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- (Also called: friar’s lantern, ignis fatuus, jack-o’-lantern) A pale flame or phosphorescence sometimes seen over marshy ground at night. It is believed to be due to the spontaneous combustion of methane or other hydrocarbons originating from decomposing organic matter
- A person or thing that is elusive or allures and misleads
There are probably few ship types surrounded by as much romance as the Civil War blockade runner. It was risky, but not illegal. It was not smuggling. Rather, it was an attempt to circumvent a wartime blockade – a blockade that was legal only in so far as it could stop neutrals from entering or exiting a port declared blockaded.
Blockade Running Routes
Under international law, you could seize a neutral nation’s ship if it attempted to run a cargo into or out of a hostile belligerent’s ports. You could not seize the crew, however, unless they held allegiance to a hostile belligerent. That turned the whole endeavor of blockade running into an elaborate game – a form of high stakes gambling. You bet your investment in a ship and its cargo against the profits you could make from selling the cargos you ran in and out of a blockaded port.
Blockade running depended upon the cloak of neutrality. A blockade runner was a civilian only if the ship and crew were unarmed. (Your cargo could be arms, but they could not be used, or in a position to be used.) Any armed resistance transformed a blockade runner into a belligerent, or even a pirate if the ship had no letter of marque permitting it to use force. Flight was permitted, but not fight. There was a fox-and-hounds aspect to blockade running.
Blockade running was wagering for high stakes. A single successful run in and out could reward the backers and crew of the ship with enough money to reimburse the cost of the ship and cargo by five to even ten times the money invested. It was sporting, an activity any gentleman could honorably pursue. It was an opportunity to demonstrate gallantry, too. The blockaders were within their rights to blow your head off with a cannon shot if you attempted to escape them. That risk, too, was part of the game.
That made blockade running virtually irresistible to a certain class of English gentleman adventurer. Did I mention it was profitable, too?
At first, these gentlemen-adventurers used any seaworthy tub available to run cargos to the Confederacy. Even the yacht America was used as a blockade runner. (Although truth be told, the rifles it had been loaded with were originally intended for Irish separatists in the Auld Sod, but the Confederates paid better. I did mention it was profitable.) That worked great until the Union Navy actually got some armed ships to blockade the Confederate coast.
Then these gentlemen-adventurers began building blockade runners. They had common characteristics. They were low-slung, narrow and fast, powered by the brawniest steam engines then available.
Blockade Runner Will of the Wisp
They were also lightly built – often almost dangerously so. A narrow, fast ship, with a fuel-hog engine was useless for running normal cargos. It could not carry enough to cover the cost of operations in peacetime. They were built for a war, one that was not expected to last long. They repaid the investment after one trip – anything extra was pure profit. Why build them to last when light scantlings reduced the cost and time of construction? The sooner they got into service, the more money they made. And the cheaper they were, the greater the profit. (I think I mentioned it was profitable.)
It was perhaps inevitable that these purpose-built blockade runners would have appropriate names: Banshee, Whisper, Night Hawk, Falcon, and of course, inevitably Will of the Wisp.
Will of the Wisp was one of the more successful blockade runners. It had been purpose-built as a runner on the River Clyde, then a major shipbuilding center. It was 238 feet long, and 23 feet wide, built of one-inch iron in a blazing hurry. Its design was based on Irish Sea mail packets, exaggerating the characteristics of those fast ships.
Originally it operated out of Bermuda, running into Wilmington, North Carolina. Thomas Taylor, author of Running The Blockade, wrote of its exploits in his memoir. Eventually, after Will of the Wisp made several successful runs, Wilmington fell to the North, closing it as a blockade port.
Will of the Wisp‘s Run into Wilmington
Will of the Wisp switched its run, abandoning Bermuda. Instead, it ran cargoes between Havana and Galveston. It was while making that run, in February 1865 when on February 3 it was spotted by a pair of Union blockaders. It evaded them, disappearing into the fog.
The Texas Gulf Coast is treacherous at the best of times. In a fog on a dark night, it was easy to miss the channel. This meant you would not miss the shore. Will of the Wisp made contact with the banks off Galveston Island itself. Will of the Wisp was so lightly built the stranding wrecked it.
Over the next week, the hull was picked clean by Confederate soldiers and civilian – and even by the party hired to salvage the cargo. On February 6, when the fog lifted, the Union Navy spotted the ship, shelled it and sent boarding parties to ensure it was destroyed. Its destruction did not much matter. Its investors had been handsomely remunerated. (I did mention blockade running was very profitable, right?), The war would end a few months later, which would also have ended Will of the Wisp‘s usefulness.
The hull eventually sank into the waters off Galveston. Changes in the coast due to storm and current carried the wreck offshore. It was buried under sand, forgotten until the late twentieth century.
As technology advanced and interest in marine archaeology grew, a systematic search for historic wrecks off the Texas Coast began. Four wrecks of blockade-running steamships were known to be off Galveston Island and its surrounding waters: Acadia, Denbigh, Caroline, and Will of the Wisp. Acadia was found in the 1980s. Denbigh literally surfaced in the 1990s. It took a little longer, but Will of the Wisp and Caroline were found in the first decade of this century.
Will of the Wisp’s hull was found by a magnetometer survey of the coast off Galveston. The results are shown in the image below.
This type of scan reveals concentrations of metal, especially ferrous metals iron or steel The higher the reading, the more metal is present, The big hump is where the engines were.
Want to find out more about wrecks of blockade runners and other ships in Texas waters? Read my book Texas Shipwrecks. You can also read more about blockade running in Running The Blockade and The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner by J. Wilkinson