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Chronicles of the Cape Fear river, 1660-1916 online

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vail so as to prevent any solar or limar observations, and reduce
the dead reckoning to mere guesswork. In these cases, the
nautical knowledge and judgment of the captain would be taxed
to the utmost. The current of the Gulf Stream varies in veloc-
ity and, within certain limits, in direction; and the Stream
itself, almost as well defined as a river within its banks under
ordinary circumstances, is impelled by a strong gale towards
the direction in which the wind is blowing, overflowing its
banks, as it were. The coimter current, too, inside of the Gulf
Stream is much influenced by the prevailing winds.

"Upon one occasion, while in command of the R. E. Lee,
formerly the Clyde built iron steamer Giraffe, we had experi-
enced very heavy and thick weather, and had crossed the Stream
and struck soundings about midday. The weather then clear-
ing, so that we could obtain an altitude near meridian, we found
ourselves at least forty miles north of our supposed position, and
near the shoals which extend in a southerly direction off Cape

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Blockade Running 413

Lookout. It would be more perilous to run out to sea than to
continue on our course, for we had passed through the off-shore
line of blockaders, and the sky had become perfectly clear. I
determined to personate a transport bound to Beaufort, a port
which was in possession of the United States forces and the coal-
ing station of the fleet blockading Wilmington. The risk of
detection was not very great, for many of the captured blockade
runners were used as transports and dispatch vessels. Shaping
our course for Beaufort, and slowing down, as if we were in no
haste to get there, we passed several vessels, showing United
States colors to them all. Just as we were crossing the ripple
of shallow water off the 'tail' of the shoals, we dipped our colors
to a sloop-of-war which passed three or four miles to the south
of us. The courtesy met prompt response ; but I have no doubt
her captain thought me a lubberly and careless seaman to shave
the shoals so closely. We stopped the engines when no vessels
were in sight; and I was relieved from a heavy burden of
anxiety as the sun sank below the horizon, and our course was
shaped at full speed for Masonboro Inlet.

"The staid old town of Wilmington was turned 'topsy-turvy^
during the war. Here resorted speculators from all parts of
the South to attend the weekly auctions of imported cargoes;
and the town was infested with rogues and desperadoes, who
made a livelihood by robbery and murder. It was unsafe to
venture into the suburbs at night, and even in daylight there
were frequent conflicts in the public streets between the crews
of steamers in port and the soldiers stationed in the town, in
which knives and pistols would be freely used; and not infre-
quently a dead body with marks of violence upon it would rise
to the surface of the water in one of the docks. The civil au-
thorities were powerless to prevent crime. 'Inter arma silent
leges'! The agents and employees of different blockade-running
companies lived in magnificent style, paying a king's ransom (in
Confederate money) for their household expenses, and nearly
monopolizing the supplies in the country market. Towards the
end of the war, indeed, fresh provisions were almost beyond the
reach of every one. Our family servant, newly arrived from
the country in Virginia, would sometimes return from market
with an empty basket, having flatly refused to pay what he
called 'such nonsense prices' for a bit of fresh beef or a handful
of vegetables. A quarter of lamb^ at the time of which I now
write, sold for $100; a pound of tea, for $500. Confederate

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414 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

money which in September, 1861, was nearly equal to specie
in value, had decline4 in September, 1862, to 225 ; in the same
month, 1863, to 400, and before September, 1864, to 2,000.

"Many of the permanent residents of the town had gone into
the country, letting their houses at enormous prices ; those who
were compelled to remain kept themselves much secluded, the
ladies rarely being seen upon the more public streets. Many of
the fast young oflScers belonging to the army would get an occa-
sional leave to come to Wilmington, and would live at free
quarters on board the blockade runners or at one of the numer-
ous bachelor halls ashore.

"The convalescent soldiers from the Virginia hospitals were
sent by the route through Wilmington to their homes in the
South. The ladies of the town were organized by Mrs. DeRosset
into a society for the purpose of ministering to the wants of
these poor sufferers, the trains which carried them stopping an
hour or two at the station that their wounds might be dressed
and food and medicine supplied to them. These self-sacrificing,
heroic women patiently and faithfully performed the offices of
hospital nurses.

"Liberal contributions to this society were made by both com-
panies and individuals, and the long tables at the station were
spread with delicacies for the sick to be found nowhere else in
the Confederacy. The remains of the meals were carried by
the ladies to a camp of mere boys— ^home guards — outside of
the town. Some of these children were scarcely able to carry a
musket, and were altogether unable to endure the exposure and
fatigue of field service; and they suffered fearfully from
measles and typhoid fever. General Grant used a strong figure
of speech when he asserted that 'the cradle and the grave were
robbed to recruit the Confederate armies.' The fact of a fearful
drain upon the population was not exaggerated. Both shared
the hardships and dangers of war with equal self-devotion to
the cause. It is true that a class of heartless speculators in-
fested the country, who profited by the scarcity of all sorts of
supplies ; but this fact makes the self-sacrifice of the mass of the
Southern people more conspicuous; and no State made more
liberal voluntary contributions to the armies, or furnished better
soldiers, than North Carolina.

"On the opposite side of the river from Wilmington, on a
low, marshy flat, were erected the steam cotton presses, and
there the blockade runners took in their cargoes. Sentries were

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Blockade Running 415

posted on the wharves, day and night, to prevent deserters from
getting on board and stowing themselves away; and the addi-
tional precaution of fumigating the outward-bound steamers at
Smithville was adopted; but, in spite of this vigilance, many
persons succeeded in getting a free passage abroad. These de-
serters, or 'stowaways,' were, in most instances, sheltered by one
or more of the crew; in which event they kept their places of
concealment until the steamer had arrived at her port of desti-
nation, when they would profit by the first opportimity to leave
the vessel undiscovered. A small bribe would tempt the average
blockade-running sailor to connive at this means of escape. The
impecunious' deserter fared worse, and would usually be forced
by hunger and thirst to emerge from his hiding place while the
steamer was on the outward voyage. A cruel device employed
by one of the captains effectually put a stop, I believe — certainly
a check — ^to this class of 'stowaways.' He turned three or four
of them adrift in the Gulf Stream, in an open boat, with a pair
of oars, and a few days' allowance of bread and water."

Captain M. P. XJbina.

During my intercourse with officers of celebrated blockade-
running ships in the year^ 1863 and 1864, I met a mariner
named M. P. Usina, from Chftrlooton/ familiarly known as Mike
XJsina, whose skill and daring made him famous in !N^assau and
Bermuda and in all of the Atlantic States. The American con-
sul at Nassau, Mr. Whiting, eager for his capture by the cruisers
which hovered near the British islands, bought Usina's portraits
from a local photographer, and sent them broadcast among the
Federal commanders in order to identify him when captured, as
many Southerners escaped long confinement by claiming to be
Englishmen. Captain Usina seemed to have a charmed life,
but he was in reality so cool under fire and so resourceful in a
tight place or situation, that he slipped through their fingers
frequently when his capture seemed certain.

I remember some of the incidents connected with his blockade
experience which stirred my blood long years ago and which I
still recall with something of the old-time enthusiasm. In a
speech before the Confederate Veterans' Association of Savan-
nah, July 4, 1893, which I have carefully preserved. Captain
Usina told a number of thrilling stories of his career which
deserve honorable mention in the history of the strenuous times
which he most graphically described. On that occasion he said :

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416 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

"The men who ran the blockade had to be men who could
stand fire without returning it. It was a business in which
every man took his life in his hands, and he so understood it.
An ordinarily brave man had no business on a blockade runner.
He who made a success of it was obliged to have the cunning of
a fox, the patience of a Job, and the bravery of a Spartan
warrior. The United States Government wanted at first to
treat them as pirates, and was never satisfied to consider them
contrabandists. The nmners must not be armed and must not
resist ; they must simply be cool and quick and watchful and,
for the rest, trust to God and their good ship to deliver them
safely to their friends.

"The United States blockade squadron on the Atlantic coast
consisted of about 300 vessels of all kinds — sailing vessels, three-
deckers, monitors, iron-clads, and swift cruisers — most of them
employed to prevent the blockade runners from entering Charles-
ton and Wilmington, these being the ports where most of the
blockade running was done. At each of these ports there were
tliree lines of ships anchored in a semicircle, so that our vessels
had to run the gaimtlet through these three lines before they
had the enemy astern and their haven ahead. Besides these,
the ocean between the Confederate ports and the Bermudas and
the West Indies was policed by many of the fastest ships that
money could buy or build, so that we had practically to run
two blockades to reach a Southern port. The swiftest of the
captured blockade runners were put into this service, and I have
more than once been chased by ships of which I had myself
been an oiSScer.

"A few instances will suffice to illustrate the fact that the
risks to be taken by the blockade runners were not confined to
our own coast, and they will also illustrate the impunity with
which the Federal blockaders practically blockaded friendly
ports in violation of the neutrality laws governing nations at
peace with each other.

"English steamers, with an English crew and without cargo,
bound from one English port to another, were taken as prizes
simply because they were suspected of being brought to the
islands to be used as blockade runners.

^TDuring iMk afternoon of March 3, 1863, while going from
Nassau to H«^ana in the steamer Stonewall Jackson, we were
sighted by the R. R. Cuyler, which chased us for thirteen hours
along the Cuban coast until early the next morning, when we

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Blockade Running 417

passed Morro Castle flying the Confederate flag, with the Cuyler
a short half-mile astern of us flying the Stars and Stripes.

"In 1864, the Margaret and Jessie, bound from Charleston
to Nassau, was chased and fired into while running along the
coast of Eleutheria, within the neutral distance — an English
league — the shot and shell passing over her falling into the
pineapple fields of the island. She was finally run ashore by
her captain to prevent her sinking from the effects of the
enemy's shot.

"On one occasion I was awakened by the sound of cannon in
the early morning at Nassau, and imagine my surprise to see a
Confederate ship being fired at by a Federal man-of-war. The
Confederate proved to be the Antonica, Captain Coxetter, who
arrived off the port during the night and, waiting for a pilot
and daylight, found when daylight did appear that an enemy's
ship was between him and the bar. There was nothing left for
him to do but run the gauntlet and take his fire, which he did
in good shape, some of the shot actually falling into the harbor.
The Federal ship was commanded by Conmiodore Wilkes, who
became widely known from taking Mason and Slidell prisoners.
After the chase was over Wilkes anchored his ship, and when
the Governor sent to tell him that he must not remain at anchor
there, he said: 'Tell the Governor, etc., etc., he would anchor
where he pleased.' The military authorities sent their artillery
across to Hog Island, near where he was anchored, and we
Confederates thought the fun was about to begin. But Wilkes
remained just long enough to communicate with the consul and
get what information he wanted, and left.

"All this vigilance on the part of the Yankees made the trip a
very hazardous one, and the man who failed to keep the sharpest
kind of a lookout was more apt to bring up in a Northern prison
than in a Confederate port. Then, too, the Yankee cruisers
managed to keep pretty well posted as to our movements through
the American consuls stationed at the different ports frequented
by our vessels.

"Having occasion to go from Nassau to Bermuda, and there
being no regular line between the islands, I chartered a schooner
to take me and part of my crew there, and we had sailed within
about sixty miles of our destination when, at daylb^ht, we were
spoken by the United States man-of-war Shenakdoah. Her
officer asked: 'What schooner is that, where from and where
bound to?' Our captain was below and I answered him:


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^Schooner Royal, bound from iN'assau to Bermuda.' He or-
dered: 'Lower your boat and come alongside.' I said: TL'll
see you,' etc., etc., and then, 'I won't.' Nothing further was
said, but in about twenty minutes they sent an armed boat along-

''In the meantime I had our captain called and the English
ensign hoisted. Upon coming on deck the officer, quite a young
lieutenant, was shown below, and after examining the vessel's
papers, which he found O. K., he was about to return to his
ship when I invited him to have a glass of wine with me. I
have never forgotten his answer: 'I hadn't oughter, but I
reckon I will.' After a little wine he grew talkative. He asked
if I had not answered their hail, and when I replied TTes,' said
'I thought so, it sounded like you.' ^Why, what do you know
about me?' I asked. 'Oh, I know enough to surprise you.'
'That is something no one has ever done yet.' 'Would you be
surprised if I told you that your name is Usina?' 'Oh, no,
my name is Marion Robinson.' 'How about the man who sat on
the rail near you when I came on board? He is your man
Irvin.' 'You have it bad this morning,' said I; 'Does wine
usually affect you that way?' 'You know that I am giving it
to you straight,' said he. 'Oh, no, you're badly mixed.' 'Will
you think I'm mixed when I tell you that that little Frenchman
is John Sassard, your chief engineer; that red-headed fellow
over there is Nelson, your chief officer ; these are all your men,
and you are going to Bermuda to take charge of a new ship ?'
'Well,' said I, 'you certainly have it bad, you had better not
take any more wine.' 'Will you acknowledge I am right now ?'
said he, and produced my photograph with my history written
on the back of it. I had to acknowledge it then; but I was
under the protection of Her Most Gracious Majesty, and he
had to admit his inability to take me now, though he promised
to capture me before long and boasted that he had come very
near me often before. But 'close' didn't count any more then
than it does now, and he promised to treat me well if he should
ever have the chance, and so we parted good friends.

"I afterwards found out that his ship had called at Nassau
shortly after our leaving there, and the consul had given him
my picture and the information which he sprung on me. I
learned then that the photographers there had been making
quite a nice thing selling the pictures of blockade runners to
the United States authorities, together with what information

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Blockade Running 419

they could gather about the originals; and the result was that,
witii but one exception (Captain Coxetter, who was too wise to
have his picture taken), the Yankees had all our pictures, which
did then, and perhaps do still, adorn the rogues' gallery in
Ludlow Street Jail, New York City. Thus many a poor fellow
who thought he was successfully passing himself off as an Eng-
lishman was identified and sent to Lafayette or Warren, two
winter resorts that are not too pleasantly remembered by some
of my old shipmates.

"The enemy's ships were provided with powerful calcium
searchlights, which, if a blockade runner was in reach, would
light her up about as well as an electric light would at the
present time, and make her a perfect target for the enemy's fire.
I have several times been just far enough to be out of reach of
the light and by circling around it dodged them in the darkness.
Another plan they adopted was to throw rockets over the ship
occasionally, showing to all the vessels of the fleet the course
taken by the fugitive. I think one of the worst frights I had
during the war was the landing of a rocket on deck close to
where I was standing. While we could not circumvent their
searchlights, I succeeded in making the rocket scheme useless
by providing myself with a quantity of them, firing back at
them whenever they fired at us, or firing them in every direction,
making it impossible to tell in which direction the chased ship
was going.

"Among the vessels blockading Wilmington in 1864 was the
little side-wheel steamer Nansemond, after the war a revenue
cutter, and stationed at this place. She had a rifle gun mounted
at each end, and being quite fast made several valuable captures.
I remember that among the craft captured by her was the
steamer Hope, Capt. William Hammer, of Charleston, with
1,800 bales of cotton and more men on board the Hope than
there were on board the Nansemond, but, unfortunately, while
the Hope was a stronger and larger ship and had more men, she
was not allowed to defend herself and had to submit to the

"One afternoon, while in command of the Atalanta and ap-
proaching Wilmington, I was sighted by the Nansemond and
was being chased away from my port. Although I had the
faster vessel, I realized that if the chase continued much longer
I would be driven so far from my destination that I would not
be able to get back that night, and so determined that, although

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420 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

I had no guns to fight with, I might try a game of bluff. Hoist-
ing the Confederate flag, I changed my course directly for him,
and in a few minutes the tables were turned and the chaser was
being chased, the Nansemond seeking with all possible speed
the protection of the ships stationed off the bar, and that night
the Atalanta was safe once more in Dixie.

"Several years afterwards I was a passenger on board the
little revenue cutter Endeavor, better known as the Hunkey
Dory, bound from Tybee to Savannah, and a stranger to every
one on board. The conversation drifted into war reminis-
cences. Mr. Hapold, the officer in charge of the Hunkey Dory,
had been an engineer on board the Nansemond when stationed
on the blockade off Wilmington, and while giving his experi-
ence, among other incidents, he told of the narrow escape they
had when the Nansemond was decoyed away from the fleet by
a cruiser, under the guise of a blockade rimner, that, when she
thought the Nansemond was far enough away from her friends,
ran up the Confederate flag and attempted to make a prize of
her. 'But,' said he, Hhe little Nansemond's speed saved her.'
You can imagine their surprise when I informed them that I
was in charge of the Confederate vessel, which was an unarmed
ship chasing one that was armed — a clear case of 'Run, Big
Traid, Little 'Fraid'U catch you!'

"As a rule, the blockade runners were ships very slightly
built, of light draft and totally unfit to brave the storms of the
Atlantic. Yet the worse the weather the better it was liked,
since a rough sea greatly reduced the danger from the enemy's
guns. In most of the ships the boilers and engines were very
much exposed, and a single shot to strike the boiler meant the
death of every one on board. We had no lighthouses or marks
of any kind to guide us, except the enemy's fleet, and had to
depend upon our observations and surroundings on approaching
the coast. Our ships were painted gray, to match the horizon
at night ; some were provided with telescopic f imnels, and masts
hinged, so that they could be lowered, and others had the masts
taken out altogether. A great source of danger, and one which
was unavoidable, was the black smoke caused from our fires, and
for this sign the blockaders were always on the lookout. The
United States Government having forbidden the exportation of
anthracite coal, there was nothing for us to do but use bitumin-
ous and take all precautions possible to prevent the issuing of
black smoke from our funnels.

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Blockade Running 421

"On dark nights it was very difficult to discern their low
hulls, and moonlight nights, as a rule, were nights of rest, few
ships venturing to run the gauntlet when the moon was bright.
No lights were used at sea. Everything was in total silence and
darkness. To speak above a whisper or to strike a match would
subject the offender to immediate punishment. Orders were
passed along the deck in whispers, canvas curtains were dropped
to the water's edge around the paddles to deaden the noise, and
men exposed to view on deck were dressed in sheets, moving
about like so many phantoms on a phantom ship.

"The impression always prevailed, and still prevails to a
great extent, that the South has no sailors, but the record of the
Southern sailors during the war is second to none that the world
has ever produced, and should the emergency arise again, the
descendants of the same men will emulate the example set by
their fathers. I do not think their services have ever been
understood or appreciated, from the fact that so little of their
authentic history has ever found its way into the hands of the
reading public.

"Most of them had all their relatives and friends in the
Southern service, suffering untold hardships and exposing their
lives daily, and they felt it their duty to risk their ships and
their lives to bring food to our starving countrymen, determined
if their ship was stopped that it must be by the enemy and not
by their own order.

^TDuring the first two years of the war the blockade runners
were almost exclusively officered by English and Scotch, but
during the last two years the danger was very much increased,
and while there can be no question as to the bravery of the
British sailor, it required the additional incentive of patriotism
to induce men to venture into the service. It is noticeable that
nearly all the officers during the last two years were Confeder-

"The first steamship to which I was attached was the side-
wheel steamer Leopard. She was officered entirely by Southern
men: Captain Black of Savannah, commander; Capt. Eobert
Lockwood, of Charleston, pilot, and as gallant a man as the war
produced. Cool, quiet, and never losing his wits, he was an
ideal blockade pilot. In the engine room were Peck, Barbot,
Sassard, and Miller, four splendid mechanics and gallant fel-
lows all. The deck officers were Bradford, Horsey, and myself,
three boys, twenty-four, twenty-three and twenty-two years of

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age, respectively, but each had received his baptism of fire in
Virginia — ^Bradford, with a Virginia artillery company; Hor-
sey, with the Washington Artillery, of Charleston ; and I, with
the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, of Savannah. Yet, though long in
the service, not one of us three ever saw the inside of a Federal

Online LibraryJames SpruntChronicles of the Cape Fear river, 1660-1916 → online text (page 42 of 74)