Specialized blockade runners

By the start of 1863, the Confederate economy was in crisis. A string of Union military successes, and the reluctance of the European powers to recognize the Confederate States of America, had undermined the government's long-held belief in the economic power of cotton. Preventing its free export only seemed to hinder the flow of imports into Southern ports, and withholding it increasingly denied Confederate agents in Europe the financial wherewithal they needed to supply the Army with guns. By the summer of 1862, the Confederate Navy had already begun to use common bonds to purchase vessels in Europe. In March 1863, this practice was expanded to encompass a common bond scheme, while a foreign loan negotiated with a French banking house provided the Confederates with another source of much-needed cash. This inspired the Ordnance Bureau to renew its efforts to control weapons shipments. Major Corgas established a forward base of operations in St George, Bermuda, then purchased three steamers; the Columbia (renamed Cornubia, but nicknamed "Lady Davis"), Eugenie and Merrimac. These shallow-draft side-wheel steamers would run between Bermuda and Wilmington, importing Ordnance Bureau supplies and exporting government-owned cotton. They proved to be mechanically unreliable, but the Cornubia made 18 successful round trips before being captured off Wilmington in November 1863, while the Eugenie made ten return voyages before being retired from service. The success of these vessels encouraged the Ordnance Bureau to continue its efforts.

The steel-hulled screw steamer Phantom was purchased from Fraser, Trenholm & Co. in early 1863, but she only made four successful round

Illustrated London News 1862

The British-built blockade runner Lizzie, as pictured in the Illustrated London News, 1862. She displays all the hallmarks of a typical blockade runner: powerful engines, stream-lined hull, low freeboard and retractable smokestacks. (Stratford Archive, London)

trips before being run aground and destroyed off the North Carolina coast in September 1863. A far more successful government-owned blockade runner was the British-built sidewheel steamer Giraffe, which was soon renamed the Robert E. Lee. This fast steam packet was built on the River Clyde and had operated between Glasgow and Belfast before her purchase by the Confederate government. She made her first run in late December 1862 and, despite running aground, she managed to slip into Wilmington. After being renamed, she was handed over to the Ordnance Bureau, and in January 1863 she ran the blockade to join the other government-run blockade runners in Bermuda. During her career the Robert E. Lee made 14 successful round trips before her capture by the USS James Adger off Beaufort, North Carolina the following November.

During 1863, government agents in Britain also purchased the steam vessels Hebe, Dee, Ceres, and Vesta. These were sister ships, whose twin screws gave them a speed in excess of 13 knots. Not only were these iron-hulled vessels fast, but their reversible screws made them extremely maneuverable. Their only real drawback was that they all had a deep draft, a factor which ultimately made them unsatisfactory blockade runners. The Ceres and Vesta were intercepted and driven ashore on their first voyage, while the Hebe and Dee were more successful, although both were also driven ashore and destroyed within a year of entering service.

The Ordnance Bureau was not the only Confederate department which ran its own blockade runners. The Confederate Navy experimented with running its own vessels during 1863, but none proved successful. The state of North Carolina decided to operate its own state-run blockade-running enterprise, based in Wilmington. Governor Zebulon B. Vance authorized the purchase of the iron-hulled sidewheel steamer Lord Clyde, and in June 1863 it successfully ran into the Cape Fear River from Bermuda. Renamed the Advance (sometimes mistakenly referred to as the A.D. Vance), the North Carolinian vessel proved highly successful, making 17 round trips before being captured coming out of Wilmington in September 1864. Like many captured blockade runners, she was pressed into Union service as a blockading vessel.

By this stage of the war it was becoming clear which type of vessels made the best blockade runners. After the first few months of the conflict, sailing ships were no longer considered suitable as they were too

The British-built blockade runner Lizzie, as pictured in the Illustrated London News, 1862. She displays all the hallmarks of a typical blockade runner: powerful engines, stream-lined hull, low freeboard and retractable smokestacks. (Stratford Archive, London)

The port of St George in Bermuda was a bustling place during the Civil War, as blockade runners offloaded their cargoes of cotton, and neutral British steamers brought much-needed war materials and other goods to the port, for trans-shipment to the Confederacy on board blockade runners. (Stratford Archive, London)

easy to spot and too slow to evade pursuit. And analysis of shipping returns shows that after the summer of 1862 only 40 sailing vessels attempted to run the blockade off Charleston for the remainder of the war, and almost all of these were small schooners and sloops.

Only steam-powered vessels had a real chance to escape if they encountered a blockading warship. At the beginning of the war, almost any type of steamer could be used, and the chances of success were high, as the blockade was still largely ineffective. By the latter part of 1862 it was becoming clear that large, deep-drafted vessels were at a disadvantage, as their draft limited the course they could steer through the sandbars, shoals, and shallow waters encountered off all Southern ports. Instead they were forced to stick to deep-water channels, which were almost all patrolled by Union warships. Clearly steam-powered vessels with a shallow draft were better suited, whether these were powered by paddlewheel or screw. Most blockade runners were sidewheel steamers, however, as they usually required less water to operate in than similar-sized screw-powered vessels.

After some experimentation, it was discovered that the best and most readily available type of sidewheel steamer were the vessels known as "Clyde steamers," named after their place of construction, the River Clyde in Scotland. During the 1860s these vessels were characterized by having long, iron-built hulls, narrow beams, powerful sidewheel engines, and a shallow draft. They were widely used as passenger steamers (or "packets") around the British Isles and as cross-Channel ferries. They were also known for their sleek, graceful lines and the strength of their construction. These packets were further renowned for their internal elegance, though this was a factor which was of no importance to the ship owners who purchased these craft as potential blockade runners. What they wanted were fast, sleek hulls, not graceful passenger carriers.

The first Clyde steamer to be used as a blockade runner was the Herald, a Dublin to Glasgow packet purchased by Fraser, Trenholm & Co. in mid-1862. Within a year, the Clyde shipyards were filled with similar vessels which were undertaking conversion from packets into blockade runners. The conversion process was simple. First, any state rooms were

Blockade Runner Lizzy

The iron-hulled blockade runner Lady Sterling was built in London in early 1864, but was captured off Wilmington in late October 1864. Pressed into service as a Union gunboat, she survived the war to become the Cuban filibuster Hornet. (US Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC)

removed to increase cargo capacity. The height of masts and spars was reduced to lower the silhouette of the ship, although in some cases the masts were hinged so that they could be lowered, or split in two sections so they could be removed completely when desired. On some vessels, the smokestacks (funnels) were telescoped, usually in two or three sections, so that the height of these could be reduced. Finally, the hulls were repainted to make them less visible.

From late 1863 onwards the shipyards on the Clyde in or near Glasgow and on the Mersey in or near Liverpool also began to produce vessels which were designed from the keel up as blockade runners. The prototype of these new vessels was the Banshee, a steel-hulled sidewheel vessel built by Jones, Quiggin & Company in Liverpool during 1863. The vessel was 214ft long, with a beam of only 20ft, and a capacity of 533 tons burden (325 gross tons). Many new blockade runners were at the forefront of steamship development, employing new methods of construction, the latest propulsion systems, and radically new hull designs. The Banshee was no exception, being the first steel-hulled vessel to cross the Atlantic. Her hull was an experimental one, and she was badly battered by storms during her voyage to the Bahamas, forcing her to undergo repairs and improvements. Her hull was strengthened, and the result was a vessel that was ideally suited to its purpose. The Banshee made 14 successful round trips through the blockade on behalf of the Anglo-Confederate Trading Company, rewarding her owners with immense profits. She was eventually captured by the USS James Adger in November 1863 while attempting to enter Wilmington.

During the latter part of 1863 some 100 vessels were actively engaged in blockade running at any one time, but most vessels made no more than

The iron-hulled blockade runner Lady Sterling was built in London in early 1864, but was captured off Wilmington in late October 1864. Pressed into service as a Union gunboat, she survived the war to become the Cuban filibuster Hornet. (US Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC)

one or two trips through the blockade in the course of the year, as captains waited for ideal conditions, or else agents waited for a cargo. By contrast a handful of vessels made regular trips, assisted by a combination of the luck and skill of their captains and the superb design of the vessels themselves. One such vessel was the Ella & Annie (originally the William G. Heiues). She made several successful runs both for her private owners (the Importing 8c Exporting Company of South Carolina) and on behalf of the Confederate government, who chartered her to run supplies to and from Texas in the summer of 1863. She was damaged during a storm in the Florida Straits in November 1863, and was subsequently captured by the USS Niphon. Typical of this latest generation of specially converted blockade runner, the Ella & Annie was an iron-hulled sidewheeler, with a cargo capacity of 1,477 tons burden, but with a draft of just ten feet.

By late 1863 the first purpose-built blockade runners began to join the ranks, the majority being similar in appearance to the Banshee and the sleeker Clyde packets. As usual, the majority of these new vessels were built in Britain, and either operated by British companies, or run as Anglo-Confederate partnerships. A handful were Confederate government owned. These vessels tended to be steel- or iron-hulled, designed with a

Mariners Museum Giraffe

Once the Lord Clyde, a packet steamer plying between Glasgow and Dublin, this Scottish-built 1,300-ton sidewheel steamer was renamed the Advance in 1863, and became a blockade runner. Captured by a Union gunboat in September 1864, she was commissioned into the US Navy as the gunboat Advance. (US Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC)

Scottish Blockade Runners

The Banshee proved to be a highly successful blockade runner, making nine trips through the blockade off Wilmington. The 217-ton steel-hulled sidewheel steamer was purpose-built in Liverpool in 1863. The sketch depicts her being pursued by the Union gunboat USS James Adger off the Bahamas in 1864. (Stratford Archive, London)

large cargo space, a low silhouette, and were stronger and faster than the majority of blockade runners in service. Stylistically they tended to combine the sleek, racing lines of the Banshee with the rugged seaworthiness of the Clyde steamers. This said, the two major shipyard areas producing purpose-built vessels each developed its own style and, while the best Liverpool-built ships were renowned for their speed and graceful lines, the Scottish-built vessels from Glasgow's Clydeside were regarded as stronger and more mechanically dependable. London shipyards also provided their share of blockade runners, although almost all of these vessels were converted to the purpose rather than being specially built.

It is worth noting that of the 350 known blockade runners in operation during the war, the origins of over 300 of them have been identified. Of these, some 225 were built in Britain, while another 80 were built in American ports, 60 in the North, 16 in the South and four in Canada. The majority of the Northern-built ones were either purchased by Southern companies before the war, or else they were impounded in Southern ports when the war began. This means that roughly three out of every four blockade runners were British-built. Among these, the division between Clyde-built, Thames-built and Mersey-built was roughly equal.

These vessels entered service at a critical time for the Confederacy. Heavy losses of manpower, resources and territory were making themselves felt, and the Confederacy was finding it difficult to replace its losses of equipment, or even to feed the remaining troops in the field. It was becoming increasingly imperative that the Confederate government take a more active role in the supply of its forces. In March 1864 legislation was passed which ensured that the government gained control over the export of all raw materials from the country, and for the first time controls were imposed on the operation of blockade runners. One of these new measures was the impressment of cargo space: up to 50 percent of cargo space could be commandeered for government use if required, in return for a set fee. Although the shipping magnates complained, the measure was necessary to the survival of the Confederacy, so most owners accepted the new arrangement.

The Banshee proved to be a highly successful blockade runner, making nine trips through the blockade off Wilmington. The 217-ton steel-hulled sidewheel steamer was purpose-built in Liverpool in 1863. The sketch depicts her being pursued by the Union gunboat USS James Adger off the Bahamas in 1864. (Stratford Archive, London)

The purpose-built blockade runner Banshee II was based in Wilmington, but also ventured further afield. This sketch portrays a spirited and successful daylight run through the blockading squadron off Galveston in 1865. (Stratford Archive, London)

All of the Bermuda-based blockade runners operated by the Ordnance Bureau had been lost by the start of 1864, so the War Department decided to replace them with its own vessels. In April 1864, an agreement was struck between the department and Fraser, Trenholm & Co. It involved the supply of six sidewheel steamers; four built by Jones, Quiggin & Company (Owl, Bat, Stag, and Deer), and two by Laird and Sons (Lark and Wren; two others were ordered but never completed). The first four were identical vessels of 771 tons displacement, designed to carry 800 cotton bales apiece, while the smaller Lark and Wren (displacing 552 tons each) were designed for use in shallow harbors. Six other government-run blockade runners were ordered from British yards but were still on the stocks when the war ended. The six government-run vessels that were built in time to play a part in the war all entered service in late 1864.

Like many of the last blockade runners, these vessels were some of the fastest vessels afloat, and during the closing months of the war they did what they could to stave off defeat for the Confederacy. The events of late 1864 meant that this defeat was all but inevitable and, after the fall of Atlanta and Sherman's March to the Sea, the end of blockade-running was only a matter of time. While several companies edged away from the blockade-running business as they considered the risks were becoming too great, others continued to operate until the bitter end. For example, Trenholm began to diversify his operation, shifting his company resources to other enterprises. Blockade runners reached their peak numbers in 1864, but growing problems of inland transportation, the supply of coal and the reliability of crews meant that the organization, sale and distribution of the goods transported into the South by these vessels was becoming an increasing problem. It seemed as if only the most efficient companies, such as the Anglo-Confederate Trading Company, Collie & Co. or Fraser, Trenholm & Co. could remain in full-time operation. This meant that, for their vessels, the profits increased while other vessels languished in port. Like any business venture, success went

1828 Voyage The Bussorah Merchant

to those who were best organized, employed the best people and left the least amount to chance. In effect, a handful of blockade-running vessels such as the Banshee (II), the Wild Rover, the Talisman, the Advance, the Colonel Lamb, and a few others reaped the greatest rewards, and made the highest number of successful sorties. Almost all of these vessels were specialist blockade-running craft: the best of their breed.

Following the capture of Wilmington in February 1865, the remaining blockade runners which had eluded capture began to operate between Havana and Galveston. Successful though some of these voyages might have been, they did nothing to alter events in the East and, from February on, nothing reached the Confederate armies in the field from the coast. When Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, the era of the blockade runners had already passed into history. The few vessels which survived were adapted for regular use, and many continued to ply their trade in the years to come, either as merchant ships or, if captured, as US Navy warships. As late as 1884, the harbor master in Key West, Florida, wrote that an experienced eye could always detect a former blockade runner among other shipping in the harbor. Nothing else looked as fast, as sleek, and as graceful.


After a period of trial and error, ship owners were able to determine what kind of vessel made the best blockade runner. By the summer of 1863, it was rare for a blockade runner to attempt a transatlantic voyage. Instead, cargoes were shipped from Europe to friendly ports, predominantly Nassau, Bermuda, and Havana. From there, smaller blockade runners would make the fast run into Confederate ports. Initially, Clyde steamers and other fast sidewheel vessels were converted into blockade runners, but eventually orders for new, purpose-built ships were placed in British

The Confederate-built blockade runner Old Dominion, off Bristol, in south-west England. While Liverpool continued to be the main port associated with blockade runners, other west-coast British ports were also used. (Stratford Archive, London)

Armored Sloops Enterprise 1864

One of two purpose-built blockade runners built in 1864 by a shipyard in Liverpool, the Colonel Lamb was the largest iron-hulled vessel of her kind when she was launched. She ran the Wilmington blockade only once, in late 1864, but escaped from the port before it fell, and she survived the war uncaptured. By contrast her sister ship Hope was caught by a Union gunboat off Wilmington in late October 1864. (Clyde Hensley Collection, Fernandina, FL)

shipyards. This allowed the specific design characteristics of the ideal blockade runner to be incorporated into the construction of the vessel, resulting in what amounted to a completely new type of ship.

The typical blockade runner of the late war period was built in a British yard, had a shallow draft, extremely low freeboard, and almost no superstructure, as cabins and other deck houses made the ship more visible. Engines were also mounted as low as possible within the hull to keep the vessel's silhouette to a minimum.

The long hulls of these vessels were slender, but as much space as possible inside the vessels was turned over to cargo. The hull lines were graceful, with a streamlined shape, sweeping curves to the hull, a rounded stern to reduce wake, and a graceful bow, designed to keep the prow of the ship low in the water. The result was a vessel of great beauty. It was common for ship designers to use the same set of blueprints to produce several vessels with the same characteristics, creating what amounted to a class of ships. This made the construction simpler, as parts could be prefabricated, and it ensured that production times were reduced. By 1864, the Scottish yard of William Simons & Co. of Renfrew on Clydeside was producing blockade runners within four months, a feat which was encouraged by hefty production bonuses and other incentives for both the shipyard and its workers.

Other innovations were incorporated into the designs of purpose-built blockade runners. Scottish engineers conducted experiments with water resistance to different hull shapes, proving that long, narrow hulls were preferable to wider ones. While this was generally accepted before this period, these engineering tests produced the first hard scientific data which could be used by 19th-century ship designers. A vessel like

Hope Blockade Runner

The blockade runner Hope was a sister ship of the Colonel Lamb, both vessels being built by Jones, Quiggin & Co. of Liverpool. After her capture by the gunboat USS Eolus in the mouth of the Cape Fear River (October 22, 1864) she was sold, becoming the merchant steamer Savannah. She was subsequently sold to the Spanish Navy. (Liverpool Maritime Museum, Merseyside)

the Banshee (I) had a length to beam ratio of 10:1, compared with the usual merchant ship ratio of just 6:1. The typical Clyde steamer of the day had a ratio of around 8:1. The problem with extremely narrow hulls was that they increased the tendency of the ship to roll in heavy seas, making them poor seaboats. The narrow beam also reduced the cargo capacity of the vessel. Eventually an ideal ratio of 8:1 was decided upon, and this became the standard ratio for the blockade runners built during the last year of the war. To improve seakeeping qualities the bows of most blockade runners were designed to cut through the waves, rather than "porpoise" over them like other ships. This reduced the tendency to wallow, but made the decks very "wet" as water was continually breaking over the forecastles of these ships and running aft. The solution was to cover the forecastle with a convex metal cover, known as a "turtleback" due to its shape. Many later blockade runners incorporated this new feature, which is still found in modern deep-sea fishing boats, which have to cut through the waves in order to reduce the strain on any towed fishing nets. The ability to cut through the waves rather than porpoise had the added benefit of keeping the vessel low in the water, reducing her chances of being seen.

Given the pressure to produce fast ships, it was not surprising that designers took advantage of the latest shipbuilding technology. More than any other nation the British had realized that the future of maritime trade lay in steam-powered vessels, and in metal hulls. The use of metal for the framework and outer skin of seagoing vessels was a great leap forward in ship design. A ship built using iron frames required a much smaller supportive framework than a wooden ship of the same size, which made it significantly lighter. This in turn meant that the ship could achieve greater speeds through the water, given the same size of engine. Construction methods remained similar to the old ways, however. A series of frames was built up from a central keel, and then

The blockade runner Hope was a sister ship of the Colonel Lamb, both vessels being built by Jones, Quiggin & Co. of Liverpool. After her capture by the gunboat USS Eolus in the mouth of the Cape Fear River (October 22, 1864) she was sold, becoming the merchant steamer Savannah. She was subsequently sold to the Spanish Navy. (Liverpool Maritime Museum, Merseyside)

Spanish Steamer Cuba

Built in Wilmington, DE, as the William G. Hewes, this iron-hulled sidewheel steamer was impounded in New Orleans when the war began. Renamed the Ella & Annie, she became a blockade runner operating out of Havana until her capture off Beaufort, NC, on November 9, 1863, by the USS Niphon. (US Naval Historical Center, Washington, DC)

connected by transverse beams in a structure to provide rigidity to the framework. Interior space was no longer taken up by massive wooden ribs and knees, which meant more room for cargo. In addition, the hull of metal ships was considerably thinner than wooden ones, which also helped to conserve space.

The first commercially viable metal-hulled ships appeared during the 1840s, and by the outbreak of the Civil War these vessels were becoming increasingly common. The challenges set by the design of blockade runners gave ship designers a chance to experiment further. A good example of the experimental nature of these vessels is the Banshee, which, as previously noted, became the first steel-hulled ship to cross the Adantic. Although she eventually became a successful blockade runner and her lines were copied in later ships, her initial design was flawed. As constructed her deck and hull plates were only K-in. (3mm) thick, less than half the thickness of the usual iron plating used on other contemporary vessels. During her maiden transatlantic voyage it was discovered that these plates buckled in heavy seas, and she limped into the Bahamas with a crushed forecastle, buckled hull sides and an extremely nervous crew. This was a tough way to discover that steel plating could bend if it was tested to the limits! After strengthening her hull, she resumed her career, and became a highly regarded blockade runner.

Most of these new ships had iron frames and iron hulls, although increasingly some had iron frames and steel-plated hulls, or were of all-steel construction. Another common type of design encountered amongst converted blockade runners was a combination of a wooden hull clad with iron plates. Almost all blockade runners had some degree of watertight compartmentalization, which reduced the risk that the entire cargo would be damaged if the vessel was hit, and also increased the ability of the vessel to absorb punishment, or counter any flooding.

Below decks, while all blockade runners needed to have powerful engines, these were mounted as low as possible in the hull to reduce the profile of the ship. New mechanical innovations which increased the power-to-weight ratio of engines, or resulted in smaller equipment

Mechanical Innovation

A development of the sidewheel engine was the trunk engine, which took up considerably less space than beam or side lever designs. This engine, designed by Humphreys, Tennant & Company of Britain, was small enough to fit beneath the sidewheel housing of a vessel, and was used in several British-built late-war blockade runners. (Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA)

spaces, were readily adopted, as on blockade runners cargo space equaled money. To reduce the profile of the ship further, masts were shortened to the bare minimum, or were designed to be lowered, or even removed completely. Although this type of ship was officially called an "auxiliary steamer" as sails could assist the engines when required, sail power was rarely used, and was usually reserved for cases of mechanical failure. Other innovations included the raking of both masts and funnels to reduce their height, the "telescoping" of funnels so they could be lowered, and the reduction of the superstructure to the barest essentials, usually just a pilot house and a wheelhouse located amidships or toward the stern. The combination of all these design and construction factors resulted in the production of some of the most elegant ship types of the age of steam, and some of the fastest and most graceful vessels afloat.

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