Admiral Samuel Lee’s Report on the Capture of Confederate Blockade Runners November 30th-December 3rd, 1862

During the Civil War, the Confederacy had far less industrial capacity than the U.S. and had to rely on importing much of its war material and other goods from abroad. This was recognized early on by the Federal government, and on April 19th, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that southern ports would be subject to a blockade by the U.S. Navy, affecting both outgoing ships with exports (the most valuable of which was cotton) and incoming vessels with essentially anything. With a 3500 mile coastline to guard, the U.S. Navy had a difficult job, and expanded rapidly to meet the challenge of covering of all that coastline from Virginia to Texas.

Despite the blockade, the Confederacy still had to ship cotton, tobacco, and anything else foreign countries (especially Britain) were willing to pay for and bring guns, ammunition, manufactured goods, and luxury goods back in. The Confederates had only a few warships, and most would be used during the war as commerce raiders, attacking U.S. merchant vessels, rather than escorting cargo ships. The solution was to use fast, sleek ships to outrun the blockading Navy warships. These vessels were called blockade runners. It was a potentially dangerous business, but there was big money to be made for those who were successful. This also attracted foreign investors, especially British investors, and ports in the British territories of Bermuda and the Bahamas served the blockade runners.

The cat and mouse game between blockade runners and the Navy continued throughout the war, with both sides able to point to some successes. For the Navy, an added incentive for capturing blockade runners were the Prize Laws. In those days, Prize Laws were a standard practice for ship captures during wartime. The ship and its cargo would be brought before prize courts and if the court ruled in the Navy’s favor, the ship and cargo would be sold at auction. Half of the proceeds would go to a fund for disabled sailors, and the other half would go to the officers and crew of the vessel that captured the blockade runner. Depending on the value of the ship and cargo, this process could be a very lucrative addition to the income of the officers and crew.

As the war continued, the Navy got better at intercepting the blockade runners. The U.S.S. Kanawa captured four blockade runners on April 10th, 1862, while patrolling outside of Mobile, Alabama. In the fall of 1862, Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee reported that his North Atlantic Blockading Squadron had great success intercepting blockade runners off Wilmington, North Carolina. Here is his report regarding the capture of four vessels between November 30th and December 3rd:

U. S. FLAG-STEAMER PHILADELPHIA,
Hampton Roads, Virginia, December 5, 1862.

SIR: I have the honor to report the following captures recently made by the blockading force off Wilmington, N. C., and the neighboring coast, in addition to those enumerated in my No. 157 of November 19:

On the 30th of November the U. S. S. Mount Vernon, Old Inlet at the time bearing due west, 1 mile distant, captured the schooner Levi Rowe, of and from Nassau, New Providence, Isaiah Dennis, master, and purporting to be bound for Beaufort, N. C., with a cargo of salt. She was at the time standing in for New Topsail Inlet.

On the 3d of December the U.S. steamers Mount Vernon and Cambridge discovered two schooners near New Inlet. In obedience to signal the former gave chase to and drove ashore one of the schooners, where, after being fired at, she filled with water and the sea made a complete breach over her. Meanwhile the Cambridge overhauled and captured the other schooner, which proved to be the Emma Tuttle, of Nassau, with an assorted and contraband cargo.

On the same day, the U.S S. Daylight, off New Topsail Inlet, captured the schooner Brilliant, of Nassau, New Providence, loaded with about 300 bags of salt, David D. Sirmond, master, who made a written statement (enclosed, marked A) of his intention to violate the blockade under instructions from his owner, Mr. Waman, of Nassau, New Providence.

On the night of December 3, the U. S. S. Cambridge captured the schooner J. O. Roker, from Nassau, New Providence, loaded with salt, James S. Fields, master, who made a written statement (enclosed, marked B) of his intention to violate the blockade, under instructions from his owners, Messrs. Saunders & Sons, of Nassau, New Providence.

The J. O. Roker and Brilliant were sent into Beaufort, N. C., being unseaworthy. The Levi Rowe and Emma Tuttle were sent North for adjudication.

Up to the 4th of December, therefore, the list of vessels captured or destroyed off Wilmington, N. C., and the neighboring coast, since September 1, includes one steamer, two barks, two brigs, fifteen schooners; making a total of twenty vessels, of which six have been sent North and two to Beaufort, as prizes. The others (with the exception of one which sprung a leak and filled) were chased ashore and destroyed.

Blockading Fleet Off Wilmington NC

I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, yours,

S. P. LEE,
Actg. Rear-Ad1niral, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.

Lieutenant James Trathen, commanding the U.S.S. Mount Vernon, submitted this report on the capture of the blockade runners Emma Tuttle and Brilliant:

U.S.S. Mount Vernon

U.S.S. Mount Vernon, off New Inlet, North Carolina, December 3, 1862.

Sir: At daylight this morning I perceived a schooner close in shore making directly for New Inlet. The U.S.S. Cambridge and this ship immediately stood in chase. At 6: 45 a. m. the Cambridge fired a shot from her bow gun toward the schooner. At the same time observed another schooner bearing S.W. by S. Cambridge made signal to engage the schooner inshore, and stood in chase of the one to the southward and westward. We immediately commenced firing from the pivot gun; the schooner heading for the shore soon after grounded. After standing in as near as expedient, the wind being from the N.E., very fresh, with a heavy sea, we fired twelve 100-pounder shells, and ·observing the schooner was fast filling with water and the sea making a complete breach over her, we hauled off and stood for the U. S. S. Cambridge who had by this time overtaken the other schooner and had her in tow. The schooner proved to be the Emma Tuttle, of Nassau. After communicating with the Cambridge, stood for the anchorage off New Inlet.

Chase of a Blockade Runner

At 10: 40 observed a sail bearing N. E. by N.; made signals to the Cambridge Nos. 503 and 360; Cambridge made signal No. 282. Immediately stood in chase. At 11: 30 discovered the U.S.S. Daylight in chase, also; at 12: 15 p. m. observed the Daylight board the stranger and take her in tow. At 12: 30 p.m. passed within hail of the Daylight and discovered the schooner to be the Brilliant, of Nassau. Stood back for the anchorage off Federal Point.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

James Trathen,
Acting Volunteer Lieutenant, Commanding

Acting Rear Admiral S. P. Lee, U. S. Navy,
Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Hampton Roads, Va.

U.S.S. Cambridge

Sources:

By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War by Bern Anderson

Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War by Craig L. Symonds

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I Volume 8

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson


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