Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

Exploits of a Blockade Runner

There were no more daring adventures and hair-breadth escapes during the Civil War than those encountered in running the blockade, carrying sadly-needed supplies into the ports of the Confederacy, and returning with cargoes of cotton and other valuable products of the South. There was money in it for the successful, much money; but, on the other hand, there was danger of loss of vessel and cargo, long imprisonment, perhaps death, and only men of unusual boldness and dare-devil recklessness were ready to engage in it. The stories told by blockade-runners are full of instances of desperate risk and thrilling adventure. As an example of their more ordinary experience, we shall give, from Thomas E. Taylor's "Running the Blockade," the interesting account of his first run to Wilmington harbor.

This town, it must be premised, lies some sixteen miles up Cape Fear River, at whose principal entrance the formidable Fort Fisher obliged the blockading fleet to lie out of the range of its guns, and thus gave some opportunity for alert blockade-runners to slip in. Yet this was far from safe and easy. Each entrance to the river was surrounded by an in-shore squadron of Federal vessels, anchored in close order during the day, and at night weighing anchor and patrolling from shore to shore. Farther out was a second cordon of cruisers, similarly alert, and beyond these again gunboats were stationed at intervals, far enough out to sight by daybreak any vessels that crossed Wilmington bar at high tide in the night. Then, again, there were free cruisers patrolling the Gulf Stream, so that to enter the river unseen was about as difficult as any naval operation could well be. With this preliminary statement of the situation, let us permit Mr. Taylor to tell his story.

"The Banshee's  engines proved so unsatisfactory that, under ordinary conditions, nine or ten knots was all we could get out of her; she was therefore not permitted to run any avoidable risks, and to this I attribute her extraordinary success where better boats failed. As long as daylight lasted a man was never out of the cross-trees, and the moment a sail was seen the Banshee's  stern was turned to it till it was dropped below the horizon. The lookout man, to quicken his eyes, had a dollar for every sail he sighted, and if it were seen from the deck first he was fined five. This may appear excessive, but the importance in blockade-running of seeing before you are seen is too great for any chance to be neglected; and it must be remembered that the pay of ordinary seamen for each round trip in and out was from 50 to 60.

"Following these tactics, we crept noiselessly along the shores of the Bahamas, invisible in the darkness, and ran on unmolested for the first two days out [from the port of Nassau], though our course was often interfered with by the necessity of avoiding hostile vessels; then came the anxious moment on the third, when, her position having been taken at noon to see if she was near enough to run under the guns of Fort Fisher before the following daybreak, it was found there was just time, but none to spare for accidents or delay. Still, the danger of lying out another day so close to the blockaded port was very great, and rather than risk it we resolved to keep straight on our course and chance being overtaken by daylight before we were under the fort.

"Now the real excitement began, and nothing I have ever experienced can compare with it. Hunting, pig-sticking, steeple-chasing, big-game shooting, polo—I have done a little of each—all have their thrilling moments, but none can approach 'running a blockade;' and perhaps my readers may sympathize with my enthusiasm when they consider the dangers to be encountered, after three days of constant anxiety and little sleep, in threading our way through a swarm of blockaders, and the accuracy required to hit in the nick of time the mouth of a river only half a mile wide, without lights and with a coast-line so low and featureless that, as a rule, the first intimation we had of its nearness was the dim white line of the surf.

"There were, of course, many different plans of getting in, but at this time the favorite dodge was to run up some fifteen or twenty miles to the north of Cape Fear, so as to round the northernmost of the blockaders, instead of dashing right through the inner squadron; then to creep down close to the surf till the river was reached; and this was the course the Banshee  intended to adopt.

"We steamed cautiously on until nightfall; the night proved dark, but dangerously clear and calm. No lights were allowed—not even a cigar; the engine-room hatchways were covered with tarpaulins, at the risk of suffocating the unfortunate engineers and stokers in the almost insufferable atmosphere below. But it was absolutely imperative that not a glimmer of light should appear. Even the binnacle was covered, and the steersman had to see as much of the compass as he could through a conical aperture carried almost up to his eyes.

"With everything thus in readiness, we steamed on in silence, except for the stroke of the engines and the beat of the paddle-floats, which in the calm of the night seemed distressingly loud; all hands were on deck, crouching behind the bulwarks, and we on the bridge, namely, the captain, the pilot, and I, were straining our eyes into the darkness. Presently Burroughs made an uneasy movement.

"'Better get a cast of the lead, captain," I heard him whisper.

"A muttered order down the engine-room tube was Steele's reply, and the Banshee  slowed, and then stopped. It was an anxious moment while a dim figure stole into the fore-chains,—for there is always a danger of steam blowing off when engines are unexpectedly stopped, and that would have been enough to betray our presence for miles around. In a minute or two came back the report, 'Sixteen fathoms—sandy bottom with black specks.'

"'We are not in as far as I thought, captain,' said Burroughs, 'and we are too far to the southward. Port two points and go a little faster.'

"As he explained, we must be well to the north of the speckled bottom before it was safe to head for the shore, and away we went again. In about an hour Burroughs quietly asked for another sounding. Again she was gently stopped, and this time he was satisfied.

"'Starboard, and go ahead easy,' was the order now, and as we crept in not a sound was heard but what of the regular beat of the paddle-floats, still dangerously loud in spite of our snail's pace. Suddenly Burroughs gripped my arm,—

"'There's one of them, Mr. Taylor,' he whispered, 'on the starboard bow.'

"In vain I strained my eyes to where he pointed, not a thing could I see; but presently I heard Steele say, beneath his breath, 'All right, Burroughs, I see her. Starboard a little, steady!' was the order passed aft.

"A moment afterward I could make out a long, low black object on our starboard side, lying perfectly still. Would she see us? that was the question; but no, though we passed within a hundred yards of her we were not discovered, and I breathed again. Not very long after we had dropped her, Burroughs whispered,—

"'Steamer on the port bow.'

"And another cruiser was made out close to us.

"'Hard-a-port,' said Steele, and round she swung, bringing our friend upon our beam. Still unobserved, we crept quietly on, when all at once a third cruiser shaped itself out of the gloom right ahead, and steaming slowly across our bows.

"'Stop her,' said Steele, in a moment; and as we lay like dead our enemy went on and disappeared in the darkness. It was clear there was a false reckoning somewhere, and that instead of rounding the head of the blockading line we were passing through the very centre of it. However, Burroughs was now of opinion that we must be inside the squadron, and advocated making the land. So 'slow ahead' we went again, until the low-lying coast and the surf-line became dimly visible. Still we could not tell where we were, and, as time was getting on alarmingly near dawn, the only thing to do was to creep down along the surf as close in and as fast as we dared. It was a great relief when we suddenly heard Burroughs say, 'It's all right. I see the Big Hill.'

"The 'Big Hill' was a hillock about as high as a full-grown oak, but it was the most prominent feature for miles on that dreary coast, and served to tell us exactly how far we were from Fort Fisher. And fortunate it was for us we were so near. Daylight was already breaking, and before we were opposite the fort we could make out six or seven gun-boats, which steamed rapidly towards us and angrily opened fire. Their shots were soon dropping close around us, an unpleasant sensation when you know you have several tons of gunpowder under your feet.

"To make matters worse, the North Breaker Shoal now compelled us to haul off the shore and steam farther out. It began to look ugly for us, when all at once there was a flash from the shore followed by a sound that came like music to our ears,—that of a shell whirring over our heads. It was Fort Fisher, wide awake and warning the gun-boats to keep their distance. With a parting broadside they steamed sulkily out of range, and in half an hour we were safely over the bar.

"A boat put off from the fort, and then—well, it was the days of champagne cocktails, not whiskeys and sodas, and one did not run a blockade every day. For my part I was mightily proud of my first attempt and my baptism of fire. Blockade-running seemed the pleasantest and most exhilarating of pastimes. I did not know then what a very serious business it could be."

On the return trip the Banshee  was ballasted with tobacco and laden with cotton, three tiers of it even on deck. She ran impudently straight through the centre of the cordon, close by the flag-ship, and got through the second cordon in safety, though chased by a gunboat. When Nassau was reached and profits summed up, they proved to amount to 50 a ton on the war material carried in, while the tobacco carried out netted 70 a ton for a hundred tons and the cotton 50 a bale for five hundred bales. It may be seen that successful blockade-running paid.

It may be of interest to our readers to give some other adventures in which the Banshee  figured. On one of her trips, when she was creeping down the land about twelve miles above Fort Fisher, a cruiser appeared moving along about two hundred yards from shore. An effort was made to pass her inside, hoping to be hidden by the dark background of the land. But there were eyes open on the cruiser, and there came the ominous hail, "Stop that steamer or I will sink you!"

"We haven't time to stop," growled Steele, and shouted down the engine-room tube to "pile on the coals." There was nothing now but to run and hope for luck. The cruiser at once opened fire, and as the Banshee  began to draw ahead a shot carried away her foremast and a shell exploded in her bunkers. Grape and canister followed, the crew escaping death by flinging themselves flat on the deck. Even the steersman, stricken by panic, did the same, and the boat swerved round and headed straight for the surf. A close shave it was as Taylor rushed aft, clutched the wheel, and just in time got her head off the land. Before they got in two other cruisers brought them under fire, but they ran under Fort Fisher in safety.

One more adventure of the Banshee  and we shall close. It was on her sixth trip out. She had got safely through the fleet and day had dawned. All was joy and relaxation when Erskine, the engineer, suddenly exclaimed: "Mr. Taylor, look astern!" and there, not four miles away, and coming down under sail and steam, was a large side-wheel steamer, left unseen by gross carelessness on the part of the lookout.

Erskine rushed below, and soon volumes of smoke were pouring from the funnels, but it was almost too late, for the chaser was coming up so fast that the uniformed officers on her bridge could be distinctly seen.

"This will never do," said Steele, and ordered the helm to be altered so as to bring the ship up to the wind. It took them off the course to Nassau, but it forced their pursuer to take in her sails, and an exciting chase under steam right into the wind's eye began. Matters at length became so critical that no hope remained but to lighten the boat by throwing overboard her deck-load of cotton—a sore necessity in view of the fact that the bales which went bobbing about on the waves were worth to them 50 or 60 apiece.

In clearing out the bales they cleared out something more, a runaway slave, who had been standing wedged between two bales for at least forty-eight hours. He received an ovation on landing at Nassau, but they were obliged to pay four thousand dollars to his owner on their return to Wilmington.

The loss of the cotton lightened the boat and it began to gain in the race, both craft plunging into the great seas that had arisen, yet neither slackening speed. A fresh danger arose when the bearings of the engine became overheated from the enormous strain put upon them. It was necessary to stop, despite the imminence of the chase, and to loosen the bearings and feed them liberally with salad oil mixed with gunpowder before they were in working order again. Thus, fifteen weary hours passed away, and nightfall was at hand when the chaser, then only five miles astern, turned and gave up the pursuit. It was learned afterward that her stokers were dead beat.

But port was still far away, they having been chased one hundred and fifty miles out of their course, and fuel was getting perilously low. At the end of the third day the last coal was used, and then everything that would burn was shoved into the furnaces,—main-mast, bulwarks, deck cabin, with cotton and turpentine to aid,—and these only sufficed to carry them into a Bahama Island, still sixty miles from Nassau. They were not there two hours before they saw a Federal steamer glide slowly past, eying them as the fox eyed the grapes.

The adventure was still not at its end. Mr. Taylor hired a schooner in the harbor to go to Nassau and bring back a cargo of coal, he and Murray Aynsely, a passenger, going in it. But the night proved a terrible one, a hurricane rising, and the crew growing so terrified by the fury of the gale and the vividness of the lightning that they nearly wrecked the schooner on the rocks. When the weather moderated the men refused to proceed, and it was only by dint of a show of revolvers and promise of reward that Taylor and his passenger induced them to go on. On reaching Nassau they were utterly worn out, having been almost without sleep for a week, while Taylor's feet were so swollen that his boots had to be cut off.

Thus ended one of the most notable chases in the history of blockade-running, it having lasted fifteen hours and covered nearly two hundred miles. Fortunate was it for the Banshee  that the "James Adger," her pursuer, had no bow-chasers, and that the weather was too ugly for her to venture to yaw and use her broadside guns, or the Banshee  might have there and then ended her career.