“A large propeller ran in and a side-wheel steamer ran out”: Inefficiencies of the Charleston blockade, October 1864

Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren urged his subordinates to maintain their vigilance on the blockade outside Charleston in the fall of 1864.  With one port after another closed by Federal advances, now Charleston and Wilmington, North Carolina remained on the eastern coast as major ports serving blockade runners.  To a hard pressed Confederacy, every blockade runner arrival or departure represented a boost of energy to the war machine – with valuable supplies coming in or cargo sold on European markets.

But the inefficiencies lamented in September continued into October.  In the morning of October 6, 1864, Commander T.H. Patterson of the USS Wamsutta reported finding a blockade runner, but not in the manner desired:

At daylight this morning, while laying at anchor on my station in 2½ fathoms water, the inner buoy on Rattlesnake Shoal bearing S. ½ W., distant about half a mile, I discovered a strange steamer sunk near the wrecks of the Georgiana and Mary Bowers.  She has two masts, two smokestacks, and side wheels.

The runner was the steamer Constance, which was making a run from Halifax into Charleston.  On the run in, she’d hit the wrecks.  Although the captain tried to back off, damage was too severe to save the ship.  The Constance sank about 250 yards from the Georgiana.  Patterson felt salvage crews might save the cargo, but the ship was already breaking up (later to be found by E. Lee Spence in the 20th century).

But the Constance was not the only runner to transit the waters that evening.  On October 8, Captain Joseph Green, commanding the blockade of Charleston, reported with embarrassment:

Night before last [night of October 6] we had two alarms of attempts to run the blockade. On the first a steamer outward bound was turned back by the inside blockade. On the second, from the best information I have at present obtained, a large propeller ran in and a side-wheel steamer ran out. Neither were seen by the outside blockading vessels….

Thus in the span of some thirty hours, four runners tested the blockade.  That is assuming the one turned back at the first alarm was not the same clearing on the second.  Regardless, that’s four chances.  One turned back.  One wrecked.  And two eluded the Federals.  The wreck, of course, was the Constance.  I suspect the blockader making port on the night of October 6-7 was the General Whiting, but can only offer circumstantial evidence.  The name of the runner clearing port that night eludes my identification, but was likely one of those making regular runs to Nassau.

Green had already re-assigned blockade stations in reaction to the failures.  He related those on October 7, and offered Dahlgren a detailed description:

I think the outside blockading vessels are now stationed to the best advantage, and herewith send you the position of each vessel:

Flambeau, south of Swash Channel about 1½ miles, in latitude 32° 43′ N., longitude 79° 48′ 25″ W.

Azalea, short distance north of North Channel, in about latitude 32° 44′ 20″ N., longitude 79° 48′ 50″ W.

Laburnum, 1½ miles or less (according to the darkness of the night) off Breach Inlet, in about latitude 32° 45′ N., longitude 79° 48′ 10″ W.

Pontiac, 1½ miles or less (according to the darkness of the night) southeast of Breach Inlet, in about latitude 32° 45′  35″ N., longitude 79° 47′ 12″ W.

Wamsutta, in about latitude 32° 46′ N., longitude 79° 46′ 10″ W.

Nipsic: Her former cruising ground was from west end of Rattlesnake Shoal to the southward and westward until Housatonic bore S. nearly 1 mile. Last night she was anchored in about latitude 32° 44′ N. 15″ N., longitude 79° 46′ 15″ W. To-night she will move nearer to Rattlesnake Shoal.

Pawnee, since she has been disabled, has remained at anchor near the Housatonic.

Mingoe keeps underway, and has cruised from a little to the northward of the Housatonic to the Flambeau, and thence skirting the shoal to the southward one-half mile and back.

James Adger keeps underway, and has cruised from the Housatonic toward the center of Rattlesnake Shoal and back, bringing the Housatonic to bear N.E. by N.

I inclose a rough tracing showing the position of vessels.

Well, unfortunately, the note provided in the Official Records indicates that tracing was not found at the time of compilation.  So, let me give you my “rough estimate” of what was on the “rough tracing.”


Green referenced the wreck of the USS Housatonic in relations to these dispositions, as on the debris remained visible on the otherwise featureless surface.  You see it there at the lower right edge of the map.  I’ve also added the location of the monitors, as per Dahlgren’s orders in September.  Not depicted are the inner screen of tugs and picket boats.

This looks, on paper, as a very complete seal of the harbor approaches. One wonders how any runner c0uld even get within sight of Fort Sumter, much less past it into harbor.  Yet somehow those vessels eluded the Federals – coming and going.  Granted not in great numbers as at Wilmington.  No more than ten arrivals/departures are recorded for Charleston in October 1864.  But every load of cargo was fuel to keep the war machine running.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 8-10.)