A GUEST BLOG: In 1956, multi-faceted historian Louis T. Moore (1885-1961) published a book entitled Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region. That one volume, reprinted in 1999, was just not large enough to contain Mr. Moore’s extensive repertoire of finely penned essays. The following article exhibits his ability to present the big picture while providing meticulously researched facts that bring focus. It is posted here with permission from the New Hanover County Public Library, where much of his work, including one thousand panoramic photographs, is preserved. – Susan Taylor Block
The state of North Carolina today is as progressive as any in the field of industry, as well as in the field of agriculture. However, this was not the case in North Carolina during the War Between the States, over a century ago. Prior to the war we were in bondage industrially to the more economically progressive North. When war broke out, trade with our northern neighbors necessarily broke off, and supplies for the war had to be imported from elsewhere.
After the northern blockade of the Confederate ports went into effect, these war materials were carried in swift crafts known as blockade runners, and the cargoes they brought continually enabled the Confederacy to continue the fight for states’ rights, until shortly after the final capitulation of Fort Fisher early in 1865. As the success of the blockade runners in maneuvering through the blockade consistently was crucial to the South, perhaps a glance backwards into their operations may prove interesting.
Silent but eloquent reminders of the blockade runners are from thirty to forty wrecks along the ocean frontage of New Hanover and Brunswick counties. A list of many of these will be given at a later point in this narrative. They were swift and graceful steamers. They were employed in perilous operations and enterprises. As a matter of course, every trip brought danger either of capture or of sinking by the Northern fleet of gunboats. This armada hovered close to the coast in the effort to suspend the bringing in of supplies of varied nature for the Confederacy.
The blockade runners were designed for speed. In many cases the fast craft escaped capture simply by running away from lurking gunboats. Some finished trips with the regularity of scheduled mail boats. Many made from forty to sixty round trips successfully, accumulating millions of dollars for their fortunate owners. Cotton is just one example of the possibility of profit. It could be purchased on the Wilmington market at from three to eight cents per pound, and later sold at the equivalent of $ .45 to $1.90 per pound. It has been estimated that over one hundred million dollars worth of business was transacted through the port of Wilmington during the four years of the war.
Successful operation of the blockade runners depended upon the skill and daring of their commanders and pilots. Confederate naval officers were adept at avoiding capture. Many blockade runners were sunk or otherwise disposed of when about to be taken into custody.
The principal volume of traffic originated with the British port of Nassau, located in the Bahama Islands. The types of cargo loaded there and brought to Wilmington were of varied and miscellaneous nature. A large proportion consisted of “Nassau bacon.” This constituted meat was cured in northern packing houses, sent to the West Indies, and eventually brought to Wilmington. It was then distributed to the interior to feed Confederate soldiers. Other major items brought in by the swift ships were candles, sugar, cloth for uniforms, and cotton goods for dresses. Without supplies transported by blockade runners, the South would have been denied many of the necessities of life through stringency of war.
As a result of blockade runner operations, the accompanying volume of business made Wilmington one of the outstanding ports of the Confederacy. There were a great many Englishmen living in the town. They were representatives of manufacturers, English and West Indian wholesalers, and agents for ship owners. Many of these visitors received an unbounded welcome and became part of the social life of Wilmington during their stay.
On outward voyages to the West Indies, Bermuda, and other destinations, the fast blockade runners carried return cargoes of cotton and naval stores. Products such as these were assembled by the railroads and then loaded onto the ships in Wilmington. This volume had a direct effect upon the installation of new warehouses, enlargement of others, and employment of hundreds of laborers. Records indicate that during the period of May 20, 1863 through December 24, 1864, an excess of 264 blockade running steamers entered this port with their valuable cargoes.
Officials representing the Confederate States Government utilized the convenient blockade runners for trips to other countries, as emissaries from their official offices. In the fall of 1864, the Federal Government reached the definite conclusion that the way to defeat the Confederacy was to stop blockade running through the port of Wilmington. With this objective in view, a constant patrol of the coast was maintained by warships of the United States Navy.
The first attack on Fort Fisher by the Union fleet, December 24 and 25, 1864, was checked. Superior forces, consisting of an armada of 58 ships landing an army of 10,000 men, again attacked the stronghold, January 13 through 15, 1865. The outnumbered and exhausted Confederate defenders were forced to capitulate. This was followed by the fall of Wilmington and closure of its port facilities. In April, General Lee surrendered to General Grant. The suspension of a continued flow of supplies necessary to military operations made this necessary. So ended the struggle of The War Between the States, the result being the gradual welding of all states into one unit of government.
Many of the wrecks of those valiant blockade running ships are scattered along the coast, in the vicinity of Wrightsville, Carolina, and Fort Fisher beaches; near Fort Caswell at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and southwardly in front of the Brunswick County shoreline. Some years ago, Captain R. N. Sweet, a Wilmingtonian, prepared a valuable map that shows the names and locations of thirty or more of the wrecked blockade runners.
Starting at the upper edge of New Hanover County and proceeding in a southern direction, the wrecks are listed in order, as follows: Fanny, Jenny, Phantom, Nutfield, Wild Darrell, Dee, Venus, Lynx, Hebe, Beauregard, Nighthawk, Modern Greece, Condor, Petrel, Douro, Dare, Raleigh, Arabian, Antonica, Spunky, Georgiana McCaw, Bendigo, Vesta, Elizabeth, Ranger, and others. Each derelict along the coast represents an investment of about $150,000 in gold. The steamers were built for the most part of thick, durable iron. With rigging similar to that used fore and aft on schooners, with draft of eight to eleven feet, and propelled by side wheels, the wary runners depended entirely upon great speed and quick maneuverability for escape from blockaders, rather than upon gun or cannon fire.
That the final marine resting place of so many of these fine ships is located near the entrance of the Cape Fear River is not accidental. It can well be realized from a study of the question. The changing nature of the coastline made an altogether successful blockade almost an impossibility. Main Inlet was protected by Fort Caswell. New Inlet was guarded by Fort Fisher. Existing dangerous shoals served to divide ships embraced in the blockading fleet.
The general plan was to approach the coast some thirty or forty miles above or below the inlets, and then steam noiselessly – always during the night – until they approached the protecting guns of the two forts.
At intervals, the Northern fleet had as many as 400 ships of war patrolling the waters between Nassau and Bermuda, and Wilmington’s port objective. Therefore it can be appreciated that is was only a matter of time until blockading was doomed. It was simply a question of which trip would be the last. When a commander found it impossible to escape, he endeavored to ground his ship and then set it on fire. However, few, if any of the ships were totally destroyed by such efforts. The high running waves usually extinguished a fire when the superstructure had been consumed.
Interesting traditions are attached to many of the blockade runners. Among these are allusions to the Fanny and Jenny. This ship was driven ashore one night late in 1864. The wreck now lies several hundred yards offshore, opposite Lumina Pavilion at Wrightsville Beach. Until recently (c. 1967), it was plainly visible at low tide. It has been said that the sturdy ship was bringing a gold and jewel-encrusted sword, bearing the inscription, “To General Robert E. Lee, from his British Admirers.” Maybe at some distant day this wreck will disgorge the give that was to be presented to the distinguished commander of the Confederate forces.
The wreck of the Georgianna McCaw rests in the sands a few miles south of Fort Caswell. Tradition says that the pilot of this fine ship, when they cleared from Nassau to Wilmington, had several thousands in gold in a belt around his waist. This was a fact which has been generally rumored among the crew members. A Federal cruiser is said to have spotted the McCaw and to have started in pursuit. A shot penetrated one of the furnaces and the ship was seen ablaze. The crew escaped to shore in life boats, but the pilot remained at his post.
Later, after the fire burned out, the crew returned to the ship to take off the pilot. They found him slumped over the wheel, dead, with his head crushed in, and his money belt missing. The ship’s watchman was found crouching in the water-logged boiler room. He had the pilot’s gold and confessed that he murdered the unfortunate man.
The ship Lynx had crossed the bar at New Inlet one night late in 1864, bound for Nassau. Mrs. Louis H. deRosset and her infant daughter, from Wilmington, were aboard as special passengers. When scarcely beyond the breakers the Lynx was pursued by the Federal gunboat Nihon. Captain Reed of the Lynx determined to make a run in the effort to escape. His ship ran aground.
How could the infant be saved? Mrs. deRosset, the mother, gave the child to a sailor standing near. She got into a small boat which remained near the ship. The seaman tossed the infant to her mother and the latter caught the child. Thus, the infant was saved to grow into womanhood, later to become the wife of the late Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, former mayor of Wilmington and member of Congress.
(More photos at louistmoore.com – click on “Chapters.”)