Dash into New York Waters
John Taylor Wood, CSN
From: The Century Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 56, 1898, Pages 408-417
FROM the capes of the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rio Grande is a coastline over three thousand miles; and, as the blockade began at Washington on the Potomac, if we include the inland waters of Virginia, North Carolina, and other States, this distance is doubled. It was this long stretch of coast, fronting on nine States, that by proclamation of President Lincoln was placed under blockade in the spring of 1861. The means of making it effective were inadequate. The navy of the United States, comprising some forty vessels, was distributed on different stations in every part of the world. Not more than five or six steamers were immediately available. However, a navy was rapidly improvised by the purchase or charter of a large number of steamers of all kinds and classes, from a ferry-boat to a Liverpool steam-packet; and in the course of a few months the principal points were covered; but not as they were later, when, during the last years of the war, a larger number of vessels were employed in blockading Wilmington or Charleston than were used on the whole coast during the first year. Independent of the men-of-war built at the Union navy-yards, nearly 500 vessels, principally steamers, were taken from the merchant service and converted into cruisers.
As great as was the extent of the Confederate coast, but comparatively few points had to be guarded. From Cape Henry to Wilmington there was but one harbor that could be used-that of Beaufort, which was soon occupied by the Federals. The inlets and sounds of the Carolinas, Georgia, and the Gulf States, which were easily accessible, were not used by the blockade-runners, for they had no connections with the interior, and no facilities for handling cargoes. And even the few ports that could be entered were rapidly lessened by occupation, both in the Gulf and the Atlantic; so that after the second year of the war but two ports⎯Wilmington and Charleston⎯were open to the Confederacy.
It was through these that the Confederates continued to receive supplies of all kinds to within a few months of the close of the war. Both were difficult of approach on account of the shoals which obstruct their harbors, and for the same reason it was difficult to blockade them effectually. With the occupation of Morris Island, and the closing of all channels but one leading to Charleston, Wilmington became the favorite resort. This town is situated on Cape Fear River, about thirty miles above its two entrances into the Atlantic. Fronting the mouth of the river is Smith's Island and Frying-Pan Shoals, extending seaward some eighteen miles. Though the two entrances are only six miles apart, the distance by sea is some forty miles, and each required a distinct blockading squadron. The access to both was hazardous on account of shoals, shifting in position and depth of water with every heavy gale. The western inlet was guarded by Fort Caswell, an ante-bellum work. The eastern or new inlet was protected by Fort Fisher, a very formidable earthwork with outlying defenses.
On either flank and in front of the Atlantic coast of the United States are the English stations of Halifax, Nassau, and Bermuda. The last two were the main feeders of the blockade. Nassau, on one of the Bahamas, is six hundred miles south of Wilmington, and Bermuda seven hundred miles east. Both can be approached from every direction, and afforded safe and hospitable ports for the blockade-runners. Halifax, eight hundred miles to the northward and eastward, was used only occasionally. At the outset steamers, and even sailing-vessels, were used for this trade; but as the stringency of the blockade increased, steamers better fitted for the work were employed, and finally a class especially adapted to the service was built in England. They were long, low, lightly constructed iron steamers of light draft, with powerful motive power, either screw or feathered paddle-wheels, with no spars, and were painted lead-color.
The captain of a successful blockade runner needed to be a thorough seaman and a skilful navigator. His work required boldness, decision in emergencies, and the faculty of commanding and inspiring the confidence of his crew. There were captains who ran in and out a great number of times. Captain John Wilkinson made twenty-one successful runs inside of twelve months, and not in a fast steamer. That absence of these qualities would invite loss was made apparent in a great number of instances, when the steamers were almost thrown away by bad landfalls, or by the captain or crew wilting at the first sight of a cruiser or the sound of a gun. The pecuniary stake was large; and blockade-running offered a certain amount of excitement and adventure that drew into its service some distinguished foreign naval officers, who, under their own or assumed names, made the most successful commanders.
Among the steamers coming to Wilmington I had long been on the lookout for a suitable one which would answer for a cruiser, and finally selected the Atlanta, an iron twin-screw of seven hundred tons gross, and two hundred feet long. She had been built at Millwall, below London, ostensibly for the Chinese opium trade; and was a first-class, well-constructed vessel, and fast, making fourteen and a quarter knots on her trial trip. She had two engines, which could be worked together or separately. The necessary changes were soon made to receive the crew and armament. The latter consisted of one rifled 100-pounder amidships, one rifled, 60-hundred-weight 32-pounder forward, and one long Parrott aft. The officers and crew were all volunteers from the Confederate gunboats on the James River and North Carolina waters. She was formally put in commission on July 20,1864, and re-christened the Tallahassee.
My orders from the Secretary of the Navy were general in their scope. "The character and force of your vessel," they said, "point to the enemy's commerce as the most appropriate field of action, and the existing blockade of our ports constrains the destruction of our prizes."
Ten days sufficed to get things in working order, and the crew into shape, when we dropped down the river to wait a favorable time for running the gantlet, which was only when there was no moon and when the tide served. I determined to try the eastern, or new, inlet, and on the night of August 4 the outlook was favorable. Everything was secured for sea. The lights were all carefully housed, except the binnacle, which was shaded; fires were cleaned and freshened, lookouts were stationed, and the men were at their quarters. The range lights were placed; these, in the absence of all buoys and lights, were necessary in crossing the bar, and were shown only when vessels were going in and out. The Mound, a huge earthwork, loomed up ahead, looking in the darkness like a black cloud resting on the horizon. We started ahead slowly, but brought up on the "rip," or inner shoal. Two hours of hard work with the engines, and with a kedge astern, were lost before we got off, and then it was too late for the tide. We turned up the river a short distance, and anchored. The next night we had the same experience, except that we grounded so badly that it required three steamers to tow us off.
Finding that with the state of the tide and our thirteen and a half feet draft the eastern inlet was impracticable, I determined to try the western one. Steaming down to Fort Caswell, we waited for darkness. Only a few fleeting clouds were in the sky. As the moon went down on the night of August 6, at ten, we approached the bar, fearful of a repetition of our previous mishaps; and as the leadsman called out the water in a low tone, our hearts rose in our throats as it shoaled: "By the mark three, and a quarter less three, and a half two,⎯and a quarter two." She touched, but did not bring up. Then came the joyful words: "And a half two."
We had just grazed the "Lump," a bad shoal in mid-channel, and were over the bar. Chief Engineer Tynan was by my side on the bridge. I turned to him and said: "Open her out, sir, but let her go for all she is worth." With a bound he was in the engine room, and in a few moments I knew from the tremor of the vessel that the order was obeyed, and with a full head of steam we leaped on. "A sharp lookout ahead!" was the order passed forward. We were hardly clear of the bar when back came the words: "A steamer on the starboard bow!" "A steamer ahead!" The two made us out at the same time, and signaled. I hailed the forecastle, and asked how the steamer under our bows was heading. "To the southward," was the reply. The helm was accordingly ported, and we passed between them, so close under the stern of the one that was ahead that a biscuit could have been tossed on board. As we dashed by we heard the sharp, quick words of command of the officer in charge of the after pivot: "Run out!" "Starboard tackle handsomely!" "Elevate!" "Steady!" "Stand clear!" Then the flash from the muzzle, like a gleam of lightning, illumined the water for a moment, and a heavy shell flew singing over our heads, leaving a trail like a comet. It was an excellent line shot. That order, " Elevate!" had saved us. The steamer on the starboard side opened, and our opponents, now on our quarter, joined in; but their practice was wild, and in a few moments they were out of sight. I did not return their fire, for it would only have shown our position, and I did not wish our true character to be known, preferring that they should suppose us an ordinary blockade-runner.
During the night we ran to the southward until clear of Frying-Pan Shoals, and then hauled up to the eastward. More to be feared than the inshore squadron were the vessels cruising offshore from forty to fifty miles, in a position to sight at daylight the vessels that might come out during the night, and these were the fastest and most efficient blockaders. I was not surprised when, at daylight the next morning, a cruiser was reported in sight astern, hull up. As we were outlined against the eastern sky, she had seen us first, and from the dense smoke issuing from her funnel I knew she was in sharp chase. At eight another steamer was made out ahead. I changed our course eight points, bringing one on each beam, and the chase became interesting. One we made out to be a large side-wheeler, and she held her own, if she did not gain. Mr. Tynan made frequent visits to the engine-room, trying to coax out a few more revolutions; and he succeeded, for we brought them gradually on our quarter, and by noon had lowered their hulls two or three strakes. It was at times like this that the ship and engines proved themselves reliable; for had a screw loosened or a journal heated we should have been lost.
The ship was very deep with an extra supply of coal, and probably out of trim, so we were prepared, if hard pressed, to sacrifice some of it. Fortunately it was calm, and they could not use their canvas to help them. It was Sunday, and feeling relieved as to our pursuers, all hands were called, and divine service was read. By 4 P. M. our pursuers were astern, hull down, and had evidently given up. About the same time another was sighted from the masthead; but by changing our course a few points she was kept at a respectful distance. Just after dark we were nearly on top of another before we could change our course. Burning a blue light, the stranger headed for us. As we did not answer her signal, it was repeated, and a minute later she opened fire. The shells passed uncomfortably near, but in a half hour we lost sight of each other in the darkness. The fact that we were chased by four cruisers on our first day out proved how effective was the blockade. Upward of fifty vessels were employed at this time outside the port of Wilmington,⎯vessels, of all kinds, from the 40-gun frigate to the captured tinplate blockade-runner,⎯a larger number than were ever before employed on like service at one port.
The next few days were uneventful. We stood to the northward and eastward, under easy steam, and spoke several English and foreign vessels, from one of which we got late New York papers. Twenty miles below Long Branch we made our first prize, the schooner Sarah A. Boice of Boston, for Philadelphia in ballast. Her crew and their personal effects were brought on board, and she was scuttled. In all cases the prisoners were allowed to retain a bag of their clothes; nor were they asked for their money, watches, etc. In one case it was reported to me that one of the crew had taken a watch from a prisoner; this being found to be true, it was returned, and the man was punished. The chronometers, charts, and medicine-chests were the only things taken out of the prizes, except such provisions as were necessary.
Standing over toward Fire Island Light, on the Long Island shore, we found seven sail in sight. One ran down toward us, which we recognized at once as a New York pilot boat. She luffed to under our quarter, launched a small boat, and a few minutes later a large, well-dressed man in black, with a high hat, heavy gold watch-guard, a small valise, and a bundle of papers under his arm, stepped over the side. As he did so his eyes glanced up at our flag at the peak, which was lazily unfolding in a light breeze.
"My! what is that? What ship is this?" said he, turning to me.
“The Confederate cruiser Tallahassee,” I replied.
A more astonished man never stood on deck of vessel. He turned deadly pale, and drops of perspiration broke from every pore; but rapidly bracing himself, he took in the situation, and prepared to make the best of it. He was told that his vessel was a prize, and that I would make a tender of her. He was ordered to go on board, and return with his crew and their personal effects. It was the pilot-boat James Funk, No. 22, one of a class of fine weatherly schooners found off New York, from one to two hundred miles out, at all seasons, manned by as thorough seamen as ever trod ship's deck. Years before, while attached to the sloop of war Germantown, I had seen one of them work this vessel under sail down the East River, against a head wind but fair tide, "backing and filling" in a manner that called forth the admiration of all.
I put on board two officers and twenty men with orders to keep within signal distance. She was very efficient when several sail were in sight, overhauling and bringing alongside vessels, that I might decide upon their fate. The captures of the bark Bay State and the brigs Carrie Estelle and A. Richards followed in quick succession. We had now over forty prisoners and their baggage on board, lumbering up our decks, and it was necessary to make some disposition of them. Toward night No. 22 brought alongside the schooner Carroll. She was bonded by the captain, acting for the owners, for ten thousand dollars; and after he had given a written engagement to land the prisoners at New York, they went on board with their effects. Before leaving they were all paroled. All the prisoners we made, with hardly an exception, were most eager for their paroles. One said: "This is worth three hundred and fifty dollars to me." "I would not take a thousand dollars for mine," said another. One skipper said that if it would protect him from the draft he was partly reconciled to the loss of his vessel. Another, whose vessel had been bonded, brought all his crew on board to secure their papers.
The next victim was another pilot-boat, the William Bell, No. 24. My object in capturing these vessels was, if possible, to secure a pilot who could either be paid or coerced to take the ship through Hell Gate into Long Island Sound. It was now near the full moon. It was my intention to run up the harbor just after dark, as I knew the way in by Sandy Hook, then to go on up the East River, setting fire to the shipping on both sides, and when abreast of the navy-yard to open fire, hoping some of our shells might set fire to the buildings and any vessels that might be at the docks, and finally to steam through Hell Gate into the Sound. I knew from the daily papers, which we received only a day or two old, what vessels were in port, and that there was nothing then ready that could oppose us. But no pilot could be found who knew the road, or who was willing to undertake it, and I was forced to abandon the scheme.
From these inquiries arose the report that I would attempt to enter the harbor. Three days were spent between the light-ship and Montauk Point, sometimes within thirty miles of the former-and about twenty prizes were taken. The most important was the packet-ship Adriatic, one thousand tons, from London, with a large and valuable cargo and one hundred and seventy passengers. On account of the latter I was afraid I would have to bond the ship, but fortunately our tender came down before the wind, convoying the bark Suliote, and I determined to use her as a cartel after the captain had given bonds for ten thousand dollars. She was laden with coal; but the distance to Sandy Hook was only seventy miles. The passengers were nearly all Germans, and when told that their ship was to be burned were terribly alarmed; and it was some time before they could comprehend that we did not intend to burn them also. Three hours were occupied in transferring them and their effects with our boats. In many cases they insisted upon taking broken china, bird-cages, straw beds, and the most useless articles, leaving their valuables behind. After all were safely on board the Suliote, the Adriatic was fired; and as night came on the burning ship illumined the waters for miles, making a picture of rare beauty. The breeze was light and tantalizing, so our tender was taken in tow, and we steamed slowly to the eastward toward Nantucket. The neighborhood of New York had been sufficiently worked, and the game was alarmed and scarce.
Rounding South Shoal light-ship, we stood in toward Boston Bay. As the tender proved a drawback to our rapid movements, I determined to destroy her. It was a mistake, for I was authorized by the government to fit out any prize as a cruiser, and this one ought to have been sent along the eastern coast. A number of sail were sighted, but most of them were foreigners; this could be told by the "cut of their jibs." It was not necessary to speak them. A few unimportant captures were made, and then we sighted a large bark. First Lieutenant Ward, the boarding officer, returned, and reported the Glenarvoz, Captain Watt, a fine new vessel of Thomaston, Maine, from Glasgow with iron. He was ordered to return and secure the nautical instruments, etc., and scuttle her, and bring on board the prisoners. The captain had his wife on board, and as passengers another captain returning home with his wife, an elderly pair. We watched the bark as she slowly settled, strake by strake, until her deck was awash, and then her stern sank gradually out of sight until she was in an upright position, and one mast after another disappeared with all sail set, sinking as quietly as if human hands were lowering her into the depths. Hardly a ripple broke the quiet waters. Her head spars were the last seen. Captain Watt and his wife never took their eyes off their floating home, but side by side, with tears in their eyes, watched her disappear. "Poor fellow," she said afterward; "he has been going to sea for thirty years, and all our savings were in that ship. We were saving for our dear children at home, five of them."
Miserable business is war, ashore or afloat. A brave, true, and gentle woman, at the same time strong in her conviction of what she thought right, was the captain's wife, and she soon won the admiration and respect of all on board. But what shall I say of the passenger and his wife? If I said she was the very reverse of the above, it would not begin to do her justice. She came on board scolding, and left scolding. Her tongue was slung amidships, and never tired. Her poor husband, patient and meek as the patriarch, came in for his full share. Perhaps the surroundings and the salt air acted as an irritant, for I can hardly conceive of this cataract of words poured on a man's head on shore without something desperate happening. Even Mrs. Watt did not escape for quietly criticizing President Lincoln and his conduct of the war, particularly as regards the navy, on which point she could speak feelingly, Xantippe even threatened to report her to the police as soon as they reached the United States. At rare intervals there was a calm, and then she employed the time in distributing tracts and Testaments. When she left us to take passage in a Russian bark, she called down on us all the imprecations that David showered on his enemies. And as a final effort to show how she would serve us, she snatched her bonnet from her head, tore it in pieces, and threw it into the sea. Peace to her memory! I gave them my cabin; indeed, from the time of leaving Wilmington I had but little use of it. I slept and lived on the bridge or in the chart-room, hardly taking off my clothes for weeks.
We ran along the eastern coast as far as Matinicus, Maine, but overhauled nothing of importance, only passing a large number of small fishing-craft and coasters. One night a large steamer, heavily sparred, passed within musket-shot, but did not see us. Her lights were in sight for an hour, but we showed none. Steering to the eastward round Seal Island and Cape Sable Island, the western extremity of Nova Scotia, we, of course, had our share of the "ever-brooding, all-concealing fog" which in the summer season is a fixed quantity in this neighborhood. Suddenly, one evening, the fog lifted, and we discovered a ship close aboard. Passing under her stern, we read James Littlefield of Bangor. Hailing the captain, and asking him where from, and where bound, "From Cardiff, with coals for New York," came back as his answer. He was told to heave to. Here was the cargo of all others that we wanted, and I determined to utilize it, if possible. Lieutenant Ward was sent on board to take charge, put her under easy sail, and keep within one or two cable-lengths of the steamer. As the night closed in the fog became denser than ever, so much so that one end of the vessel could not be seen from the other⎯a genuine Bay of Fundy fog, one that could be handled. For some hours, by blowing our whistle every five minutes, while the ship was ringing a bell, we kept within sound of each other. But the latter gradually grew duller, until we lost it altogether; and I spent an anxious night, fearing that should it continue thick we might be separated. But soon after sunrise a rift in the fog, disclosing a small sector of the horizon, showed us the ship some five miles away. Steaming alongside, I determined to take no more risks in the fog. Banking our fires, we passed a hawser from our bows to the ship's quarter, and let her tow us. I held on to the ship, hoping it would become smooth enough to lay the two vessels alongside and take out a supply of coals; for although there was only a moderate breeze, there was an old sea running from the south'ard. To use our boats would have been an endless and dangerous operation. I thought of taking her into one of the small outposts on the neighboring coast of Nova Scotia; but this would have been a clear case of violation of neutral territory. The day passed without change in weather or sea, and very reluctantly I was compelled to abandon the hope of free coals, and look to Halifax for a supply. Ordering Lieutenant Ward to scuttle the ship, we left her to be a home for the cod and lobster.
After being two or three days without observations and without a departure, to find your port in a thick fog requires a sharp lookout and a constant use of the lead. However, we made a good hit. The first "land" we made was the red head of a fisherman, close under our bows, in a small boat, who, in the voice of a Boanerges, and in words more forcible than complimentary, warned us against tearing his nets. In answer to our inquiries in regard to the bearings of Sambro, Chebucto Head, etc., he offered to pilot the ship in. Accepting his services, and taking his boat in tow, we stood up the harbor. Soon we emerged from the fog, and the city of Halifax was in sight.
The harbor of Halifax is well known as safe, commodious, easy of access, and offering many advantages. Coming to anchor, I had my gig manned, and went on board the line-of-battle ship Duncan, to call upon Sir James Hope, commanding on this station, and then upon the governor, Sir Richard Graves MacDonald, who received me very kindly, asking me to breakfast next morning, a compliment which I was obliged to decline, owing to the limited time at my disposal. By the Queen's proclamation, the belligerents could use her ports only for twenty-four hours, except in case of distress, and take no supplies, except sufficient to reach the nearest home port. I wanted only coal, and by the energetic action of our agents, Messrs. B. Wier & Co., I was able to procure a supply of the best Welsh. To a distinguished gentleman of the medical profession we were indebted for a new spar; for I neglected to mention that while off New York we were in collision with the ship Adriatic, and lost our mainmast and all attached.
From the time of our arrival, Judge Jackson, the energetic American consul, had not ceased to bombard the authorities, both civil and military, with proofs, protests, and protocols in regard to our ship. He alleged general misdemeanors, that we had violated all the rules of war, and protested against our taking in supplies. The provincial government acted as a buffer, and I heard of the protests only in a modified form. However, I was anxious to conform to the Queen's mandate, and could only plead our partly disabled condition for exceeding the twenty-four hours. To my request for an additional twelve hours I received the following answer:
GOVERNMENT HOUSE, HALIFAX, N. S.,
SIR: In reply to your application for additional time to ship a mainmast, I have no objection to grant it, as I am persuaded that I can rely on your not taking any unfair advantage of the indulgence which I concede. I do so the more readily because I find that you have not attempted to ship more than the quantity of coals necessary for your immediate use. I have, etc.,
(Signed) RICHARD G. MACDONALA Lieut.-Governor.
Coax. J. TAYLOR WOOD, C. S. Cruiser Tallahassee.
In writing to Mr. Cardwell, Secretary of State for the Colonies, on the 23rd of August, the lieutenant-governor said: “It was clear that a cruiser reported to have captured or destroyed between thirty or forty vessels in about twelve days, and said to have speed exceeding by five knots that of the Alabama, was the most formidable adversary which Federal commerce had yet encountered. Under these circumstances, if she was permitted to take in a supply of coal here in excess of that strictly allowed, I felt that I should be enabling her to use one of her Majesty's ports for the purpose of procuring the material most destructive to the shipping and property of a power with which her Majesty is at peace. In the peculiar case of the Tallahassee, every five tons of coal in excess of the amount strictly allowable might be regarded as insuring heavy loss to Federal shipping. Accordingly, when Captain Wood applied later in the day for permission to complete his complement of coals up to one hundred tons, I informed him that he was at liberty to do so, and expressed my gratification at finding that he had not been using the extra period of his stay for the purpose of obtaining more coals than sufficed for his im mediate wants. I also, in communicating that permission to the admiral, requested the latter to relieve Captain Wood from further surveillance, as I was extremely anxious, under the circumstances, to avoid wounding his feelings. Later in- the day he applied for, and I gave him, permission to remain twelve hours longer for the purpose of shipping a new mainmast. He did not, however, wholly avail himself of that permission; for without waiting to step the mast, he left the harbor soon after midnight, as appears from the enclosed full and satisfactory report obligingly transmitted to me by the admiral.”
At the close of the second day our new mast was towed alongside and hoisted in. Immediate preparations were made for sea. During the day two or more of the enemy's cruisers were reported off the harbor; indeed, one came in near enough to communicate with the shore. During our stay we had seen late New York papers with accounts of our cruise, and the excitement it had caused on the seaboard. The published reports of most of the prisoners were highly colored and sensational. We were described in anything but complimentary terms. A more bloodthirsty or piratical-looking crew never sailed, according to some narratives. Individually I plead guilty; for three years of rough work, with no chance of replenishing my wardrobe, had left me in the plight of Major Dal-getty. When I called upon the admiral I had to borrow a make-up from some of the wardroom officers.
We noticed that a number of vessels had been sent in pursuit. A Washington telegram said: "The first information of the depredations of the Tallahassee was received by the Navy Department on the 12th instant. After office hours, Secretary Welles immediately ordered the following vessels in pursuit: namely, Juniata, Susquehanna, Eolus, Pontoosuc, Dunbartan, and Tristram Shandy, on the 13th the Moccasin, Aster, Yantic, R. R. Cuyler, and Grand Gulf on the 14th; and on the 15th the Dacotah and San Jacinto. These were all the vessels available in the navy."
It began to look as though we would have to run the blockade again. To my request to Mr. Wier for a good pilot, he sent on board Jock Fleming. He was six feet in height, broad, deep-chested, and with a stoop. His limbs were too long for his body. His head was pitched well forward, and covered, as was his neck, with a thick stubble of grayish hair. His eyes were small and bright, almost hid beneath overhanging eyebrows. His hands were as hard, rough, and scaly as the flipper of a green turtle. Bronzed by exposure to sixty seasons of storm and sunshine, he could tell of many a narrow escape, carrying on to keep offshore in a northeast snow-storm, or trying to hold on in a howling nor'wester, when every drop of water that came on board was congealed into ice, and soon the vessel was little better than an iceberg, and nothing remained but to run off into the Gulf Stream to thaw out. He knew the harbor as well as the fish that swam its waters. He was honest, bluff, and trusty.
Island divides the entrance to the harbor of Halifax into two channels.
The main, or western, one is broad, deep, and straight, and is the only
one used, except by small coasters. The eastern is just the reverse,
without buoys or lights. In looking over the chart with Fleming, I asked
him if it was not possible to go out through the latter passage, and so
avoid the enemy lying off the mouth of the main channel. I saw only five
or six feet marked on the chart over the shoalest spot at low water.
"How much do you draw, cap'?"
"Thirteen feet, allowing for a little drag."
"There is a good tide to-night, and water enough; but you are too long to turn the corners."
"But, pilot, with our twin-screws, I can turn her around on her center, as I turn this ruler."
"Well, I never was shipmate with the likes of them; but if you will steer her, I'll find the water."
"Are you certain, pilot, there is water enough? It would never do to run ashore at this time."
"You sha'n't touch anything but the eelgrass. Better get ready about eleven."
I hesitated; and divining from my face that I was not satisfied, he said as he rose:
"Don't be 'feared; I'll take you out all right; you won't see any of those chaps off Chebucto Head."
As he spoke he brought his hand down on my shoulder with a thud that I felt in my boots. His confidence, and my faith in the man, determined me to make the attempt. Some friends and English officers were on board to the last; and as we hove up the anchor and started ahead at midnight, they left us with hearty good wishes. The moon was old and waning, with dark clouds rapidly chasing one another across its face from the southward. Steaming slowly out, only the dark shores of MacNab's Island on one side and the mainland on the other could be seen, but whether a stone's throw or a mile distant could not be discovered. Once or twice Fleming appeared lost, but it was only for a moment. At the sharp twists in the channel I sent a boat ahead with a light to mark the turns. At one place, by the lead, there was hardly room between the keel and the bottom for your open hand. In an hour we opened the two lights on Devil's Island, and the channel broadened and deepened. Soon we felt the pulsating bosom of the old Atlantic, and were safe outside, leaving our waiting friends miles to the westward. Fleming dropped his boat alongside, and with a hearty shake of the hand, and an earnest Godspeed, swung himself into it, and was soon lost in the darkness. He had kept his word, bringing us out without feeling the bottom⎯a real achievement. Years after I often met him, and there was nothing in the old man's life he was so fond of relating as how he piloted the Tallahassee through the eastern passage by night.
The run down the coast was uneventful, a few unimportant prizes being made. Many vessels were spoken, but most were foreign. A number were undoubtedly American, but to avoid capture had been registered abroad, and were sailing under other flags. I had intended going to Bermuda for another supply of coal, but the prevalence of yel low fever there prevented. As we approached Wilmington we were reminded, by sighting one or two steamers, that we were again in troubled waters. The first one we made out was a long, low, paddle-wheel boat, evidently a captured blockade-runner. By changing our course we soon parted company with her. Later in the day another was dodged. In running the blockade, if with good observation we were certain of our position, the best plan was to run direct for the Mound or harbor. If not, then better strike the shore to the northward (if running for New Inlet), and follow it down. As the soundings are very regular, this could be easily done. The weather was hazy and smoky⎯so much so that we could not depend on our sights. I therefore ran in toward Masonboro Inlet, about thirty miles to the northward of Fort Fisher, making the land just at dark; then ran into five fathoms, and followed the shore, just outside the breakers curling up on the beach. A sharp lookout was kept, and the crew were at their quarters. The fires were freshened, and watched carefully to avoid smoking or flaming. The chief engineer had orders to get all he could out of her. I knew that one of the blockaders, if not more, would be found close to the shore; and soon one was made out ahead. I tried to pass inside, but found it impossible; the enemy's ship was almost in the surf. A vigilant officer certainly was in command. Our helm was put a-starboard, and we sheered out. At the same time the enemy signaled by flash-lights. I replied by burning a blue light. The signal was repeated by the first and by two others. I replied again by a false fire. Some valuable minutes were gained, but the enemy now appeared satisfied as to our character, and opened fire. We replied with all our battery, directing our guns by the flash of theirs. This was entirely unexpected, for they ceased firing, and began to signal again. Our reply was another broadside, to which they were not slow in responding. The Tallahassee was now heading the bar, going fourteen knots. Two or three others joined in the firing, and for some time it was very lively. But, like most night engagements, it was random firing. We were not struck, and the enemy were in more danger from their own fire than from mine.
Soon the Mound loomed up ahead, a welcome sight. Our signal-officer made our number to Fort Fisher, and it was answered. A few minutes later the range lights were set, and by their guidance we safely crossed the bar and anchored close under the fort. The next morning, at daybreak, the blockading fleet was seen lying about five miles off, all in a bunch, evidently discussing the events of the night. At sunrise we hoisted the Confederate flag at the fore, and saluted with twenty-one guns. The fort returned a like number. During the day we crossed the rip, and proceeded up the river to Wilmington. So ended an exciting and eventful cruise of a month. In this time we had made thirty-five captures, about half of which were square-rigged vessels.
The Tallahassee, it is true, was built in England, but not
for a blockade-runner. She was fitted out and equipped in a Confederate
port. Of her armament, two guns were cast in Richmond, and one was
captured. Her officers and crew were all in the service previous to
joining her. She sailed from a Confederate port, and returned to one. She
was regularly commissioned by the Navy Department, and was as legally a
cruiser as was General Lee's force an army. Her status was entirely
different from that of cruisers fitted out in England. The Geneva award
was intended to cover only losses arising from the cruises of the Alabama,
Shenandoah, etc., vessels fitted out or sailing from English ports,
or which, like these, had never visited a Confederate port; and its
recipients were at first wisely confined to those who could establish
their losses from these vessels. But after paying all these, half of the
£3,000,000 sterling still remained. After some years it was determined to
divide it among the sufferers by all the cruisers. The claims presented to
the court for the disposal of the award were of the most extraordinary
character. I received from different attorneys letters asking for
information upon points in regard to the Tallahassee's cruise, and
inclosing schedules of losses of different parties. I have no idea how the
court adjusted these losses; but I do know that if some of the claimants
were paid ten percent of their demands, they were amply reimbursed for all
losses. One captain of a small vessel put in a claim for $200 for a
feather-bed, a hair-mattress, and a pair of blankets, and for nearly $800
worth of clothing! Another exhibit, of a mate, for losses called for $26
for a featherbed. Another claimant had sixteen different suits of
clothing, besides miscellaneous articles of wearing apparel of all kinds,
enough to furnish a Chatham-street shop. Nothing was left out: razor,
brush, and cup, $3.50; shoe-brush and blacking, $1.03. Of course every
one, from the captain to the cook, had a watch and chain, generally gold,
valued at from $100 to $250, never less. And these exhibits were all sworn
The Tallahassee made another short
cruise, under Lieutenant Ward, and then returned to England. Later she was
sold to the Japanese government as a cruiser.
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