Running the Blockade

Typical style of shallow-draft vessel used to run the blockade.
Typical style of shallow-draft vessel used to
run the blockade.


map of The Federal Blockade
map of Federal Blockade of Cape Fear, N.C.

Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter
Rear Adm. David
Dixon Porter,
North Atlantic
Squadron. Harper's

"I am satisfied that no vessel should escape out of Wilmington after the blockade is perfected if the orders I have instituted are strictly carried out." — Adm. David Dixon Porter, United States Navy, Commanding North Atlantic Blockading Squadron

Situated on the eastern bank of the Cape Fear River, some 25 miles north of its confluence with the Atlantic, North Carolina's principal seaport could not have been better suited for running the blockade. The town was safely out of range of any Federal bombardment from the ocean, and its close proximity to the major transshipment points for incoming European goods was ideal. Nassau in the Bahamas was only 570 miles away, while Bermuda was 674 miles nearly due east of Wilmington. Transatlantic merchantmen ferried goods earmarked for the Confederacy to these and other neutral ports. Here the materials were off-loaded onto sleek, shallow draft steamers for the last leg of the journey: the dash through the Federal blockade lines and into the Cape Fear River, under protection of its formidable defensive works. Having safely delivered their cargoes the runners then returned through the blockade to the transshipment points, usually bearing Southern export items such as cotton, naval stores or lumber.

The Federal dragnet consisted of three main blockade lines. Farthest out to sea was the cruiser line, whose ships patrolled the ocean with a sharp lookout for incoming vessels headed for Cape Fear. Further in was a middle line, followed by a line of "bar tenders" just off the shoal waters of Cape Fear. The navy's lighter vessels ventured in as close to the river inlets as they dared, especially at night. Blockaders that closed within range of Confederate shore batteries were sure to draw hostile fire.

As the war progressed the blockade became more and more effective, but the navy could not meet the challenge of stopping all shipping trade helpful to the Confederate cause. As a result, the officers and men of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron were operating under strict orders from Adm. David D. Porter. Blockaders engaging a suspicious vessel had to give proper signals as to the direction of the chase, in order to ensure the vessel's capture. For example, if a runner eluded the bar tending line of blockaders, the middle line was to be notified so that it could either stop the runner, or notify the cruiser line of the runner's approach.

Failure to adhere to the rules brought the wrath and disdain of Adm. Porter. In November 1864, the English steamer Annie, laden with cotton, tobacco and spirits of turpentine, was captured by the Wilderness and Niphon while attempting to run the blockade from New Inlet. The runner surrendered after a brief chase of ten minutes, during which 13 shots were fired from the Federal gunboats. As the crew of the Annie was being transferred to the Niphon, the guns of Fort Fisher joined the action, and a shell entered the Wilderness, causing some damage. During this affair, the captors made no signal to other Federal vessels in the area, and were thus promptly accused of trying to claim the prize for themselves. Porter was furious, maintaining that the Annie's capture was jeopardized by the failure to warn the adjacent vessels of her approach. The officers of the Wilderness and Niphon were reprimanded. "This war is not being conducted for the benefit of officers or to enrich them by the capture of prizes," Porter declared, "and every commander is deficient in the high moral character which has always been inherent in the Navy who for a moment consults his private interests in preference to the public good, hesitates to destroy what is the property of the enemy, or attempts to benefit himself at the expense of others."

This incident illustrates the danger of tackling blockade runners under the guns of Fort Fisher. This giant installation, the largest earthen fort in the Confederacy, was the key to the river defense system below Wilmington.

Text used with permission. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Notice: Blockade-Runner graphic © Mark A. Moore.
All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.