Banshee Runs the Blockade
Galveston Daily News, February 28, 1865:
Galveston, February 25, 1865:
Editor News: The steamer Banshee arrived yesterday morning from Havana. About 25 shots were fired at her, while running in by the Yankee fleet, but without effect.
In his book Running the Blockade: A Personal Narrative of Adventures, Risks, and Escapes During the American Civil War, Tom Taylor devotes one of his latter chapters to his last run into the Confederacy, aboard the big runner Banshee No. 2. This steel-hulled paddle steamer, one of the best-known runners of the war, was built by Aitken and Mansell of Glasgow, measuring 252 feet x 31 feet x 11 feet, and 627 gross registered tons. (By way of comparison, Will o’ the Wisp was 209.5 x 23.2 x 9.7, and 117 grt.) She made a total of four round voyages into Confederate ports — three into Wilmington, North Carolina, and one into Galveston. Banshee No. 2 survived the war and returned to the U.K.
Banshee No. 2 was known in the Confederacy as a fast boat. In October 1864, the Columbus, Georgia Daily Enquirer repeated an item from an unknown Liverpool paper, describing a race between Banshee and a local mail steamer:
EXCITING RACE. — On Monday last, by special arrangement, a trial of speed took place from Holyhead [across the Irish Sea] to Kingstown [Dublin], between the mail steamer Ulster and the Banshee, a vessel built by Mssrs. Aitken & Mansell, of Glasgow, for a well known firm ib this town, for the purpose of running the blockade. The Ulster left the harbor of Holyhead two boats’ lengths ahead of the Banshee, which followed her out at 2:35 p.m. In ten minutes after this, the Banshee came gallantly alongside her opponent, and notwithstanding some loss of time, occasioned by heated bearings, she reached Kingstown fifteen minutes before the Ulster, making the passage from the harbor wall to Kingstown in three hours and twenty-five minutes, or at an average speed of over eighteen statute miles per hour, and carrying 280 toms of dead weight. The Banshee is [built of?] steel, and is 1,190 [tons] R.M., and is propelled by paddles driven by engines of 250 horse power.
Interestingly, in her last run Banshee followed the identical path that William Watson would about a month later, while serving as navigator for a screw steamer he called “Phoenix” in his book, but was probably Pelican. Banshee even grounded at about the same spot in the swash channel, although Taylor’s big steamer finally pushed over by wave while making the dash in daylight, while Watson had to wait silently, in darkness, while the tide rose enough to refloat his ship.
When Wilmington was on the point of falling [January 1865] there was nothing for it but to transfer our operations to Galveston, and to accomplish this I took the Banshee No 2 over to Havana with a valuable cargo accompanied by Frank Hurst, in order to make an attempt to run into Galveston: this proved to be my last trip, but it was far from being the least exciting. When all was ready we experienced the greatest difficulty in finding a Galveston pilot. Though, owing to the high rate of pay, numbers of men were to be found ready to offer their services, it was extremely hard to obtain competent men. After considerable delay, we had to content ourselves at last with a man who said he knew all about the port but who turned out to be absolutely worthless. We then made a start, and with the exception of meeting with the most violent thunderstorm, in which the lightning was something awful, nothing extraordinary occurred on our passage across the Gulf of Mexico, and we scarcely saw a sail — very different from our experiences between Nassau and Wilmington, when it was generally a case of “sail on the port bow,” or “steamer right ahead,” at all hours of the day.
The third evening after leaving Havana we had run our distance and, on heaving the lead, and finding that we were within a few miles of the shore, we steamed cautiously on in order to try and make out the blockading squadron or the land. It was a comparatively calm and very dark night, just the one for the purpose, but within an hour all had changed and it commenced to blow a regular “Norther,” a wind which is very prevalent on that coast. Until then I had no idea what a “Norther” meant; first rain came down in torrents, then out of the inky blackness of clouds and rain came furious gusts, until a hurricane was blowing against which, notwithstanding that we were steaming at full speed, we made little or no way, and although the sea was smooth our decks were swept by white foam and spray Suddenly we made out some dark objects all round us, and found ourselves drifting helplessly among the ships of the blockading squadron, which were steaming hard to their anchors, and at one moment we were almost jostling two of them; whether they knew what we were, or mistook us for one of themselves, matters not; they were too much occupied about their own safety to attempt to interfere
As to attempt to get into Galveston that night would have been madness, we let the Banshee drift and, when we thought we were clear of the fleet we steamed slowly seaward, after a while shaping a course so as to make the land about thirty miles to the south west at daylight. We succeeded in doing this, and quietly dropped our anchor in perfectly calm water, the Norther having subsided almost as quickly as it had risen. Having seen enough of our pilot to realise that he was no good whatever, we decided after a conference to lie all day, where we were keeping a sharp look-out, and steam handy and determined as evening came on to creep slowly up the coast until we made out the blockading fleet, then to anchor again and make a bold dash at daylight for our port. All went well; we were unmolested during the day, and got under weigh towards evening, passing close to a wreck which we recognised as our old friend the Will o’ the Wisp, which had been driven ashore and lost on the very first trip she made after I had sold her. Immediately afterwards we very nearly lost our own ship too. Seeing a post of Confederate soldiers close by on the beach, we determined to steam close in and communicate with them, in order to learn all about the tactics of the blockaders and our exact distance from Galveston. We backed her close in to the breakers in order to speak, but when the order was given to go ahead she declined to move, and the chief engineer reported that something had gone wrong with the cylinder valve, and that she must heave to for repairs. It was an anxious moment: the Banshee had barely three fathoms beneath her, and her stern was almost in the white water. We let go the anchor, but in the heavy swell it failed to hold; the pilot was in a helpless state of flurry when he found that we were drifting slowly but steadily towards the shore, but [Captain Jonathan W.] Steele’s presence of mind never for one moment deserted him. The comparatively few minutes which occupied the engineers in temporarily remedying the defect seemed like hours in the presence of the danger momentarily threatening us. When at length the engineers managed to turn her ahead, we on the bridge were greatly relieved to see her point seawards and clear the breakers. I have often thought since, if a disaster had happened and we had lost the ship, how stupid we should have been thought by people at home.
As soon as we reached deep water the damage was permanently repaired, and we steamed cautiously up the coast, until about sundown we made out the topmasts of the blockading squadron right ahead. We promptly stopped, calculating that, as they were about ten to eleven miles from us, Galveston must lie a little further on our port bow. We let go our anchor and prepared for an anxious night; all hands were on deck and the cable was ready to be unshackled at a moment’s notice, with steam as nearly ready as possible without blowing off, as at any moment a prowler from the squadron patrolling the coast might have made us out. We had not been lying thus very long, when suddenly on the starboard bow we made out a cruiser steaming towards us, evidently on the prowl. It was a critical time; all hands were on deck, a man standing by to knock the shackle out of the chain cable, and the engineers at their stations. Thanks to the backing of the coast, our friend did not discover us, and to our relief disappeared to the southward.
After this, all was quiet during the remainder of the night, which fortunately for us was very dark, and about two hours before daylight [on February 24] we quietly raised our anchor and steamed slowly on, feeling our way cautiously by the lead and hoping, when daylight fairly broke, to find ourselves inside the fleet, opposite Galveston, and able to make a short dash for the bar. We had been under weigh some time, when suddenly we discovered a launch close to us on the port bow, filled with Northern blue jackets and marines. “Full speed ahead!” shouted Steele, and we were within an ace of running her down as we almost grazed her with our port paddle-wheel. Hurst and I looked straight down into the boat, waving them a parting salute. The crew seemed only too thankful at their narrow escape to open fire, but they soon regained their senses, and threw up rocket after rocket in our wake as a warning to the blockading fleet to be on the alert.
Daylight was then slowly breaking, and the first thing we discovered was that we had not taken sufficient account of the effects of the Norther on the current; instead of being opposite the town, with the fleet broad on to our starboard beam, we found ourselves down three or four miles from it, and the most leeward blockader close to us on our bow. It was a moment for immediate decision: the alternatives were to turn tail and stand a chase to seaward by their fastest cruisers, with chance of capture and, in any case, a return to Havana, as we had not sufficient coal for another attempt ;or to make a dash for it and take the fire of the squadron. In an instant we decided to go for it, and orders to turn ahead full speed were given, but the difficulty now to be overcome was that we could not make for the main channel without going through the fleet. This would have been certain destruction, so we had to make for a sort of swash channel along the beach, which however was nothing but a cul-de-sac, and to get from it into the main channel, shoal water and heavy breakers had to be passed, but there was now no other choice open to us.
By this time the fleet had opened fire upon us, and shells were bursting merrily around as we took the fire of each ship which we passed. Fortunately there was a narrow shoal between us, which prevented them from approaching within about half a mile of us; luckily also for us they were in rough water on the windward side of the shoal, and could not lay their guns with precision. And to this we owed our escape, as although our funnels were riddled with shell splinters, we received no damage and had only one man wounded.
But the worst was to come; we saw the white water already ahead, and we knew our only chance was to bump through it, being well aware that if she stuck fast we should lose the ship and all our lives, for no boat, even if it could have been launched, would have lived in such a surf. With two leadsmen in the chains, we approached our fate, taking no notice of the bursting shells and round shot to which the blockaders treated us in their desperation; it was not a question of the fathoms, but of the feet; we were drawing twelve feet, ten, nine, and when we put her at it as you do a horse at a jump, and as her nose was entering the white water, “eight feet” was sung out. A moment afterwards we touched and hung, and I thought all was over when a big wave came rolling along and lifted our stern and the ship bodily with a crack which could be heard a quarter of a mile off, and which we thought meant that her back was broken.
Approximate track of Banshee No. 2 entering Galveston on February 24, 1865. Full version here.
She once more went ahead; the worst was over, and after two or three minor bumps we were in the deep channel, helm hard-a-starboard, and heading for Galveston Bay, leaving the disappointed blockaders astern. It was a reckless undertaking and a narrow escape, but we were safe in, and after an examination by the health officer, we steamed gaily up to the town, the wharves of which were crowded by people who, gazing to seaward, had watched our exploit with much interest, and who cheered us heartily upon its success.
Banshee No. 2 sailed again in March, and short item in the Atchison City, Kansas(!) Freedom’s Champion of April 27:
The blockade runner Banshee, with one thousand bales of coton [sic.], arrived at Nassau, N. B., on the 30th ult. [March], from Galveston. She reports Galveston garrisoned by twelve hundred troops. Twelve Union ships were off the bar. Six steamers had sailed, recently from Havana for Galveston.
As would be expected, Banshee stopped at Havana before proceeding on to Nassau, so it’s not clear if her thousand bale-cargo represents her haul out Galveston alone. What is clear, though, is that by continuing on to Nassau, instead of refitting for a return to Texas, Banshee‘s owners showed their unwillingness to risk another run through the Galveston blockade.