During 1889 we had the pleasure of a visit from Captain George B. Boynton, the former owner of Chicora in her blockade running days, who was delighted to renew acquaintance with his early ally. He gave us many reminiscenses of that stirring period, the narration of them cannot be done better than by giving extract by courteous permission of the publisher from his narrative as afterwards contained* under the heading "Looking for Trouble." Copyright, 1911, by Adventure Magazine, the Ridgway Company.
After giving an account of his earlier life ,and share in the American Civil War, and of a project to join some adventures in Cuba he says, "While I was wondering how I could get into communication with Cespedes, my interest was aroused by a newspaper story of the new blockade runner Let Her B. The Let Her B., whose name was a play on words, was a long, powerful, schooner-rigged steamship, built by Lairds on the Mersey. Though classed as a fifteen-knot ship she could do sixteen or seventeen knots (19 miles) which was fast going at that time. There was so much money in blockade-running that the owners of one could well afford to lose her after she had made three successful trips.
In five minutes I decided to become a blockade-runner and to buy the new and already famous ship, if she was to be had at any price within reason. I bought a letter of credit and took the next ship for Bermuda. On my arrival there I found that the Let Her B. had been expected in for several days from her second trip and that there was considerable anxiety about her. A fresh cargo of munitions of war was awaiting the Let Her B, and a ship was ready to take to England the cotton she would bring.
I got acquainted with the agent for the blockade-runner, and offered to buy her and take the chance that she might never come in. He wanted me to wait until the arrival of her owner, Joseph Berry, who was expected daily from England.
After waiting several days I said to him one morning, "It looks as though your ship had been captured or sunk. I'll take a gambler's chance that she hasn't and will give you $50,000 for her and $25,000 for the cargo that is waiting for her; you to take the cargo she brings in. I'll give you three hours to think it over."
It looked as though I was taking a long chance, but I had a "hunch" that she was all right, and I never have had a well-defined "hunch" steer me in anything but a safe course, wherefore I invariably heed them. At the expiration of the time limit there was not a sign of smoke in any direction and the agent accepted my proposition. In half an hour I had a bill of sale for the ship and the warehouse receipts for the cargo of war-supplies.
At sunset that day a ship came in from England with her former owner. He criticized his agent sharply at first, but when two more days passed with no sign of the anxiously-looked-for ship, Mr. Berry concluded that he had all the best of the bargain, and complimented his agent on his shrewdness.
On the third day the Let Her B. came tearing in, pursued at long range by the U.S.S. Powhatan, which proceeded to stand guard over the harbour, keeping well off shore on account of the reefs and shoals that were under her lee.
The Let Her B. discharged a full cargo of cotton and was turned over to me. I went over her carefully while her cargo of arms was going in and found her in excellent condition. She was unloaded in twelve hours, and all her cargo was safely stowed in another forty-eight hours. I took command of her, with John B. Williams, her old captain, as sailing master, and determined to put to sea at once.
I knew the Powhatan would not be looking for us so soon, and planned to catch her off her guard. There was then no man-of-war entrance to the harbor and it was necessary to enter and leave by daylight. With the sun just high enough to let us get clear of the reefs before dark, and with the Powhatan well off shore and at the farthest end of the course she was lazily patrolling, we put to sea.
The Powhatan saw us sooner than I had expected, and started but she was not quick enough. The moment she swung around I increased our speed to a point which the pilot loudly swore would pile us up on the rocks. But it didn't and when we cleared the passage we were all of four miles in the lead. As I had figured, the Powhatan did not suppose we would come out for at least a week, and was cruising slowly about with fires banked, so it took her some time to get up a full head of steam. She fired three or four shots at us, but they fell far short.
I started in at once to master practical navigation, the theory of which I knew, and to familiarize myself with the handling of a ship. I stood at the wheel for hours at a time and almost wore out the instruments taking reckonings by the sun and stars. Navigation came to me naturally, for I loved it, and in three days I would have been killing to undertake a cruise around the world with a Chinese crew.
We arrived off Charleston, late in the afternoon and steamed up close inshore until we could make out the smoke of the blockading fleet, which was standing well out, in a semi-circle. Then we dropped back a bit and anchored. All of the conditions shaped themselves to favor us. It was a murky night, with a hard blow, which came up late in the afternoon, and when we got under way at midnight a good bit of a sea was running.
With the engines held down to only about half speed, but ready to do their best in a twinkling, we headed for the harbor, standing as close inshore as we dared go. We passed so close to the blockading-ship stationed at the lower end of the crescent that she could not have depressed her guns enough to hit us even if we had been discovered in time. Rut she did not see us until we had passed her. Then she let go at us with her bow guns and, while they did no damage, we were at such close quarters that their flash gave the other ships a glimpse of us as we darted away.
They immediately opened on us, but after the first minute or two it was a case of haphazard shooting with all of them. The first shells exploded close around us, and some of the fragments came aboard, but no one was injured. When I saw where they were firing I threw my ship farther over toward Sullivan's island, where she could go on account of her light draft, and sailed quietly along into the harbor at reduced speed. At daylight we went up to the dock and were warmly welcomed.
Before the second night was half over we had everything out of her and a full cargo of cotton aboard, and we steamed out at once. I knew the blockaders would not expect us for at least four days, and we surprised them just as we had surprised the Powhatan at Bermuda. It was a thick night, and we sailed right through the fleet at half speed, but prepared to break and run for it at the crack of a gun. Not a shot was fired or an extra light shown.
As soon as we were clear of the line we put on full speed and three days later we were safe at Turk's Island, the most southerly and easterly of the Bahama Islands, off the coast of Florida, which I had selected as a base of operations. These islands were a haven and a clearing-house for the outsiders who were actively aiding the Confederacy for a very substantial consideration.
Most of the blockade-runners, including the Banshee, Siren, Robert E. Lee, Lady Sterling, and other famous ships, were operating out of Nassau, which had the advantage of closer proximity to the chief Southern posts, being within 600 miles of Charleston and Wilmington, while Turk's Island was 900 miles away, but I never have believed in following the crowd. It is my rule to do things alone and in my own way, as must be the practice of every man who expects to succeed in any dangerous business. The popularity of Nassau caused it to be closely watched by the Federal cruisers that patrolled the Gulf Stream, while the less important islands to the south and east were practically unguarded.
Though precarious for the men who made them so, those were plenteous days for the Bahamas, compared with which the rich tourist toll since levied on the Yankees is but small change. The fortunes yielded by blockade-running seemed made by magic, so quick was the process. Cotton that was bought in Charleston or Wilmington for ten cents a pound sold for ten times as much in the Bahamas, and there were enormous profits in the return cargoes or military supplies. The captains and crews shared in the proceeds and the health of the Confederacy was drunk continuously and often riotously.
By the time I projected myself temporarily into this golden atmosphere of abnormal activity, running the blockade had become more of a business and less of a romance than it was in the reckless early days of the war.
Before leaving Bermuda I had ordered a cargo of munitions of war sent to Turk's Island. We had to wait nearly a month for this shipment to arrive, but the time was well spent in overhauling the engines and putting the Let Her B in perfect condition.
My second trip to Charleston furnished a degree of excitement that exalted my soul. While we were held up at Turk's Island the blockading fleet had been strengthened and supplemented by several small and fast boats which cruised around outside of the line. Without knowing this I had decided - it must have been in response to a "hunch" - to make a dash straight through the line and into the harbor. And it was fortunate that we followed this plan, for they were expecting us to come up from the south, hugging the shore as we had done before, and if we had taken that course they certainly would have sunk us or forced us aground.
We were proceeding cautiously, but did not think we were close to the danger zone, when suddenly one of the patrol ships picked us up and opened fire. Her guns were no better than pea-shooters, but they gave the signal to the fleet, and instantly lights popped up all along the line ahead.
In the flashing lights ahead I saw all of the excitement that I had been longing for, and with an exultant yell to the helmsman to "Tell the engineer to give her ---l," I pushed him aside and seized the wheel. I fondled the spokes lovingly and leaned over them in a tumult of joy. It was the great moment of which I had dreamed from boyhood.
I had anticipated that when it came I would be considerably excited and forgetful of all of my carefully thought out plans for meeting an emergency, but to my surprise I found that I was as cool as though we had been riding at anchor in New York Bay. The opening gun cleared my mind of all its anxieties and intensified its action. I remember that I took time to analyze my feelings to make sure that I was calm and collected and not stunned and stolid and that I was silent from choice and not through anything of fear.
As though spurred by a human impulse, the little ship sprang forward as she felt the full force of her engines and never did she make such a race as she did that night in the sea that was running and at the speed that we were going we would ordinarily have had two men at the wheel, but I found it so easy and so delightful to handle the ship alone that I declined the assistance of Captain Williams, who stood behind me.
Though I am not tall, being not much over five feet and eight inches, nature was kind in giving me a well-set-up frame and a powerful constitution, devoid of nerves but with muscles of steel, and with a reserve supply of strength that made me marvel at its source.
The widest opening in the already closing line was, luckily directly in front of us, and I headed for it. The sparks from our smokestack gave the blockaders our course as plainly as though it had been noonday, and they closed in from both sides to head us off. Shot and shell screamed and sang all around the undaunted Let Her B.
First the mainmast and then the foremast came down with a crash, littering the decks with their gear. A shell carried death into the forecastle. One shot tore away the two forward stanchions of the pilot-house, and another one smashed through the roof, but neither Captain Williams nor I was injured. All of our boats and most of our upper works were literally shot to pieces.
From first to last we must have been under the terrific fire for half an hour, but it seemed not more than a few minutes, and it really was with something of regret that I found the shots were falling astern. When we got up to the dock we found that five of our men had been killed and a dozen more or less injured. The ship had not been damaged at all, so far as speed and seaworthiness in ordinary weather were concerned, though she looked a wreck.
The blockaders expected we would be laid up for a month. Consequently when we steamed out on the fourth night, after making only temporary repairs, they were not looking for us and we got through their line without much trouble.
I made two more trips to Charleston without any very exciting experiences, though we were fired on both times, and then sold the ship to an enterprising Englishman at Turk's Island. I made a comfortable fortune with her and sold her for more than I paid for her."
The Let Her B. was never captured, but the war closed the year after her arrival and upon its conclusion she was brought North and registered as a Canadian vessel at the Port of Pictou, Nova Scotia, and her name at the same time changed to Chicora.
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This volume is copyright The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes and is published with permission of the Estate. The originals are deposited in the Special Collections of the Hamilton Public Library.