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Father John B. Tabb: Aboard Confederate Blockade Runners

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The Tabbs of Amelia County were one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Virginia, owning vast acreage and many slaves. When the Civil War came, 16-year-old Johnny Tabb wanted to join his brothers in the Confederate Army, but he was a frail lad with a serious eye problem, and this was not possible. However, his chance to serve the Confederacy would come.

In 1862, Major B.F. Ficklin of the Confederate War Department, visiting the Tabb family estate, 'The Forest,' revealed that he had been commissioned by the Southern government to go to England, buy a ship, and convert it into a blockade runner for the Confederacy. He invited young Tabb to accompany him, an invitation the boy eagerly accepted. Tabb left the next day for Wilmington, N.C., where he joined the Confederate Navy as clerk to Captain John Wilkinson, who had been selected to command the new blockade runner.

In September 1862, Wilkinson, Ficklin, Tabb and two government officials boarded the Southern steamer Kate in Wilmington with funds converted into pounds sterling for the purchase. The trip would be long, arduous and dangerous. Kate proceeded down the Cape Fear River and laid to under the guns of Fort Fisher, in sight of the Federal blockading fleet, waiting for nightfall. Under cover of darkness she ran the blockade and headed for San Salvador in the Bahamas.

In transit, one of the passengers died of yellow fever; Major Ficklin also contracted the disease, but survived. At San Salvador, Ficklin hired a schooner to take the party to Cuba. With contrary winds, the going was slow; they ran out of ice and provisions. On the latter part of their week-long voyage, a 14-foot shark, which had been following them from San Salvador, was their only food. The schooner finally arrived at Cardenas, Cuba, where Tabb set foot on foreign soil for the first time. He was fascinated by the enormous crabs that frequented the streets and houses. The party went by train to Havana, where they took a Spanish steamer bound for the Virgin Islands, stopping at numerous ports along the way. In St. Thomas, they transferred to an English mail steamer and proceeded to Southampton without further incident. The trip had taken almost two months.

The party then proceeded to Glasgow, Scotland, to negotiate the purchase of a passenger steamer, Giraffe, which ran between Glasgow and Belfast, and to oversee her conversion into a blockade runner. She was 260 feet long and weighed 900 tons, with a draft of 10 feet and a top speed of 13 knots, and carried no armament. She was one of the fastest of the blockade runners, about as fast as the famous Confederate raider Alabama. During the period of negotiations and renovation, Tabb's duties were nominal, and he enjoyed the sights of England, as well as a side trip to Paris.

Giraffe sailed under the British flag with a British captain, although Captain Wilkinson was actually in charge. The first cargo consisted of medical supplies and fine paper for printing money consigned to the Confederate Treasury Department, along with 26 Scottish lithographers who had contracted to work for the treasury. The crossing, via the Portuguese Madeira Islands and Puerto Rico to Nassau, was routine. In Nassau they picked up pilots and set sail on the final leg of their journey, the running of the Federal blockade of Wilmington.

On December 26, 1862, Giraffe approached the North Carolina coast. As she neared the blockading fleet, the fire room hatch was covered, all lights were extinguished, and even the compass was hooded except for a small hole for the helmsman to see through. Anyone showing an open light was subject to instant death. Heading for the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the ship came to a sudden halt–Giraffe was stuck on a sandbar. If capture appeared imminent, the ship was to be destroyed rather than surrendered. Tabb was ordered to bring explosives on deck for that purpose. A boat was launched to set out an anchor. The sailors rowed with muffled oars, so close to a blockader that the crew's voices could be heard. With the anchor dropped, the ship's winch was tightened, and Giraffe was pulled off the bar. The anchor was then cut loose, and the ship entered the port of Wilmington at midnight on December 29. The next morning, Tabb counted 17 blockaders in line offshore. He later memorialized the incident in a poem called 'The Anchor.'

Giraffe, one of only three or four blockade runners owned by the Confederate government, was renamed R.E. Lee. All other blockade runners were privately owned and were so profitable that often one successful trip would more than pay for the loss of a ship. 'A blockade-runner,' Tabb once wrote, 'was almost as invisible at night as Harlequin in the pantomime. Nothing showed above the deck but two short masts, and the smokestack; and the lead-colored hull could scarcely be seen at the distance of one hundred yards. Even on a clear day they were not easily discovered.'

Sailors on the privately owned ships were paid $100 a month in gold and a $50 bonus at the end of a good trip, which usually took about seven days. The crews of the government-owned blockade runners were paid the same. Captains and pilots earned as much as $5,000 a year. Navy captains, subordinate officers and pilots received only the pay of their rank in gold.

R.E. Lee became one of the most famous of all the blockade runners. She ran the blockade 21 times, with 6,000 to 7,000 cotton bales worth $2 million in gold, and she brought back cargos of equal value. Tabb served aboard until almost the end of her Confederate service. The voyages were between Bermuda or Nassau and such Carolina coastal cities as Wilmington, Beaufort and Charleston. Tabb said that on each trip they had to pass through 20 to 30 Federal warships, and that the task was not made easier when the cargo was ammunition.

During one trip, bad weather forced R.E. Lee to stray off course, and she met a Federal blockader too suddenly for evasive action. The quick-witted Captain Wilkinson ordered the ship quickly rigged to impersonate a Federal transport (many captured blockade runners were converted to that use). He ran up the United States flag, saluted the blockader, who returned the salute, and proceeded on his way.

On another occasion, more aggressive action was necessary. Outbound for Nassau, R.E. Lee was chased by USS Iroquois, a sailing vessel. She had government gold in her cargo and was using inferior coal, which was costing her speed. Cotton bales were quickly soaked in turpentine and used as fuel, and the boilers were fired so high that the deck was almost scorching hot. R.E. Lee stayed ahead of her pursuer and, at dusk, put up a smoke screen, made a sharp 90-degree turn and escaped.

In September 1863, Wilkinson was put in charge of an expedition to free Confederate prisoners of war at Johnson's Island, near Sandusky, Ohio. A party of handpicked men was formed, with Lieutenant Robert Minor as second-in-command. The inclusion in the party of young Johnny Tabb was evidence of the high esteem in which his commander held him.

The expedition was a true cloak-and-dagger affair. The party, including a replacement captain for R.E. Lee, sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, on October 10, 1863, with a cargo of cotton. She was attacked and struck by enemy fire while running the blockade, but got through with only minor damage. The proceeds from the sale of the cotton were to be used to buy blankets and shoes for the army and for the needs of the released prisoners. The men arrived in Halifax on October 16, and because such a large party of Confederates would attract attention, they split into small groups. Wilkinson had been given letters to certain individuals in Canada who were ready to help, and an advance man was sent to Montreal, via Portland, Maine, to advise them of the party's coming.

The party got as far as Toronto, but the plot was discovered and the Canadian governor general issued a proclamation threatening to imprison anyone violating his country's neutrality laws. He also notified United States authorities, and the prison garrison was reinforced and placed on full alert. The expedition was therefore called off, and the entire party returned to Halifax, making part of the trip by sleigh, and booked passage on Alpha, the first steamer available bound for Bermuda, in December 1863.

R.E. Lee, under her replacement captain, sailed from Halifax after landing the expedition party. She was captured off the North Carolina coast on her way to Texas with army payrolls. Renamed Fort Donelson, she was assigned to Union blockade duty and subsequently participated in the capture of Fort Fisher and the closing of Wilmington, the last port open to the Confederacy–an ironic ending to the career of a famous blockade runner.

After the arrival of the expedition party in Bermuda, Wilkinson took command of a privately owned blockade runner, Whisper, which had come over from England in the early part of 1864. Tabb accompanied him back to the Confederacy, where they parted ways.

In May 1864, Tabb ran the blockade for the 20th time from Wilmington to Bermuda. It was a particularly difficult crossing, in rough weather, on a poor steamer burning bad coal. Tabb remembered that it was a Sunday when they landed because the bell of the English church was ringing, and he got ashore just in time to attend the evening service.

Tabb had come bearing government dispatches, and was under orders to return on Siren, a small British steamer used by the governor of Bermuda as a yacht, which had been purchased by the Confederate government. Siren, which was commanded by a British captain, was in poor condition, and the captain had trouble getting a crew. She was very noisy, 'roaring like a buzz saw,' Tabb said, and someone remarked that the blockading fleet would hear her coming before they saw her. On the third day at sea there was a report, which proved false, that she had sprung a leak and was going to sink. But something had definitely gone wrong with the engine, and the ship was almost dead in the water. On the morning of June 5, 1864, off Beaufort, N.C., Siren was approached by the Federal steamer Keystone State, which fired two shots over her bow. The British flag was lowered, and Siren was towed into port by Keystone State as a prize of war.

Tabb, the British captain and others were sent to Point Lookout, the infamous Federal prison camp located on a low, sandy peninsula in southern Maryland where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. The prison was about 20 acres in size, surrounded by a palisade and heavily guarded. The prisoners were housed in tents, although there was an extensive hospital for the ill–of whom there were many. There, Tabb spent the most miserable seven months of his life. He corresponded with the British representative in Washington and secured his cooperation in getting the captain and his associates released from Point Lookout. They were prepared to declare him English also, to secure his release, but Tabb would have none of this. When the Englishmen reached New York, they sent, by prearrangement, a box of supplies to Tabb, which included a $5 gold piece concealed in a sausage. Being sick in the hospital at the time, Tabb somehow forgot the money and gave the supplies away. The honest recipient of the sausage later returned the $5 gold piece to him.

The only bright spot in Tabb's imprisonment was his meeting with Sidney Lanier, a young Confederate signal officer who also had been captured aboard a blockade runner. Lanier, who would become one of the South's best-known postwar literary figures, was an accomplished flutist. While in the hospital, Tabb heard the sound of a flute, which Lanier had smuggled into prison concealed up his sleeve, and vowed that he must find the player when he was able. The two kindred spirits became inseparable until their release from prison. They were together as much as possible, frequently being joined by a Polish physician with a fine voice who loved to sing operatic arias. Often, when singing a love song, the good doctor would work himself up to an emotional peak, much to the amusement of the young Americans.

In February 1865, Tabb was finally exchanged and went home to The Forest in Amelia County, where he remained until April, recuperating from his prison ordeal. He then joined his brothers' regiment, the 59th Virginia Infantry stationed near Richmond, at about the time that the capital city was evacuated. The 59th, commanded by his older brother, Colonel William Barksdale Tabb, was part of Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise's brigade. As the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew southwestward, closely pursued by Federal forces, it passed through Tabb's home county. A portion of the army was surrounded at the Battle of Sayler's Creek on April 6, 1865. Most of the encircled Confederates were obliged to surrender, but Wise's brigade fought its way out of the trap and became part of Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon's command on the march to High Bridge, Farmville, and Appomattox Court House. There, on April 9, 1865, just past his 20th birthday, Private John B. Tabb was paroled along with his brothers and the remaining members of the 59th Virginia Infantry.

After the war, Major Ficklin offered to send Tabb to Baltimore to study music. The Tabb family had been impoverished by the war, and the major's offer was readily accepted. A year later, however, Ficklin had financial reverses of his own and could no longer sponsor Tabb's musical education. Tabb then taught school for a time and, although from an Episcopalian family, converted to Roman Catholicism while in Baltimore. He entered Saint Mary's Seminary there and was ordained a priest in 1874 at the age of 29. He became a teacher at Saint Charles College and Seminary in Ellicott City, Md., where he remained for the rest of his life.

While at Saint Charles, Tabb renewed his friendship with Sidney Lanier, then a resident of Baltimore, principal flutist of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and member of the faculty of Johns Hopkins University. The former prison mates maintained a lively correspondence until Lanier's death.

In the postwar years, Father Tabb gained a widespread reputation in American literary circles. Several volumes of his poems were published, and many appeared in well-known periodicals of the day such as Harpers, The Atlantic and Lippincott's, and also received critical acclaim in the British press. Ever the unreconstructed Rebel, Father Tabb would never cross the Mason-Dixon Line, and always refused invitations to speak in the North.

Father Tabb was remembered by his students for his accomplished piano playing, his incisive cartoons and his ready wit. The archives of the Suplician order contain many clever cartoons of Tabb's fellow priests, often accompanied by topical and pun-filled verses that reveal his keen insight into human nature.

Father Tabb's eyesight continued to deteriorate from the malady that had plagued him since childhood. He had to be relieved of his teaching duties at Saint Charles, and eventually became completely blind. His general health also began to fail with increasing rapidity. The opening lines of a poem published in his first book of verse begin, 'To die in sleep–to drift from dream to dream.' At 11 p.m. on November 19, 1909, Father Tabb's wish was granted.


This article was written by Charles A. Earp and originally appeared in America's Civil War magazine.

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