Secrets of a Confederate Blockade Runner

On the 6th September 1864, the iron built side wheel steamship, the Mary Celestia, slammed into the reef off the Gibbs lighthouse on Bermudas southern shore. It sank in just 8 minutes. The skeleton of the wreck still lies there today, 57 feet below, and is now one of the "top ten" diving attractions for all the holidaymakers that swarm around the crystal clear, warm coral waters off Bermudas coastline. However, it also remains a vitally significant historical and archaeological site due to its connection with one of the most hazardous aspects of American Civil War Naval history - blockade running. The site has been investigated on numerous occasions and the only remnants discovered were a handful of empty bottles which have been placed in the Bermuda National Trust Museum for the occasional visitor.

The Mary Celestia was a Confederate blockade runner. It was built, as many Confederate ships were, in Liverpool, England. It was designed by William C Miller and Sons and launched in February 1864. It registered 207 tons which is correspondent with the amount of cargo it was allowed to transport. It departed the Liverpool docks in April 1864 following installation of its boilers and engines and arrived in Bermuda in May 1864. On arrival, it immediately began its life as a Confederate blockade runner and commenced the first of 4 known trips to Wilmington, North Carolina. It is estimated that it may have made as many as 8 clandestine trips but no definitive records exist. The ship was commissioned by William and James Crenshaw of Richmond, Virginia to serve their business interests in the UK and Bermuda.

The Confederate blockade runner was the Southern response to the Unions blockade of all the Confederate ports on the Eastern Coast. The Union blockade strategy was known as the "Anaconda Plan" which involved some 500 Union ships patrolling the 12 major ports and approximately 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline. It was an attempt to economically starve and strangle the Confederacy by preventing exports such as cotton and tobacco to Europe as well as the import of vitally needed military and food supplies. Great Britain played a pivotal role in the development of the blockade running business as it maintained huge investments in the South and were recipients of many exported goods, particularly cotton. To protect these lucrative interests, British investors had engineered steamships that were longer, narrower and much faster than the conventional steamers of the Union blockading fleet.

By May 1864, the war situation was becoming critical for the South and the Confederate Congress needed cargoes that would help to reverse the tide of the war. As such, they passed a law banning non essential items operated by government owned runners and demanded goods such as uniforms, boots, medicine, weapons and ammunition be imported rather than high value luxury products (eg perfumes, ladies clothes and wines) that made much larger profits.

It was during this time and within this background that the brief yet dramatic career of the Mary Celestia took place. On one occasion, she was chased by a Union Navy blockader but managed to avoid capture by throwing 100 bales of cotton (value $100,000) overboard and the engineer overriding the safety valves to obtain a speed of 17 knots which left the US Navy blockader in its wake. On another occasion, the ships crew was riddled with yellow fever with the North Carolina pilot being particularly ill. However, he managed to stay at his post and navigate the ship past the dangerous approaches to Wilmington, North Carolina and into the safety of Cape Fear river before immediately collapsing and dying.

The Mary Celestias final voyage occurred when it departed from Bermuda with a Confederate government mandated cargo of canned beef and general merchandise ( which was actually ammunition and Enfield Rifles) for Wilmington. As it began its journey, it steamed along the southern shore of the island with the intention of dropping off the owner and pilot near Gibbs Point Lighthouse where they both lived. However, as they approached the shore, the pilot still in control shouted in response to a warning of rocks ahead by the chief mate that he knew the reefs and rocks as well as his own house and promptly struck the reef. All the crew abandoned ship and it sank in several minutes. The Mary Celestia had only been afloat for 4 months. Skin divers salvaged much of the cargo at the time and it remained relatively undisturbed for 150 years.

However, on 22 August 2009, Hurricane Bill passed 80 miles off Bermuda with its 75 miles per hour winds. The result was tons of sand being washed off the wreck of the Mary Celestia in particular revealing for the first time the very front section of the bow known as the forepeak including the well preserved remains of the boatswain`s locker. Following careful investigation, a number of artefacts and a crate were revealed. These included a number of intact sealed bottles of wine, a small glass sealed with a glass stopper containing a rare perfume from Piesse and Lubin, Bond Street, London, (now defunct) and another perfume bottle containing Florida Water (citrus cologne) from Murray and Lindman, New York. Although this firm has now re-located to New Jersey, the original 1808 formula for citrus cologne, enjoyed by Southerners in 1864, is still available today. A nice and refreshing aftershave! In addition, various pairs of handmade leather shoes were also found. So what I hear you say? Well, what is certain is that this contraband was someone's personal hidden stash. It was subject to both immediate confiscation by both the Union and Confederate Authorities. Although not a substantial hoard, it was clearly hidden from the owners and captain and would have fetched a very handsome profit in Wilmington. Or, perhaps, a very nice present for family members. Sometimes, even now, personal stories are emerging that provide intimate insights that never see the light of day in comparison to the big names and events that took place during the American Civil War.

Article by Stewart "Goober" Douglas.

Footnote: The success of the Union Naval blockade played a major role in the eventual victory over the Confederacy. By the end of the War, the Union Navy had captured more than 1,100 Confederate blockade runners and had destroyed or run aground another 355 Vessels.

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2012