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J. Wilkinson, "The Narrative of a Blockade Runner," 1877

Title

J. Wilkinson, "The Narrative of a Blockade Runner," 1877

Description

Personal narrative of Capt. J. Wilkinson on his exploits of running the blockade of Confederate Ports, specifically Wilmington, NC during the U.S. Civil War. He tells of sitting off the coast in heavy weather and traversing New Inlet with the help from "The Mound's" protection and distinction among the flat ground along the coast. He continues to tell of his exploits of going back and forth between Wilmington and Bermuda and The Bahamas.

Creator

J. Wilkinson

Source

Wilkinson, J. Chapter IX We sail for Wilmington.—Thick Weather on the Coast.—Anchored among the Blockading Fleet.—The "Mound."—Running the Blockade by Moonlight.—A Device to mislead the Enemy.—The man Hester in The Narrative of a Blockade Runner. (New York: Shledon & Co., 1877) p. 149-158

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21977/21977-h/21977-h.htm#CHAPTER_IX

Date

1877

Type

Document

Original Format

Book

Text

After discharging our cargo of cotton and loading with supplies for the Confederate Government, chiefly for the army of Northern Virginia, we sailed for Wilmington in the latter part of the month of March. Our return voyage was uneventful, until we reached the coast near Masonborough Inlet, distant about nine miles north of the "New Inlet" bar. The weather had been pleasant during the voyage, and we had sighted the fires from the salt works along the coast, but before we could get hold of the land, a little before midnight, a densely black cloud made its appearance to the north and east; and the rapidity with which it rose and enlarged, indicated too surely that a heavy gale was coming from that quarter. We had been unable to distinguish any landmark before the storm burst in all its fury upon us, and the rain poured in torrents. Our supply of coals was too limited to enable us, with prudence, to put to sea again; and of course, the marks or ranges for crossing the bar would not be visible fifty yards in such thick weather. Being quite confident of our position, however, I determined to run down the coast, and anchor off the bar till daylight. Knowing the "trend" of the land north of New Inlet bar, the engine was slowed down and the lead kept going on both sides. The sounding continued quite regular three and three and a quarter fathoms, with the surf thundering within a stone's throw on our starboard beam, and nothing visible in the blinding torrents of rain. I knew that if my calculated position was correct, the water would shoal very suddenly just before reaching the bar; but a trying hour or more of suspense had passed before the welcome fact was announced by the leadsmen. The course and distance run, and the soundings up to this point proved, beyond doubt, that we had now reached the "horse shoe" north of New Inlet bar. At the moment when both of the leadsmen almost simultaneously called out "and a quarter less three," the helm was put hard a-starboard, and the Lee's bow was pointed seaward. We could not prudently anchor in less than five fathoms water, as the sea was rising rapidly; and that depth would carry us into the midst of the blockading fleet at anchor outside. It seemed an age before the cry came from the leadsmen "by the mark five." The Lee was instantly stopped, and one of the bower anchors let go, veering to thirty fathoms on the chain. The cable was then well stoppered at the "bitts," and unshackled; and two men stationed at the stopper, with axes, and the order to cut the lashings, instantly, when so ordered; the fore-staysail was loosed, and hands stationed at the halliards; and the chief engineer directed to keep up a full head of steam. The night wore slowly away; and once or twice we caught a glimpse, by a flash of lightning, of the blockading fleet around us, rolling and pitching in the heavy sea. The watch having been set, the rest of the officers and crew were permitted to go below, except the chief engineer and the pilot. We paced the bridge, anxiously waiting for daylight. It came at last, and there, right astern of us, looming up through the mist and rain, was the "Mound." We had only to steer for it, to be on our right course for crossing the bar. The stoppers were cut, the engine started ahead, and the fore stay-sail hoisted. As the chain rattled through the hawse-hole, the Lee wore rapidly around, and the Confederate flag was run up to the peak as she dashed toward the bar with the speed of a greyhound slipped from the leash. The bar was a sheet of foam and surf, breaking sheer across the channel; but the great length of the Lee enabled her to ride over three or four of the short chopping seas at once, and she never touched the bottom. In less than half an hour from the time when we slipped our chain under the guns of the fleet, we had passed beyond Fort Fisher, and were on our way up the river to Wilmington.

The "Mound" was an artificial one, erected by Colonel Lamb, who commanded Fort Fisher. Two heavy guns were mounted upon it, and it eventually became a site for a light, and very serviceable to blockade-runners; but even at this period, it was an excellent landmark. Joined by a long low isthmus of sand with the higher main land, its regular conical shape enabled the blockade-runners easily to identify it from the offing; and in clear weather, it showed plain and distinct against the sky at night. I believe the military men used to laugh slyly at the Colonel for undertaking its erection, predicting that it would not stand; but the result showed the contrary; and whatever difference of opinion may have existed with regard to its value as a military position, there can be but one as to its utility to the blockade-runners, for it was not a landmark, alone, along this monotonous coast; but one of the range lights for crossing New Inlet bar was placed on it. Seamen will appreciate at its full value, this advantage; but it may be stated, for the benefit of the unprofessional reader, that while the compass bearing of an object does not enable a pilot to steer a vessel with sufficient accuracy through a narrow channel, range lights answer the purpose completely. These lights were only set after signals had been exchanged between the blockade-runner and the shore station, and were removed immediately after the vessel had entered the river. The range lights were changed as circumstances required; for the New Inlet channel, itself, was and is constantly changing, being materially affected both in depth of water, and in its course, by a heavy gale of wind or a severe freshet in Cape Fear River.

The "Lee" continued to make her regular trips either to Nassau or Bermuda, as circumstances required, during the summer of 1863; carrying abroad cotton and naval stores, and bringing in "hardware," as munitions of war were then invoiced. Usually the time selected for sailing was during the "dark of the moon," but upon one occasion, a new pilot had been detailed for duty on board, who failed in many efforts to get the ship over the "rip," a shifting sand bar a mile or more inside the true bar. More than a week of valuable time had thus been lost, but the exigencies of the army being at that time more than usually urgent, I determined to run what appeared to be a very great risk. The tide serving at ten o'clock, we succeeded in crossing the rip at that hour, and as we passed over New Inlet bar, the moon rose in a cloudless sky. It was a calm night too, and the regular beat of our paddles through the smooth water sounded to our ears ominously loud. As we closely skirted the shore, the blockading vessels were plainly visible to us, some at anchor, some under way; and some of them so near to us that we saw, or fancied we saw, with our night glasses, the men on watch on their forecastles; but as we were inside of them all, and invisible against the background of the land, we passed beyond them undiscovered. The roar of the surf breaking upon the beach, prevented the noise of our paddles from being heard. The Lee's head was not pointed seaward, however, until we had run ten or twelve miles along the land so close to the breakers that we could almost have tossed a biscuit into them, and no vessel was to be seen in any direction. Discovery of us by the fleet would probably have been fatal to us, but the risk was really not so great as it appeared; for, as I had been informed by a blockade-runner who had been once captured and released, being a British subject, the vigilance on board the blockading fleet was much relaxed during the moonlit nights. The vessels were sent to Beaufort to coal at these times. My informant was an officer of the British Navy, and was the guest, for a few days after his capture, of Captain Patterson then commanding the blockading fleet off the Cape Fear. Speaking of the arduous service, P. remarked to him, that he never undressed nor retired to bed, during the dark nights; but could enjoy those luxuries when the moon was shining. On this hint I acted.

It was about this time that I adopted an expedient which proved of great service on several occasions. A blockade-runner did not often pass through the fleet without receiving one or more shots, but these were always preceded by the flash of a calcium light, or by a blue light; and immediately followed by two rockets thrown in the direction of the blockade-runner. The signals were probably concerted each day for the ensuing night, as they appeared to be constantly changed; but the rockets were invariably sent up. I ordered a lot of rockets from New York. Whenever all hands were called to run through the fleet, an officer was stationed alongside of me on the bridge with the rockets. One or two minutes after our immediate pursuer had sent up his rockets I would direct ours to be discharged at a right angle to our course. The whole fleet would be misled, for even if the vessel which had discovered us were not deceived, the rest of the fleet would be baffled.

While we were lying at anchor in the harbor of St. George's, during one of our trips, I was notified by the Governor of the island, that an officer of the Confederate Navy, then held as a prisoner on board one of H. B. M.'s ships of war at the naval anchorage, would be delivered up to me for transportation to the Confederacy, if I would assume the charge. This officer was charged with the murder of a messmate on board the Confederate States steamer Sumter, while lying at Gibraltar. The demand for his extradition, made by the Confederate Government, had been complied with by the British Government after much delay; and he was turned over to me for transportation to the Confederacy. Although the crime appeared to have been committed under circumstances of peculiar atrocity—it being alleged that the victim was asleep at the time he was shot—I so far respected the commission which the criminal bore, as to place him upon parole. Upon reporting his arrival at Wilmington to the Secretary of the Navy, the latter directed me to release him, upon the ground that it would be impossible to convict him by court-martial, all of the witnesses to the transaction being abroad. The man, Hester, was therefore released, and was never heard of again, I believe, during the war; but he has added to his evil reputation since its close, by plying the infamous trade (under the guise of United States Secret Service agent) of false informer and persecutor in several of the Southern States. The General Government failed to exercise its usual careful discrimination in making this appointment! The base renegades are many degrees worse even than the unprincipled adventurers from the North who have so long preyed upon the South. The latter are only thieves and robbers; the former are, in addition, unnatural monsters, who hate their own people and are guilty of the crime of Judas, who betrayed his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.

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J. Wilkinson, J. Wilkinson, "The Narrative of a Blockade Runner," 1877, Civil War Era NC, accessed September 25, 2017, https://cwnc.omeka.chass.ncsu.edu/items/show/20.