KURE BEACH — The surf line along the coast here is littered with the wrecks of a rakish, speed-at-all-costs breed of ship that briefly made Wilmington the most important city in the South.
Dozens and dozens went aground or were sunk while trying to slip past the Union blockade, creating the largest concentration of Civil War-era shipwrecks anywhere in the world.
Hundreds of times, though, these blockade runners got through. They’d tie up on the docks and their often-rowdy, daredevil crews would hit the streets, bars and hotels of the city, throwing around their hefty pay.
Meanwhile, their fabulously valuable cargos would be offloaded, and the arms and other military supplies shipped off to keep the Confederate Army fighting.
Now, 150 years later, archaeologists and historians are taking a closer look at this central but nearly forgotten chapter of U.S. and North Carolina history, a time when Gen. Robert E. Lee called the port city his lifeline.
“For me, its role made Wilmington the single most important place in the Confederacy,” said Stephen Wise, a historian, director of the Parris Island Museum and author of “Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War.”
Researchers have applied for a federal grant to locate more of the wrecks and better document the sites. The clock is ticking because this was the dawn of metal shipbuilding and the wrecks that are made of iron are vanishing rapidly.
A historical group is also raising money for both a film about one of the most important wrecks – that of the Modern Greece – and for conserving the vast horde of artifacts brought ashore from it.
Wise is among the presenters at a symposium this week. He’ll talk about blockade running, and other speakers will focus on how the blockade worked from a Union perspective, the fortifications protecting the two entrances that the runners used to reach the port, and details about the Modern Greece.
Having two ways into the port to pick from gave Wilmington a big advantage for blockade running, Wise said.
And given that Union forces effectively blocked shipments into Charleston and took New Orleans early in the war, Wilmington was the only thing that allowed the South to keep fighting.
“If it also had been taken early in the war, the Confederacy couldn’t have survived past 1863,” Wise said.
A rough party
Not that the people of the city were thrilled with their role. Many of the sailors partied with abandon, and their money and lifestyle attracted prostitutes, con men and other criminals. The murder rate jumped, and one ship was even blamed for unleashing a yellow fever epidemic that killed hundreds in the fall of 1862.
The pay that allowed all that high living sounds like modern drug-running. Midway through the war, a captain could make the equivalent of $100,000 today for a single voyage, Wise said. A first officer might make the modern equivalent of $20,000 to $25,000 and a simple crewman $5,000. A handful of crews were Confederate military and paid much less. A Confederate Army private was making the equivalent of about $254 a month.
The sky-high war prices on the goods brought in, and the valuable commodities such as cotton that were shipped out, made for huge profits when a voyage succeeded. Cotton bought here for pennies a pound could be sold in Britain for as much as a dollar. The companies that owned the ships, many of them British ventures, could reap as much as a 100 percent return on the investment with a single run.
Some never completed a single voyage, but others got through a 20 times or more.
Many Wilmington residents would have looked upon the sailors and the problems they created as a necessary evil, said Chris Fonvielle, an assistant professor in history at UNC-W and author of two books on the Civil War in southeastern part of the state.
“They understood that this really was the only way the Confederacy was going to be able to fight, by continuing to get these vital supplies from Europe and in particular great Britain,” Fonvielle said.
About 60 percent of Confederate small arms came in via blockade runners, Wise said, along with about 30 percent of the lead they used for bullets, and at least three-quarters of the saltpeter that was a key ingredient in gunpowder.
Also coming on the ships was most medicine needed for the troops, most of the cloth used in their uniforms and leather for boots and other uses. Late in the war, there were shipments of canned meat for Lee’s army, some of it produced in places such as Chicago and Cleveland and routed surreptitiously to neutral ports, then onto blockade runners.
Built for speed
Offshore, the Union blockaders suffered through month after month of some of the most tedious duty of the war, sailing back and forth, scanning the horizons day and night as best they could.
Still, the duty was considered desirable because it was much safer than fighting ashore. The blockade runners generally weren’t armed and, so that they could preserve non-combatant status, didn’t fight back. Many crew members were foreign, and if captured by the Union navy, Wise said, could only be held briefly.
Also, blockading could pay well, particularly if your ship caught a valuable runner, as the crew got to divvy up “prize” money that could be the equivalent of years of normal pay.
Aboard the prey that they were hunting, life was much more tense. The chance of getting through on any given run was about 75 percent, Wise said.
The ships came from neutral and relatively close ports, typically Bermuda but sometimes Nassau, he said.
Larger ships brought the goods to those places, and they were then loaded into blockade runners. They would then depart, timing their approach to land so that it came just after dark.
The ships that kept the Confederacy alive were the very fastest that could be built, stuffed with giant engines. But their final approaches to land were made softly.
They would try to cut across the warm, blue waters of the Gulf Stream in late afternoon, just before the light started to fail, looking all the while for the tall masts of the first of three picket lines of ships that were hunting them, said Kevin Foster, the recently retired head of the National Park Service’s Maritime Heritage Program. Foster is writing a book on the blockade running ships.
Skippers would shoot for landfall well north or south of Cape Fear, then run along the coast, just outside the breakers. With luck, Confederate artillery might be able to keep any Union chasers at bay until they could get into either New Inlet to the north, or the mouth of the Cape Fear to the south.
The stealth required meant that tiny details counted. Lights were all snuffed and crew members weren’t allowed to smoke. Aloft , there might be just one lookout, dressed in the loosest, most shapeless clothes he could find so as not to present even the sharp line of a starched sleeve that would stand out in the evening haze.
Every man on deck would be in light clothing, which blended better than dark with the nighttime haze.
Softly, softly, the ship pushed on, slowed just enough that the paddle wheels and stern wave didn’t trigger much natural luminescence on the sea surface, and fire from the coal didn’t flare from the top of the smokestacks. But enough steam was up that the ship could rapidly accelerate if the time came.
The toughest test, Foster said, could be the inner of the three lines of blockaders, which sometimes included captured blockade runners that were as fast as the ones they pursued.
“And speed was the main requisite for these ships,” Foster said.
And, oh, the names …
In fact, the Darwinian nature of the trade pushed developments in ship design to new heights.
At the beginning of the war, ships such as Modern Greece – a bulky ship designed for the timber trade – could achieve perhaps 10 knots (11 miles per hour). By the end, some of the long, slender, engine-stuffed and purpose-designed blockade runners, such as the Presto or its sister ship the Dare could make more than twice that speed.
“They’d put the cargo in the space they had left over after they had crammed in these giant engines,” Foster said.
The runners also were the first to make serious use of camouflage colors to blend in better with the sea and sky.
The names are fun to contemplate. Some were named for fast, wily or simply elusive animals: Bat, Lynx, Stag, Deer, Fox, Night Hawk, Condor. Others were named for goddesses with attributes perceived to be tied with Southern values of hearth, home or growing things: Flora, Hebe, Ceres.
A favorite of Foster‘s: “Let ’er Rip.”
“That seems particularly Southern to me,” he said. “I mean, you can see that painted on the side of a moonshiner’s car just as well as you can a blockade runner.”
Some were so lightly built that they would be badly damaged in groundings, or simply by heavy seas. At least six disappeared without a trace while being delivered from their shipyards in Britain to transshipment ports for their first run, he said.
The ships were glamorous and some of the characters that emerged from the tales about them equally so. There was the famous spy and prominent society figure Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who drowned in the surf when fleeing a grounded runner via rowboat because she was weighed down by $2,000 in gold hidden under her dress, according to legend.
Then there was the true story of another female Confederate spy – a legendarily promiscuous one at that – named Belle Boyd, who was among a crew captured by Union sailors. She talked one Yankee crewman into letting her captain escape to Canada and then later married the crewman accused of helping her.
There were captains celebrated for making more than 20 successful runs. Another was known for a prodigious capacity for rum punch, hardly a stretch, given that many modern yachtsmen are known for the same.
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