Blockade runners in action

While the scope of this book makes it impossible to list all the blockade runners which operated during the war, or to describe their careers, we can look at the general modus operandi of these vessels, and examine illustrative examples of blockade-running operations. For anyone interested in a detailed listing of all known blockade runners, Wise's Lifeline of the Confederacy is the best source. For further examples of blockade-running

Blockade Running Tactics

Captain Maffitt shown using the vantage point of his port sidewheel box as he scans the horizon for signs of the Union blockade during his approach to Wilmington from Bermuda in the blockade runner Lillian, May 1864. (Stratford Archive, London)

Sidewheel Steamer Will The Wisp

The Clyde-built blockade runner Will o' the Wisp, commanded by Captain Peter Capper, running through the Union fleet into Wilmington, 1863. She was badly damaged in the attempt, and her captain ran her ashore at full speed to prevent her from sinking. (Stratford Archive, London)

operations by individual ships, Carr's Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear includes several fascinating examples, while the account of Thomas E. Taylor, the supercargo of the Banshee (reprinted 1995) provides a wealth of detail on blockade-runner operations.

The way a vessel was converted into a blockade runner has already been described. In addition to their structural appearance, blockade runners were also painted to make them blend in to their surroundings, an early form of naval camouflage. It was common to paint the hulls, superstructure, smokestacks and masts of blockade runners in colors which would either make them difficult to see at night, or against the local waters of the ports from which they operated. The ideal color for this was light or medium gray, although various shades of light blue, pale (duck-egg) green, cream and sandy beige were also used. Lighter colors were believed to be best to hide the ship at night, although pure white was deemed too visible due to its starkness.

One of the most colorful accounts of the effectiveness of this camouflage was provided by a blockade runner which was anchored off Cape Fear's Old Inlet, waiting for a chance to run through the blockade. At dusk a Union gunboat appeared and anchored less than 100 yards away. It remained there until night had fallen, then raised its anchor and steamed off. The well-camouflaged blockade runner was never spotted.

Blockade-running tactics amounted to a duel of wits between the two sides. Blockade-running captains would usually wait for a moonless night, and ideally a favorable tide, to mask the vessel, and to speed it on its way. Other favorable conditions were during heavy rainstorms, in mist, or even when the attention of Union captains was distracted by the pursuit of another blockade runner. Local pilots were embarked, and their knowledge of the constantly shifting channels and sandbars off the blockade-running ports was crucial to the success of the enterprise. Union warships usually operated along patrol lines, beginning with a

The Clyde-built blockade runner Will o' the Wisp, commanded by Captain Peter Capper, running through the Union fleet into Wilmington, 1863. She was badly damaged in the attempt, and her captain ran her ashore at full speed to prevent her from sinking. (Stratford Archive, London)

The wreck of the blockade runner Colt off Sullivan's Island, near Charleston, SC, photographed in 1865. Dozens of blockade runners were lost through running aground in the shifting sands and banks of the Carolina coast, and their wrecks served as navigation aids for subsequent blockade runners making the same run. (Library of Congress)

line of launches and small gunboats close inshore, then a line of larger gunboats further out to sea. These inshore patrol lines were withdrawn at dawn, as they operated within range of enemy batteries. The main Union patrol line was located about two or three miles out to sea, beyond the maximum range of Confederate coastal guns. Patrolling warships steamed along an arc, and waited for one of the inshore vessels to report a contact. Once a blockade runner was sighted, flares were fired, their color and direction indicating the course the blockade runner was steering. Designated Union warships would then steer a course to intercept. The superior speed of most blockade runners over their adversaries meant that, unless the Union commander was very fortunate, they would be able to steam through a gap in the blockading line and escape, often without being seen. Once through the lines of Union warships, the blockade runner was still not safe from capture. Union cruisers patrolled the waters of the Florida Straits and the Bahamas Channel, hoping to intercept blockade runners on the high seas. From late 1863 on, Union patrol lines were also established immediately outside the territorial waters of the Bahamas, Cuba, and occasionally Bermuda.

If a blockade runner was spotted and a Union warship gave chase, Confederate forts and shore batteries would usually open up in an attempt to support the escape of the Confederate vessel. Union warships were willing to fire on a chase to stop her, but they were usually reluctant to sink an enemy vessel, as her capture resulted in a huge financial reward for the blockading captain and crew. In some instances blockade runners were driven ashore, in which case Confederate soldiers and mobile artillery batteries would race to the area to cover the stranded

Confederate Blockade Runners

The Giraffe was built at Clydebank in 1860 for use as a Glasgow to Belfast packet. After her conversion into a blockade runner in 1862, she was renamed the Robert E. Lee. She made 14 successful blockade-running trips before being captured off Beaufort, North Carolina, in November 1863. She subsequently became the USS Fort Donelson. (North Carolina Maritime Museum, Beaufort, NC)

vessel, and every attempt would be made to rescue the cargo, if not the vessel itself. In these cases, Union warships usually fired on the stranded vessel, hoping to set her and her cargo ablaze.

Blockade runners were unarmed. Since their crews were civilians, any attempt to return the fire of Union warships was to invite trial and execution if captured. Instead, captains had to rely on their own wits and skill to evade their pursuers, and in the speed of their superb vessels. Numerous examples of the use of stealth during daylight approaches can be found, but blockade-running captains usually preferred to make their voyages at night, either skirting the coast or else heading directly through the concentric lines of the blockading squadron. Whatever strategy was chosen, the blockade runners knew the risks they were taking, and realized that capture meant temporary imprisonment (incarceration for the duration of the war if a Southerner), the seizure of ship and cargo, and possibly even financial ruin.

An example of this battle of wits is provided by the account of Lieutenant John Wilkinson, commanding the blockade runner Giraffe (renamed the Robert E. Lee after her arrival in Wilmington) on behalf of the Ordnance Bureau. After leaving Nassau, Wilkinson headed east-north-east into the Bahamas Channel, where a tropical storm protected him from Union cruisers. On December 29, 1862, he made his approach to Wilmington from the north-east. His reasoning was that his course followed the direction of Union naval traffic between Cape Fear and the Union-held naval base at Beaufort, so an approach from this quarter would be unexpected. To disguise his ship, he hoisted the Union flag, hoping that, with luck, his vessel would be taken for a captured blockade

The Giraffe was built at Clydebank in 1860 for use as a Glasgow to Belfast packet. After her conversion into a blockade runner in 1862, she was renamed the Robert E. Lee. She made 14 successful blockade-running trips before being captured off Beaufort, North Carolina, in November 1863. She subsequently became the USS Fort Donelson. (North Carolina Maritime Museum, Beaufort, NC)

runner which had been taken into service as a Union gunboat. He followed a group of Union supply boats and managed to slip through the outer line of Union blockaders without being challenged. Once within reach of the New Inlet, Wilkinson increased the speed of his ship, dashing through a gap in the inner patrol line to reach the safety of the Cape Fear River.

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