Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
The CSS Tallahassee - Terror of the Eastern Seaboard
In 1864, Colonel John Taylor Wood, Confederate States of America, searched for a suitable ship to use as a cruiser for this third year of the Yankee blockade of southern ports and shipping. He finally selected theAtalanta, an iron twin screw of seven hundred tons gross and two hundred feet long. She had been built at Millwall, below London, supposedly for the Chinese opium trade, and was a first class well constructed ship. She had two engines which could be worked together or separately and most important, she had speed, making fourteen and a quarter knots on her trial trip.
Soon theAtalantahad been refitted to receive a crew and arms. The arms consisted of one rifle 100 pounder amidships on one rifle 60 hundredweight 32 pounder forward and one long Parrott aft. The officers and crew were all volunteers from the Confederate gunboats on the James River and North Carolina waters. TheAtalantawas formally put into commission on July 20, 1864, and rechristened theTallahassee.
Colonel Wood's orders read: "The character and force of your vessel point to the enemy's commerce as the most appropriate field of action, and the existing blockade of our ports constrains the destruction of our prizes."
Colonel John Taylor Wood Begins His Mission in Wilmington, North Carolina
During the next month, Colonel Wood and theTallahasseewould record an amazing total of prizes and destroyed Yankee ships on the Confederate side of the ledger. It took Colonel Wood about ten days to get things on theTallahasseeshipshape and the crew working like sailors. They dropped down the Cape Fear River outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, to wait a favorable time for running the blockade gauntlet. The only favorable time came when the moon shone and the tide served. Colonel Wood decided to try the eastern inlet, and on the night of August 4, 1864, he decided the outlook was most favorable. He ordered everything on the ship secured for a sea voyage. All of the lights were carefully housed, except the binnacle, which was shaded. Fires were cleaned and freshened, lookouts were stationed, and the men stood ready at their quarters.
The men placed range lights which were necessary to cross the bar and were shown only when vessels were going in and out. A large earthwork called "The Mound," loomed up ahead in the darkness. TheTallahassee navigated safely around "The Mound," but then got hung up on an inner shoal. It took two hours of hard work with the engines and with a kedge lantern before the crew got her off the shoal, and by then it was too late for the tide. TheTallahasseesailed up the river for a short distance and anchored. The next night she had the same experience, except that she grounded so badly that it took three steamers to tow her off.
Colonel Wood discovered that with the state of the tide and her 13 1/2 feet draft, the eastern inlet was impractical for theTallahassee. He decided to try the western inlet. Steaming down to Fort Caswell, theTallahasseewaited for darkness. On the night of August 6, 1864, as the moon set and a few wispy clouds covered the sky, theTallahasseeapproached the bar and then grazed "The Lump," a bad shoal in mid channel, and then it was over the bar. The Tallahassee was barely clear of the bar when a steamer was spotted on the starboard bow.
The Chief Engineer ordered the helm maneuvered, and theTallahasseepassed between the two steamers so close under the stern that someone could have tossed a biscuit aboard. As theTallahasseedashed by, the Colonel and the Chief Engineer heard the commands of the officer in charge of the after pivot. The flash from the muzzle lit up the water for a minute and a heavy shell flew over theTallahasseeleaving a trail like a comet.
The steamer on the starboard side opened fire, and the other one, now on the quarter of theTallahasseejoined in, but their shots were wild. In a few minutes they were out of sight. The Colonel didn't order their fire returned, because it would only have given away their position and he wanted them to be treated as just an ordinary blockade runner. During the night, theTallahasseeran southward until she cleared Frying Pan Shoals, and then she turned eastward. Colonel Wood knew that theTallahasseehad to avoid the ships cruising offshore for forty to fifty miles more than the inshore squadron. These were the fastest and most efficient blockaders and they were in a position to sight at daylight any of the vessels that might have come out during the night.
At daylight the next morning,Colonel Woodsighted a cruiser astern, hull up. The cruiser had certainly seen outline of theTallahasseeagainst the eastern sky and from the dense smoke coming from her funnel, he knew the cruiser was chasing them. At eight o'clock that same morning, theTallahasseespotted another cruiser. Colonel Wood changed course eight points, bringing a cruiser on each beam, and the chase intensified.
The Tallahassee’s First Day Out
One cruiser proved to be a large side‑wheeler which held its own in the case. The Chief Engineer frequently visited the engine room, trying to coax a few more revolutions from theTallahassee. He succeeded, and theTallahasseegradually put distance between her and the pursing cruisers. TheTallahasseesailed low in the water, weighed down by an extra supply of coal, and probably out of trim. The crew was prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice some of the coal, but calm weather prevented the cruisers from using their canvas to help them catch theTallahassee.
Feeling safe from their pursuers, the crew of theTallahasseewent to divine services, the day being Sunday. By 4 p.m. the pursuers were astern, hull down, and seemed to have given up. Just then, the lookouts sighted another cruiser from the masthead, but theTallahasseechanged her course a few points and kept the cruiser at a distance. Just after dark theTallahassee nearly ran on top of another cruiser before she could change course. The cruiser burned a blue light and signaled theTallahassee.TheTallahasseedidn't answer the signal, so the stranger repeated it, and a minute later, opened fire. The shells passed near theTallahassee,but in half an hour the ships lost sight of each other in the darkness.
Colonel Wood believed that the fact that the two cruisers had chased theTallahasseeon her first day out proved the effectiveness of the Yankee blockade which had existed since the spring of 1861. That spring President Lincoln had proclaimed a blockade of the Eastern Coast from the capes of the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rio Grande, a distance of about three thousand miles. The blockade began at Washington on the Potomac and included the inland waters of Virginia, North Carolina, and other states which about doubled the distance the blockade actually covered. To enforce this blockade the Union built man‑of‑wars at the navy yards and took nearly 500 vessels, mainly steamers, from the merchant service and converted them into cruisers. Many of the ships the Yankees used against the blockade runners originated from the port of Wilmington, North Carolina.
The Tallahassee Takes Her First Prize and then Another
The next few days were uneventful for theTallahassee. She stood to the northward and eastward under easy steam and talked to several English and foreign vessels. Colonel Wood obtained late New York papers from one of them. Twenty miles below Long Branch, theTallahasseetook her first prize, the schoonerSarah A. Boiceof Boston. TheBoicehad been bound for Philadelphia, and after her crew and their personal possessions were brought on board, theTallahasseescuttled the Boice.
More sailing and theTallahasseestood over the Fire Island Light. One ship ran down toward her, and the men recognized it as a New York pilot boat. A small boat emerged alongside it and a few minutes later, a large, well‑dressed man in black, with a high hat, heavy gold watch guard, a small valise and a bundle of papers under his arm, stepped over the side.
The gentleman turned deadly pale and a sheen of perspiration covered his forehead when he discovered that theTallahasseewas a Confederate raider. Colonel Wood told him that his pilot boat was a prize and that theTallahasseewould make a tender of her. The Colonel ordered him to go back on board and return with the crew and their personal effects. The pilot boat was theJames Funk No. 22, one of a class of fine schooners found off New York from one to two hundred miles out, in all seasons, and manned by excellent seamen
Colonel Wood put two officers and twenty men on board with orders to keep within signal distance. James Funk No. 22and its crew were efficient decoys for the Tallahassee. When sails appeared, theFunkoverhauled the ships and brought them alongside theTallahassee so that Colonel Wood could decide their fate. TheTallahasseecaptured the barkBay Stateand the brigsCarrie EstelleandA. Richards. By now, Colonel Wood and theTallahassee crew had over forty prisoners and their luggage on board, crowding the decks.
Colonel Wood had to decide what to do with them. Toward eveningNo. 22decoyed the schoonerCarroll. The captain, acting for her owners, bonded her for ten thousand dollars. He signed a written agreement to land the prisoners at New York, and he brought them aboard theCarrollwith their personal effects. Before the prisoners departed, Colonel Wood paroled them all.
Another pilot boat, theWilliam Bell, No. 24, turned out to be theTallahassee'snext victim. Colonel Wood continued to capture pilot boats because he wanted to find a pilot who could either be paid or forced into taking theTallahasseethrough Hell Gate into Long Island Sound. The time of the full moon was approaching, and Colonel Wood intended to run up New York Harbor just after dark, since he knew the way in by Sandy Hook. Then he planned to go on up the East River, setting fire to the shipping on both sides.
When he drew abreast of the navy yard, he planned to open fire, hoping that some of the shells might set fire to the buildings and any ships that might be at the docks. Then he wanted to steam through Hell Gate into Long Island Sound. He knew from the recent daily papers what ships were in port and that none of these were powerful enough to stop theTallahassee. No matter how hard he tried, Colonel Wood couldn't capture a pilot who knew the route or was willing to lead him, so he had to give up his scheme to capture a pilot boat.
The Tallahassee’s Prize Count Reaches Twenty
TheTallahasseespent three days between the light ship and Montauk Point, sometimes within just thirty miles of the point. In that time, Colonel Wood took about twenty prizes, the most important being the packet shipAdriatic. She weighed one thousand pounds, hailed from London, and carried a large and valuable cargo and 75 passengers. Because of the number of passengers, Colonel Wood feared that he would have to bond the ship, but theTallahassee's tender came down before the wind, bringing the barkSuliote. Colonel Wood decided to use her as a cartel after theSuliote'scaptain had given bond for ten thousand dollars. She was loaded with coal but the distance to Sandy Hook was only 70 miles.
The passengers on theAdriaticwere nearly all Germans, and when Colonel Wood told them that their ship would be burned, they were terrified. It took the Confederates some time to make them understand that they didn't intend to burn the Germans along with theAdriatic. The Confederate raiders spent three hours transferring the Germans and their possessions from theAdriaticto their boats. In many cases the Germans insisted on taking broken china, bird cages, straw beds and many useless articles, leaving their valuables behind. After all the Germans were safely on board theSuliote,the Confederates set theAdriaticon fire. As night fell, the burningAdriaticlit up the water for miles, making a picture of rare beauty.
Then Colonel Wood decided it was time to move theTallahassee. The breeze blew lightly and theTallahasseetowed her tender and steamed slowly eastward toward Nantucket. Colonel Wood decided that theTallahasseehad sufficiently terrorized New York and that prey was becoming alarmed and scarce. She sailed from New York toward Boston Bay and sighted a number of sails on the way, but most of them were foreign ships.
After theTallahasseehad captured a few more unimportant ships, her crew sighted a large bark. First Lieutenant Ward, the boarding officer, returned and reported that the bark was theGlenarvon,a fine new vessel of Thomaston, Maine. She came from Glasgow with iron and Captain Watt piloted her. The Confederates ordered Captain Watt to return and secure the nautical instruments, scuttle theGlenarvonand bring the prisoners on board theTallahassee. Captain Watt and his wife came on board with two other passengers, and another captain returned home with his wife. Both of them were elderly.
Everyone stood on deck of theTallahasseeand watched theGlenarvonslowly settle, little by little, until her deck was awash. Her stern sank gradually out of sight and she was in an upright position. One mast after another disappeared with all sail set. She sank as quietly as if human hands were carefully lowering her into the depths. Hardly a ripple broke the quiet water. Her head spars disappeared last. Captain Watt and his wife never took their eyes off their floating home. They stood side by side, with tears in their eyes, watching her disappear.
The Tallahassee Reaches Nova Scotia
TheTallahasseeran along the eastern coast as far as Matinicus, Maine, not overtaking anything of importance and passing but a large number of small fishing craft and coasters. Another two to three day voyage brought theTallahasseethrough dense fog to a good target. On the third day the Confederates sighted the red head of a fisherman in a small boat, close under the bow of the Tallahassee. The fisherman warned them in forcible language not to tear his nets. Answering the Confederate questions about bearings, he offered to pilot theTallahasseein.
The Confederates accepted his services and towing his boat, they emerged from the fog intoHalifax Harborin Nova Scotia. The Confederates knew Halifax harbor as safe, large, and easily accessible. Colonel Wood ordered theTallahasseeanchored and then boarded the battleship Duncan to call on Sir James Hope, commander of Halifax. From there he called on the governor of Nova Scotia, Sir Richard Graves MacDonald. Governor MacDonald received him very kindly, asking him to breakfast the next morning.
Colonel Wood had to decline the invitation because he had only twenty hours to spend in port. The Queen of England had issued a proclamation saying that belligerents could only use ports for twenty four hours except in case of distress and take only sufficient supplies to reach the nearest home port. Colonel Wood wanted only coal and he secured a supply of the best Welsh for hisTallahassee.
The American ambassador to Nova Scotia, Judge Jackson, energetically protested the presence of theTallahasseein port, and Colonel Wood's success at obtaining a fresh supply of coal and a new main mast. The consul granted Colonel Wood permission to stay in harbor an extra twelve hours to install his new main mast, but Colonel Wood decided to leave within the allotted time. He left Halifax harbor shortly after midnight towing the new mast.
At the end of the second day, theTallahasseehoisted in the new mast and prepared to go to sea. During that day, two or more Yankee cruisers appeared off the harbor, coming in near enough to communicate with the shore. While theTallahasseehad been in the harbor, the Confederates had seen the New York papers, which carried accounts of their cruise and the excitement it caused along the eastern seaboard. Colonel Wood said that the published reports of most of the prisoners were sensational. He remarked, "A more bloodthirsty or piratical looking crew never sailed according to some narratives. Individually, I plead quilty for three years of rough work with no chance of replenishing my wardrobe. When I called upon the admiral, I had to borrow a make‑up from some of the wardroom officers."
The New York papers also said that a number of vessels had been sent in pursuit. A published Washington telegram revealed that the Navy Department had received reports of the depredations of theTallahasseeon the 12th of August, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles immediately ordered a pursuit. The vessels Juniata, Susquehanna, Eolus, Pandora, Dumbarton and Tristram Shandy were ordered out on the 13th of August. On the 14th of August, theMoccasin, Aster,Yantic, R.R. Cupier, andGrand Guldjoined the chase. On the 15th of August, theDacotahandSan Jacintocame to help catch theTallahassee. These were all of the ships available in the Yankee Navy.
Now it looked as if theTallahasseemight have to run the blockade all over again, only this time outside of Nova Scotia. While he was still in the harbor at Halifax, Colonel Wood had searched for a good pilot and found a man named Jock Fleming who had seen at least sixty seasons aboard ship and assured Colonel Wood that he could guide theTallahasseethrough the blockade.
The Tallahassee Returns Safely to Wilmington, North Carolina
The sailors took up the anchor and theTallahasseestarted ahead at midnight. TheTallahasseesteamed slowly out of the harbor, guided by Jock Fleming. In an hour she passed the two lights on Devil'sIsland and the channel broadened and deepened. Soon the ship was on the Atlantic. Fleming dropped his boat alongside theTallahasseeand with a hearty hand shake and an earnest 'God‑speed,' he swung himself into his boat and the darkness swallowed him up. He had kept his word and brought theTallahasseeout safely.
TheTallahasseeran back down the coast, taking a few insignificant prizes. Colonel Wood had intended to go to Bermuda for another supply of coal, but a yellow fever epidemic caused him to change his plans. As they approached Wilmington, they sighted a steamer and knew that they were once again in blockaded waters. The first steamer they saw was a long, low paddle wheel boat, probably a captured blockade runner. TheTallahasseechanged course and soon parted company with the steamer.
Later that same day they dodged another steamer. Colonel Wood felt that the best plan to run the blockade was to head directly for the Mound or harbor. If he didn't do that, then it would be wise to strike the shore to the northward and follow it down. The weather was hazy‑ so much so that the crew couldn't depend on its sights. The Colonel ran theTallahasseein toward Masonboro Inlet, about thirty miles north of Fort Fisher, making the land just at dark. Then he ran into five fathoms and followed the shore, just outside the breakers curling up on the beach. He kept a sharp lookout and the crew was at its quarters. They freshened the fires and watched carefully to avoid smoking or flaming.
The Colonel ordered the Chief Engineer to get all he could out of theTallahassee. He knew that one of the blockaders or more could be found close to the shore, and soon one appeared ahead. Colonel Wood tried to pause inside, but he couldn't because the Yankee ship was almost to the surf. TheTallahasseeput the helm above board and steered out while at the same time the enemy signaled with flashing lights. Colonel Wood replied by burning a blue light. The Yankees repeated the signal and again theTallahasseereplied by a false fire. Finally, the Yankees fired on theTallahasseeand theTallahassee replied with all of its batteries, directing its guns by the flash of the Yankee guns.
Next, the Yankees ceased firing and began to signal again. TheTallahasseereplied with another broadside, which the Yankees responded to slowly, and then theTallahasseeheaded for the bar, going fourteen knots. Two or three other Yankee ships joined in the firing intensifying the fire for a time, but the firing was random, theTallahassee was not hit. The Yankees were in more danger of being hit by their own fire.
TheTallahasseecontinued to move ahead and soon the Mound loomed in front of them. TheTallahassee'ssignal officer sent a message to Fort Fisher, and a few minutes later the range lights came on. Guided by their glow, theTallahasseesafely crossed the bar and anchored close under the fort. The next morning at daybreak, Colonel Wood and the crew saw the blockading fleet lying bunched together about five miles off. At sunrise theTallahasseehoisted the Confederate flag and saluted with 21 guns and the fort returned the salute.
During the next day the,Tallahasseewent up the river toWilmingtonand so ended an exciting and eventful one month cruise for the Confederacy. In that amount of time theTallahasseehad made 25 captures, about half of which were square‑rigged vessels.
Colonel Wood Tells the Tallahassee’s Story
Colonel Wood summarized theTallahassee'sstory. She was built in England, but not to be a blockade runner. She was fitted out and equipped in Wilmington. Of her armament, two guns were installed in Richmond and one was captured. Her officers and crew were all in the service before joining her. She sailed from Wilmington and returned to Wilmington. She was regularly commissioned by the Confederate Navy, and was legally a cruiser in General Lee's force
According to Colonel Wood, after the Civil War ended, the Geneva Convention awarded comepnsation to theTallahassee'svictims differently than those of other blockade runners. The Geneva award was intended to cover only losses arising from the cruises of theAlabama,Shenandoah, etc., ships fitted out or sailing from English ports or which, like these, had never visited a Confederate port. The only people receiving compensation were those who could establish their losses from these ships, but after paying all of the claims, half of the three million pounds sterling still remained.
After some years had passed, the Geneva Convention decided to divide the rest of the money among those suffering losses from all Confederate cruisers. Some of the claims filed with the court were extraordinary. Colonel Wood said that he received letters from different attorneys asking for information upon points in regard to theTallahassee'scruise and including schedules of losses of different parties. He didn't know how the court adjusted these losses, but he did know that some of the people were paid ten percent of their demands, and were amply reimbursed for their losses.
One captain of a small ship put in a claim for $200 for a feather bed, a hair mattress, and a pair of blankets, and for nearly $800 worth of clothing. Another mate filed for losses of $26 for a featherbed. Another filed for sixteen different suits of clothing, besides miscellaneous articles of clothes ‑ enough to fill a Chatham Street shop. He didn't leave anything out: razor, brush and cup, $3.50; shoe brush and blacking, $1.03. Everyone from the captain to the cook, had a watch and chain, generally gold, valued at from $100 to $250, never less. And these claims were all sworn to!
TheTallahasseemade another short trip, under Lieutenant Ward, and then returned to England. Later, she was sold to the Japanese government as a cruiser.
Wilkinson, John. Confederate Blockade Runner: the Personal Recollections of an Officer of the Confederate Navy. Leonaur, 2007.
Bell, John. Confederate Seadog: John Taylor Wood in War and Exile. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.
Campbell, R. Thomas, Voices of the Confederate Navy: Articles, Letters, Reports and Reminiscences. McFarland, 2007.
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.