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Will of the Wisp

 

will-o’-the-wisp: noun

  1. (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
  2. 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

Published in Group Writing
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There are 10 comments.

  1. Member

    This is the first example I have seen of deliberately shoddy vehicles for the sake of quick construction. I’m sure corners are cut all the time, but it seems unusual to begin construction with such expediency expected from the buyer. Is this a repeated theme in naval history? 

    • #1
    • August 10, 2018 at 8:08 am
    • Like
  2. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    This is the first example I have seen of deliberately shoddy vehicles for the sake of quick construction. I’m sure corners are cut all the time, but it seems unusual to begin construction with such expediency expected from the buyer. Is this a repeated theme in naval history?

    Actually, yes. During the War of 1812, the shipbuilding race on the lakes led to all sorts of shortcuts being taken. While building Lawrence and Niagara Noah Brown (the primary shipwright) told one carpenter: “We want no extras; plain work, plain work, is all we want. They are only required for one battle; if we win, that is all that will be wanted of them. If the enemy are victorious, the work is good enough to be captured.”

    I could give other examples, both in the commercial and naval sphere. Economics is a great driver in ship construction and use. You do not want to pay more for a ship than you have to. It is money out of your pocket. One of the reasons the sinking of Edmund Fitzgerald sent shock waves through the naval architecture community is because the vessel was believed “overbuilt,” with scantlings heavier than needed. Subsequent ships had lighter (and weaker) hulls and initial reports were Fitz sank because it had broken up due to waves. (It turned out structural failure was not the cause. The captain was driving the ship too fast for the sea conditions, and ended up driving the bow below the water surface. At that point the ship decided it was a submarine.) 

    • #2
    • August 10, 2018 at 8:21 am
    • 3 likes
  3. Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    This is the first example I have seen of deliberately shoddy vehicles for the sake of quick construction. I’m sure corners are cut all the time, but it seems unusual to begin construction with such expediency expected from the buyer. Is this a repeated theme in naval history?

    It has happened before and since that time. Often in times of war, the goal is to produce something fast and plentiful. Two examples that come to mind from WWII are our PT boats and Japan’s Zeros. (Yes, I know, airplanes rather than water-based craft, but same idea.) I believe in the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold’s gunboats on Lake Champlain are another example.


    This fascinating conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under August’s theme of Will. As Seawriter demonstrates, there is a wide range of things tied to the word/name of Will. We’ve had Will Rogers. A bit later in the month, someone will be starting a conversation on “Who was Will Shakespeare?” We have people writing about the will to live and free will. What’s your will? Where’s your will power? Come to our Schedule and Sign-Up Sheet, and pick a date to have your will with us.

    • #3
    • August 10, 2018 at 8:41 am
    • 2 likes
  4. Thatcher

    Not a sea story, but the Germans during World War II had expensive, over-engineered tanks like the Panthers and Tigers, that were overrun by the much simpler Russian T-34’s and US M-4 Shermans.

    • #4
    • August 10, 2018 at 11:47 am
    • 4 likes
  5. Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    This is the first example I have seen of deliberately shoddy vehicles for the sake of quick construction. I’m sure corners are cut all the time, but it seems unusual to begin construction with such expediency expected from the buyer. Is this a repeated theme in naval history?

    It has happened before and since that time. Often in times of war, the goal is to produce something fast and plentiful. Two examples that come to mind from WWII are our PT boats and Japan’s Zeros. (Yes, I know, airplanes rather than water-based craft, but same idea.) I believe in the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold’s gunboats on Lake Champlain are another example.

    I’d say another ship that would meet this formula were the Liberty cargo ships in World War II. Their design life was shorter than the expected length of the war.

    • #5
    • August 10, 2018 at 1:24 pm
    • 4 likes
  6. Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    (It turned out structural failure was not the cause. The captain was driving the ship too fast for the sea conditions, and ended up driving the bow below the water surface. At that point the ship decided it was a submarine.)

    I’ve not heard of a definitive cause of the sinking, only theories. Can you point me to the source of this finding?

     

    • #6
    • August 10, 2018 at 4:12 pm
    • Like
  7. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    Jeff Petraska (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    (It turned out structural failure was not the cause. The captain was driving the ship too fast for the sea conditions, and ended up driving the bow below the water surface. At that point the ship decided it was a submarine.)

    I’ve not heard of a definitive cause of the sinking, only theories. Can you point me to the source of this finding?

    I don’t have them at hand. Read this before moving to League City from Palestine, TX, and the report is buried somewhere in my garage.

    • #7
    • August 10, 2018 at 4:33 pm
    • 2 likes
  8. Member

    So, Seawriter, let me see if I’ve got this straight: Blockade running was profitable, right?

    • #8
    • August 11, 2018 at 5:32 am
    • 4 likes
  9. Member

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    So, Seawriter, let me see if I’ve got this straight: Blockade running was profitable, right?

    As long as you got in, sold your cargo, and got out with the money.

    • #9
    • August 11, 2018 at 6:49 am
    • 1 like
  10. Member
    Seawriter Post author

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    So, Seawriter, let me see if I’ve got this straight: Blockade running was profitable, right?

    It sure seemed that way. Especially in 1862-63. More profitable than selling rifles to Irish separatists.

    • #10
    • August 11, 2018 at 7:02 am
    • 2 likes