Fortunes were made and lost, goodwill mixed with wild speculation in a peculiar atmosphere of patriotism and greed—but without blockade running it would have been a short war indeed.
Not long ago, a scuba diving expedition to a wrecked ship found the sea floor off the Bahamas littered with tens of thousands of small white objects. They proved to be pork bones. The sea had eaten the barrels, and the crabs had eaten the pork. Nothing more remained other than the bones and the visceral knowledge of what they really were: rations that would have kept boys in butternut and gray from starving on the battlefields of the Civil War. Instead they lay on the seabed, mute testimony to one of the great commercial enterprises of American history.
The island of Grand Bahama, 76 miles east of Palm Beach, Fla., hardly seems like an important Civil War site at first glance. The skyline of Freeport, its primary population center, is dominated by the Tower of Bahamia, a Moorish-style confection of turrets, arches and a dome. Yet only a few hundred yards away is Confederates Walk, a street in a posh residential area. What does such a memorial commemorate? A crucial part of the trade that kept the Confederacy alive far longer than its overstrained industrial base could have done on its own. The Bahamas was a primary transshipment point for blockade runners, whose romantic lore and oft-told stories barely scratch the surface of their vital role in the Civil War.
From the Confederacy to Great Britain via the Bahamas and back again, the business of blockade running delivered a flow of goods so vast that the Confederacy could wage war for years in spite of a failing transport system, a relatively undeveloped industrial base and a fatally defective system of allocating resources. Brilliantly conceived and operated, it delivered measurable results in materiel, raw materials and food. Strategically located cities, savvy investors and courageous ship’s captains and crew members all linked themselves inextricably to the food chain—and many made a fortune in the process.
The Confederacy eventually had a million men under arms. That meant a need for a million rifles and several million rounds of ammunition. To keep marching and fighting, these men needed 2 billion calories of food each and every day. The South was agricultural, but cash crops rather than food crops dominated the economy—all very well in peacetime, but men cannot eat cotton or tobacco. You can sell them, however. Great Britain had pork and beef, as well as guns, lead and saltpeter. Both sides had businessmen, competent merchants not afraid of making a tidy profit off large and frequent shipments of these critical goods. England and the Confederacy needed each other. It was war economics on a grand scale, and the Bahamas found itself right in the middle.
Early in the war, the blockade runner Fingal brought in a million ball cartridges, 2 million percussion caps, 10,000 Enfield rifles, 500 revolvers and 400 barrels of gunpowder from England. This single shipment in November 1861 equipped most of the Confederate forces at Shiloh. Three years later the Confederacy imported 3.6 million pounds of meat, 1.5 million pounds of lead, 1.9 million pounds of saltpeter, 450,000 pairs of shoes, 316,000 blankets, 542,000 pounds of coffee, 69,000 rifles, 97 packages of revolvers and 43 cannons from Bahamian ports over a single five-week period. Given that a pound of lead will make 10 Minié balls, those late 1864 shipments brought the South enough lead to make 15 million Minié balls—enough for each man in the Army of Northern Virginia to fire 75 rounds. The nearly 2 million pounds of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) would make more than enough gunpowder to propel all those rounds. Four months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the general had more than 3 million pounds of meat on order. Of that, 2.5 million pounds were in the Bahamas at Nassau awaiting transportation. An additional 300,000 pounds of meat were in England, destined for Nassau.
Despite the fact that few firm figures exist documenting the total amount of imports and exports—blockade running was illegal, after all, at least according to the Union—the best available records reveal an astonishing volume of commerce. Reporting the monetary value of this trade is complicated by the three currencies involved— U.S. dollars, Confederate dollars and English pounds sterling—and by the shifting values of each. For our purposes here, all figures have been converted into today’s U.S. dollars, using the following ratios:
- one 1863 U.S. dollar equals 30 current U.S. dollars,
- one 1863 Confederate dollar equals two current U.S. dollars,
- one 1863 pound sterling equals 150 current U.S. dollars.
While these ratios are only an approximation, they will serve the purpose of comparison.
Shipments through the Bahamas to England kept up the Confederacy’s end of this lucrative exchange. For example, a single vessel such as Robert E. Lee—originally the merchant ship Giraffe, built on Scotland’s River Clyde—would ultimately transport $300 million worth of cotton bales destined for England’s textile mills. Confederate records show that during the final 12 months of the war, 27,299 bales of cotton were shipped out of Wilmington, N.C., alone with an estimated value of $260 million.
Few investments paid off so well. The British investors, even after building the ships, writing off those lost to the blockade and paying for the coal and the crew’s wages, often realized a 700-percent profit per year. The Confederate business end of this pipeline had no shortage of entrepreneurs either. One of the most prominent was William C. Bee, president of the Importing and Exporting Company of South Carolina. The Confederates fought many battles almost entirely with guns, powder and food imported by Bee, a loyal son of the South who spoke out against excess profits in this time of Southern peril. (His company’s first dividend, paid on December 28, 1863, was $10,000 per share.)
And then there were the Bahamian businessmen, and the Bahamian capital of Nassau, which might have been the biggest winners of all. The four years of the Civil War was a period of incredible prosperity for the city. Its debt was paid off, streets were equipped with granite curbs and new lanterns, and policemen’s salaries were quadrupled. For the officers, Confederate agents and other prosperous men there was the newly completed Royal Victorian Hotel, saved from bankruptcy by the Civil War. This magnificent four-story edifice flowed with champagne and rich food. Endless soirees enlivened the tropical nights for the increasingly well heeled.
The money to be made by the men on the blockade runners was incredible as well. Although the captain and his crew were not paid their full wages until the journey was over—the ship owners were no fools—the reward was worth the risk and the wait. A ship’s captain could receive the equivalent of $150,000 in today’s dollars for a successful six-day round trip from Nassau to Wilmington, then back to Nassau. The pilot would be paid $100,000, and even the lowliest seaman got $7,000—and this was when the average Union soldier’s pay was $400 for a full month’s duty. A sailor ashore with $7,000 in his pocket after a week’s work would soon find whiskey and women in Nassau—but little indoor shelter. Every porch, veranda, warehouse and business place was crammed with cotton bales. The few bank vaults available were already filled with gold coins, so additional cash was dumped on the floor of the bank and guarded by soldiers of the 2nd West India regiment.
In addition to their astonishing wages, the ship’s officers were allowed to bring in a limited number of items for private sale. Captain Hobart-Hampdon, who sailed under six aliases, made a killing bringing coffin screws into the Confederacy. For most captains and crewmen, the payoff was well worth the 20-percent chance that they would be captured or killed.
More than 1,600 vessels made an attempt at running the blockade, and 8,000 successful round trips were completed. Early in the war, almost any kind of craft could pierce the porous defense. By 1865, ships propelled by sail stood nearly zero chance of escaping the Union ships, and the successful runs were made only with specially built high-speed, shallow-draft steamships, painted gray and making use of low profiles and highly skilled pilots, captains and crews.
The Union record of blockade runners captured showed 210 steamers and 939 sailing vessels—82 percent of the captured blockade-runners were powered by sail. The figures for blockade-runners destroyed are equally dramatic: 355 were eliminated. Of these, 270 were sailing vessels, 76 percent of the total. No wonder the use of sailing ships was given up by prospective runners. But even with an impressive total of 1,504 blockade runners sunk or captured, over 80 percent of all attempts to penetrate the blockade succeeded.
Even Yankee sailors benefited financially when they captured a blockade runner. A Navy custom, now long gone, gave money to the capturing crew based on the sale of the enemy ship and its cargo. The money was distributed by a traditional formula: The captain received 15 percent of the total sale price, the other officers split 20 percent, the petty officers split 30 percent and the remaining 35 percent was divided among the seamen.
How is it that the Bahamas became so pivotal in this dangerous and lucrative trade between England and the Confederacy? The answer lies in two points of simple arithmetic. First, the amount of coal needed for a nonstop roundtrip would be as great as the total cargo capacity. Second, long-distance carriers, to be economical, had to be wide and deep and were usually slow. To slip in over the Charleston Harbor Bar at night required speed and a shallow draft. Thus large slow craft brought freight to the Bahamas and smaller swifter craft carried the cargo on the final leg of the voyage, from the Bahamas to the Confederacy.
The complex geography of the Bahamas made these logistics anything but simple, however. The island group, once owned by Great Britain and now independent, occupies an irregular area 200 miles wide and 500 miles long, slanting from central Florida to Haiti. Most of the area is a shallow coral bank, thousands of square miles of razor-sharp hazards to navigation. A T-shaped trough, 5,000 feet deep, lies in the middle of these reefs. The left bar of the “T” forms the Northwest Providence Channel, while opposite it is the Northeast Providence Channel. The vertical axis of the T is a huge deep gulf, the Tongue of the Ocean. Nassau lies on New Providence Island, along the eastern edge of the Tongue. Subsidiary smuggling ports were at Great Exuma, Great Abaco and Grand Bahama islands.
Grand Bahama and the two Abacos form the top of the T. A glance at the map will show that the shortest route from Nassau to Charleston is due north, along the east coast of Great Abaco, then angling northwest to cross the Gulf Stream and thence to South Carolina, a total of 515 miles. In the days before radar, sonar and satellite navigation, the sextant, the lead line and an alert lookout were all that stood between a ship and disaster. A local pilot was a great help, along with the charts and Sailing Directions well known to serious mariners. The Chart of the Bahama Islands, published in 1852 by James Imray, indicates the difficulties in entering even the principal harbor of Nassau. First, the ship must find the harbor entrance, between Silver Key and Hog Island (now Paradise Island), and—steering a course of 135 degrees, using Fort Fincastle as a reference point—pass between Hogfish Bank and the western tip of Hog Island. This main channel had a maximum depth of 3l⁄2 fathoms (21 feet). The secondary approaches to Nassau were even more hazardous. Captain John Wilkinson had deep respect for these narrow channels. He wrote: “All of the islands are surrounded by coral reefs and shoals…the iron plates of the Giraffe [Robert E. Lee] would have been pierced as completely as if made of pasteboard, if she had come in contact even at low speed with those jagged coral heads.”
Other Bahamian transshipment ports were even more challenging. In the 1860s New Plymouth, on Green Turtle Key along the northeast coast of Great Abaco—today the site of several luxury resorts—was served by a channel to Green Turtle Key that was only 18 feet deep. The Exuma Keys, a long north-south chain with Georgetown as the principal harbor, were no easier to navigate. Captain Barnett’s 1859 West Indies Pilot had this to say about Great Exuma, the largest island: “The south shore is generally low and swampy, skirted by small keys among which boats can navigate only at high water. The north shore is more firm and elevated…with several secure harbors for vessels drawing as much as 15 feet…the channels however are so exceedingly narrow and so intricate as to be quite impassable to strangers.”
Grand (also called Great) Bahama today has a deep-water facility at Freeport, but this was created by a massive dredging project in the 1950s. The island’s westerly location made it ideal for a short run to the Gulf Stream off Florida, where that current would speed the ship north to Charleston or Wilmington. The West Indies Pilot said of Grand Bahama, “The west end is a mile broad, north and south, and anchorage will be found under it in eight or nine fathoms at about half a mile offshore…a vessel must quit the moment the wind threatens to change.” Seventy-seven years later, the U.S. Hydrographic Office offered this advice: “Vessels will find anchorage off Settlement Point [the far west end] in eight or nine fathoms of water, but they must be prepared to leave if the wind threatens to blow onshore.” Not much has changed.
Natural hazards aside, finding cargoes was easy since supply and demand were both intense. Finding stevedores was even easier, since unskilled labor and poverty abounded in the Bahamas. The challenge always lay in getting the cargoes from the Bahamian ports to their destinations. That meant evading the blockaders who lay off Charleston and Wilmington, anxious for glory and prize money. It also meant avoiding Union vessels cruising the Bahamas, waiting to pounce on blockade runners.
Ultimately, however, factors within the Confederacy proved to have the greatest impact on the effectiveness of the blockade-running enterprise. It is interesting to compare England in the 1940s, when it was waging war with the Germans, to the Confederacy in the 1860s. The British instituted rationing and installed wage and price controls. Only vital necessities were imported. Luxuries were unavailable even to the royal family. The South, by contrast, could not bring itself to embrace the central controls necessary in a large modern nation waging total war.
And some Southerners never lost their taste—or their desire—for the finer things, even in the midst of a lengthy war. When Hobart Pasha, a future admiral of the Egyptian navy and one of the Civil War’s most successful blockade runners, was about to depart England for Nassau, he met a Southern woman at a social gathering and asked her what was most needed in the Confederacy. She replied: “Corsets, sir, I reckon. Yes, corsets!” Pasha invested in 1,000 pairs of “stays” and sold them a few weeks later in Wilmington for 1,100- percent profit.
In early 1865, while the soldiers in gray were nearing the end of the long, taxing siege of Petersburg, Va., a ranking Confederate politician gave a dinner party for 14 guests at a cost of $10,000 (in today’s dollars). The evening’s refreshments included champagne, sherry and Madeira. Diarist Mary Chesnut described other suppers of champagne, oysters, venison, ices and a profusion of wines. Lieutenant McHenry Howard recorded a similar scene at a December 1864 dinner party at an estate 20 miles northwest of Charleston, expressing his surprise at the profusion of silver, fine china, drinks and food. Several diarists described the silk shirts and stockings worn by gamblers and pimps in Richmond while only miles away Confederate soldiers starved and shivered in rags. Clearly the importation of luxury goods was still fundamental to a blockade runner’s success even late in the war, seemingly confirming the common soldier’s complaint that the conflict was “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.”
Nonetheless, the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots might not have seemed so dramatic had the profusion of weapons, gunpowder, salt beef and pork shipped through the Bahamas actually made it to the men at the front. The problem: the Confederate states’ lack of organization and confidence in the Southern railroad system.
The railroad companies and several states refused to coordinate their efforts. The tracks of one line might be wider or narrower than the axles of the next railroad up the line. Local commanders could stop and seize a train at will, leaving food rotting by the ton while only a few miles away Southern boys were dying from starvation. All the Scottish shipbuilders, British investors, Confederate and Bahamian businessmen and blockade runners couldn’t get that train back on the track.
Unlike the hallowed ground of Gettysburg or Antietam, there is no way to preserve the Bahamian maritime battlefields. With few exceptions, all we have are the records—records that tell an often overlooked tale of stealth and skill, courage and greed and a flow of goods so vast that an infant nation was not only able to sustain itself, but fight a full-scale civil war against a powerful opponent and very nearly win its independence.
For additional reading, see: Blockade Running During the Civil War, by Francis B. Bradlee; and A History of the Bahamas, by Michael Craton.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.