150 years ago: Charleston still open for business … and blockade running

As morning broke on this day (April 20) in 1863, the Federal sailors off Charleston had reason to feel optimistic. During the preceding night, the blockaders stopped two vessels attempting to run out from Charleston.  From Captain Charles Steedman, commanding the USS Powhatan, addressed to the Boston court (where the captured ship was sent):

U.S.S. Powhatan, Off Charleston, April 20, 1863.

Sir: On the night of the 19th instant, between the hours of 9 and 10 o’clock, while at anchor off this port, a schooner was discovered inside of us, attempting to run out.  I immediately fired a gun, slipped my chain, and stood in chase.  After firing a second gun, she, finding it impossible to escape, hove to.

A boat was sent on board in charge of Acting Master E.L. Haines, who took possession, and transferred the master and crew to this vessel, leaving her in charge of Acting Master’s Mate Frost and five men.  The vessel is the schooner Major E. Willis, of Charleston, William M. Hale, master and half owner, bound to St. John, New Brunswick, with a cargo of 163 bales upland cotton, as per bill of lading.  I have sent her to Boston in charge of Acting Master’s Mate William Frost, from whom you will learn the full particulars of her capture.  All her papers and flag have been placed in his charge with directions to hand them over to you.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,  Charles Steedman, Captain.

On the same night, the USS Housatonic captured a small sloop attempting to run out of Charleston.  From Captain William Rogers Taylor, a report addressed to Admiral Samuel DuPont:

U.S.S. Housatonic, Port Royal, April 21, 1863.

Sir: The sloop Neptune was captured on the night of the 19th instant, while attempting to run out from Charleston, by this ship.

Her cargo consists of 115 barrels of spirits of turpentine and 13 bales of cotton.

The vessel is merely a large launch, with no accommodations for officers or crew.  In my opinion she is not worth sending to a Northern port, and a prize crew would be exposed to much discomfort and perhaps danger in an attempt to go there.

Her papers, consisting of the register, shipping articles, manifest, clearance, and bill of health, were all made out in the Charleston custom-house, and show that the vessel was owned in Charleston and was bound to Nassau.  I inclose them all for your information. The sloop is now lying at anchor near this ship in charge of an officer and two men.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant, Wm. Rogers Taylor, Captain.

These two incidents on the night of April 19-20 were not rare.  In fact, blockade-running activity continued through the month of April in spite of the ironclad attack and associated activity.  In Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War, Stephen R. Wise provided a set of appendices listing details of blockade runner activity by port.  Wise listed four arrivals and five departures at Charleston in the month of April:

  • Eagle departing on April 1 for Nassau
  • Margaret and Jessie departing on April 6 for Nassau
  • Ella and Annie arriving on April 10 from Nassau
  • General Beauregard arriving on April 12 from Bermuda
  • Ella and Annie departing on April 18 for Nassau
  • Calypso departing on April 20 for Nassau
  • Antonica departing on April 20 for Nassau
  • Eagle arriving on April 26 from Nassau
  • Ella and Annie arriving on April 28 from Nassau

Add to this activity those blockade runners caught by the Federals.  The Stonewall Jackson was destroyed on April 12 while attempting to enter Charleston harbor.  The St. Johns was captured off Cape Romain, South Carolina, just north of Charleston on April 18.  So the total arrivals/departures for Charleston, including failed attempts, during April was thirteen.  That total does not include the British steamer Minne, stopped in Bull’s Bay just north of Charleston on April 20, which was “officially” on passage from Nassau to Baltimore with a cargo of salt (right….)   By comparison, Wilmington, North Carolina reported eight departures and five arrivals in the same month.

Conclusion:  Charleston was still very much open for business.  Indeed, the Ella and Annie was practically making scheduled runs every eight to ten days.

Some might highlight the symbolic importance of the “Birthplace of the Confederacy” at mid-war.  Not to take anything away from that context of the campaigning around Charleston, but clearly the city played an important role in the supply chain which kept Confederate armies in the field.  That, too, must factor into the consideration of struggles on Morris Island later in 1863 and into 1864.

(Citations from Naval ORs, Series I, Volume 14, pages 147-9.)


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