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
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