales. Bituminous coal burned with less heat and created more smoke, which was darker than that produced by anthracite coal. It made ships using it as fuel easier to spot at a greater distance.

The legal action to ban the export of anthracite coal was just one of the many measures taken by the United States to fight blockade runners. But it rigidly adhered to international law. Captured citizens of non-belligerent foreign nations were detained only long enough for authorities to ascertain they were who they claimed to be. They were released, and many returned to Nassau and British control by US Navy ships. One example of the practice can be found in the story of the blockade runner Banshee, built in Britain, manned by a British crew, and owned by a British company. Its Captain, Jonathan Steele, was a British officer.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
Blockade runners made some operators wealthy with little personal risk. Wikimedia

24. Banshee was a regular on the Nassau to Wilmington run in 1863

Banshee made eight successful voyages between Wilmington and Nassau in 1863, delivering cotton to its owner’s agents, and weapons and other war supplies to the Confederate port. Like all blockade runners, it often lurked along the inlets of the American coastline while waiting for conditions to be ideal for the final run into the Cape Fear River. On November 21, the ship was captured while so occupied, its British captain and crew of 38 were sent to New York for incarceration after a Confederate flag was found aboard. That and the ship’s log made its true identity suspicious. Banshee was later taken into the US Navy.

The situation over the crew of the Banshee was adjudicated by military commission. It was found that all were foreign citizens and it recommended the crew be released. When they were, they were given two weeks to leave the United States. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles signed the release, though the name of Captain Steele did not appear on the official document. Steele’s fate was lost to history. Banshee made its owner, a Liverpool cotton merchant, so much money in just eight voyages that he built another steamer to replace it, named Banshee II. It also proved profitable.

The Blockade Runners of the American Civil War
Ruins of Richmond, Virginia after it was abandoned by Lee’s army in the spring, 1865. Wikimedia

25. The blockade runners prolonged the war and its carnage

The south lacked the basic materials to make war against the United States, as well as the ability to manufacture them in 1861. Before hostilities began ships arrived to supply them, and they continued to supply the Confederate states up to the final days of the war. Some blockade runners were motivated simply by profit. Others had more patriotic motivations, at least on the Southern side. The American National Archives contains vast files of the papers kept by the companies created to trade between Great Britain and the Confederate States of America, and the ships involved in suppressing them. The records document more than 3,000 attempts to run the blockade, and a success rate of nearly 80%.

Without the efforts of the blockade runners, the war would have been considerably shorter. The South simply did not produce the materials to support its armies in the field. The story of the blockade runners is a little studied aspect of the American Civil War and the British involvement in it, though the British government never officially recognized the Confederacy as an independent nation. Some men made large fortunes selling the materials of war during a conflict in which hundreds of thousands died. It’s a story worth knowing.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Civil War Cat and Mouse Game”. Rebecca Livingston, Prologue Magazine. Fall, 1999

“The Narrative of a Blockade Runner”. John Wilkinson. 1877

“Tales from the Blockade”. Richard Frajola. 2011. Online

“Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running during the Civil War”. Stephen R. Wise. 1989

“Railroads in the Confederacy”. Robert C. Black III, Civil War History. American Battlefield. 1961. Online

“The Bahamas and Blockade Running During the American Civil War”. Thelma P. Peters. 1939

“Masters of the Shoals: Tales of the Cape Fear Pilots Who Ran the Union Blockade”. Jim McNeil. 2003

“The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter”. Raphael Semmes. 1864

“Memoirs of service afloat during the war between the States”. Raphael Semmes. 1869

“British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War”. Joseph McKenna. 2019

“The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship”. James Phinney Baxter. 1968

“Through the Blockade: The Profitability and Extent of Cotton Smuggling, 1861-1865. Stanley Lebergott, Journal of Economic History. December, 1981. Online

“Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign”. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. 1997

“Union in Peril: The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War”. Howard Jones. 1992

“Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear: Running the Civil War Blockade”. Dawson Carr. 1998

“Clyde Built: Blockade Runners, Cruisers, and Armored Rams of the American Civil War”. Eric J. Graham. 2006