History and Civil War buffs will find new meaning to the wartime concept of “blockade running” in a new book by a Texas Gulf Coast author.
In Civil War Blockade Running On The Texas Coast, writer and researcher Andrew Hall tells the story of how the upper Texas coast and the port of Galveston were instrumental in the movement of foreign imports to supply Confederate troops, since the Union had already seized many Southern ports.
“Galveston and Texas were too far west to play much of a direct role in the war in the East, but Texas did provide lots of troops and supplies to the Confederate war effort,” explains Hall. “Most of the steamships running the blockade into Galveston or other points on the coast ran out of Havana, Cuba or Vera Cruz, Mexico, both of which were officially neutral parties in the Civil War.”
In particular, Hall’s book covers the naval blockade of the Texas coast in 1861-65. He explains blockade-running occurs in wartime when one nation establishes a blockade of its enemy, to cut off that enemy from outside supply or reinforcement. “Blockade-running is the effort to move people, munitions or supplies through or around the blockade,” he says. “Blockade-running can take many forms – at sea, carrying supplies through enemy lines on land, or across a neutral border, as at Brownsville/Matamoros during the Civil War.”
Below, the author answers questions about his book and what inspired him to write it. Civil War Blockade Running On The Texas Coast is available at the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Eighteen Seventy One store located at 2217 Strand, the Galveston Bookshop on 23rd Street and through online outlets.
Q&A with Author Andrew Hall
What inspired you to write the book?
It’s a subject that I’ve been interested in for a long time, as I discuss in the beginning of the book. Over time, I realized that most books on the subject – not just focusing on Texas, but covering the subject across the war – tended to be either very academic or very unreliable, the latter repeating a lot of lore that doesn’t always hold up well to close scrutiny. My hope is that this short work will bridge that gap, telling an engaging story while still reflecting accurate research. If this book gets readers interested in the subject and prompts them to pursue it further, that’s the best outcome of all.
What role did Galveston play during the Civil War as a port, and how important was it for successful blockade running along the Texas coast to keep the Confederacy alive?
Galveston and Texas were too far west to play much of a direct role in the war in the East, but Texas did provide lots of troops and supplies (especially beef on-the-hoof) to the Confederate war effort. (There was, for example, no continuous rail connection between Texas and the rest of the Confederacy.) Blockade-running into Texas provided munitions and supplies mostly for use in what was termed the Trans-Mississippi (i.e., west of the Mississippi River), but it was very important for that purpose.
Galveston and Houston were particular strategic targets for the Federals, because Galveston had the best natural harbor west of the mouth of the Mississippi, and Houston was a rail hub with lines stretching well into the populated interior of the state. Union forces captured Galveston in the fall of 1862 with the idea that it could be the jumping-off point for a major invasion of the state, but that idea got tossed when the Confederates re-took the port on January 1, 1863. (That is, by the way, the only example of a Confederate port being retaken by C.S. forces during the war.) The Federals tried again in September 1863 at Sabine Pass, but were beaten back by a small force of Confederate artillerymen. After that, they didn’t attempt another invasion of this part of Texas for the rest of the war.
Please discuss how the steamships would make trips from Cuba to Galveston's port and what goods the ships were carrying.
Most of the steamships running the blockade into Galveston or other points on the coast ran out of Havana, Cuba, or Vera Cruz, Mexico, both of which were officially neutral parties in the Civil War. A steamship would typically make the run between Havana and Galveston in four or five days; a sailing vessel might take much longer, depending on the weather conditions.
Blockade running under sail on the Texas coast went on all through the war, but with steamships it only picked up significantly toward the end, after Mobile, Alabama was cut off by the Union navy in August 1864. Through the last few months of the war, the big runners (some over 200 feet long) were coming in and going out frequently.
As originally conceived, the Confederate government believed that a combination of profit and patriotism for the southern cause would be sufficient to ensure that needed supplies would be brought into the Confederacy. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of blockade runners were entirely private business ventures that the Confederate government had little direct control over.) What they found, though, was that high-end civilian goods brought a much higher profit for the blockade runners than munitions or basic materials, and so only a small proportion of goods brought in on blockade runners contributed directly to the war effort. The Confederate government passed a law in early 1864 requiring that half of all inbound and outbound cargo space be allotted for C.S. government consignments, but even in early 1865 most of the remaining space was filled with expensive civilian goods, rather than strictly military supplies, because the former brought a much higher profit for the runners. Profit trumped patriotism.
Also, please discuss shipwrecks including the famous blockade runners Denbigh and Will o’ the Wisp and the blockaders USS Arkansas and USS Hatteras. Are they found? If so, what was found on them?
I’ve had the good fortune to work with the archaeological teams on four shipwrecks of vessels that were part of blockade-running on the Texas coast. The most important of these is Denbigh that was shelled and burned at Galveston in late May 1865, the last runner to be caught and destroyed here. That was a project of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and involved four years’ worth of diving summer field seasons, to excavate parts of the interior of the ship. We discovered that whatever was left of the (inbound) cargo after the original fire had probably been salvaged soon after, so there wasn’t much left of that. But we were able to do a very thorough documentation of the ship’s structure and machinery that gives additional insight on their technology and operations.
The wreck we believe is Will o’ the Wisp was located during a survey after Hurricane Ike, in the winter of 2008-09. Like all these wreck, that site is mostly buried in the sand, but a lot of it was exposed by wave scouring during the storm. I and several other volunteer Marine Stewards with the Texas Historical Commission had the opportunity to begin recording this wreck in the summer of 2009, and what we found fits very well with the historical record of that runner’s construction. We do need to go back, though, and collect more data that will, we hope, firmly establish that ship’s identity.
USS Arkansas was originally a civilian ship, Tonawanda, purchased for the Union navy and used as a supply vessel, running up and down the Texas coast during the latter part of the war, bringing fresh provisions, mail, spare parts, munitions, replacement crews and a hundred other things to the ships stationed off the various ports and inlets. USS Arkansas suffered a terrible outbreak of yellow fever during the war, one of the worst aboard any blockade ship. After the war, the Navy sold her and her new owners changed her name back to Tonawanda. She was wrecked in the Florida Keys in 1866. I had the opportunity to help lead an underwater archaeology field school with the PAST Foundation that recorded the site, part of the National Marine Sanctuary there.
USS Hatteras was a Union gunboat that, like USS Arkansas, was originally built as a civilian vessel. She captured several blockade runners in the Gulf of Mexico before she had the misfortune to run into the famous Confederate raider CSS Alabama in January 1863. Alabama was a purpose-built warship, and the fight was over in just 13 minutes. In 2012 I was able to assist with historical research on a multi-agency project on the Hatteras site, led by NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and supported by the Edward E. and Marie L. Matthews Foundation, ExploreOcean, and Teledyne BlueView. It was a project to test a new underwater 3D mapping technology that has great potential for recording historic shipwrecks. It was great project.
Andrew Hall is a native of the Texas Gulf Coast and a longtime researcher and author, specializing in local maritime and Civil War history. Working with the Texas Historical Commission, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the PAST Foundation and other groups, Hall has had the opportunity to help archaeologists record multiple historical shipwrecks.