Early blockade runners

Before the outbreak of war, the Southern states had virtually no steam-powered merchant marine. When President Lincoln announced the imposition of the blockade, neutral shipping was given 15 days to leave Southern ports. In 1861, the bulk of cotton cargoes exported was shipped by foreign vessels, or else moved by river to Northern ports, where American-registered vessels transported the cotton to Europe. Most foreign vessels which happened to be on the scene at the start of the war sailed from Southern ports before the blockade was established, leaving behind a collection of merchant ships which were ill-suited to run through an enemy blockade. Initially, the Confederate merchant marine was made up of river boats, sailing ships, small coastal steamers, and just ten ocean-going steam ships. All of these large steamers would eventually be taken over by the Confederate Navy, and none of them attempted to run the blockade before their conversion into warships began. This meant that the only indigenous steam-powered merchantmen to operate out of Southern ports during the first year of the war were the small coasting packets which plied between ports in the Gulf of Mexico, or navigated the sheltered waters and inland waterways of the Atlantic seaboard. While these shallow-draft vessels were ideally suited for their purpose, they were incapable of undertaking transatlantic voyages.

The Southern states had come to rely on foreign steamships to supply them with the imports they needed. Following the imposition of the blockade, these foreign ships no longer served Southern ports. Only a handful of sailing ships arrived from, or sailed to, foreign ports during this period, and the strengthening of the blockade during the second half of 1861 made it almost impossible for large sailing ships to run through the cordon of Union steam-powered warships. It was clear that only ocean-going steamers could provide the Confederacy with the imports it needed to survive. The resources of the fledgling Confederate Navy were stretched to the limit, so initially the government was unable to build up a state-run merchant marine. It was up to private business to provide the wherewithal for the development of a merchant fleet capable of importing and exporting the goods which the Confederacy required.

Sea Blockade CharlestonConfederate Blockade Runners

Cotton was the main export of the Confederacy, and mill-owners in Europe were willing to pay high prices for cotton brought out of Confederate ports by blockade runners. In this engraving a blockade runner has unloaded its cargo in Nassau, and the cotton is being stored before being shipped on to Britain by a neutral vessel. (Stratford Archive, London)

One of the most important shipping businesses in the South was the Charleston-based firm of John Fraser & Company, run by its senior director, George Alfred Trenholm. The subsidiary company of Fraser, Trenholm & Co. maintained an office in Liverpool, England, while another subsidiary was based in New York. The company operated five sailing ships which plied between these three ports, but the establishment of the blockade prevented these ships from sailing. Trenholm immediately approached the Confederate government, offering the services of his Liverpool subsidiary as a financial clearing-house. Specie deposited in Charleston could therefore be converted into letters of credit, which could then be exchanged for foreign currency by Confederate officials in Britain. This could then be used to purchase much-needed war materials. The arrangement was immediately approved by Major Josiah C. Gorgas, who ran the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, beginning a partnership that would last for the duration of the war.

Gorgas relied on his British-based assistants, Major Edward C. Anderson and Captain Caleb Huse, to purchase the weapons and supplies he needed, and to liaise with Charles Prioleau of Trenholm's Liverpool office to arrange their shipment to the Confederacy. During the summer of 1861 the Ordnance Bureau stockpiled a first batch of the necessary goods in Britain, while Prioleau looked for a suitable ship. He eventually chartered the 1,200-ton iron-hulled screw steamer Bermuda, commanded by Eugene L. Tessier. She left Liverpool on August 22, and slipped into Savannah 26 days later without encountering a single Union warship.

While the Ordnance Bureau shipped its own supplies on the Bermuda, the bulk of the cargo space belonged to Trenholm, or had been leased to other businessmen or agencies. Trenholm and others filled this space with war materials, which were duly sold to the Confederate government for a substantial profit. While the Ordnance Bureau shipped artillery pieces, Enfield rifles and cartridges, Trenholm and his associates imported shoes, blankets, cloth for uniforms, weapons, dry food stuffs, and pharmaceuticals. A month after delivering these the Bermuda cleared the Savannah River and returned to Liverpool, laden with 2,000 8 bales of cotton.

Blockade Runner Cecile

A naval attaché working for the US consul in Britain forwarded a sketch of the Scottish-built blockade runner Fingal to Washington in October 1861, so she could be readily identified by officers in the blockading squadrons. The work of his spies provides us with a useful visual record of the appearance of an early blockade runner. (Stratford Archive, London)

The Bermuda paved the way for all further blockade-running enterprises, and acted as the template for future cooperative ventures between the Confederate government and private businessmen. This said, Gorgas and his colleagues were alarmed at the high cost of these privately shipped goods, but the lack of any alternative meant that for the moment the Ordnance Bureau had to pay whatever price the shipping agents demanded. Prioleau and Trenholm justified the higher profits by pointing out the higher risk taken in sending a vessel to run the blockade. If captured, the Confederate government would only lose its portion of the cargo, while the shippers would lose not only the cargo but also their vessel, and any future income that ship might produce.

By the end of 1861 British shipping companies were eager to repeat the success of Prioleau and Trenholm, and several of these formed mutual associations to cover both the costs and the potential risks involved in setting up their own blockade-running enterprises. To avoid further extortionate charges, Major Anderson decided that the Ordnance Bureau needed its own vessel, and consequently purchased an iron-hulled screw steamer, Fingal. She sailed from Scotland in October 1861 and, after an eventful voyage, she slipped through the Union blockade into Savannah. She carried enough small arms to equip an entire division; 11,000 Enfield rifles, 500,000 cartridges and percussion caps, 730 swords, four heavy artillery pieces and over nine tons of other munitions. Unfortunately the Fingal ^¿s trapped in Savannah after the fall of Fort Pulaski, and she was eventually handed over to the Navy and converted into the ironclad CSS Atlanta. The Fingal was the only government-run blockade runner to see service for a year, as Confederate resources in Europe were considered better employed in the purchase of commerce raiders to attack Union trade rather than blockade runners. The import of war materials remained in the hands of private companies.

The biggest problem for the Confederacy was the supply of cotton. At the start of the war President Davis and his advisers decided to prohibit the shipment of cotton to Europe, as it was felt a shortage of the commodity would encourage the European powers to declare their support for the Confederate cause. This proved to be a mistake as, without a ready supply of cargo in Southern ports, many private companies were reluctant to enter the blockade-running business. During the first winter of the war, however, some trial voyages were attempted by small, fast sidewheel steamers, running between the southern Atlantic seaboard and the ports of Nassau in the Bahamas or Havana in Cuba. While these small vessels lacked the cargo capacity of larger transatlantic steamers, they found it easier to slip in and out of the blockaded ports, and were able to make use of small ports which were left unguarded by the blockaders. This prompted the Confederacy to send consuls and agents to Nassau and Havana in early 1862, laying the foundation for the full-scale use of these ports the following year. British shipping agents began to transport cargoes of weapons and munitions to these neutral ports, where both Confederate agents and other businessmen or ship owners purchased the war materials, transferring the cargoes onto their own vessels. Even though the war was not yet a year old, the blockade-running business was changing.

By the spring of 1862, smaller Atlantic ports such as Beaufort, Jacksonville and St Augustine had been captured, while the approaches to Savannah were blocked following the Union capture of Fort Pulaski. Shipping companies, such as John Fraser & Co. and its British subsidiary, gradually began to use Nassau as a halfway house. Trenholm gathered a group of five fast sidewheel steamers, and used them to ferry cargo between the Bahamas and the Confederacy. A local agent (Jean Laffitte) was appointed, warehouse space was rented and soon Trenholm's five blockade runners were supplied using larger transatlantic steamers, which transported goods from Liverpool to Nassau. The port was 500 nautical miles from Savannah, 515 from Charleston and 570 from Wilmington: a three-day voyage in a fast sidewheel steamer. Equally important, the average steamer would consume less than 180 tons of coal during the voyage, which meant that more space was available for a cargo than if the ship had sailed directly from a European port to a Southern one. Eventually, professional agents appeared, the largest of which was Henry Adderley & Co., which allowed smaller shipping companies to rival the representation of the larger shipping magnates like Trenholm. By the summer of 1862, while the number of attempted runs through the blockade remained low, blockade running was becoming a highly

The wooden screw steamer Florida was built in New York in 1859, and was converted into a blockade runner in 1861, most probably in New Orleans. She was captured off the coast of Florida in April 1862, then commissioned into the US Navy as the USS Henrick Hudson. (US Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC)

Confederate Blockade RunnersBlockade Runner Bahamas
The port of Nassau in the Bahamas was a haven for blockade runners throughout the war. In this engraving a Confederate blockade runner enters the port laden with cotton after successfully slipping through the blockade. (Stratford Archive, London)

organized business, and the infrastructure was being laid for it to develop into a major enterprise.

The growing scale of these operations is revealed in a study of the arrival of blockade runners in Confederate ports. During 1861 one blockade runner entered Wilmington from Nassau, and no vessels sortied out of the port. As for Charleston, one vessel arrived from Nassau, and four sailed. Only the Bermuda and the Fingal entered Savannah and, of these, only the Bermuda sailed out again. The only other vessels to run the blockade were three which slipped out of New Orleans, and one to enter Galveston.

During 1862 six blockade runners entered Wilmington, and six sailed; 27 arrived in Charleston during the same year, almost all sailing from Nassau; 30 vessels cleared Charleston, and all but six of these were bound for Nassau (of the remainder, one sailed to Liverpool, two to Bermuda and three to Havana). Of these, the most successful vessels were the Kate, the Cecile and the Herald, all of which were owned by Trenholm. Only the Kate slipped through the blockade into Savannah during this period, while three arrived in the smaller port of New Smyrna. The sidewheeler Thomas L. Wragg (formerly the cruiser Nashville) also slipped through the blockade, but only after running into the Ogeechee River to evade capture. She was later converted into a privateer. During the same year, only six blockade runners sailed from Georgia: three from Savannah (two of which were captured), and three from New Smyrna.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the blockade runners Cuba and Havana each made two trips in and out of the Florida port of St Marks during 1862, the latter vessel being destroyed during her outward run in June 1862. Further to the west, only the Cuba and two other blockade runners entered Mobile from Havana during the year, and of these, only the Cuba and the Alice (later renamed the Matagorda) successfully escaped through the Union blockade again to reach Havana. The loss of New Orleans in April 1862 was a huge blow to the Confederacy, and all but ended blockade-running efforts from Louisiana, although a group of six small blockade runners evaded capture by escaping from other small ports, bound for Havana. Three blockade runners departed from Sabine City and Galveston in Texas during 1862, while five evaded pursuit to reach Texas ports from Havana.

Confederate Blockade Runners

Built at Glasgow in Scotland, the small blockade runner Neptune made several voyages between Havana and the Confederacy before being captured off Mobile Bay by the USS Lackawanna in July 1863. Renamed the USS Clyde, she was attached to the Eastern Gulf Blockading Squadron. (US Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC)

From all this it is clear that, while the number of vessels willing to run the blockade was gradually increasing, the numbers remained low. At the same time the combination of a strengthened blockade and the capture of parts of the Confederate coastline by Union troops was reducing the number of available ports. Charleston remained the most important blockade-running base, but as the year progressed the Union blockade was strengthened, making it harder to slip out of the South Carolinian port.

While these early blockade runners were learning their business, other purpose-built vessels were being built or converted on both sides of the Atlantic. Early ships like the Bermuda, the Thomas L. Wragg dnA the Cecile were discovered to be poorly suited to the business, either through being too large to operate in confined coastal waters, too small to carry enough cargo, or too slow. Experience had shown that the best blockade runners were vessels like the 477-ton wooden-hulled sidewheel steamer Kate, a New York-built ship which was impounded, then purchased by John Fraser & Co. She made 20 successful voyages before she was wrecked after hitting an underwater obstacle in the mouth of the Cape Fear River. With a hull length of 165ft and a beam of under 30ft, she

Css Cuba Blockade Runner

The Confederate commerce raider CSS Nashville was decommissioned in 1862, and was purchased for use as a blockade runner. Renamed the Thomas L. Wragg in March 1862, she proved less than successful as a blockade runner, and was converted into a privateer in November 1862, becoming the Rattlesnake. Three months later she was destroyed on the Ogeechee River, SC, by the monitor USS Montauk. (Stratford Archive, London)

was sleek, fast and capable of carrying a substantial cargo. By 1863, a new breed of specialist blockade runners were ready to test themselves against the Union fleet.

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  • felix
    How much did blockade runners make from loading and unloading cargos?
    8 years ago
  • massawa
    Did any blockade runners operate out of new orleans?
    2 months ago

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