An Unlikely Blockade Runner, cont.
Riverboats at the cotton docks at Mobile, c. 1900. The scene in 1863 would not have been much different, when boats like these were pressed into service as blockade runners. LoC image.
In the comments on my recent post about the river steamboat William Bagaley attempting to run the blockade, a regular reader asks:
Although I’m not very familiar with their capabilities, I wouldn’t have thought steamboats to be a very effective blockade runner. They would seem to have been too slow, from what little I know. Were Confederate officials simply hoping to sneak these types of ships through the blockade, or did they have the capacity to make enough speed to have a decent chance?
That’s a great question, and it underscores that in the last post I neglected to explain very well why Bagaley would be considered an unlikely candidate for a runner in the first place. Let me see if I can do that now.
Riverboats like William Bagaley were, by the 1850s, a very distinct and specialized type of vessel, optimized for work on the Western Rivers (i.e., the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri and their tributaries). In the arrangement of their machinery, and particularly their hull construction, they were very ill-suited to make long passages on open water. They were generally of very shallow draft, and their hulls were of light construction, braced with wooden trusses and iron rods. The main deck of a fully-loaded riverboat was often barely above the level of the water. Western Rivers boats were generally built without external keels and, having lots of superstructure, would be prone to drift off to leeward in a strong wind. They could manage well enough on a calm day with a flat sea, but anything more unsettled than that could be a serious problem.
Not that riverboats didn’t ever make a passage in the open Gulf of Mexico; many of them did make relatively short runs along the coast. The large majority of the 200+ steamboats that operated in Texas on the Sabine, Neches, Trinity, Brazos and Rio Grande had been built on the Ohio or Mississippi, and made the transit to Texas from the mouth of the Mississippi through the Gulf of Mexico. But those were relatively short runs, and generally in sight of land. It’s a whole different thing, in my view, to set out on a three- or four-day passage across the Gulf from Mobile to Havana or another port in Cuba.
Fuel is another problem. Riverboats in the Deep South generally burned cordwood, which is enormously bulky. Boats generally stopped to wood at least daily, if not more frequently. Boats sometimes towed wood barges along behind them, or lashed alongside, but that would severely limit their speed, and doesn’t seem to have been done in this case. Carrying four days’ fuel would have taken up a LOT of space that otherwise might have been used for an outbound cargo. And it had to be enough fuel for the whole trip, since (unlike more conventional, seagoing steamers), these riverboats didn’t carry a rudimentary sail plan that could be used to help them get by when the wood started running low.
So, yeah, it’s just a little bit nuts to try something like this with a riverboat. But the fact that there was a fairly large-scale, coordinated effort to use riverboats in this way speaks both to the urgency of Confederate government officials in wanting to establish a viable blockade-running system out of Mobile, and a willingness on the part of boat owners, whose vessels had been largely idled by the war and the near-elimination of maritime trade in the Gulf of Mexico, to try just about anything to turn their fortunes around.
Here’s how Stephen Wise describes this effort in Lifeline of the Confederacy (170-72):
After the escape of the Florida, it took time for a blockade-running system to develop at Mobile. While Helm continued to stockpile munitions in Havana, officials at Mobile began to hire steamers for runs to Cuba. Two were the prewar coasting packets Cuba and Alabama; however, the majority of the contracted ships were flat-bottomed river steamers from the Tombigbee-Alabama River system. These vessels were not designed for use on the open sea, but their carrying capacity of hundreds of bales of cotton overruled any objections to their unseaworthiness. At Mobile, agreements were worked out by the Quartermaster Bureau with the owners of the Alice Vivian, Crescent, Kate Dale, James Battle, Lizzie Davis, Planter, Warrior, and William Bagley [sic.]. The basic contract called for an appraisal of the steamer by two individuals, one appointed by the government, the other by the owners of the vessel. A set value for the vessel was then determined and, if the ship was lost, one-half of this amount would be pa.id to the owners by the Confederacy. The expense of the expeditions was equally shared while the private owners provided the crew. The Quartermaster Bureau furnished cotton that would be carried to Havana and sold, and the profits were evenly divided between the two parties. The return cargo was also split, with the government half being provided by Helm. On return to Mobile, the ship would be reappraised and, if her value was found to be less than when she left Mobile, the difference would be paid to her owners by the government. The contracts were eagerly sought by steamship owners. The greatest attraction was the fact that the Confederacy would supply the outward cargo of cotton, thus saving the owners the expense and trouble of gathering the staple. Though their profits were not as high as if they owned the entire cargoes, their risks were less and they would receive compensation if their ships were lost. The vessels began running in late spring 1863, joining the Cuba and Alabama in challenging the blockade. None were very successful. By September all the river steamers, as well as the Cuba, had been destroyed
or captured, with the fast Union steamer De Soto accounting for five of the losses.
We know what became of Wiliam Bagaley and James Battle; they were captured on their first run out of Mobile for Havana. What about the others?
Alice Vivian was a 175-foot-long Alabama River sidewheel packet, built at New Albany, Indiana in 1856. In 1859 she was running a regular mail packet service between New Orleans and Memphis (right). She ran out of Mobile the first time around June 12, 1863, and returned safely from Havana around July 15. She was captured on her second run out of Mobile on August 16, 1863, by U.S.S De Soto and sold at Key West for $237,300.83 — almost all of which must have been for her cargo. Three attempts at the blockade, two successful.
Crescent was a 146-foot sidewheel steamer renamed Nita for the purposes of blockade-running. She made two successful runs out of Mobile to Havana, in April and June 1863, but was captured by De Soto on August 17, 1863 while on her second return voyage to Mobile. Four attempts at the blockade, three successful.
Kate Dale was a large sidewheel riverboat, 193 feet long and 428 tons burthen, built at New Albany, Indiana in 1855. She ran out of Mobile in July 1863 and was captured by the U.S.S. R. R. Cuyler on July 14 near the Tortugas. She was subsequently sold at auction to private buyers, who then sold or leased her to the U.S. Quartermaster Department. She burned on Mobile Bay in May 1865. One attempt, captured. Planter — not to be confused with the steamboat Planter stolen by pilot Robert Smalls at Charleston in 1862 — was a 156-foot sidewheeler built at Wheeling, (West) Virginia in 1860. She ran out of Mobile in mid-July 1863, and was captured on July 15 by U.S.S. Lackawana. She was sold by the prize court to the U.S. Quartermaster Department, and sold again to civilian interests in 1866.One attempt, captured.
Warrior was a 130-foor-long sidewheeler built at Mobile in 1857. She was captured by U.S.S. Gertrude on her first attempt to run out of Mobile, on August 17, 1863.One attempt, captured.
So out of these seven vessels (including Wiliam Bagaley and James Battle), only two — Alice Vivian and Crescent — successfully made a complete, round voyage (one each), Mobile-Havana-Mobile. Five were captured on their first run out. It’s a terrible record, particularly for that period of the war. The seven ships together made twelve one-way attempts to pass through the Yankee blockade, only five of which were successful (about 42%). Marcus Price, the historian who tallied up attempts by blockade runners throughout the war, calculated that during 1863 in the Gulf of Mexico, steamers made 99 attempts at the blockade, of which 73 were successful. On any given run, three out of four typically got through. In fact, the actual odds were probably better than that for the others, given that Price’s totals include these sad-sack cases out of Mobile.
The lesson, I suppose, is that riverboats make terrible blockade runners. Make a note.