“This looks very unpromising for the efficiency of the blockade”: Runners continue to use Charleston

The ten days of September 1864 was an active one for blockade runners, both making and leaving Charleston, South Carolina.  In “Lifeline of the Confederacy,” historian Stephen Wise counted three blockaders clearing Charleston, at least two arriving, and one sunk in the period of September 1-10, 1864.  As I’ve mentioned previously, a lot of factors worked to reduce the efficiency of the blockade of Charleston, to include reaction to the capture of the USS Water Witch, shortage of coal, and transfer of ships out for repairs.  In perspective, only weeks earlier the Federals had effectively closed Mobile as a port of entry.  Efforts to close Wilmington stepped up through the summer, with mixed results.  But despite the presence of heavy Federal batteries on Morris Island, Charleston remained active.

On the night of August 31, the blockade runner Mary Bowers, out of Bermuda, avoided the blockade and slipped south-west along Long Island looking for Maffitt’s Channel.  Had it not been for some bad luck, she would have made Charleston unmolested, as Captain Joseph Green, commanding the blockade of Charleston, noted in his report of the matter:

I have to report that the English iron side-wheel steamer Mary Bowers, hailing from Glasgow, struck the wreck of the steamer Georgiana off Long Island, about 4 miles east of Breach Inlet and 1 mile from the beach, on the night of the 31st ultimo, in attempting to run the blockade inward and was discovered sunk and abandoned….

I regret to state that none of the blockading vessels saw her until daylight on the morning of the 1st instant.  If she had not grounded she would have been obliged in going in to pass the Sweet Brier, Azalea, and Acacia.

While likely those three vessels would have seen the Mary Bowers on her final run in, those were lightly armed vessels forming the inner blockade and might not have intercepted the runner.  So while this blockade runner failed to make port, it was not due to direct action by the blockade.

Three nights later, on September 3, another blockade runner managed to cheat the blockade, as Green reported:

I have respectfully to report that a large side-wheel steamer ran the blockade outward last night.

She was fired upon by our picket boats.  Signal of violation of the blockade was immediately made by the Sangamon, repeated by [the John Adams], and, notwithstanding, she was not seen by any of the outside blockading vessels.

With that success, another blockade runner attempted to make the run out on September 5.  At 10:45 p.m., Acting Master William Barrymore on the USS Acacia observed a ship heading out of port by Maffitt’s Channel.  Barrymore slipped anchor and opened fire on the vessel.  After a few hits, the blockade runner took evasive action and managed to work back into Charleston.

On September 8, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, writing to Green, addressed what he considered a deficiency with the blockade of Charleston:

It is singular, that while so many cruisers should have been on the track, the Bowers was not caught by either of them, but by a sunken wreck that lay in her course.  This looks very unpromising for the efficiency of the blockade, and is not improved by the fact that two or three nights afterwards a steamer passed out in the same direction and, as you observe, was not seen by any of the outside blockade vessels, though signals were duly made from within by the Sangamon and repeated by the Adams.

If vessels were stationed on the course of these two, as it is presumed was the case, there has been some lack of vigilance on their part, which I trust will be arranged.

The apparent success of the Acacia on the subsequent night in driving back a steamer is more satisfactory.

I wish to be informed of the stations assigned to the several vessels in the course leading into Sullivan’s Island Channel, the instructions they have, and whether from yourself or the senior officer outside.

All the light and fast steamers of the squadron, with one exception, are collected off Charleston, in order to render the blockade effective.  You have the Pontiac, Nipsic, Winona, Ottawa, Wamsutta, Acacia, Azalea, Camelia, Sweet Brier.  The Canandaigua and Pawnee are only absent for repairs and will soon return, and I have ordered the Ottawa to exchange for the Mingoe; these, with the inside monitors, tugs, and picket boats, should make it difficult for any vessel to pass unseen.

By the late summer of 1864, Federal operations depended upon sealing up as many “leaks” as possible.  Every steamer load of cargo going in or out of the Confederacy represented resources for which to prolong the war.  Dahlgren’s blockade had to be efficient – particularly since the Army was not going to make any more offensive operations at Charleston which might completely close the port.  The Navy would have six more months duty standing off Charleston.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 659-60 and 666-7.)

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