On April 19th, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation stating that a blockade of southern ports by the United States was in effect. In theory, this tactic would prevent both the export of Confederate goods and the importation of military and civilian cargoes, disrupting the economy and preventing the south from importing arms and other war material. At the outset, the U.S. Navy was stretched very thin, with a relatively small number of ships to guard ports along thousands of miles of coastline. As the war continued, and the navy built or purchased more ships, the blockade became more effective. It remained in effect for the entire war, and while estimates of how much it contributed to the eventual Union victory vary, it’s generally regarded as having been an important part of the overall Federal strategy.
Blockaded or not, the Confederacy needed to continue its maritime commerce for both economic and military reasons. Blockade running became a lucrative, though risky, way to make a living. Many ships successfully ran the blockade, but many others were captured or sunk, especially as the Union Navy became larger and Confederate ports were captured. Blockade running wasn’t just lucrative for the captains and crews of the blockade running ships; it was also lucrative for the officers and crews of the navy ships that captured blockade runners, especially those loaded with cargo. That’s because captured vessels were subject to Prize Laws.
Prize Laws were a standard practice for ship captures at sea during wartime. In the case of the U.S., the ship and its cargo would be brought before prize courts for condemnation, and if the court ruled in the navy’s favor, the ship and cargo would be sold at auction, with half of the proceeds going to a fund for disabled sailors and the other half awarded to the officers and crew of the vessel that captured the blockade runner. The captain would receive the largest share of the prize money, with decreasing amounts for other officers and crewmen, but everyone stood to make some money, often times significant money.
Lieutenant John C. Febiger, commanding the gunboat U.S.S. Kanawa, had a particularly good day capturing blockade runners on April 10th, 1862. The Kanawa was on patrol outside of Mobile Bay, Alabama, and captured four schooners: Southern Independence, Victoria, Charlotte, and Cuba. Febiger was a career navy officer who first went to sea as a midshipman in 1838. He would command several vessels during the Civil War, and remained in the navy until retiring in 1882 with the rank of Rear Admiral. Febiger filed two reports on the captures, this one to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron commander, Admiral David Farragut:
U. S. GUNBOAT KANAWHA,
Ship Island, April 11, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report the capture and arrival in this port of four schooners, three laden with cotton and resin, the other with an assorted cargo.
At 10:30 p.m. on the night of the 9th instant, with Sand Island light bearing about N. W., distant between 12 and 14 miles, discovered three schooners standing to the southward and eastward; gave chase, and at 12:25 (10th) boarded and took possession of the schooner Southern Independence, from Mobile, with 318 bales cotton, 50 barrels resin, and 640 pipe staves. At 1:50 a.m. boarded and took possession of the schooner Victoria, from Mobile, with 252 bales cotton, 50 barrels resin, and 1,883 pipe staves. At 7:15 a.m. boarded and took possession of schooner Charlotte, showing English colors, from Mobile, laden with 160 bales cotton. At 3:10 p.m. discovered a schooner standing N. N. W.; gave chase; when within a mile or two the schooner hove to and hoisted English colors, union down. At 4:20 boarded her, she proving to be the schooner Cuba, the captain stating that he was bound to Matamoras, was short of provisions, and was running to speak the blockading vessels off Mobile to obtain some. Upon examination of papers was found a warning, signed by Lieutenant Commanding Winslow, off coast of Cuba, to keep off from all blockaded ports in the United States. The vessel had been recognized by the captain of the Charlotte while 2 or 3 miles distant, he stating that she had left Mobile about four weeks since with over 200 bales of cotton. Her cargo consists of such articles as are most needed in Mobile, 288 packages in all; took possession as good prize. I propose shipping the cargoes of all the vessels in the transport ship Undaunted for Boston for adjudication. The Southern Independence, Charlotte, and Victoria I do not consider seaworthy, and in the case of the Cuba I am desirous that evidence should be given by the captain of the Charlotte and others, who are well acquainted with the character of the captain and vessel.
I have called upon General Butler to-day and proposed, in case he needed the vessels, to turn them over to him after a valuation. He has not yet decided to take them. In case he does not do so, I will leave them here under charge of a master’s mate and two men until I can receive your instructions in regard to them. They would be of little value if sold North, and it would disable this vessel to furnish prize crews for them.
I hope in two or three days to have all matters in relation to the prizes arranged and to be once more off Mobile Bay.
I left the Vincennes and Preble there night before last, and since the date of my last report (April 3) none of the enemy’s gunboats has appeared outside the fort.
I enclose a verbatim extract from log book connected with captures, an abbreviation of clearances, and have also given to General Butler, who will hand them to you, late newspapers found on board.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN C. FEBIGER,
Flag-Officer D. G. FARRAGUT,
Commanding Western Gulf Blockading Squadron.
Febiger sent this report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:
U. S. GUNBOAT KANAWHA,
Ship Island, Mississippi, April 17, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report the capture, on the 10th instant, off the port of Mobile, Ala., of the schooners Southern Independence, Victoria, Charlotte, and Cuba, the first three laden with cotton to the aggregate of 730 bales, weighing about 400,000 pounds; also 100 barrels resin and a quantity of pipe staves, from Mobile, bound to Havana; the latter laden with an assorted cargo, amongst which is gunpowder and lead, 288 packages in all, from Havana, with clearance to Matamoras, Mexico.
At 10:30 p.m., on the 9th instant, with Sand Island light-house bearing about N. W., distant between 12 and 14 miles, discovered three schooners standing to the southward and eastward. Gave chase, and at 12:25 a.m. (10th) boarded and took possession of schooner Southern Independence, from Mobile, bound to Havana, laden with 318 bales cotton, 50 barrels resin, and 640 pipe staves. At 1:50 a.m. boarded and took possession of the schooner Victoria from Mobile, bound to Havana, laden with 252 bales of cotton, 50 barrels resin, and 1,883 pipe staves. At 7:15 a.m., boarded and took possession of schooner Charlotte, showing English colors, from Mobile, bound to Havana, laden with 160 bales of cotton.
At 3:10 p.m. discovered a schooner standing N. N. W.; gave chase; when within a mile or two the schooner hove to and hoisted English colors, union down. At 4:20 p.m. boarded her, she proving to be the’ schooner Cuba, the captain stating that he was bound to Matamoras (Mexico), was short of provisions, and was running to speak the blockading vessels off Mobile to procure a supply. Upon an examination of papers 1 found her cargo to consist of gunpowder, lead, medicines, coffee, and such other articles as are mostly needed in Mobile; aggregate of packages, 288. Took possession as good prize.
Not deeming the vessels seaworthy for a long passage, with their heavy deck loads, and it being impossible to place prize crews on board without disabling this vessel, I have concluded to forward all the cargoes, per transport ship Undaunted, to Boston, Mass., in charge of Acting Master’s Mate Edwin L. Hubbell, who will have all the necessary papers and instructions to bring the cases to adjudication.
The schooner Southern Independence, at the request of General Butler, has been turned over to him for military purposes, also a quantity of sperm oil, sheet iron, medicines, letter paper, block tin, and calfskins, part of the cargo of the British schooner Cuba. The schooners Victoria, Charlotte, and Cuba I will retain here under charge of an officer and a sufficient number of men to take care of them, subject to the instructions of the flag-officer, or to be turned over, after an appraisement, to the commanding army officer, should he deem them necessary for military purposes. The powder (5,250 pounds) taken from the Cuba I have deposited on board the army powder vessel, subject to the orders of Flag-Officer Farragut.
Enclosed herewith are the muster rolls of the crew and officers entitled to share in the captures, also duplicate receipts and estimates for the schooner Southern Independence and such portion of the cargo of the Cuba as have been taken for army purposes.
Hoping that my disposal of these cases may meet with your approbation, I remain,
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JNO. C. FEBIGER, U. S. Navy,
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.
By Sea And By River by Bern Anderson
Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds
Officers of the Army and Navy Who Served in the Civil War. Edited by William H. Powell and Edward Shippen
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 18