A Fox Chase
A sketch of the runner Fox, made at Bermuda. St. Georges Museum, Bermuda, via U.S. Navy.
One of the more dramatic incidents in the blockade of the Texas coast occurred 150 years ago this morning:
The British paddle steamer Fox was one the several purpose-built blockade runners that appeared in the Gulf during the last months of the war. Built of steel, she was long and lean, measuring 219 feet between perpendiculars (about 230 feet overall), with a beam of just 22 feet. Fox was a very successful blockade runner, having made eight round voyages between Nassau and Charleston before entering the Gulf of Mexico and running into Galveston. Fox’s master was Simpson Adkins, an experienced pilot on the Carolina coast. Adkins was an old hand at running the blockade and well known to the Federal navy. He was captured at least twice and both times returned to his old calling upon release. After his second capture, a Federal officer described Adkins as an “old offender” and “one of the most expert pilots on the Southern coast.” The officer warned his colleagues to watch Adkins carefully, but it did no good—by 1865, he was back running the blockade again, this time to Galveston.
Before dawn on April 1, Fox was moving along under easy steam, some eighty miles offshore, probably looking to make landfall north of Galveston and wait until nightfall to run past the Union fleet. The growing light in the east, though, revealed the silhouette of a Federal gunboat patrolling the distant approaches to the coast. A column of black smoke soon appeared over the gunboat, USS Preston, at that point lying about eight miles astern of Fox, as the Yankees poured on coal to give chase. Adkins and his pilot, a “quiet, self-possessed and fearless” Galveston man named Harry Wachsen, recognized they had little chance getting to seaward without being cut off by their pursuer, so they set their course west toward a point on the Bolivar Peninsula some miles north of Galveston, where they hoped they could stay out of sight of the main Union fleet.
Both ships were now pounding toward shore as fast as they could, across a wide expanse of Gulf, still well beyond sight of land. Fox was carrying in her holds lead, iron implements, barrels of beef and other very heavy articles; Adkins had the hatches opened and these things dropped overboard to lighten the ship.
On and on the ships raced until the shore was in plain sight ahead of Fox. Aboard the blockaders anchored off Galveston, it was yet a routine Saturday morning, with crews at work scrubbing the decks, touching up paintwork and polishing brass. At about 10:00 a.m., on USS Seminole, Marine sergeant John Freeman Mackie heard a lookout at the masthead cry, “Sail ho!” Signals were passed to the squadron flagship, Ossipee, and soon a second vessel was spotted, this one “a long low steamer about eight miles to the eastward, burning black smoke, steaming rapidly to the northward and westward.” The squadron commander, Captain John Guest, ordered Seminole to intercept this second ship, which later proved to be Adkins’s Fox.
Aboard the runner, Adkins and Wachsen spotted the Union ships at about the same time and altered course to starboard. They were now headed full speed at a right angle toward the beach. Seminole was closing, though, so Adkins altered his course again, to almost due north, and set out a pair of small sails to add a little extra speed. Captain Albert G. Clary of Seminole was ready for this maneuver and shouted orders to set the ship’s fore and main topsails, along with jibs and staysails. “In a minute,” Mackie later recalled, “the Seminole was staggering under a cloud of canvas, trimmed well aft—every rope drawing as tight as a fiddle string—causing the sea to boil like soapsuds under our bows as we fairly flew through the water.”
Sergeant Mackie, by the way, was the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for his service aboard USS Galena at Drewrey’s Bluff in 1862. To see how this Fox chase ended, check out the blockade-running book. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Added: I missed it back in the day, but last summer Craig Swain had a great post about Fox running into Charleston.