- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

Federal ships would close off Southern ports and starve the Confederacy, denying the enemy food, trade for its cotton, munitions and raw materials from abroad.

With a tiny navy and a mainly agrarian society, the Confederacy had no sound plan to counter this passive weapon — but as Jim McNeil shows in his detailed account of the life and death of one Southern port (Wilmington, N.C.) the South certainly tried its best.

In so doing, he relates, the Confederacy laid the basis of a romantic legend that endures along the coast of the Carolinas — the gallant deeds of swift, silent blockade runners slipping past the off-lying Yankee blockade fleet with loads of cotton bales bound for Bermuda or Nassau or Halifax, to return with guns, food and gold for the cause.

One of the centers of the battle between blockader and blockade runner was the low-lying sand spit known as Cape Fear, the entry to the important commercial city of Wilmington. Cape Fear is aptly named, as many mariners have found to their sorrow. It is a low, unremarkable promontory on a sandy coast difficult to discern from the bright sky. The port entrance, invisible from most angles, is protected by a bar of hard, driven sand that shifts yearly because of winter hurricanes, floods and coastal currents. In addition, the Cape Fear River boasts two separate entrances.

In short, Cape Fear is a navigational nightmare and a perfect location for local knowledge to give the advantage to low-slung, swift ships sailing by the dark of the moon with steam engines muffled and lights extinguished.

Mr. McNeil gives no big-picture view of the effect the blockade runners had on the outcome of the war; one failing of the book is that it is endlessly anecdotal. However, most historians agree that the North would have won eventually in any case. The author ignores the larger stage of the war, but he does deliver, in short biographical sketches and hundreds of illustrations (some of poor quality, some fascinating), the feel and the voice of a local community on the front. His center of concentration is the sand-spit village of Smithville (now Southport, N.C.), which was home to a large number of the Cape Fear pilots and their families.

Blockade running was a desperate need for the Confederacy’s leaders in Richmond, and as the war wore on, one of the few sources of money to continue the fight. As a result, the South spent much of its available cash buying, building and equipping long, narrow, high-powered paddle-wheelers, mainly from builders in England and Scotland.

Meanwhile, the heroes of this book — the pilots of the Cape Fear River, honed their skills and laid their plans under the noses of a blockading fleet that sometimes numbered close to 40 enemy ships. Much conspired to their advantage. The difficulties of navigation helped the blockade runners, which might appear at either entrance. Blockade runners could wait for tide and darkness shielded from view by the off-lying island, and shore batteries on that island, as well as to the north and south of the entrance, kept the blockaders at a respectful distance.

When caught by the blockading fleet, the Cape Fear blockade runner either fled at high speed (sometimes tossing sides of bacon and turpentine-soaked bales of cotton into their boilers) or tried to “run” into the range of the shore batteries. If all else failed, as it often did, the Confederate supply ships would be run ashore on the beach, where much of the cargo could be salvaged.

Mr. McNeil has added a valuable and meticulous accounting of one chapter of the South’s failing struggle against the Union. “Long after the war ended,” he writes, “the Cape Fear pilots who ran the blockade remained heroes to their fellow townspeople. Their daring runs and narrow escapes, their tales of the British islands, of Confederate gold, and Yankee prisons, became the stuff of legends.”

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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