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The Blockade Runners Race of 1864

Courtesy of Robert Maffitt of Wilmington,

Great-Grandson of famed blockade-runner

Captain John Newland Maffitt

The Illustrated London News




The Illustrated London News, vol. 45, no. 1268, p. 70.

July 16, 1864

We have received from our Special Artist, who, after a short interval of repose in England, has returned to the seat of war in America and safely arrived at the camp of General Lee, a Sketch of the scene on board the blockade-running steamer Lilian as she entered the port of Wilmington, in the Confederate States, passing unharmed the squadron of Federal cruisers, on the morning of June 4. The special correspondent of the Times, who was a passenger on board the same vessel, has contributed to that journal a narrative of the run from Bermuda to Wilmington, which may be quoted as a commentary on the Illustration we have engraved:

"Upon the evening of Wednesday, the 1st of June, the Lilian and the Florie, two of the fleetest and most beautiful of the blockade-defying vessels, started simultaneously from Bermuda upon the first trip inward which either had ever made. Both belong to the same company, but there is an emulation between the two rival vessels which is not satisfactorily allayed by their experiences hitherto, but which waits the solution of further trial. The weather was lovely, the sea like a milldam, and favourable beyond expression to light draught and gossamer craft, such as are these blockade-runners, which lightly scratch the surface instead of clutching the ribs of old ocean, and which in summer seas have no more to fear from heavy seagoing craft, like the Rhode Island or the Vanderbilt, than has the Irish freight-express from the lumbering freight-train which leaves Euston-square five minutes in its rear. Rarely have two more attractive prizes slipped through the meshes of the blockade than the two vessels of which I am writing.

It is not alone that they would be invaluable with a view to their conversion into Federal cruisers, or that two of the most valuable cargoes which have yet reached Wilmington await at this instant the disposal of the Confederate Government, but that on board both vessels were Confederate 'malignants,' whose capture would have been a sweet morsel to many a craving palate in Washington and Boston. To many an English reader the name of Captain Maffit, lately in command of the Confederate cruiser Florida, well known as having assisted Captain Semmes and the Alabama demonstrate that two light, and, as regards equipment, comparatively insignificant vessels of war would have little difficulty in driving from the ocean a flag which, three years ago, might have been seen upon every wave of every sea.

"My experience on board the Lilian leads me to anticipate for Captain Maffit and his vessel---a credit to her builders, Messrs. Thompson, of Glasgow---a long and prosperous career. An incident which occurred 200 miles from Wilmington, in a portion of the ocean which is constantly swept by Federal cruisers, seems worthy of record.

Upon our port bow was descried a sail enveloped in a dense canopy of smoke. Time was ineffably precious--there was every reason to suspect Yankee guile, which is said to be nowhere more fertilely exhibited than in their conduct of the blockade; but is was deemed possible, after careful scrutiny, that the vessel might be on fire. Briefly remarking, 'The ship which leaves a companion at sea in distress must be accursed,' Captain Maffitt ordered our course to be altered, and bore down upon the stranger. It soon became evident that she was a Federal cruiser, making a dense white smoke with her Cumberland coal, and beating rapidly eastward in apparent pursuit of another delinquent. The helm was rapidly changed, and our course resumed. Dark and inscrutable came on the noon, defying all possibility of an observation. It was believed that ere the morrow's dawn should break we might reach Wilmington, and onward we pressed. The night wore rapidly away; two o'clock, three o'clock, half past three o'clock in the morning came, but by no eye peering through the thick gloom could the looked-for light at Fort Fisher be discerned.

Then, as the morning dawned, we prepared to lay-to for the day, between the outer and inner cordon of the blockaders. It was hardly to be expected that we should escape for sixteen hours unobserved; but it was a signal instance of good luck that from four in the morning till half-past one p. m., we were unmolested. Then the tall masts of a large Federal cruiser, and her immense paddlewheels and lofty black hull were visible, and for the first time, as our antagonist approached us from the direction of Wilmington, the 'airy fairy Lilian' prepared to give us assurance of that speed which we all felt she possessed. Some slight delay there was before steam could be fully got up, and for some twenty minutes our pursuer seemed to gain upon us. But as the pressure of steam ascended from fifteen pounds to twenty, from twenty to twenty-three, from twenty-three to twenty-six, and as the revolutions of the paddle mounted from twenty-six to twenty-eight, from twenty-eight to thirty-three per minute, the Lilian flew out to sea swift as arrow from a bow.

In little more than two hours the hull of our pursuer was invisible, and her topgallant sails a speck upon the distant horizon. But as she still lay between us and Wilmington it became necessary to run round her. This also the light-heeled Lilian had little difficulty in accomplishing; but as the sun dropped into the sea, and our pursuer, although distant, still hung upon our rear, we found that, reckoning little the speed of our advance, we had sighted the inside blockade squadron before the close of day. There was nothing for it but to persevere, and fortunately, before we approached close to land, darkness had completely set in.

Silently and with bated breath we passed cruiser after cruiser, distinctly visible to every eye, and suggesting the flashing out of a blue or Drummond light, and the rush of grape-shot and shrapnel through our rigging and bulwarks. But it was not destined that upon this occasion the Lilian should receive her baptism of fire. Just as we approach Fort Fisher a dark spot is seen on the bar. It is a Federal launch, seen by us too late for Captain Maffit to indulge the anxious wish of his heart and to run her down. We pass her within twenty yards, and again the expected volley of musketry is wanting. Another moment and we are under the mound upon which stands the fort, and eagerly questioned for news. 'The news is good all round.' 'Three times three for General Johnston;' 'six times six for General Lee;' and in mirth and laughter and song the night wears away. Three hours after us comes the Florie, and is heavily fired at as she wears inwards. But morning finds both vessels and their cargoes safe at their wharf in Wilmington, nor is it rash to predict for them both the probability of many returns. At least it may safely be augured that it will take no ordinary amount of speed and courage to circumvent so fearless and experienced a sailor as Captain Maffit, and that in his new career his skill and success will be not inferior to those which he exhibited in his old.

As an illustration of the facility and certainty with which the blockade is now defied, I will mention, in conclusion, a few facts.

Between the 1st of May and the 1st of June no less than twenty-four vessels made the port of Wilmington safely, without disaster befalling a single vessel. No wonder that piles upon piles of Government goods are stored here, awaiting, when there is less strain upon the railroads, transportation to Richmond and Atlanta. I am informed by the Government agent here that in his whole experience he has never lost a single outward-bound letter. A gentleman at Bermuda, the agent of an eminent English firm, told me that during two years he had sent an average of three mails per month from Bermuda and Nassau into Secessia, and that in the whole time only two mails had been lost."