Confederate Blockade Runners

While a large proportion of blockade runners did manage to evade the Union ships, as the blockade matured, the type of ship most likely to find success in evading the naval cordon was a small, light ship with a short draft—qualities that facilitated blockade running but were poorly suited to carrying large amounts of heavy weaponry, metals, and other supplies badly needed by the South. To be successful in helping the Confederacy, a blockade runner had to make many trips; eventually most were captured or sank.

Ordinary ships were too slow and visible to escape the Navy. The blockade runners therefore relied mainly on new ships built in England with low profiles, shallow draft, and high speed. Their paddle-wheels, driven by steam engines that burned smokeless anthracite coal, could make 17 knots (31 km/h). Because the South lacked sufficient sailors, skippers and shipbuilding capability, the runners were built, officered and manned by British. Private British investors spent perhaps £50 million on the runners ($250 million in U.S. dollars, equivalent to about $2.5 billion in 2006 dollars). The pay was high: a Royal Navy officer on leave might earn several thousand dollars (in gold) in salary and bonus per round trip, with ordinary seamen earning several hundred dollars. On dark nights they ran the gauntlet to and from the British islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas, or Havana, Cuba, 500–700 miles (800-1,100 km) away. The ships carried several hundred tons of compact, high-value cargo such as cotton, turpentine or tobacco outbound, and rifles, medicine, brandy, lingerie and coffee inbound. They charged from $300 to $1,000 per ton of cargo brought in; two round trips a month would generate perhaps $250,000 in revenue (and $80,000 in wages and expenses).

In November 1864, a wholesaler in Wilmington asked his agent in the Bahamas to stop sending so much chloroform and instead send “essence of cognac” because that perfume would sell “quite high.” Confederate patriots held rich blockade runners in contempt for profiteering on luxuries while Robert E. Lee’s soldiers were in rags. On the other hand, their bravery and initiative were necessary for the nation’s survival, and many women in the back country flaunted imported $10 gewgaws and $50 hats as patriotic proof that the “damn yankees” had failed to isolate them from the outer world. The government in Richmond, Virginia, eventually regulated the traffic, requiring half the imports to be munitions; it even purchased and operated some runners on its own account and made sure they loaded vital war goods. By 1864, Lee’s soldiers were eating imported meat. Blockade running was reasonably safe for both sides. It was not illegal under international law; captured foreign sailors were released, while Confederates went to prison camps. The ships were unarmed (cannon would slow them down), so they posed no danger to the Navy warships.

One example of the lucrative (and short-lived) nature of the blockade running trade was the ship Banshee, which operated out of Nassau and Bermuda. She was captured on her seventh run into Wilmington, North Carolina, and confiscated by the U.S. Navy for use as a blockading ship. However, at the time of her capture, she had turned a 700% profit for her English owners, who quickly commissioned and built the Banshee No. 2, which soon joined the firm’s fleet of blockade runners.

In May 1865, the Lark became the last Confederate ship to slip out of a Southern port and successfully evade the Union blockade when she left Galveston, Texas, for Havana.

Advance (A.D. Vance)
CSS Atlantic
CSS Banshee
CSS Britannia
CSS Chameleon
CSS Colonel Lamb
CSS Condor
CSS Coquette
CSS Cornubia
CSS Deer
CSS Denbigh
CSS Falcon
CSS Fingal
CSS Flamingo
CSS Greyhound
CSS Hansa
CSS Hope
CSS Juno
CSS Lizzie
CSS Lynx
CSS Merrimac
CSS Thomas L. Wragg
CSS Nassau
CSS Phantom
CSS Ptarmigan
CSS Robert E. Lee
CSS Stag
CSS Theodora
CSS William C. Hewes

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  1. For a complete list of Confederate Blockade Runners their builders, and fates, see Steve Wise’s, “Lifeline of the Confederacy” which was published by the University of South Carolina Press in the early 1990s.

    • If anyone has that book please post anything we are missing.

      Thx PC.

  2. It is a misnomer to give so much credit to foreigners on blockade runners into the Confederacy. These foreign captains and crew members were in it simply for the money. As soon as the shooting started they would heave to and surrender while the Confederate captains would run through a hail of gunfire to reach their destination. Some would even stand over the engine room hatch with pistols in hand to keep the crew at their stations. These were the ones that commanded the highest pay.

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