Confederate Blockade Runners

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series The Civil War at Sea

Confederate Blockade Runners

The imposition of the Union blockade eventually brought about the purpose-built Confederate blockade runners. At the start of the Civil War blockade running was not a difficult task. There were few Union ships on blockade duty and ordinary freighters were able to pass through the almost non-existent cordon to reach Southern ports.

Typical blockade runnerAs the Union stepped up the blockade with new and faster blockade ships, blockade running became more dangerous. In order to pass through the cordon blockade runners needed high speed, low draft and a low profile. This enabled the blockade runners to elude discovery or if discovered elude capture. The low draft allowed them to cross sand bars or sail up shallow channels to safety.

Most of the newer ship were built in Britain. They were mostly wooden, sidewheelers powered by steam engines. Their burned smokeless anthracite coal and sailed at about 17 knots. They were mostly captained and crewed by British seaman because the South simply did not have enough of either. They were mostly owned by British or other private interests for profit rather than patriotism.

Because of their shallow drafts they did not carry large amounts of heavy cargo. The blockade runners ran to and from Bermuda, the Bahamas orSS Banshee Cuba where their cargoes were transshipped by regular means to Europe. For a brief period in the late summer of 1864 Halifax, Nova Scotia was used. Outbound ships generally carried cotton, tobacco and turpentine while the inbound leg was confined to medical supplies, brandy, lingerie, rifles and coffee. The ports were about 500 to 700 miles from Confederate ports.

As the war went on, the Confederate government began to control the trade and the cargo. Eventually, about 50% of the cargo inbound was required to be munitions. In fact, the Confederate government even purchased some of the runners and exclusively shipped war materials inbound.

Blockade running was done at night. In fact, moonless nights were preferred or either before or after the moon had set. The ship approached the Advance, blockade runnercoast with all lights doused and quiet. The Union blockaders similarly doused their lights at night to escape detection. If they discovered a blockade runner, the Union ships fired off rockets to alert the rest of the intercepting squadron. Sometimes, the runners fired their own flares or rockets to confuse the blockaders.

In order to make money blockade runners needed to make many trips. A typical ship could carry several hundred tons of cargo at $300-$1,000 per ton. Two round trips per month could earn about $250,000 less $80,000 in expenses. If a blockade runner was captured  the ship and cargo was confiscated. Foreign crew members were released and Confederates were imprisoned.

Here are a few of the more famous blockade runners:

  • The Advance, a 230′, schooner-rigged, sidewheel steamer. Built in Britain. After 20 successful trips she was captured off Wilmington, NC.
  • The Banshee, a 220′, schooner-rigged, sidewheel steamer. One of the first purpose-built blockade runners. Captured on her 9th trip.
  • The Bat, a 230′, steel hulled, schooner-rigged, sidewheel steamer. She had twin, 180-nominal h.p., vertical, double-oscillating, Watt enginesColonel Lamb and capacity for 800 to 850 bales of cotton. She was captured by Union blockaders on the return trip of her maiden voyage on October 8, 1864 off Cape Fear River.
  • Colonel Lamb, a 281′, schooner-rigged, sidewheel steamer. Built in 1864, she survived the war after many blockade runs.
  • Cornubia, a 190′, fast, powerful, iron steamer of 230 h.p., long and low, painted white, with two funnels close together. One her 23rd voyage she was beached while trying to run into Wilmington, NC.

In all it is believed that some 300 blockade runners were either built or purchased to penetrate the Union blockade. Although they were often seen as romantic adventurers most runners were in it for the money. Over the course of the war some 1,500 ships were either captured or destroyed attempting to run the blockade.

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