Gideon Welles served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War. It was his responsibility to create the fleet necessary to enforce the blockade, and the infrastructure to support the enlarged Navy. Civilian ships were purchased and turned into warships. New warship construction exploded in Northern shipyards on the coast, and along the inland rivers. In 1861 alone, 140 new ships were commissioned into the United States Navy, 80 of which were steam powered. The construction effort continued throughout the war, as ironclads joined the fleet. At the end of the Civil War the United States Navy was the largest in the world, with almost 700 ships.
The South could not possibly create a fleet to oppose the Union Naval might. Nor could its shipyards turn out the ships necessary to elude the Union blockade. A few blockade runners were built in the South, but materials and labor shortages kept their numbers low. The majority of the ships used to run the blockade were built in Great Britain, in shipyards at Liverpool and along the Clyde in Scotland. Many were crewed by British citizens and operated by British companies. They carried relatively small cargoes, since they were necessarily built for speed rather than capacity. They were also built to travel relatively short distances – between British possessions and the American east coast – and thus had smaller coal bunkers.
4. The early blockade runners were unsuitable for later service
When the blockade was first proclaimed in April, 1861, the US Navy was in no position to enforce it, and nearly all ships got through. The newly formed Confederate government appointed a Charleston import-export firm to represent its interests in Britain. John Fraser & Company had offices in New York, Charleston, and Liverpool, and regular service between Liverpool and Charleston was in effect before the blockade was established. John Fraser died in 1854 and the business was taken over by his partner, George Trenholm. Trenholm moved the New York office to the British ports in the Bahamas and Bermuda.
His partner in Liverpool was Charles Prioleau, a Charleston born lawyer. Together with agents appointed by the Confederate government, Trenholm and Prioleau shipped Southern cotton to the Bahamas and Bermuda. The cotton was sold, and munitions needed by the Confederate government were purchased from British firms. In 1861 the firm – by then called Fraser, Trenholm and Company – operated 60 ships and served as the Confederacy’s banker in Britain. The effects of the blockade began to be felt in late 1861, and faster ships with a lower profile were needed to elude the Union’s ships. Trenholm’s agents turned to British shipyards to provide them.
5. Running the blockade required subterfuge on the part of the British and Confederates
After Lincoln proclaimed the blockade, shipments of supplies directly to American ports became a problem for British ships and their owners. To circumvent the legal search of ships bound for American ports, ships carried their cargoes to the Bahamas and Bermuda. There they were offloaded and their cargoes transferred to ships from Confederate ports. Union ships had no legal authority to search ships under neutral flags bound for British ports. Ships outbound to Nassau from Wilmington or Charleston often flew British flags when approaching their destination. It was essential that the Union fleet detect them as they left port.
Nonetheless, the Union Navy’s efficiency in enforcing the blockade improved significantly by the beginning of 1862. Confederate agents and representatives of private companies engaged in blockade running recognized the need for faster ships. British shipyards had long experience in building such ships for packet service in the European trade. Such vessels were typically longer, narrower, and driven by steam powered paddle wheels or screw propellers. Their design limited their carrying capacity, but their speed was a weapon which helped them elude the ships of the United States Navy.
6. The railroads were an essential element of the blockade running system
Blockade runners departing the British port at Nassau usually made for Wilmington or Charleston. Their cargoes were offloaded in the ports and transferred to the Southern railway system. Arms and munitions were then transferred to Atlanta or Richmond, the supply centers for the western and eastern Armies of the Confederacy respectively. The Union fleet made numerous attacks and raids along the coast throughout 1862, which made running in and out of the major ports more dangerous. By 1862 Wilmington, North Carolina was the primary port for Southern blockade runners, though ships still managed to get in and out of several ports and other coastal towns.
With smaller, faster ships, the blockade runners took advantage of the numerous inlets and barrier islands along the American southeast coast to elude their pursuers. They often attempted to enter or leave port under the cover of darkness, and in foul weather. Anthracite coal was burned to heat their boilers when near the coast, since it produced less dark smoke. Turpentine infused cotton was also burned, providing hotter fires which gave the ship a burst of speed when necessary. Throughout the war, blockade runners achieved a success rate of over 80% of voyages successfully completed. Once they made it to the open sea, they nearly always reached their destination.
7. CSS Robert E. Lee was a successful blockade runner purchased from the British
In 1862 a British blockade running firm, Alexander Collie and Company, purchased a fast steam packet which had been operating on the Glasgow to Belfast route. It was then purchased by the Confederate States Navy, which named the vessel Robert E. Lee. The ship had a short career in the Confederate Navy, though it was a successful blockade runner for most of 1863. It proved fast enough to outrun any ship attempting to pursue it, and entered Wilmington for the first time in January 1863. It delivered munitions from Britain and then steamed for Bermuda carrying cotton. Before its career ended it completed 21 voyages, most of them between Bermuda and Wilmington.
One which wasn’t was a voyage to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in which it delivered cotton in exchange for gold for the Confederate Treasury. Robert E. Lee was captured by the Union Navy after it departed for Bermuda from the Cape Fear River in November 1863, and taken into the Navy under the name Fort Donelson. It served the remainder of the war as a vessel used to run down other blockade runners, and to bombard Southern coastal defenses, including Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River. After the war it was sold to the Chilean Navy. It ended its military career when it was again sold in 1868, thousands of miles from the Clydebank in Scotland where it was built a decade earlier.
8. One Confederate blockade runner made 33 voyages in just 18 months
SS Syren was one of the newly designed blockade runners when it made its first voyage in autumn, 1863. It was built in Greenwich, England, for the Importing and Exporting Company of South Carolina. Its first run was completed when it arrived in Wilmington from Nassau in November, 1863. The ship was built with an iron hull which adopted the experience of previous blockade runners, giving it a shallow draft, a low profile, and a long and narrow shape. Twin steam engines drove its two side paddle-wheels. The amount of coal demanded by the engines limited the amount of cargo the ship carried, but it also was used to carry mail and passengers, as well as official dispatches and documents for the Confederacy.
It made 33 successful voyages, earning its owners’ substantial profits and enhancing its reputation for speed. In February, 1865, it eluded the Union Navy outside Charleston Harbor and moored in the Ashley River, where it was trapped by USS Gladiolus. The ship was set afire by its crew and abandoned, but arriving Union troops at the scene extinguished the fire. The ship was seized by the Navy and used as a merchant steamer for the remaining months of the war. Syren was one of the few ships which was actually captured by Union soldiers, rather than sailors, during the American Civil War.
9. Several Southern states purchased their own blockade runners
The shallow draft steamers built for the packet service in British waters were especially suitable for blockade running. The packets carried passengers and cargo, were built for speed, and were iron-hulled for the most part. They were built at shipyards all around Britain, though the yards at Liverpool and Scotland’s Clydebank produced most of them destined for service in American waters. One such, Lord Clyde, was inspected by representatives of Alexander Collie, who in turn was working for the governor of North Carolina, Zebulon Vance. Vance wanted to obtain blockade runners for the state, to ensure its troops were well equipped and its coffers filled.
Lord Clyde was purchased from the Dublin and Glasgow Sailing and Steam Packet Company in 1863, and arrived in Wilmington in June. Renamed Advance, the ship hid in the complicated waters around Cape Fear when in port, and successfully cruised between Nassau or Bermuda and its homeport throughout the remainder of the year and well into 1864. It as so successful that shares in the ship were sold to raise money to purchase similar ships. The British shipyards were most obliging. As long as British mills needed Southern cotton there was a market for their products in America, and despite Union protests, blockade runners from British ports were the lifeblood of the Confederacy.
10. A few commerce raiders ran the blockade to get to sea
Besides the blockade runners, which were designed expressly to elude Union shipping, the Confederate Navy developed commerce raiders to destroy Union shipping. They too were designed to elude rather than fight Union warships, and capture Union merchant vessels and their valuable cargoes. They were equipped to keep the sea for long voyages. The most famous of them was likely CSS Alabama, which was built at Birkenhead, on the Mersey opposite Liverpool. Its construction as a Confederate warship was kept secret, and it steamed from Merseyside under the name given it by its builder, Enrica. When he reached the Azores Captain Raphael Semmes, Confederate States Navy, christened it Alabama.
Alabama’s raiding cruise captured or sank 65 Union ships, a record never broken by a ship of any nation. Interestingly, the most successful commerce raider of the Confederate Navy never saw an American port. Other than its officers, most of the men who crewed the ship were British. Its career lasted just under two years before it was sunk in the Battle of Cherbourg by USS Kearsarge. Alabama raided in the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well as the Atlantic, refitting and coaling in French and British ports. A private yacht owned by a prominent British businessman provided refuge for Semmes and several of his man as Kearsarge attempted to capture them, carrying them to England as free men rather than becoming Union prisoners of war.
11. The commerce raiders did little to alter the course of the war
Despite the damages done to Union shipping by Alabama and other Confederate commerce raiders, their contribution to the war effort was minimal. The hope of the Confederate Navy was they would force the Union to disperse ships from the coastal blockade and use them to hunt the raiders. The strategy would allow more blockade runners to elude the remaining ships and deliver badly needed goods to the Confederate ports. It failed. By 1863 the Union fleet included ships designed specifically for operations in coastal waters and the estuaries, upon which much of the burden of the blockade fell.
Blockade duty was popular duty, and many thousands of landsmen volunteered for it, finding it more appealing than living in tents and marching. The ships were manned by crews who reasonably expected the financial windfall of prize money from capturing a blockade runner. Sailors enjoyed better food and living conditions, though they were certainly not luxurious by any standard. Unlike the Army, Navy crews were integrated at the time, as they had been up to that point in American history. It was customary for ships in a foreign port to take on volunteers to add to their crews, regardless of race or the citizenship of the volunteer.
12. The Royal Navy participated in the blockade running through some of its officers
Many of the officers of Britain’s Royal Navy, unemployed and on half-pay, requested and were granted extended leave. This freed them to serve in the blockade runners owned by British merchants and shipping consortiums. British investors poured the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in 21st century dollars into blockade runners, and their profits were sufficient to allow them to pay high salaries to their officers, and high wages to their crews. Often the pay was hundreds of times more than they could make during the same time period in the Navy. Expenses, which included pay of crews, were usually about one third of the revenue received from a given voyage.
Ships left the American ports laden with cotton, tobacco, pine-tar and turpentine, and pulpwood, and returned carrying rifles, medicines, spirits, and coffee. During the American Civil War the ports in the Bahamas and Bermuda bustled with commerce, with regular freighters delivering the goods from Europe and picking up those carried by the blockade runners. There was, in 1863 and most of 1864, about a one in five chance of being caught for a blockade runner. The risk seemed bearable to professional seamen, especially when compared to the potential financial rewards. Beginning in late 1863 the practice changed. Smaller, faster hulls meant that heavy cargoes were smaller and less profitable.
13. CSS Virginia was built to break the Union blockade
Union troops abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia early in the war, leaving behind the completed, though sunken, hull of the steam frigate Merrimack. The Confederates raised and repaired the hull, installed iron plating on its new superstructure, and renamed the ship CSS Virginia. Virginia was barely seaworthy, suitable for operations only in coastal waters, and those only when calm. It is often referred to as the world’s first ironclad warship, which it was not. It was the first to engage in battle, when it used its guns and ram to attempt to break the Union blockade at Hampton Roads. The following day USS Monitor intervened.
Virginia demonstrated, in its battle with Monitor, that it was obsolete at the time it was built. The days of ships standing yardarm to yardarm, exchanging broadsides, were nearly over. Guns which could swing out to either side allowed smaller ships to carry fewer, but far heavier guns. They also soon fired heavier shells which pierced iron plate, and the iron chains with which many wooden ships protected their hulls. The Battle of Hampton Roads was the closest the Confederates came to breaking the Union blockade. From that point Union warships were unbeatable in battle, and the blockade runners had to rely on their own wits.
14. A typical run for a British built blockade runner in 1863
It’s important to note that there was nothing illegal in the British trade with the Confederate States. When the Union captured British citizens (or those of any other country) they were released. Southerners were retained as prisoners of war. This reduced the risk for the British yet further, there were only the perils of the sea and the possibility of financial loss if captured. The blockade runners went to sea unarmed, since cannon added to their weight and reducing the load it could carry. A new ship could replace a captured one in about six months, sooner if there was a suitable vessel already in service and a price could be agreed upon.
A British owned and crewed vessel steamed from the Clyde, or the Mersey, or a Channel Port, laden with trade goods and bound for a British port such as Nassau. Trade with Havana, in Spanish Cuba, was also common, with Galveston blockade runners frequenting its harbor. From Nassau it would depart for the East Coast of the Confederacy, most often Wilmington. It would then remain in the islands to America trade. Nassau crawled with spies from North and South, the former intent on discovering the nature of cargoes and sailing dates, the latter with identifying enemy agents. Nassau and other island ports also became havens for southern seamen who offered their services to British captains as pilots, to guide them through the tricky waterways and currents along the American coastline.
15. The trip between Nassau and Wilmington was about 48-72 hours in duration
The fast blockade runners covered the distance between Nassau and Wilmington (or Charleston) in about two or three days. Departure and arrival times were determined by the moon. Moonless nights were best, but ships also departed before or after the moon rose or set. They sailed without lights, and while near the ports, they burned anthracite coal if they had it, to produce less smoke. The unarmed blockade runners relied on stealth and speed to elude or escape from pursuers. Unless a Union vessel sighted them and turned to investigate, the trip was uneventful for the most part, until the ship neared the American coast.
One reason Wilmington was a preferred destination was the multitude of entries into the Cape Fear River upon which the port was (and is) located. There the value of a pilot was displayed. Approaching at night, without moonlight, the blockade runners attempted to avoid detection. If they were seen, their speed was used to race for the safety offered by the guns of Fort Fisher, or other batteries which guarded the entries to the estuary. Thirty miles upriver, the successful blockade runner entered the port of Wilmington and unloaded its cargo. It then awaited another cargo of southern products before it made another voyage in reverse back to Nassau.
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 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.
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 was 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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: