Swift Gray Ghosts: What Happened to the Confederacy's Blockade-Runners?

SS A. D. Vance after her capture as a Confederate blockade runner by USS Santiago de Cuba during the American Civil War.
February 13, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: American Civil WarBlockadeEmbargoConfederacyUnionBritain

Swift Gray Ghosts: What Happened to the Confederacy's Blockade-Runners?

They had an interesting end.

Key Point:  Although sympathetic to the South’s cause and her struggle for independence, Taylor put his vessel and his life in harm’s way not for patriotism, but for the enormous profits that could be accrued by successfully running the Federal blockade.

Despite the increasing effectiveness of the Union naval blockade, more and more steamers plied the waters between the few remaining Confederate ports and Nassau, St. George, and Havana during the last two years of the Civil War, bringing supplies and munitions to the hard-pressed southern armies in the field. In 1863, a total of 199 blockade-runners made safe arrivals in Confederate ports. The next year that number increased to 244, with another 30 steaming into port in 1865. To achieve this daredevil record required a special design of steamer, one with high speed, large cargo capacity, and a low silhouette on the horizon. Add to those specifications a brave and imaginative commander, and success was usually, but not always, assured.

One such commander was English-born Tom Taylor, a supercargo for the Anglo-Confederate Trading Company of Liverpool, England. Taylor managed the loading and delivery of all payloads consigned to the Confederacy by his company. During the war, his steamers compiled an astounding record, successfully completing 49 runs out of 58 attempts. Supervising the operations of nine blockade-runners, Taylor personally made 28 trips to assure the safe delivery of his company’s merchandise. Although sympathetic to the South’s cause and her struggle for independence, Taylor put his vessel and his life in harm’s way not for patriotism, but for the enormous profits that could be accrued by successfully running the Federal blockade. Little did he realize, however, that when the 252-foot Banshee II steamed majestically up the Cape Fear River at Wilmington, North Carolina, on the crisp fall morning of October 15, 1864, it would be the start of his last voyage of the war.

The Banshee II: Pride of the Anglo-Confederate Trading Company

Banshee II represented the state of the art in shipbuilding when she was launched at the Aitken and Mansel facility at Glasgow, Scotland, in the summer of 1864. Advanced in concept, she constituted a class of vessel that would dominate the design of steam-driven merchant vessels well into the 20th century. Grossing 439 tons, Banshee II was 252 feet long with a beam of 31 feet. She drew only 11 feet of water when fully loaded, which permitted her to cross the bar easily at Wilmington. Her steel hull was a light gray, and her giant sidewheels could drive her through the water at over 15 knots. Her 53-man crew, with their English officers and Southern pilots, made the speedy Banshee II almost impossible to catch. She was the pride of the Anglo-Confederate Trading Company, and Taylor was eager to put her through her paces.

Banshee II made three round trips into Wilmington before Taylor had an opportunity to sail on her. Laden with a valuable cargo of cotton, she left Wilmington on December 28, just before the Union attack and eventual capture of Fort Fisher. Taylor’s favorite captain, the competent Jonathon Steele, was at the helm. Accompanied by Frank Hurst, the agent for the Anglo-Confederate Trading Company at Nassau in the Bahamas, Taylor set sail for Havana before attempting a run across the Caribbean to Galveston, Texas.

“When all was ready we experienced the greatest difficulty in finding a Galveston pilot,” Taylor recalled. “Owing to the high rate of pay, numbers of men were to be found ready to offer their services, [but] it was extremely hard to obtain competent men. After considerable delay we had to content ourselves at last with a man who said he knew all about the port, but who turned out to be absolutely worthless. We then made a start, and with the exception of meeting with the most violent thunderstorm, in which the lightning was something awful, nothing extraordinary occurred on our passage across the Gulf of Mexico, and we scarcely saw a sail.”

It is 725 nautical miles from Havana to Galveston. The problem was not so much the distance between the two ports as the lack of transportation from Texas to the rest of the Confederacy. With the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson on the Mississippi River in 1863, very little in the way of supplies could reach the eastern half of the country. Most of the munitions, provisions, and consumer goods arriving at Galveston, therefore, were shipped by rail to Houston, where they were distributed throughout the Trans-Mississippi Department. In March 1865, Banshee II cautiously approached the Texas coast.

“It was a comparatively calm and very dark night,” Taylor wrote, “just the one for the purpose, but within an hour all had changed and it commenced to blow a regular ‘Norther.’ Rain came down in torrents, then out of the inky blackness of clouds and rain came furious gusts, until a hurricane was blowing against which, notwithstanding that we were steaming at full speed, we made little or no way, and although the sea was smooth our decks were swept by white foam and spray. Suddenly we made out some dark objects all around us, and found ourselves drifting helplessly among the ships of the blockading squadron, which were steaming hard to their anchors, and at one moment we were almost jostling two of them. Whether they knew what we were, or mistook us for one of themselves matters not; they were too much occupied about their own safety to attempt to interfere.”

Making a Break For Galveston

Getting into Galveston that night was impossible, so Taylor let Banshee II drift free until she was clear of the enemy fleet. He steamed slowly seaward, shaping a course to make land 30 miles to the southwest at daylight. He dropped anchor in perfectly calm water, the storm having subsided almost as quickly as it had risen. Having seen enough of his new pilot to realize that he was no good whatsoever, Taylor decided to lie off shore all day, keeping a sharp lookout, and that night creep slowly up the coast until he made out the Federal blockading fleet.

Anchoring again for the night, Taylor decided to make a bold dash for Galveston at daybreak. “All went well,”  he recalled. “We were unmolested during the day and we got under weigh towards evening, passing close to a wreck which we recognized as our old friend the Will-o’-the-Wisp, which had been driven ashore and lost on the very first trip she made after I had sold her. Immediately afterwards we very nearly lost our own ship too. Seeing a post of Confederate soldiers close by on the beach, we determined to steam close in and communicate with them in order to learn all about the tactics of the blockaders and our exact distance from Galveston. We backed her close in to the breakers in order to speak, but when the order was given to go ahead she declined to move, and the chief engineer reported that something had gone wrong with the cylinder valve, and that she must heave to for repairs.”

It was an anxious moment. Banshee II had barely three fathoms beneath her, and her stern was almost buried in the white water. Taylor released the anchor, but in the heavy swell it failed to hold and the ship began to drift slowly but steadily toward shore. When at length the engineers managed to turn her head, Taylor and the others on the bridge were greatly relieved to see her point seaward and clear the breakers. “As soon as we reached deep water the damage was permanently repaired,” he reported, “and we steamed cautiously up the coast, until about sundown we made out the topmasts of the blockading squadron right ahead. We promptly stopped, calculating that, as they were about ten to eleven miles from us, Galveston must lie a little further on our port bow. We let go our anchor and prepared for an anxious night; all hands were on deck and the cable was ready to be unshackled at a moment’s notice, with steam as nearly ready as possible without blowing off, as at any moment a prowler from the squadron patrolling the coast might have made us out.”

Banshee II had not been lying off for very long when the men on the starboard bow suddenly made out an enemy cruiser steaming toward them. It was a critical time; all hands dashed onto the deck and a man stood ready to knock the shackle out of the chain cable and release the anchor. Fortunately for the blockade-runners, the Union ship did not discover them, and soon disappeared over the horizon to the south.

Under Fire From the Union Blockade

Two hours before daylight, Banshee II quietly raised anchor and steamed on, feeling her way cautiously by the lead. When daylight broke, the men found themselves inside the Union fleet opposite Galveston and prepared to make a short dash for the bar. “We had been under weigh some time, when suddenly we discovered a launch close to us on the port bow filled with Northern blue-jackets and marines,” Taylor said. “‘Full speed ahead,’ shouted Steele, and we were within an ace of running her down as we almost grazed her with our port paddle-wheel. Hurst and I looked straight down into the boat, waving them a parting salute. The crew seemed only too thankful at their narrow escape to open fire, but they soon regained their senses and threw up rocket after rocket in our wake as a warning to the blockading fleet to be on the alert.’