The decline of Charleston as a blockade runner port of entry

Among the justifications for operations against Charleston was the use of the port by blockade runners.  If Charleston to fall into Federal hands, of course this would close the port to such trade.  But several situations well short of the city’s capture could curtail, if not stop, blockade running at the port.  And that is precisely how events played out over the late summer and fall of 1863.

After the April ironclad attack on Fort Sumter, blockade running activity continued as if nothing had changed.  That’s because for all practical purposes nothing had changed.  The Confederates still held positions overlooking the approaches to Charleston.  When the Ruby ran aground at Lighthouse Inlet on June 11, 1863, it was the treacherous waterway stopping the blockade runner, not Federal guns.  Turning to Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War, and historian Stephen R. Wise’s   appendices listing details of blockade runner activity by port, there were twenty-three departures from Charleston between May 1 and July 10, 1863.  Two of those runners were captured after departing port and three were destroyed (including the former USS Isaac Smith) before leaving port.  At the same time, twenty times runners successfully dodged the blockade to enter Charleston.  So Charleston remained “open for business.”

That changed with the July 10 landings on Morris Island and the long summer siege of Confederate positions on the north end of the island.  Again, turning to Wise’s appendices, the activity was:

  • July 20 – Margaret and Jessie arriving from Nassau.
  • July 22 – Alice arriving from Nassau.
  • July 23 – Fannie arriving from Nassau.
  • August 1 – Margaret and Jessie outbound for Nassau.
  • August 3 – Antonica outbound for Nassau.
  • August 15 – Alice outbound for Nassau.
  • August 16 – Spaulding arriving from Nassau.
  • August 22 – Fannie outbound for Nassau.
  • September 18 – Spaulding outbound for Nassau.

And that was it for the year.  With Federals turning Battery Gregg into Fort Putnam, the main entrance to Charleston was under the guns.  With those batteries covering the channels, the Navy could concentrate steamers to better intercept those entering port. Not until March would any blockade runners register successful calls at Charleston.

Of those runners listed above, all save one became regulars at Wilmington, North Carolina.  That one, the Spaulding, was captured by Federals on October 11, 1863 while preparing a return to Charleston. There were “runs” at Charleston, but no successes.  Given that situation, Wilmington rose to prominence as the main port of call for blockade runners on the Atlantic Coast.

Likewise encounters in the waters off Wilmington increased.  On November 16, the USS Lodona stopped and seized the British schooner Arctic, just southwest of Frying Pan Shoals.  Although the captain of the schooner maintained he was bound for Baltimore with his load of salt, Acting Lieutenant Edgar Brodhead of the Lodona thought otherwise:

Her cargo was found to be salt, and the following papers were found on board, viz: Her register at the port of Nassau, shipping articles and list of her crew, clearance from Nassau for Baltimore, a bill of lading for 450 bags of salt, a sealed document addressed to “Kirkland, Chase & Co., consignees, Baltimore,” and a seal letter to Mr. _ Jenkins, Baltimore.  No long book was on board, her master stating that he had had none. Some of my crew who boarded her informed me that some of her crew stated that she had been “knocking about” the place of her capture for several days, and that they believed she intended to run the blockade.

Her position, course, etc., led me to believe that she was trying to violate the blockade of Wilmington, N.C., and that it was consequently my duty to seize her.

The Lodona was a captured blockade runner herself.

The emerging importance of Wilmington would prompt a shift of steamers in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  And of course, you are probably thinking that Truman Seymour’s plan of action against Wilmington would have been right on queue.  After all, as proven at Charleston, the most effective and efficient way to blockade a port is to have a few well placed batteries at the approaches.

(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 116-7.)

4 thoughts on “The decline of Charleston as a blockade runner port of entry

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