The Blockade That Failed


Captains got a thousand pounds for a voyage which often did not consume more than a week; chief officers got 250; second and third officers, 150 each; chief engineer, 500; crew and firemen, 50 to 75; and the pilot, 750. Such was the demand for pilots that, if captured, they were never released. Besides drawing fabulous pay, officers were able to indulge in little private speculations of their own, each trip, stowing away a bale or two for themselves or a friend. The risk was not too great, for as naval historian Soley says: “Little apprehension was felt about running through the fleet. Calcium lights were burned, and shot and shell flew thickly round the entering vessel, but they did not often hit the mark.”

They needed to hit the mark only once, of course, and no amount of statistics can alter the fact that blockade running was dangerous, as well as big, business. Though the runner could show his heels to the blockader, given sufficient notice, bad timing could result in his ship’s being riddled with shot at close range. Since his cargo most frequently included gunpowder, it will be seen that blockade running was not an occupation for anyone whose nerves were bad.

The rewards being as great as they were, however, the traffic soon attracted a host of that inevitable company of adventurous souls who are always willing to risk their skins for a thousand per cent profit. Besides the southerners engaged in the business, most of the contraband captains.and crews were British, canny Scots among them, naturally, and officers of the Royal Navy who had resigned their commissions to seek a fortune overnight. In Liverpool, in Bermuda, in Nassau, the descendants of Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins heard the siren song; the gold rush was on. Major J. F. Bell, in his Bahamas; Isles of June, describes it thus:

“In the Bahamas the erstwhile seemingly contented civil servant sniffed powder in 1860 and 1861 and hied himself to the quayside, bent on following the ways of his forefathers on the seas. The urge was gain, but the call was the clear call of the wind in the rigging and the pipe of the boatswain’s whistles. There was, it was said, a new swagger in the walk of the young bloods of the town who ‘ran the blockade; they were salted men, they had dared done, and there were golden sovereigns in their belts. They had met the fair charmers of Wilmington and Charleston. ... It was a great day indeed; a day of seagoing glory for men under aliases who were properly captains of British gunboats and so had the quarterdeck manner, for old quarter masters who had a Navy forelock to pull, and for great gentlemen from Liverpool and Bristol who dealt in ‘barrels of money’.”


As to the rest, they were a sprinkling of Danes, Spaniards, Portuguese, Mexicans, Italians, Greeks, Canadians and now and then, if the truth were told, a New England Yankee or two; and there was at least one Prussian baron, Charles Henry Von Schwanz, whose son succeeded him in comand of a blockade runner. In all, they were as swashbuckling a crew of sailors of fortune as ever sailed the Golden Seas.

The charred skeletons of some of their ships still stand today against the battering of the waves, caught fast in the shoals of the Carolina coast-etched forever against the sky in that graveyard of the Atlantic, beyond all salvage except by the historian or the spinner of sea yarns. The wreck of his ship, however, seldom discouraged the blockade runner, if he survived uncaptured; next week or next month or next year found him outward bound again.

Such were the men that ran the blockade, and they sailed, appropriately enough, from the ports of the Spanish Main: from Nassau, from Bermuda, from Havana with its moated castle, from steaming Belize in British Honduras, from Tampico on the coastal plain of Mexico, and from Belem and Bahia in Brazil. They ran their overloaded craft through the gauntlet of Federal fire into the seaports of Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Galveston, Corpus Christi and Mobile; they braved hurricanes and Hatteras storms; they were shipwrecked and shot at; they disported themselves in dives and were entertained in the mansions of the rich, according to their tastes and their backgrounds. Their story is yet to be told, in its fullest, but the operation they conducted was, as Frank Vandiver, author of Confederate Blockade Running through Bermuda , says, “the most successful large-scale campaign attempted by the South.”