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Running the blockade

Blockade runners, mostly built on the Clyde, were so important to the Confederacy that Stephen Wise’s book title Lifeline of the Confederacy(1.) is no exaggeration.  The Southern States, having an agricultural economy and little in the way of a manufacturing base depended on shipping to export primary production and import manufactured goods.  The Union blockade of the secessionist states created an urgent demand for weapons, munitions, uniforms and luxury goods.  Meanwhile cotton bales piled up on Southern docksides.  

British newspapers were full of the American civil war and the blockade.  They had every reason to be.  British cotton mills were lying idle and people were going hungry.  The public was aware of running the blockade, the risks run and huge profits made.  

Fictional accounts

Soon after the war, the spice of runners’ adventures spawned children’s books of which Jules Verne’s novella The Blockade Runners(2.) and J. Macdonald Oxley’s Baffling the Blockade(3.) are examples.  They are light on the morality of supporting slavery, especially the latter, the plot of which portrays a loyal negro slave as happy with his situation.   They are however children’s books and products of their times.

The Blockade Runners gives a good picture of a Glasgow merchant house and the launch of a runner from a near-by ship yard, reflecting the first hand knowledge gained by Jules Verne during his visits to Scotland.  It is short, a mere 99 pages, so its story is thin in places and its romance gets in the way of more seafaring detail.  However it is made more vivid by Professor Thompson’s accompanying essay, ‘The Geographical and Historical Context of The Blockade Runners’.

Jules Verne was born in the port of Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France a centre of shipbuilding with major slave trade involvement, until 1780s the principal slave port.  He was interested in marine technology so was well equipped to write a tale with an authentic ring.

Baffling the Blockade is an excellent portrayal of blockade running.  The beautifully embossed (blind stamped) front cover shows helmsmen on the open bridge of the fictitious Greyhound.  The plot is transparent to the adult reader but is an interesting look at the lives led by those on these dicey ventures.

MacDonald Oxley was the best known Canadian author of his time.   He was a Harvard educated lawyer raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia and had served as legal adviser to the Marine and Fisheries Department in Ottawa so had plenty of background for his novel.

History of Clydeside involvement

For the history of Scottish involvement, Eric Graham’s Clydebuilt(4.) published in 2006 is a product of careful research and well illustrated.  It includes a captain’s voyage account contained in a letter.  The enormous scale of the Clyde end of the business would surprise many.   In 1864 fifty runners were launched from Clyde yards, their building providing employment for 25,000 men in twenty seven shipyards.  The runners’ vital necessity for fuel economy and speed gave impetus to the development of high pressure steam engine technology that was to serve Glasgow engine builders for years afterwards.  

The British Government’s position

Outwardly Britain was neutral.  Merchants and ship builders were as discrete as possible so as not to embarrass the Government which was prepared to turn a blind eye for the domestic political consideration of widespread unemployment in the cotton industry.  After the war this was accepted by the British Government and very substantial reparations were paid to the Union to normalise relations.

Practicalities of running the blockade

Running the Blockade(5.) – A personal narrative of adventures, risks and escapes during the American Civil War is a book length first hand account that is compelling reading, packed with accounts of daring attempts and hairbreadth escapes.  Original editions are in short supply but facsimiles are available.  Whilst describing the ventures of a Liverpool firm, their ships were Clyde built.  It details the sea faring considerations and risks run, two round trips paying for the ship and thereafter making huge profits.

Most cargoes were run to and from the British territories of Bermuda and Nassau in the Bahamas, runs of around 600-800 miles depending on the destination.  Timing arrival for high water in the hours of new moon darkness was difficult unless the weather remained settled and the runner was not diverted by blockaders.  Precise navigation was necessary to enter half mile wide navigation channels when in time of war light houses were extinguished and before Decca, Loran, GPS or echo sounder was largely reliant on dead reckoning.  One couldn’t hope to locate such narrow channel entrances by dead reckoning complicated by the vagaries of the Gulf Stream.  Thomas E. Taylor’s tactic was to raise the coast 15-20 miles north of Wilmington, fixing position visually and by lead line whilst creeping down the coast inshore of the blockading fleet.  

At any moment a Union blockader could spring its trap or shore batteries open fire, elevated positions extending the range of their guns.  To begin with the runners’ losses were largely due to ship owners minimising their financial exposure by using old worn out steam ships ripe for the breakers yard.  This soon changed with experience and fast, shallow draught steam ships suitable for shoal waters were developed for the task.  The Union side too became more effective at blockading, driving the runners to raise their game.

Numerous different ruses were employed by runners to evade Union warships such as pretending to be a slow merchantman and at a critical point showing its manoeuvrability and turn of speed or behaving like a Federal vessel in the hope of being taken for one.  During pursuit runners’ engines were pressed beyond normal limits, safety valves locked down and turpentine or spirit soaked cotton put into the boilers.

The runner took care not to show any lights and burned best quality anthracite to minimise smoke emission.  Crew discipline was essential; keeping as quiet as possible apart from showing no lights, not even a cigarette or binnacle lamp.  One person’s carelessness could spell disaster for the whole enterprise.  However it was difficult to avoid a tell tale glow from above the funnels.  Once the chase was on, increasing furnace draught for more steam the extra light emitted was of less consequence.

Keeping a good all round lookout was one of the keys to success, spotting the Federal before he saw you and putting him astern.  Thomas E. Taylor kept a man at the cross trees all through the hours of daylight, motivating him by paying a dollar for each ship spotted.  If a vessel was seen from the deck first the mast lookout was fined $5, a substantial sum when paid $50 or $60 for the round trip.

Taylor nearly lost a ship because a race horse on board started neighing, possibly from smelling land.  On another occasion a tame game cock had to have its neck wrung because of its crowing.  

One can see that there were numerous passage planning considerations besides those facing the peacetime merchantman, not least of which was ensuring sufficient high quality coal for the return run.  For the yachtsman the passage planning considerations for a successful blockade run are interesting reading and the runners’ accounts make most entertaining armchair sailing.

The risks

Running the blockade added to and accentuated the hazards of peacetime merchant service navigation.  The necessity to use new moon darkness meant temptation to sail when weather was threatening.   Crews were worked long hours and engine rooms were excessively hot, ventilators closed up so as not to show light.  When the chase was on and under fire chances were taken crossing shoals and machinery was driven to its limits.  Runners were very heavily laden with coal as well as cargo, so low in the water that on the northern runs they feared a gale more than a Union warship.  

Local pilots were employed but towards the end of the war good ones were in very short supply and their inadequacies a frequent cause of losses.  

Whilst the Clyde had an excellent reputation for ship building there were those who were prepared to cut corners.  Thomas E. Taylor records his Clyde built Will-o’-the–Wisp as “being shamefully put together”.  Blockade runners had to be strong enough to withstand bad weather, overloading, accidental grounding in the shoal waters of the south and a certain amount of shot and shell damage without falling apart.

To be captured, inbound or outward meant loss of the vessel, her cargo and the threat of the crew being tried as pirates.  It spelt a hard time for them in prison but they were usually repatriated following representations by the British consul as they were non-combatants, the runners being unarmed.  That was assuming the runner survived Union warship and shore battery gunnery.  The crew of the Banshee I spent eight months in a cramped casement, poorly fed and clothed following their capture.   Undeterred, her captain on arrival home in Liverpool found his new command the Banshee II ready waiting for him.

Returning crews covered their tracks fearing prosecution in the British courts, though none were ever charged.

The stakes were high.  Hatred ran deep and there was little chivalry in this modern warfare.  Many found it worth the risks and were highly successful, others died at sea or from the effects of captivity.

European social attitudes

Until Lifeline of the Confederacy and Clydebuilt were published blockade running was largely forgotten, almost hidden history.  As one who worked on Upper Clyde quays for a dozen years I knew little of it until my own sailing reading led me to find out about it.  Merchant houses and ship owners didn’t want attention drawn to the source of their wealth having the associations of prolonging slavery and the mass slaughter of the civil war.  Sensitivities over the issue remain to this day.  The fortunes to be made from war materials and luxury goods inbound and cotton outward salved consciences.    However there were those prepared to make great sacrifices for their principles and emancipation societies kept the issue to the fore.

Before WWI attitudes were different as the early references cited demonstrate.  For some the slavery issue didn’t arise, they were fighting for Southern independence.  At the outset of the war the issue was secession, independence from the north, not slavery.  There was much sympathy for the Southern States arising from years of profitable trading turned to mass unemployment by the blockade and the Trent case.  The latter was a British mail steamer boarded in international waters by the Federal navy and two Confederate diplomats, one accredited to the British Government and one to France taken prisoner.  While the Union Captain Wilkes was the popular hero of the hour in the north the affair was an own goal, stirring European hostility and ultimately full redress was made by the Federal Government.

Glasgow Riverside Museum and the tall ship Glenlee

Books, buildings, shipyards and sites of engine works remain as reminders of blockade running.  Glasgow is confronting its past and the spectacular new Riverside Transport Museum opened in 2011 is telling the story.  An exhibition cabinet entitled Blockade Runners opened in the 150th anniversary year (2015) of the assassination of President Lincoln.  It includes ship models, a painting of a successful runner the paddle steamer Advance, Confederate states map and currency, story of a blockade runner, Enfield muzzle loading rifle and an 1860’s long cotton dress.   English made Enfield rifles were imported by the Confederacy and were very similar to the Union soldier’s rifle the Springfield.  The dress exemplifies the part played by American cotton in financing the Southerners’ war effort.  A Confederate flag flown in Glasgow by a sympathiser and an abolitionist society panel illustrate society’s divisions.

Entrance to the museum is free and includes access to the restored Clyde built Cape Horner Glenlee(6,7).  Donations are much appreciated.  Exploring this vessel, looking in the cramped deckhouse and galley and up the masts brings to life the extraordinary endurance of the men who sailed her.  A bright sunny day shows the beautiful new woodwork at its best.  She was refitted from a virtual steel shell from original plans, a tribute to shipyard skills still found on the Clyde.  Besides all the attractions and romance of a windjammer the ship has well preserved vintage machinery, diesel engines, generator plant and anchor winch.  Looking round this ship is a fascinating experience, accommodation, fo’c’stle, tween deck, lower hold and engine room all open to the visitor.  Ramps and a lift provide pushchair and wheelchair access.

The Museum has much other nautical interest associated with Glasgow and the Clyde, particularly steam engines and the development of steam power afloat.  Parking is very convenient and just £1 for four hours.  Cafés and gift shops in the museum and aboard the Glenlee help make a day of it for all the family.  It is a worthy candidate for a sailing club social programme.  Please let the Museum know in advance if you are bringing a party.

Leisure navigation on the River Clyde

If visiting the Museum by river it is essential to obtain the Peelports Clydeport Clyde Leisure Navigation Guide(8) distributed free.  It gives radio reporting points at Bowling and Clydebank.  Contact Peelports Radio on Ch. 12 or Tel. 01475 726221.  Advice can also be obtained on or  Numerous contact details are given for berthing in Glasgow and opening the Science Centre Bridge and Bells Bridge shortly above it.  For the Riverside Museum, Kelvin Harbour pontoon berths are very convenient, phone 0141 357 3699.  


1.   Lifeline of the Confederacy, Blockade Running During the Civil War, Stephen R. Wise, University of south Carolina Press, 1988, ISBN 0-87249-554-X.

2.   The Blockade Runners, Jules Verne, First published as Les Forceurs de blocus, Paris, 1865.  A new translation of the unabridged text with illustrations published by Luath Press Ltd., Edinburgh 2011, ISBN: 978 1905222 20 9.  Translated by Karen Loukes and with an introduction and essay by Professor Ian Thompson.

3.   Baffling the Blockade, J. MacDonal Oxley, T. Nelson and Sons, 1897.

4.   Clydebuilt – The blockade runners, cruisers and armoured rams of the American civil war, Eric J. Graham, Birlinn Ltd, 2006, paperback ISBN10: 1 84158 584 X, ISBN13: 978 1 84158 584 0.

5.  Running the Blockade – A personal narrative of adventures, risks, and escapes during the American Civil War, Thomas E. Taylor, John Murray, London, Fourth Edition, 1912.

6.   Glenlee, The tall ship at Riverside, Elizabeth Allen, The Clyde Maritime Trust, 2011, pp 34, ISBN 978-0-9569115-0-6 - A guide book available at the ship along with other recent titles on the restoration.

7.   Glenlee: The Life and Times of a Clyde Built Cape Horner, Colin M. Castle and Iain MacDonald, Brown, Son and Ferguson Ltd, Glasgow, 2005, ISBN 10:0951747272, ISBN 13: 9780851747279.

8.   Peelports Clydeport Clyde Leisure Navigation Guide, Fifth Edition, 2015.

Paul Shave

Blue Spindrift

26 February 2016.

Chased by Federal Cruisers - from 'Baffling the Blockade'

The Banshee 1 being chsed by the James Adger


Riverside Museum Glasgow - Deck view of Blockade running paddle steamer

Riverside Museum Glasgow - Blockade runners exhibit - Enfield rifle and cotton dress


Riverside Museum Glasgow - Painting of paddle steamer and ship models


Glenlee main deck

Glenlee fo'c's'le anchor winch

Glenlee - foot of main mast