Tourists coming to idyllic Bermuda on cruise ships that slide between the Narrows outside St. George and into the harbor dock see only crystal-clear water and a spotlessly clean island dotted with pastel-colored houses with white concrete roofs.
Links between the island and the United States go back to 1609, when one of the ships bringing aid to the island’s small, starving colony wrecked on its encircling reefs. Though the Sea Venture did not complete her rescue journey, settlers would arrive in Bermuda three years later under the auspices of the Virginia Colony.
Through the next decades, Bermuda’s cultural and commercial ties with the fledgling America increased.
As April 1861 drew near, about 11,000 people lived on the island. Even today, the Royal Navy Dockyard, accessible by bus or ferry, differs little in appearance from the 1860s. The island’s people watched the time of war approaching in America, not knowing what effect it might have on them.
Abraham Lincoln realized that the primary opportunity for the South’s success lay in its ability to import manufactured goods from Europe in return for cotton. The smoke from Fort Sumter, S.C., had barely cleared when he issued an order on April 19, 1861, to blockade all ports from Virginia to Texas. The rationale was simple: Blockade the ports and strangle the South’s economy.
As good as the plan may have seemed at first, it was a long shot at best. The Union Navy had fewer than 50 warships and was unable to adequately patrol 3,500 miles of shoreline stretching from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia all the way to Mexico.
However, the Union increased its fleet, and the blockade began to become effective. The South’s response was to change to smaller, steamer-type vessels with less draw in shallow waters. Their size also made them faster and more maneuverable than larger ships. The downside was that they were too light to be stable in heavy seas. Their size also required more frequent stops for fueling, making trans-Atlantic trips virtually impossible.
The solution seemed to be finding neutral ports in the Caribbean, Mexico and the Atlantic as temporary places where these “blockade runners” could be equipped and loaded with goods brought in from Europe and Canada. Bermuda, just about 650 miles east of Wilmington, N.C., was ideally suited and perfectly located to be one of these so-called staging areas. With the Royal Navy Dockyard located nearby as a repair facility, the plan seemed feasible.
Many of the private shippers actually preferred Nassau in the Bahamas to Bermuda because of its proximity to the major Southern ports. These could be reached with less coal, permitting greater space for cargo. To go on to St. George in Bermuda meant an additional two days and the concomitant increase in coal. Still, Bermuda became the port of choice.
Commercial minds in Bermuda quickly saw an advantage. They already had a degree of cultural and trade links with the South, and the opportunities presented by blockade running were endless. The small ships needed coal as well as provisions for the crews. Cargo required offloading, and additional ones needed to be loaded on, as did food and lodging for the crews.
Most important, the same reefs that had spelled disaster for the Sea Venture more than 200 years earlier presented equal perils for the blockade runners. Bermudian pilots and captains were needed to lead the ships through the treacherous reefs and shoals, and skilled seamen usually could find additional work as crew members.
The other Confederate problem was a fiscal one. With private carriers being called on to ship munitions, arms and ammunition for the Confederacy, there was little space left for commercial or civilian cargo, which carried a greater profit for the shippers.
It fell to Maj. Josiah Gorgas, chief of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, to work a deal whereby the Confederacy would lease ships that could be designated strictly for Ordnance Department cargo. Gorgas was a Pennsylvanian, married to an Alabama woman, and had cast his lot with the Confederate States.
Though the island’s people at first were concerned about their proximity to the war, they came to view it as a moneymaker. Only one small obstacle had to be overcome: Britain’s declared neutrality. Terming it a “conflict of belligerents,” Queen Victoria issued at least three proclamations forbidding any exports of arms and materiel to either side, though this basically was ignored by both.
In truth, though Britain’s public statements stressed neutrality, the reality was that she was strongly on the side of the South during the early part of the war. Lip service was paid to the supposed neutrality. All of the ships leaving Bermuda for Southern ports dutifully showed some other neutral port as the destination.
By 1862, the blockade runners literally were running full steam ahead. Even with the nominal shadow of neutrality over their heads, large supplies of gunpowder and other armaments lay waiting in the island’s warehouses, ready to be transported to the South. A man with Southern ties, John Tory Bourne, took the lead in representing the South’s commercial interests.
Bourne’s wife was from South Carolina, and his sympathies were with the Confederate States. Quickly establishing himself as an agent for the major British shippers, including Fraser, Trenholm and Co. of Liverpool, he was able to obtain British registry for ships belonging to Southern firms, and he began laying up stockpiles of coal to fuel them.
It was thanks to Bourne that large quantities of warm blankets and other supplies originally destined for convicts in Bermuda were instead deflected and sent to Southern ports before the harsh winter began.
The ships’ captains preferred anthracite coal because it produced little smoke and the ships could escape undetected. Bourne was able to obtain coal from Wales and Nova Scotia, and in some instances even from Pennsylvania. It was said that he kept about 500 tons of coal reserved for his own use and another 500 to 1,000 tons available for sale to other steamers.
Though the ostensible cargo was coal and other materiel, important personages were able to get on board as well upon occasion. When Rep. Clement L. Vallandingham, a Confederate sympathizer from Ohio, was made to leave the United States, he was able to get space on the Cornubia, a cargo ship.
The famous spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow arrived on the Phantom in August 1863 and transferred to a British man-of-war to go on to England. The Bermuda route even saw escaped Southern prisoners of war make it to the island from Northern prisons and return to their units with the help of a blockade runner.
Today, the National Trust Museum in the heart of St. George is still much the same as it was in the 1860s, when it was the office of Confederate Maj. Norman Walker, who had been sent to Bermuda by the Confederate Ordnance Bureau with $2 million worth of cotton bonds to buy more blockade runners.
The building later became the Globe Hotel, and it was the repository of the official gold Seal of the Confederate States of America, commissioned in 1863. It took three tries to get the seal and press through the blockades and into the Confederacy. One of the large copies was purchased after the war and sits on the first floor of the museum.