On Dark Nights: Blockade Runners Supplying The Confederacy

“The Confederate Steamer Lilian, of which I was then Purser, was chased for nearly a hundred miles from Cape Lookout by the U. S. Steamer Shenandoah, which sailed a parallel course within half a mile of her and forced the Lilian at times into the breakers. This was probably the narrowest escape ever made by a blockade runner in a chase. The Shenandoah began firing her broadside guns at three o’clock, p. m., her gunners and commanding officers of the batteries being distinctly visible to the Lilian‘s crew. A heavy sea was running which deflected the aim of the man-of-war, and which alone saved the Lilian from destruction. A furious bombardment by the Shenandoah, aggravated by the display of the Lilian’s Confederate flag, was continued until nightfall, when, by a clever ruse, the Lilian, guided by the flash of her pursuer’s guns, stopped for a few minutes ; then, putting her helm hard over, ran across the wake of the war-ship straight out to sea, and, on the following morning, passed the fleet off Fort Fisher in such a crippled condition that several weeks were spent in Wilmington for repairs.”[i]

This account by James Sprunt captures the daring dramas that were enacted along the Southern coastline near ports or safe inlets as blockade runners tried to keep the exports and imports of the Confederacy afloat in the face of increasingly vigilant Federal blockading squadrons. The Union’s blockade and the Confederacy’s blockade runners drew an international trade aspect into the war and frequently raised diplomatic questions.

On April 19, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of the rebellious Southern states. Coming just five days after Fort Sumter’s surrender, the blockade formed part of the comprehensive plan which General Winfield Scott had proposed. The “Anaconda Plan,” as it was dubbed, called for the “strangulation” of the Confederacy through a Federal naval blockade and capture of the major rivers to divide the South and limit its resources. While the plan looked grand on paper, the U.S. Navy had only a handful of seaworthy vessels and nearly 3,000 miles of coastline to patrol to create an effective blockade.[ii] Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles oversaw the purchase, conversion, building, or commissioning of hundreds of ships during the Civil War years and by the end of 1864, 470 ships patrolled the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines and major harbors.[iii]

For the opening months of the war, the Confederates laughed at the blockade, but by 1862, their supply chain and international communications depended on swift, secretive steamers sneaking in and out of ports or inlets. These blockade runners shipped with their holds full of cotton to sell, creating a lifeline for the Confederate military and an importation venture to bring luxury goods to the wealthy.

The Confederate politicians gambled that the industrial mills of Europe would desire keep importing American grown cotton and would pressure the European governments to recognize the Confederacy and even give military aid. While some European businessmen continued to do business with Southerners — buying cotton, building ships, smuggling weapons, and selling medical supplies — the governments never officially acknowledged the Confederacy and took a relatively neutral stance regarding the private business sector’s activities until directly approached by U.S. ambassadors.

Although they did not get the “King Cotton diplomacy” that they wanted, the Confederacy did manage to export about 400,000 bales of cotton out of the country—less than 20% of the antebellum exports. The importation records are incomplete, but enough remain to show the effectiveness of the blockade runners. Through North and South Carolina ports alone during the last six months of 1864 came 50,000 rifles, 43 cannon, supplies to make 10 rounds of ammunition, and uniforms, shoes, and blankets to supply thousands of soldiers. Around 1.5 million pounds of meat also arrived to feed Confederate armies.[iv] Though these numbers are impressive, it is important to note that the Confederacy struggled with logistics and getting the supplies to the armies proved difficult, especially toward the end of the war.

The Blockade Runner “Advance”

While a blockade runner could bring in an impressive haul of imports, the actual success of the ships varied. For example, during the four years of the war, approximately 350 blockade runners made 1,300 attempts to sneak through the Federal patrol. Of this number set, only 300 ships actually made it through and were not captured on their exit or entrance.[v] A few blockade runners who made it through the corridor sailed for Europe, but many made the shorter voyage to islands in the Caribbean, leading to the growth of ports. Blockade runner James Sprunt later remembered, “The chief intermediate neutral ports of refuge for the blockade runners from Wilmington were Nassau, upon the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, and St. George’s and Hamilton, in the Bermudas. These towns were of small note before the civil war began, but they became of great commercial importance as the traffic through the blockade increased.”[vi] Stocked with cargo to bring into the Confederacy, the ships had to run the blockade again, with increasingly greater risks. Shipwreck or capture typically fated most blockade runners and their crews, and two round-trips was considered lucky. Describing the Cape Fear region of the Carolina coast, Sprunt wrote: “The beach for miles north and south of Bald Head is marked still by the melancholy wrecks of swift and graceful steamers which had been employed in this perilous enterprise.”[vii]

Some of the wrecked ships had been built in Europe during the Civil War years. Business ventures between private citizens or Confederate agents created financial agreements, resulting in trade deals or ship building contracts. In the shipyards along the Clyde River in Scotland, deals were struck to create some of the fastest vessels of that era while local Scottish businessmen explored other ventures with the Confederacy. However, emancipation societies in Scotland heard rumors, investigated, and revealed some of the deals and the serious discussions to build more Confederate warships. By capitalizing their message on the horrors of American slavery, the emancipation societies successfully turned public opinion against the businessmen and speculators, limiting the plans and shipbuilding.[viii]

Throughout the war years, blockade runners worked from most of the major Southern ports. However, the Union blockade fleet grew stronger and more effective, closing ports or securing them after other military actions led to the port’s capture. The last safe port for blockade runners was Wilmington, North Carolina, and it was operation until the capture of Fort Fisher in January 1865. Galveston, Texas, generally had successful blockade runners, but after the Union gained control of the Mississippi River in 1863, there was little purpose in sending the supplies to a western point of the Confederacy.

The ships and their crews practiced a variety of subterfuge on their voyages in and out of the Federal blockade squadrons’ corridors. The captains and crews were civilians and did not engage in military action with their opponents, even when fired upon; if they were captured, the blockade runner became a prize ship of the U.S. navy, but the crew typically went free. Still, evading capture meant less questions and huge profits for the blockade runners’ captains and crews. Typically, dark and moonless nights invited the best opportunity to sneak through. On other occasions, blockade runners used storms or even the distraction of other runners to make their own break to safety.

Economics and defiance motivated the blockade runner ventures at all levels. Whether it was a political bid that “King Cotton” would win European aid, a secretive trade deal, or personal gain available after participating in a successful run. Though their success was limited as the Federal blockade strengthened, the sneaky voyages created a life-line for the Confederacy, bringing in much needed military and medical supplies.  The daring and navigational skill needed to captain and pilot a blockade runner became legendary in 19th Century maritime lore. After the war, James Sprunt recreated the scene that played out so many times: “Amidst the impenetrable darkness, without lightship or beacon, the narrow and closely watched inlet was felt for with a deep-sea lead as a blind man feels his way along a familiar path; and often, when the enemy’s fire was raking the wheel-house, the faithful pilot, with steady hand and iron nerve, would safely steer the little fugitive of the sea to her desired haven.”[ix]


[i] James Sprunt, edited by Cornelius M.D. Thomas. Tales of the Cape Fear blockade, being a turn of the century account of blockade running. (Wilmington: Charles Towne Preservation Trust, 1960). Accessed via Hathi Trust. Page 10.

[ii] Angus Konstam, Confederate Blockade Runner, 1861-1865 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004). Page 4.

[iii] Ibid., Pages 4-5.

[iv] Ibid., Page 5.

[v] Ibid., Page 5.

[vi] James Sprunt, edited by Cornelius M.D. Thomas. Tales of the Cape Fear blockade, being a turn of the century account of blockade running. (Wilmington: Charles Towne Preservation Trust, 1960). Accessed via Hathi Trust. Page 19

[vii] Ibid., Page 55.

[viii] Eric J. Graham, Clydebuilt: The Blockade Runners, Cruisers, and Armoured Rams of the American Civil War (Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, West Newington House, 2006).

[ix] James Sprunt, edited by Cornelius M.D. Thomas. Tales of the Cape Fear blockade, being a turn of the century account of blockade running. (Wilmington: Charles Towne Preservation Trust, 1960). Accessed via Hathi Trust. Page 40.

5 Responses to On Dark Nights: Blockade Runners Supplying The Confederacy

  1. Very interesting article on the real life experience of blockade running, part of the ground level history of the Civil War that makes it so fascinating. It might be interesting to explore the black market in cotton run by the Union for the duration of the War as well, and for everyone to read “Secession on Trial”, Nicoletti, which details the overall implications of the blockade (alluded to in this article) for the legalities of the War per international law. The Confederacy may not have achieved recognition, for a wide variety of political reasons, but it was granted “belligerent” status, which may be loosely interpreted to mean they were putting up a better-than-expected fight and therefore deserved the honor of being allowed to buy arms from foreign powers (who were also selling them to the Union). A better understanding of those issues will go a long way to a more rational discussion of the War. Also, “Justice in Blue and Gray”, Neff, is an in-depth discussion of those isses from a British lawyer, extending into the arena of modern-day secessions for comparison.

  2. I thought I asked the time but got how to build a grandfather clock instead. Does anyone know of a surviving blockade runner that is on display anywhere?

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