One of the biggest problems the Confederacy faced during the American Civil War was the South’s lack of manufacturing capacity. The imposition of a naval blockade by President Lincoln shortly after the outbreak of hostilities further exacerbated an already perilous situation. To meet the need for imported war materiel and other desperately-needed goods, as well as to provide for the export of cotton and tobacco in order to obtain hard currency, the Confederate government contracted with individuals and firms – many of them British – to run the Union blockade.
In 1896, Thomas E. Taylor, who had worked during the Civil War for Edward Lawrence & Company, a Liverpool shipping firm, published his memoirs of service on board the Banshee and other ships, blockade runners built especially for the purpose of slipping through the cordon of Union ships that kept watch on the Confederate coastline. In Running the Blockade: A Personal Narrative of Adventures, Risks and Escapes during the American Civil War, Taylor has provided us with one of the best first-hand accounts of this highly risky, but enormously lucrative business. At 176 pages, this is an admirably succinct book that is written in a pleasing, straightforward style. My edition, published in the series, “Classics of Naval literature”, by the Naval Institute Press, includes an excellent introduction by historian Stephen Wise, who provides an instructive short course in “King Cotton”, and its use as a tool of both foreign policy and finance, international maritime law and the impact of blockade running on the modernization of ship design and engineering.
Taylor was a young man, barely into his twenties, when he was offered an opportunity to oversee his firm’s blockade-running activities. Acting in the capacity of supercargo (the ship owners’ representative on board their commercial vessels), Taylor established his base of operations in Nassau, and made numerous successful runs into Confederate ports (primarily Wilmington, North Carolina). Quite aside from the hazards presented by Union warships, Taylor and his crews encountered a host of other dangers, including storms, leaky hulls, the occasional fire, and yellow fever.
One of his narrowest escapes occurred on a run aboard the Nighthawk to Wilmington. Taylor was traveling with an untested captain and pilot, and the ship grounded on a sandbar in the entrance to the Cape Fear River. I’ll let the author describe what happened:
At once all was confusion; the pilot and signalman rushed to the dinghy, lowered it, and made good their escape; the captain lost his head and disappeared; and the crews of the launches, after firing several volleys, one of which slightly wounded me, rowed in to board us…When the Northerners jumped on board they were terribly excited. I don’t know whether they expected resistance or not, but they acted more like maniacs than sane men, firing their revolvers and cutting right and left with their cutlasses. I stood in front of the men on the poop and said that we surrendered, but all the reply I received from the lieutenant commanding was, “Oh, you surrender, do you?”…accompanied by a string of the choicest Yankee oaths and sundry reflections on my parentage; whereupon he fired his revolver twice point blank at me not two yards distant: it was a miracle it did not kill me, as I heard the bullets whiz past my head. This roused my wrath, and I expostulated in the strongest terms upon his firing on unarmed men…
Things looked bad for Taylor, as he was taken into custody, and the Union soldiers set fire to the ship; however, a quick-thinking Irishman among his crew saved the day:
At this moment one of our firemen, an Irishman, sung out, “Begorra we shall all be in the air in a minute, the ship is full of powder!” No sooner did the Northern sailors hear this than a panic seized them, and they rushed to their boats…The men holding me dropped me like a hot potato, and to my great delight jumped into their boat, and away they rowed…
Although most of the crew had already been taken prisoner and loaded into the Union launches, Taylor and a handful of men were able to get to shore in a battered lifeboat, and, with the help of volunteers, returned to extinguish the blaze. They were ultimately able to get the ship off the bar and they limped into Wilmington for repairs.
There is a lengthy, but fascinating, digression on Taylor’s friend, Confederate Colonel William Lamb, who commanded Fort Fisher, which guarded the approaches to Wilmington (at the time Taylor was writing, Colonel Lamb’s wife, Daisy, had been dead some years, and the author uses a charming phrase to describe her passing: “Sadly, she is now with the majority”).
After the war, Taylor bought an interest in Edward Lawrence & Company, and subsequently went on to commercial success in India; however, one senses that his exploits as a blockade runner represented the highlight of his life. This book is filled with the enthusiasm and daring of his youth, and it is a volume that admirably describes the dangerous, but thrilling, work involved in maintaining the lifeline of the Confederacy.