Thornaby’s Blockade Runner

Thornaby’s Blockade Runner

During the American Civil War (1861-65) supplying arms and war materiel to the Confederate forces was a lucrative, if risky business.

The Confederate government had no means of producing the volumes of supplies and equipment needed by its armies to engage in a long war with the Union.  Their only means of getting the goods they needed was to have them brought in by sea.  The incoming ships, mostly from Europe but Great Britain in particular, would unload weapons, gun powder, medicines and other necessities as well as mail, and load up with tobacco and cotton destined for the markets at home.

In an attempt to stop this trade, on 19 April 1861 President Lincoln issued a proclamation imposing a blockade of the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.  This covered about 3500 miles of coastline and about 180 ports.  No small undertaking with the vessels the Union Navy had at its disposal at that time. (by the end of the Civil War the Union would have the largest navy in the world).

Not surprising, a large number of British ships were soon employed as ‘blockade runners’.  There were several of these purpose-built blockade runners built on the Tees.  Perhaps the most well-known of these was the Bermuda – an iron-hulled screw-steamer weighing 1238 tons, built at the Thornaby yard of Pearse and Lockwood in 1862.  She was built for Edwin Haigh of Liverpool whose main business interest was cotton.

She was obviously built for the blockade-running business as it appears that, shortly after being completed, she was sold in secret to Messrs Henckle and Trenholme of South Carolina.  She was then chartered to Frasier, Trenholme and Co., a British company that operated as the Confederate government’s agent in Britain – they owned several of these blockade runners.  This kind of arrangement allowed American owned vessels to sail under the British flag.

In August 1861, under the command of Captain Eugene L Tessier, the Bermuda steamed down the Tees to Hartlepool to load her first cargo of war supplies before setting out to cross the Atlantic by way of Falmouth, where she took on more coal for the crossing.

While in Falmouth there was much speculation about her cargo and her destination – details of which had to be kept secret to avoid her being impounded by the authorities for being involved in a war against a nation with which Britain was at peace.

She made a good crossing of the Atlantic under British colours and,  arriving off the coast of Georgia in the middle of a storm, she was able to slip into the port of Savannah undetected while the blockading Union frigate ‘Savannah’ was forced out to sea to avoid the storm.  Here she discharged her million dollar cargo and took on 2000 bales of cotton to be sold in Britain.

On the night of the 1 November 1861 the Bermuda steamed out of Savannah, once more avoiding the blockade, and made a good passage home by way of Bermuda and Le Havre, arriving in the port of Liverpool on 23 January 1862.

During this time the Union Navy had been greatly improving the quality and quantity of the vessels allocated to the blockade.  Blockading duty was seen as a bit of a desirable posting for the Union sailors as men on the blockade ships were given better food and conditions to compensate them for the long periods of inactivity.  It was also customary for the blockade crews to be awarded a share of the value of any cargoes they captured.

Because of the superior vessels now blockading the southern ports, the blockade-runners themselves needed to be faster and with a shallower draft.  The Bermuda had a draft of nearly 17 feet and was slow by comparison so it was decided not to risk running her into a port again but to have her discharge her cargo in Bermuda for transfer to faster, smaller vessels to complete the journey.

On 18 February 1862, under the command of Charles W. Westendorff of Charleston SC, she embarked on her second voyage with her hold full of gunpowder.

About six weeks later on 24 March 1862 she docked in Bermuda where she was told by the British authorities that she would not be allowed to discharge her cargo of ordnance as it was clearly intended for the Confederate rebels. She was there for about 4 weeks trying to come to some agreement but, with her deadly cargo still in the hold, she was eventually forced to head for the port of Nassau, in the Bahamas, where she was to take on a consignment of cotton destined for England.

On 27 April 1862, as she approached the Bahamas from the North she was intercepted by the Union blockade ship ‘the Mercedita’ commanded by Henry S Stellwagen.  The Union vessel gave chase and fired a shot across the bows of the unarmed Bermuda.

Captain Westendorff had no choice but to heave to.

The Mercedita put a boarding party aboard the Bermuda where they not only found discrepancies in the cargo manifests, but also discovered the contraband cargo.  This included  ‘a battery of 7 fieldpieces (rifled), with carriages and everything complete, a number of heavier rifled cannon, 42,720 pounds of powder in barrels, and one-half and one-fourth barrels; 70 barrels of cartridges, over 600 cases of shells, etc…’

As her captain admitted his cargo was intended for the Confederate armies and that the ship had previously ran the blockade, the Bermuda was seized and sent to the port of Philadelphia under the command of Lt. T.Abbott and a prize crew of 30 Union sailors.  She arrived in Philadelphia on 3 May 1862

Included in the contraband cargo was a large supply of paper that was to be used by the Confederacy for the printing of bank notes.  Watermarked CSA (Confederate States of America?) the paper was sent to the Currency Bureau in Philadelphia where it was used to print specimen notes of ‘fractional currency’ (these were bank notes of various denominations from 3 cents up to 50 cents which were in use from the outbreak of the Civil War until about 1876).  A number of these sheets of paper with the water mark CSA still exist.  The loss of this bank note paper was by far the most damaging of the Bermuda’s cargo that was lost by the Confederates.

On 12 August 1862, the Bermuda was put on trial before the Philadelphia court on a charge of assisting the rebels, but it wasn’t until 5 March 1863 that she was ‘found guilty’ and ‘condemned’.  At this time the Union Navy bought the vessel and, on 13 May 1863, commissioned her into the service, rather ironically, as a supply vessel for their blockade ships.

She remained in service steaming between Philadelphia and the Gulf of Mexico, running supplies to the blockade ships, carrying Union sailors to and from their postings and from time to time ferrying captured Confederate sailors into captivity.   Now designated the USS Bermuda she had a number of successes herself intercepting blockade runners and took some valuable prize cargoes.  The poacher had turned gamekeeper.

She was decommissioned at the end of the Civil War and on 22 September 1865 was auctioned off to the merchant trade where she sailed as the ‘General Meade’ and later the ‘Bahamas’.

She was lost in a storm on 10 February 1882 bound for New York from Puerto Rica.