Daily Archives: 18 August 2022

Perils of Civil War Blockades

From The Civil War at Sea, by Craig L. Symonds (Praeger, 2009), Kindle Locs. 669-691:

Night was the most dangerous time, for that was when the blockade runners were most likely to attempt a run in or out of port. In the middle of a moonless night, perhaps in a misting rain, a slightly darker shadow amid the blackness might be perceived creeping through the anchored ships of the squadron. Wary of firing into a friend, the officer of the deck might order that the night signal be made asking “friend or foe?” At this order, the signal officer might fumble in the dark for Coston flares, and put up the required combination of red or white flares. If the appropriate response was not forthcoming, a rocket might be fired into the dark sky to alert the rest of the squadron. Feet would pound on the ladders and decks as men tumbled up from below to cast loose the big guns and train them out into the darkness seeking the shadowy outline of the blockade runner going past at 10, 12, or even 14 knots. Muzzle flashes would light up the night, temporarily blinding the gunners. Some ships would slip their anchors and set out in pursuit. Then it was over, more often than not with the runner escaped, the men angry about their missed opportunity, and the officers frustrated.

A typical encounter took place off Charleston on June 23, 1862. At 3:00 A.M., in the pitch black of the pre-dawn darkness, the deck watch on the wooden side-wheel steamer USS Keystone State spotted an unidentified steamer coming out of Charleston and making for open water. The watch officer fired a gun, slipped the anchor cable, and set out in pursuit. Thus alerted, the USS Alabama and the USS James Adger, flagship ship of the squadron, joined the chase, and all three Union warships set out at full speed after the illicit vessel. After three hours and more than 40 miles, the Alabama and James Adger found themselves falling further and further behind and they gave up the chase to the swifter Keystone State, which had a reputation as the fastest ship in the squadron. When the sun rose, the commander of the Keystone State, William LeRoy, identified the chase as the Nashville, a notorious blockade runner recently renamed named the Thomas L. Wragg. LeRoy ordered the coal heavers to redouble their efforts. To lighten ship and gain speed, he ordered the ship’s drinking water pumped over the side and jettisoned several lengths of anchor chain. Slowly but steadily the Keystone State began to gain on its quarry.

On board the fleeing Nashville, the officers and crew grew desperate. They threw their entire cargo, cotton valued at more than a million dollars, overboard, and then they began tearing apart the deck cabins to burn the wood and raise more steam. The Nashville pulled ahead again. For more than 300 miles, the two ships raced across the ocean at full speed, heading southeast. Finally after an all-day chase, with each ship squeezing every ounce of speed out of its engine, the Nashville slipped into a squall and disappeared. Eventually it reached Abaco in the British Bahamas. LeRoy, vastly disappointed, pointed, returned to resume the interminable blockade of Charleston. Statistically this went into the books as the successful escape of a blockade runner, though of course the loss of the Nashville’s cargo meant that it resulted in no benefit to the Confederacy.

But there was more. When the James Adger returned to the blockade squadron off Charleston after its 80-mile roundtrip pursuit of the Nashville, its commander, John B. Marchand, learned that during his absence another notorious blockade runner, the Memphis, had slipped into the harbor past the blockading squadron and was aground on the beach at Sullivan’s Island under the guns of Fort Moultrie. The Confederates were already at work removing its cargo by lighters. It was mortifying to Marchand to report to Du Pont at Port Royal that two ships had successfully violated the blockade.

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