Agnes E. Fry and Virginius: A Tale of Two Runners
Sidescan view of the shipwreck discovered in late February near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Image via North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
You’ve probably heard by now that nautical archaeologists in North Carolina have discovered the remains of a large, iron-hulled vessel (above) off the mouth of the Cape Fear River, near Fort Caswell. They believe it’s a blockade runner, and know of three that were lost in that general area. One article, passed along by my colleague Ed Cotham, says they’re leaning toward the ship’s identity as being the steamer Agnes E. Fry, a 559-ton sidewheel steamer wrecked on December 27, 1864.
If this is the wreck of Agnes E. Fry, there’s quite a story behind the ship. She was built by Caird & Company at Greenock, and launched in 1864. She was a large vessel, 237 feet long by 25 feet in beam, with a depth of hold of 13 feet. She made two successful runs into Wilmington, the first from Nassau in late September 1864, and the second from Bermuda in November. She was lost on her third attempted voyage into Wilmington, two days after Christmas 1864.
The ship was named for the wife of her commander, Confederate Navy Lieutenant Joseph Fry (right). Fry was appointed Midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1841, and received his commission as Lieutenant in 1855. He resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy on February 1, 1861. In Confederate service, he commanded C.S.S. Ivy at New Orleans and fought at the Head of the Passes in October 1861. He was captured while commanding Confederate batteries at St. Charles, Arkansas in June 1862. After his exchange, he was appointed to “special service” by the Confederate government, serving as commander of the government-owned runner Eugenie. From a posthumous biography:
In the spring of 1864, [Captain Fry] was stationed for some time at St. Thomas, [sic.] Bermuda, as government agent for the Confederate Navy; after which he was sent to Scotland to bring out a new blockade-runner, building on the Clyde, which, in honor of her future commander’s wife, was named the Agnes E. Fry.
While in Scotland a pleasant little incident occurred to Fry, the recital of which may serve to vary the monotomy of these saddening reminiscences of the days of the Confederacy.
Standing at his window one day, humming a favorite air, Fry unconsciously raised his voice until he finally sang aloud the closing verses of “Partant pour la Syrie.” He hears an echo! The song is repeated in a clear soprano voice, with an unmistakable French accent! Looking in the direction of the voice, he perceives upon an adjacent balcony a group of elegantly dressed ladies and noble-looking gentlemen, evidently foreigners. As he descended the stairway, he met upon the landing a gentleman in magnificent uniform, who saluted him courteously as he passed on. Upon inquiry he ascertained that the gentleman was Plon-Plon, the Prince Napoleon! It will be remembered that Queen Hortense was the reputed author and composer of the charming chansonette which Fry was singing, and his thus singing it while standing in such close proximity to the group of French travelers, was evidently regarded by them’ as a delicate personal compliment, which was as delicately acknowledged.
Returning home in charge of “the finest ship that ever entered Wilmington harbor,” Fry made several successful trips with her. To show the high esteem in which he was held, and the absolute confidence placed in his skill and ability, I venture to make the following extract from a letter addressed to Mrs. Fry by one of the owners of the vessel: —
Richmond, October 8, 1864.
“… A telegram from Wilmington advises me that the fine steamer A. E. Fry had returned safely to Bermuda, after four unsuccessful attempts to run through the blockade into the former port. The ship is owned partly by the firm of Crenshaw Brothers, in connection with the government, and is commanded by your husband, Captain Joseph Fry. I have not been informed of the circumstances, but am satisfied that the skill and good judgment of Captain Fry have saved the ship from capture or destruction. …”
In November he made a successful run into the harbor, and on the 10th wrote from Smithville, near Wilmington, thus:
Many vessels have arrived here since I first left Bermuda, and it is also true that many have been lost trying to get in. God has watched over our safety, and prospered us wonderfully. I have been chased over and over again; . . . have had the yellow fever on board; have headed for the bar about seven times in vain. … I never was so happy in my life as when I at last arrived, and thought I should be with you in three or four days; nor so miserable as when I found they wanted me to try and go out again immediately, by which I lose my chance of coming home. But I am bound to do it. I am complimented on having the finest ship that ever came in, named, too, after her whom I love more than all the world beside. The owners are my personal friends, and are pledged to take care of you in my absence, or in case of my capture. She is a vessel they especially want me to command, and although I would not leave without having seen my family for twice her value, still duty requires that I should do so.
He telegraphed at once for his family, and they remained for some time at Smithville.
On the 5th of December, 1864 [just after his second run out of Wilmington], he wrote from Nassau:
“I am here safe and sound, and the ship, named after the idol of my heart, is paid for; thanks to the dear God whose providence has crowned my efforts with success. … I am afraid will be disappointed at my not getting to Bermuda, but you and I, dearest, will thank le bon Dieu that I am safe here. I am trying to get back soon, doubtful as it looks. Colonel Crenshaw is expected here daily. I hope he will arrive before I leave; I should like to have him see my ship as she looked this morning!”
After three [sic.] successful trips, the Agnes was unfortunately run ashore by her pilot, and sunk in the Cape Fear River, where she now lies.
Pursuit of Virginius by the Spanish gunboat Tornado, October 30, 1873.
At the end of the war, Fry was commanding the gunboat C.S.S. Morgan as part of the Mobile Squadron, bottled up at the north end of Mobile Bay. He surrendered on May 4, 1865, and was paroled six days later.
Some years after the war, Captain Fry got involved in decidedly more dangerous for of smuggling, bring men, arms and supplies to insurgents fighting to overthrow the Spanish colonial government in Cuba. In 1873 he took command of the steamer Virginius in Jamaica, with a load of insurgents and munitions bound for the southern coast of Cuba. (Virginus was, herself, the former blockade runner Virgin, trapped at Mobile after August 1864 and subsequently surrendcered there in April 1865.) Almost immediately after sailing, though, Virginius was intercepted by the Spanish gunboat Tornado. Captain Fry surrendered, and with his ship and crew was taken to Santiago. There, within a few days, the local Spanish authorities tried the men for piracy and convicted them. Most of them, including Captain Fry, were were quickly executed before the Spanish Governor General in Havana or other international consuls could interfere. The executed mens’ corpses were beheaded, and the bodies trampled by cavalry horses.
The drumhead trial and execution of Captain Fry and his crew would form part of the foundation of lingering tensions between the United States and Spain over Cuba for the next 25 years, until the Spanish War of 1898. Captain Fry and his crew were seen by many in the United States and Europe as martyrs to the cause of Cuban independence, victims of the brutal and arbitrary Spanish colonial system.
We remember the Maine, but not so often Captain Joseph Fry and his crew.