Their career began 150 years ago and lasted just a few seasons, but for a while they made Wilmington, in the words of Civil War writer Clint Johnson, “the most important city in the Confederacy.”
They were the blockade runners, merchant ships that sped past Union warships in the dark to bring much-wanted supplies into Southern ports.
After the U.S. Navy and ground forces effectively sealed off Charleston, S.C., in 1863, that meant Wilmington.
Arms, ammunition, medicine and much-needed supplies slipped into the Port City, usually under the protective guns of Fort Fisher. These were then loaded onto the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad for shipment north to Richmond.
Now, state archaeologists are beginning to take a new look at the blockade runners and their cargoes. They hope to launch a campaign to conserve artifacts recovered from the waters off Cape Fear.
The wrecks of 21 blockade runners lie in shallow waters off the coast in what is one of the few maritime National Register historic districts.
“There’s probably twice as many still out there,” said Mark Wilde-Ramsing, an assistant state archeologist who heads North Carolina’s Underwater Archaeology Branch at Fort Fisher.
On April 27, 1861 – nearly a month before North Carolina officially seceded from the Union – President Lincoln extended the naval blockade of the Confederacy to the Tar Heel coast.
Declaring a blockade and enforcing it, however, are two different things. In early 1861, the U.S. Navy had just 42 warships, many still deployed in foreign ports, hardly enough to cover the 4,000-mile-long Confederate coast.
The first blockader, the USS Roanoke, didn’t take up station off Cape Fear until July 12, 1861.