top of page

The Rebel Lifeline

The blockade-runner Banshee (1863)
The blockade-runner Banshee (1863) made 14 trips through the blockade out of Wilmington, NC. Artwork by RG Skerrett, 1899. Courtesy US Naval Historical Center (US Public Domain)

All too often when the American Civil War is discussed, we think of the epic battles. Gettysburg. Bull Run. Chancellorsville. Antietam. We think of brother vs brother. North vs South. Union vs Confederacy. Blue vs Gray. Yankee vs Reb. Free vs Slave. One overlooked part is the naval aspect of the war; in particular, Confederate blockade-running.

Immediately following the declaration of war in 1861, when the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Union President Abraham Lincoln announced a naval blockade of the Southern ports between Virginia and Texas, 3500 miles of shoreline. Lincoln and his Northern associates knew the Southern states were incapable of producing the goods and firearms vital to any war effort. The South was an agricultural nation. Cotton was King, and the South foolishly thought they could rule the world with it. No one dare make war on cotton, so the South’s arrogant politicians thought, mesmerized by the fact that in 1860 their cotton exports were valued at $191 million--57 percent of all American exports.

However, nearly everything had to be brought into the Southern states from abroad, especially England who needed the South’s cotton for their thriving textile industry. So, blockade-running became a reality for patriotic and profitable reasons. And the adventure didn’t hurt either. To many, it became a business, for Southerners as well as Englishmen, for off-shore crews, and on-shore owners and speculators.

At the height of the Civil War, high-powered side-wheelers were deployed to sneak through the Union blockade, usually at night. Constructed on the Clyde River in Scotland, they were built “to go,” long and lean, camouflaged lead-gray in color. And they burnt anthracite coal as fuel that left a “no smoke” trail behind. Aboard these ships were hundreds of cotton bales--often along with turpentine and other products--stacked to the hilt. The main Rebel ports were Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina, the latter being the closest to the major portion of the war’s fighting in Virginia.

The skippers would meet with their English contacts at the two main neutral sights--Bermuda and the Bahamas--for the exchange of money and goods bound for the Confederacy, such as meat, clothing, shoes, blankets, coffee, medicines, firearms, swords, ammunition, gunpowder, saltpeter, and lead. We can’t forget the latest luxuries and female fashions of Europe, where the real profits were for the ship’s owners, much to the Confederate’s government’s dismay. As a result, by mid-war, the rules were tightened on the amount of luxuries brought in. Another neutral port used was Havana, Cuba, although it was farther away from Southern ports in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama than the North Carolina and South Carolina ports were to Bermuda and the Bahamas. 

At first, running the Union blockade was relatively easy, besides being highly profitable. Crews, a large number of them Royal Navy deserters, were paid quite handsomely. Skippers, in fact, could retire for good after only a few successful runs. That’s if they didn’t spend their winnings on lavish parties, which were quite common. For a single 570-mile return trip from Wilmington to Nassau, Bahamas, the pay rates--in pound sterling--were as follows: 1000 for a captain, 750 for a pilot, 500 for a chief engineer, 250 for a chief officer, 150 for a second and third officer, and 50 for the crew and fireman. Excellent money, given the time period. Usually, half was paid in advance, the rest upon completion of the trip.

The Union gunboats, on the other hand, were cumbersome and slow and their teamwork was disorganized, at first. Then as the blockade tighten each year into the war, the Union Navy put more ships into service. They also developed an inner and outer line of defence beyond the ports. In addition, they captured more and more of the Rebel side-wheelers and turned them into gunboats to catch their prey at their own game.  Each year grew tougher for the Confederate supply line. In 1861, about 800 vessels made it safely through, although a far cry from the last year of peace--1860--when about 6000 ships had entered and departed Southern ports. Chances of capture for neutral-bound ships in 1861 were estimated at one in ten. By 1864, about one in three.

When Wilmington and Charleston fell to the Union late in the last year of war, the Confederacy was cut off to the outside world. As blockade-running collapsed, so did the Confederacy and her ability to wage war. All told, 2500-2800 attempts were made at running the blockade with an overall success rate of about 75-80 percent. Union records recorded that over 1000 blockade-runners were captured with 210 turned into blockade gunboats. Over 350 ships were destroyed, sunk, beached or burned.

We here in Canada were very much involved in the American Civil War blockade. Mid-war, due to a yellow fever outbreak and a resulting quarantine in Bermuda and the Bahamas, the blockade-running skippers turned to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had been a popular shipping and refueling point between England, Nassau, Bermuda, and Cuba since the beginning of the war. Halifax was one of the few ports where iron-hulled blockade runners could receive extensive repairs. 

The blockade-runner Advance
The blockade-runner Advance (1863) made 17 trips through the blockade out of Wilmington, NC. Artwork by RG Skerrett, 1899. Courtesy US Navy Art Collection (US Public Domain)

By early 1864, the Canadian shipping firm of Weir and Company had set aside a wharf and a warehouse for the transfer of blockade goods. The activity was watched closely by the US consul in town, however. But Halifax never really caught on as a major blockade-running port. It was too far away from Southern ports, requiring more fuel and less goods aboard. In other words, less profit. And the Northern seas were too rough for navigating, sometimes causing damage to the ships. Less than 10 full-scale return trips were made between the Confederacy and Halifax that year. Then once the cooler weather arrived, and the yellow fever scare declared over, Halifax was no longer a conceivable  route.  But it still remained a key refueling point for foreign vessels, including the new, sleek blockade-runners that were built in Great Britain and making their way to the Southern ports for active service.

*   *   *

Margaret Mitchell’s mega novel, Gone with the Wind, goes into a few mentions of blockade-running that were missed out totally in the movie. The main male character, Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable in the 1939 movie version, was a blockade-running skipper. In the book, Butler told the shocked Scarlett O’Hara a year after the war had started that he had many clandestine connections in the North. On more than one occasion, he had even sailed his ship right into New York harbor to take on cargo from his Northern “friends” who were quick to sell out the Union for the sake of profit.

At war’s end, Butler was captured by the Union army and placed in an Atlanta, Georgia jail, accused of stealing Confederate funds--rumored to be millions in gold--during the blockade and banking them in England in his own name and not the Confederate government, whom he was supposed to be working for. In the movie, there’s a scene where O’Hara arrived with her new green dress to ask Butler for $300 to save her plantation, Tara, from Northern carpetbaggers. She didn’t get anything because Butler had his fortunes locked away in banks outside Atlanta. Then, lo and behold, Butler was released two weeks later. The book explains why in juicy detail. Apparently, he knew a particular Washington official high in the government whom Butler had purchased muskets and hoop skirts that were bound for the Confederacy. So, the government man pulled some strings and Butler was let him go.

It’s also interesting  to note that in one of the opening scenes in Gone with the Wind (prior to the official announcement of the War between the States), Butler shocked the men at a country barbeque that he was invited to by saying the South was not equipped for a war. He spoke from experience because he had been North for a few years--where he undoubtedly made his previously-mentioned contacts, I might add.

He went on to boldly declare that the Confederacy didn’t have a single cannon factory south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in addition to very few iron foundries, cotton mills, or tanneries  and that a Yankee blockade along their coastline would prevent cotton from getting out, thus squeezing the Confederacy dry. He also said that all he saw in the South so far was “cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” To support what was Butler saying, I read recently that the entire Gross National Product of the Confederacy in 1861 was equal to only one-quarter of New York State. Butler was trying to tell those men that they didn’t stand a chance against the industrial North. Alas, no one listened to his words of wisdom and they suffered big time for it.

*   *   *

I may be tooting my own horn here, but I wrote a novel specifically about American Civil War naval action. Entitled The Cotton Run, it’s marketed by my British ebook publisher, Mushroom Books. My story zeroes in on a ship’s captain named Joshua Denning and his daring exploits running the Union blockade. You can click on the link for the novel on the right side of my blog’s home page.

You might say that Denning is my version of Rhett Butler. Except Denning has a heart.


bottom of page