William Watson Runs Pelican Into Galveston
Through the first four months of 1865, steam blockade runners continued to arrive at Galveston at the rate of about one a week—at least twenty arrivals in all. A few ships, like Denbigh and Lark, made multiple round voyages between Havana and Galveston during that period. Mostly these ships ran in and out again without being spotted, but it was becoming a much more hazardous game than it had been before. In addition to the ordinary perils of navigation, as exemplified by the loss of Will o’ the Wisp and Acadia, the number of Federal warships assigned to the blockade grew steadily as other Confederates ports fell, freeing up gunboats assigned there to be moved to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
William Watson made one final trip into Galveston in the closing days of the war. In March 1865 he was in Havana, having recently sold his schooner Rob Roy, when he was recruited to sail aboard the new runner Pelican, under contract to Houston merchant Thomas W. House. The master who had brought Pelican across the Atlantic had stepped down, not wanting to run the blockade, and the new captain “had not much experience at sea, and knew nothing of navigation.” Watson agreed to go along and serve as navigator and pilot for getting in and out of Galveston. Watson looked over the ship, a twin-screw steamer, and assessed Pelican to be “tolerably well found” to the task. Her master’s charts were badly out of date, though, so Watson brought his own, which he had extensively annotated during his own voyages.
While the twenty officers and crew seemed capable enough, only two men besides Watson had ever run the blockade before. Their inexperience revealed itself almost immediately after leaving Havana, when the master sent a ship’s boy around to light the ship’s running lights for the night. The master seemed genuinely dumbfounded at Watson’s insistence that this was a case where the regulations had to be ignored, but he complied and had the lights extinguished.
On the third evening out, when approaching the Texas coast, Pelican was sighted and chased briefly by a Union gunboat, but Watson employed a standard runner’s trick, opening the furnace dampers to produce a huge volume of black, greasy smoke in the ship’s wake. Then, cutting off the smoke suddenly, Watson made a sharp change in Pelican’s course, leaving the Union ship to continue steering for the dark smudge on the horizon. Pelican later resumed her original course, making landfall several miles southwest of Galveston, and began creeping slowly along the shore, headed for the Southwest Channel that ran along the Galveston beach. Eventually Watson spotted the signal light atop Hendley’s Row, “not far off, but dim, probably from the scarcity of oil.”
Watson was worried that Pelican, light-draft as she was, would still find herself aground in the shallowest part of the channel, as the water was now at ebb tide. His concern proved to be correct, and Pelican grounded not far from the battery at Fort Point. At this point, they were well inshore of the blockaders, and with the tide rising, the ship floated free again in about an hour. Pelican continued slowly on her way up the channel and by 2:00 a.m. was anchored near the Confederate guard boat, waiting for the boarding officer to inspect the ship’s papers.
In his 1893 memoir, The Adventures of a Blockade Runner, Watson identifies this ship as Phoenix, but no steamship of that name is known to have run the blockade. Watson’s description of the vessel and its voyage closely matches the runner Pelican, and David Asprey, a researcher in the United Kingdom, was able to reconstruct Pelican’s activities in late 1864 and early 1865 using Lloyd’s List (a daily newspaper) and the Annual Index of Ship Movements in Lloyd’s Collection, Guildhall Library, London. The details of Pelican’s career match Watson’s description of Phoenix very closely, including the description of the ship as a screw steamer (there was only one known to have run into Galveston during that period), as well as her arrival at Havana from London in January and a change of masters shortly before running the blockade.