Our Confederate Ancestors: Running the Blockade by Gen. Bennett H. Young

A Series on the Daring Exploits of Our Confederate Ancestors in the War Between the States.

On the prow of this lookout a couple of men were placed to make observations as to the presence of a blockader. It was awfully dark with no sound except the paddles as they stirred and pounded the waves. All sailors and passengers were ordered not to speak above a whisper, and all was quiet except the ripple that came from the prow of the craft as it plowed its way through the current of the ocean and the strokes of the paddles which were beating the water as the craft glided with all haste on its bosom of blue.

Running the Blockade

by Gen. Bennett H. Young,
Louisville, Kentucky

(From the original Confederate Veteran magazine, September, 1916, when Gen. Young was 73. He died three years later. The events he describes below occurred when he was 20.)

Bennett H. Young, 1863, age 20.
Bennett H. Young, 1863, age 20.

On the 26th of July, 1863, while riding with Gen. John H. Morgan on the Ohio raid, I was made a prisoner of war. The long march of one thousand miles from Burksville, Ky., to Salineville, Ohio, running through twenty-six days, had been a tremendous strain on the physical endurance of General Morgan's troops. When captured I was first carried to the Ohio penitentiary and left there a short while, then sent to Camp Chase and thence to Camp Douglas, Chicago, Ill., whence I escaped in January, 1864.

As the days grew darker for the life of the Confederacy, my desire to return was intensified by the misfortunes of my people. The short and easy way to return to the South would have been through Kentucky; but at that time General Burbridge, in command there, with cruel and relentless barbarity was putting to death on the slightest pretense many Confederate prisoners who were taken in that State, and my family suggested that, while I had a right to risk my own life, I had no right to risk theirs piloting me through the State of Kentucky into the Confederate lines.

The Federal sentinel whom I had bribed by paying a hundred dollars to allow me to climb the fence at Camp Douglas had also been induced by the money of other Kentucky boys to grant them the same privilege. Cash was plentiful with Morgan's men. They had postal communication with outside friends, and this accommodating "bluecoat" had driven a thriving business in trading with those restive raiders. It was said about the prison at that time that he had made about eight thousand dollars while engaged in this brokerage escape business. As the evidence of his trade began to accumulate, and as he really had enough to take care of him, certainly during the war, he wisely concluded to emigrate to Canada, where he could meet the Kentucky gentlemen whom he had obliged by permitting them to scale the walls of Camp Douglas.

The Confederate commissioners had been informed that there were a thousand escaped Confederates in Canada. This was greatly exaggerated. I was designated and commissioned to gather up such soldiers as were willing to return to the South and continue fighting. "Powder food" at that time was extremely scarce in the Confederacy, and a thousand strong, lusty cavalrymen were deemed by the Confederate government a most promising source of help in the depleted ranks of the Southern army.

Traveling from place to place where these Confederates were residing in numerous colonies, I was disappointed to find only twenty who were willing to return. The Confederate government provided the money for the transportation of all who were ready to go, and I was directed to take the men to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and from there take passage by British vessels to the Bermuda Islands, and then to reenter the Confederacy at Wilmington, N. C., or Charleston, S. C., through the numerous blockade runners that were carrying supplies through these two ports of the Confederacy.

The St. Lawrence River was closed during the winter months, and there was no railroad then from Montreal to Halifax; so I went on the first boat that passed down the St. Lawrence after the ice floes had passed out. There was a bimonthly line between Halifax and the Bermudas, and with my twenty-one men I reached St. George's, Bermuda, and had the pleasure of meeting John Newland Maffitt, who commanded the privateer Florida.

John Newland Maffitt.
John Newland Maffitt.

He was good enough to offer me a commission in the navy and desired me to go with him on his privateer, which was then lying in the harbor at St. George's, with several Federal cruisers outside waiting for his departure. One dark night he went out and started anew his career of destruction of Federal ships.

At that time St. George's was the gate that was used for the blockade line into Wilmington, and while I was there twenty-one boats were waiting for the dark of the moon.

Confederate blockade runner in St. George's Harbour, Bermuda circa 1864.
Confederate blockade runner in St. George's Harbour, Bermuda circa 1864.

These trips could be made only about ten days each month. It was impossible to enter the harbor which led up the Cape Fear River to Wilmington except in the darkest of the night, and this, as is well known, always preceded the breaking of day. At the proper season of the month St. George's harbor and town were scenes of extremest activity. Enfield rifles and power, bacon, clothing, and war materials of all kinds were hurried aboard these vessels. The risk was very great, but a safe trip of a blockade runner with a cargo of cotton outbound was worth two or three times the cost of a vessel.

Six or eight of these vessels were to leave on Sunday night. Among the gentlemen who had gone back South under my command were James S. Schooling, of Lebanon, Ky., John D. Allison, of Henderson, and J. R. Morton, afterwards Circuit Judge of the Lexington District. The war had not obliterated the scruples of a strict Presbyterian training concerning the sacredness of the Sabbath, although my experiences with Morgan had rudely shattered some of its ideas, so I decided not to go out Sunday night. Eight of the vessels were going to leave Sunday night, eight or ten more Monday night.

I had paid $150 for passage to Wilmington for the soldiers on these blockade runners. They were pure and simple money-makers. They did not gush at all over the Confederacy and its soldiers, and they demanded $250 for each passenger. They were manned largely by British officers and sailors. Very few Confederates were engaged in these expeditions. Employees received fabulous wages; ordinary seamen were paid a hundred dollars a month.

The Thistle was a spry little boat, and Schooling and Allison decided to go out Sunday night on this vessel. I suggested that they had better wait until Monday night, but they insisted that "the better the day, the better the deed," and so I shipped them on the Thistle.

There was a little vessel called the Florie that struck my eye. She was long and slender and rakish-looking and painted white, as were all these vessels, and had paddle wheels almost as big as a Mississippi River steamer.

Blockade runner, Advance, sometimes known as the A.D. Vance. The Florie might have looked like this.
Blockade runner, Advance, sometimes known as the A.D. Vance. The Florie might have looked like this.

She afterwards made several successful trips and earned fabulous sums for her owners. Her officers were almost altogether men who had resigned from the British navy. She could make over twenty knots an hour, and her officers felt that she could walk away from any blockader in the fleet.

The commander of the Florie was a young Charlestonian, not more than twenty-two years of age. Skilled in his business, nervy to a degree which bordered on recklessness, he had been given command of the Florie, which was making her first trip. That he was "dead game," none who looked into his eye would dare deny, and he struck me as a man who would capably handle all the emergencies of the adventures we were apt to meet on a hazardous voyage. He knew the North Carolina coast like a boy knows his A B C's; and whatever might betide, I felt sure he would meet the calls of the hour. He wanted us to go on his ship and said if we had no funds we could go "deadhead." I told him I had Confederate gold to pay our way.

I shipped on the Florie with four of my comrades, and we left on schedule time Monday night. All went well until the fourth day out, when we were off the mouth of the Cape Fear River about one hundred and fifty miles. The distance from the entrance to Bermuda was something like nine hundred and fifty miles. We had expected that night to make the port. Standing out a hundred and fifty miles would enable us to run in so as to pass the cordon of blockaders at about two or three o'clock in the morning.

While steaming slowly and leisurely along, our attention was called to two great columns of smoke ascending about twenty miles north. One ship was directly in line of the other, and from the amount of smoke that was escaping it was evident that each was speeding her best. They came closer and closer, and we could discover with the aid of glasses that the Thistle, which had only one smokestack, was being pursued by a Federal blockader. Closer and closer the pursuer came, and about five o'clock in the afternoon it became evident that the blockader would overtake the little vessel, which, with maddening speed and effort, was seeking to escape until the darkness of the night, when it might lose itself in the wideness of the ocean. The Florie turned south and ran out of her course a hundred miles to get rid of the blockader. When we last saw the blockader, she was so close to the Thistle that it was apparent that escape was impossible.

Upon the capture of the Thistle all the crew and passengers were lined up and required to swear that they were citizens of Great Britain. Schooling and Allison both had naturalization papers of British citizenship, which they had borrowed from sympathizing friends.

They were not undisposed to lie in this matter up to the point of swearing. At that both hesitated and said they would not perjure themselves; that they were Confederate prisoners who were returning to their country.

They were taken to Fort Warren, at Boston Harbor, and kept until sometime after the war. Both of them became prominent citizens. Schooling was prosecuting attorney of the Lebanon judicial district and Allison a leading merchant in Western Kentucky.

Floating, steaming slowly, and still circling so as to get the right position off the entrance to Cape Fear River, on the following day about five o'clock the Florie began to turn toward the port of entry.

Wilmington and the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Wilmington and the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

It was yet a long run to the forts that defended the port of Wilmington, so vital to the Confederate cause. Every eye was scanning the horizon, and every heart, however brave, beat a little quicker as we drew near the real scene of danger. Ten hours would tell the story -- blown up, destroyed, captured, or safe in the Confederacy.

This is a year later but it shows the same area the Florie would have had to go through.
This is a year later but it shows the same area the Florie would have had to go through.

These were the issues we were now facing, and they were surely problems that required both courage and steady nerve. The lights were all put out, everything was done to muffle the sounds, and the ship was put to its best. Reckonings were carefully taken and then retaken. She was running something like twenty-two miles an hour.

On the prow of this lookout a couple of men were placed to make observations as to the presence of a blockader. It was awfully dark with no sound except the paddles as they stirred and pounded the waves. All sailors and passengers were ordered not to speak above a whisper, and all was quiet except the ripple that came from the prow of the craft as it plowed its way through the current of the ocean and the strokes of the paddles which were beating the water as the craft glided with all haste on its bosom of blue.

It turned out afterwards that we had miscalculated just a few minutes. The blockaders obscured their portholes, painted their sides black, and, with every light put out, it was difficult to see them on the horizon while we were thus racing along and hoping that we would not be discovered.

In an instant, without warning, the portholes of a blockader were suddenly opened, such searchlights  as they had were used to locate the presence of the blockade runner, and through his trumpet the captain of the blockader loudly demanded its surrender.

The captain of the Florie had not been trained in early life to any degree of piety, and through his trumpet he answered back: "Go to hell, damn you; go to hell!"

In an instant the blockader turned loose, and the Florie veered from her direction, so she was not more than four or five hundred feet from the ship, the form of which was now plainly to be seen. Then we began the race for life.

The first shot either scared of or knocked off the watchman in the crow's nest, and all the crew except the pilot made a wild dash to get below deck. As we carried many tons of powder in the hold, they did not seem to realize that that was the worst place they could go. The captain felt that he must have somebody in the crow's nest, and he asked me if I would go up.

There ran through my mind the idea that I was nothing but a landlubber, and the crow's nest was not the best place for a man who had not been to sea before; but the instinct of a soldier and the pride of a Kentuckian came to the rescue, and I clambered up to the crow's nest as if I really wanted to go. This, however, was not true.

It seemed to me that every ship in the world was that night off the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Shot after shot was fired; and as from the crow's nest I caught views of the blockaders on the right and blockaders on the left, it appeared to me years in which we were making that fierce flight and brave fight for life, without very much hope of getting safely away.

All the blockaders opened their portholes and strung themselves along the line through which the Florie was preparing to enter the harbor and which was not very wide. They knew well enough the road the fleeting and fleeing ship and its beleaguered crew must travel.

I had learned the amount of powder that was aboard the Florie and it was not a very comfortable thought that if a shot or shell should hit just right, about the engine or powder, the world would never find even a button off the clothing of the men who were aboard the Florie.

The minutes lengthened, the game became more exciting, the gray dawn of morning was just creeping up the eastern horizon, and as we looked with limited vision along the path we must go we still saw blockaders with, it seemed to us, no fear of the Confederate guns which commanded the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Those guns stood waiting to defend and protect the Little Florie if she could only get within their sympathetic range.

Once discovered, there was no use of hiding. The only chance of escape was to drive through the cordon where a possible opening appeared and take chances of a shot or shell sinking the little craft.

The furnace was fired with  bacon; every piece of iron and wood in the vessel trembled with the mighty strain that was placed upon it. The great paddles were driven to their utmost tension, and they seemed to lift the vessel off the face of the water, and still in the face of all this down went the word to their engineer: "Fire up! Fire up!" and he was told to "Drive harder! Drive her like hell!"

I was not so reckless as the captain. He was getting a thousand dollars a month and a percentage of the cargo that he took out, and up on the crow's nest I began to think maybe it was not such a great thing, after all, to fight for the Confederacy, and certainly a man had better take his chances through West Virginia or Tennessee or down into the Confederacy by land; and more than once I regretted that I did not take my chances with Burbridge and walk through, if needs be, from Canada to the borders of the Confederacy.

The game grew hotter and hotter and the efforts of the blockaders to catch the little vessel stronger and stronger, while up in my perch with shaded eye I sang out the dangers that were ahead down to the captain on the bridge.

I called out without a tremor in my voice: "Blockader on the right! Blockader on the left!" It looked to me that the fate of the landlubber was hard, but I was in for the whole game and resolved that, whatever came, I would do the best a landlubber knew how.

The charge was long, the pursuit fierce, the efforts to destroy relentless, but through it all a generous Providence brought the little craft. True, she had been struck several times, but she escaped a stroke at the vital spot. Battered, hammered a little, she had run through the fierce storm of shot and shell. She had successfully accomplished her purpose.

Just as the daylight gave clear vision of the surroundings, the little vessel landed at the dock under Fort Fisher, and, looking up, we saw the garrison who had been watching with eager interest the fight and flight, and above it all was the Stars and Bars, to me then a signal of safety, an object of love.

We clambered out of the little vessel onto the pier, and I walked up into the fort and kissed the folds of the red-and-white flag. The officers congratulated us on our bold and fearless conduct; but the little captain, as handsome as an Adonis, with as brave a heart as ever beat in the breast of mortal man, while receiving the congratulations of the Confederates did not seem to think that he had done anything out of the ordinary.

Looking back across the line of the harbor, we saw another blockade runner, the Will-o'-the-Wisp. She too was running the gauntlet, and she was passing through an ordeal worse than ours because she was a few minutes behind us.

Finding escape impossible, the bold captain beached the little vessel and was fortunate enough to do so under the protection of the guns of Fort Fisher. Torn by shot and shell, she lay on the beach. She had made the port, but it was after a trial as if by fire.

The things she had were precious to the Confederacy, and lighters and boats crowded around the craft to relieve her of her load of shot, shell, clothing, and provision, and in a short while she was floated safely into the harbor.

The Florie soon passed the twenty-five miles between Fort Fisher and Wilmington, and by nine o'clock we were at the dock at Wilmington. I was extremely anxious to return thanks to the beneficent Providence that had brought us safely through the excitement, danger, exposure, and experiences of the night.

I hastened to the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington to join in its prayers and praise and to give thanks to God, who had taken care of us most wonderfully in the difficulties and dangers of the weird and soul-trying scenes of the night before.

Ordered out of the Confederacy on reaching Richmond, I had the good fortune to strike the Florie on her return trip, just a month later. She carried a thousand bales of cotton. These were packed around her smokestack, and every available space was filled with the precious fiber.

We went out on our return trip without even seeing a blockader and landed safely at St. George's, Bermuda with $750,000 worth of Confederate cotton,.

The Florie made several other trips, and in 1867, while living abroad and visiting Glasgow, Scotland, at the pier I saw the Florie. She did not look quite as smart and as trim as she did in 1864.

I went aboard her, but there was to be found no trace of anybody who made the perilous journey with me into Wilmington. I could but feel a deep attachment for the little boat which had such marvelous experiences in her career.

Gen. Bennett H. Young later in life.
Gen. Bennett H. Young later in life.

Bennett H. Young (b. May 25, 1843, d. February 23, 1919) is best known for his October 19, 1864 raid on St. Albans, Vermont, as a lieutenant, in which he and his approximately 20 men, all former Confederate prisoners who had escaped Yankee prisons to Canada, with perfect planning, looted three banks and captured $201,522. They were called 5th Company, Confederate States Retributors. Most of them made it to Canada after the St. Albans raid but were retained by Canadian authorities and faced trials but eventually were freed. They had to return the $88,000 that they had on them. Later in life, Young became a very successful attorney in Louisville, Kentucky. His philanthropy was legendary and included the founding of an orphanage for blacks in Louisville (the first), and much help toward creating the Louisville Free Public Library. He was commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans from 1913 to 1916, then made "honorary commander-in-chief for life."

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