D URING the Civil War, the harbors of the Southern ports were closely blockaded, so as to cut off supplies from foreign countries. In spite of the watchful gunboats patrolling the coasts, there were many adventurous blockade-runners, that slipped past the patrol, carrying supplies to the Confederacy, and bringing out cotton and other products for foreign trade. The life of a blockade-runner was full of perils and thrilling experiences.
This is the story of how a blockade-runner made its way into Wilmington, North Carolina, which lies about sixteen miles up Cape Fear River. At the mouth of the river was Fort Fisher, whose guns kept the blockading fleet some distance away, thus giving a blockade-runner a chance to slip in, once under protection of the fort.
The mouth of the river was heavily patrolled by Federal vessels. There were three sections of them, one cordon as near shore as was safe, and two others lying outside, so that a blockade-runner must needs be very alert to get by their vigilance.
The Banshee was a blockade-runner operating from Nassau. On her first run into Wilmington, she left the shores of the Bahamas, and crept noiselessly along, invisible in the darkness, and keeping well out of sight of vessels in the daytime.
During the day, a man was stationed in the cross-trees, and the moment a sail was seen on the horizon, The Banshee would turn in the opposite direction, until the sail was lost beyond the horizon. Every time the look-out man saw a sail, he was given a dollar. If the sail was discovered first from the deck, the lookout man was fined five dollars.
Thus, two days passed, and The Banshee neared her destination. The night was dark, but calm and clear. No lights were allowed—not even a cigar. The steersman had to see as much of the compass as he could through a shield that came almost to his eyes. Absolute silence prevailed, as the blockade-runner moved into the danger zone.
At length, they were opposite the mouth of Cape Fear River.
"Better cast a lead, Captain, to find the bottom," whispered the Pilot.
A muttered order down the engine-room tube, and The Banshee slowed down, and then stopped. The lead was cast, and the report was "Sixteen fathoms—sandy bottom with black specks."
"Not far enough in, and too far southward," said the Pilot. "We must get away from that bottom before we head in shore."
At the end of an hour, the lead was cast again, and the Pilot whispered to the steersman, "All right, we are opposite the mouth of the river. Starboard, and go easy."
The ship crept along slowly in the darkness. Not a sound was heard except the beat of the paddle floats. Suddenly, the Pilot grasped the Captain's arm.
"There's one of them, on the starboard bow," he whispered.
A moment afterward, a long, low, black ship was seen, not a hundred yards away, lying still on the water. The Banshee drifted by as noiselessly as possible. Not a movement was seen on the patrol boat, and, in a half-hour, it was lost in the darkness.
Not long afterwards came the whispered alarm, "Steamer on the port bow." Another cruiser was close by.
"Hard-a-port," said the Captain to the steersman, and The Banshee swung around, barely missing the cruiser.
Hardly had this second ship been passed, before a third one loomed up, dead ahead, steaming slowly across the bows of The Banshee.
"Stop her," was the quick order down the engine-room tube, and The Banshee lay dead on the water.
"Instead of going round those blockaders, we are going through them," said the Pilot to the Captain. "Our only hope is that they will not recognize us, and will take us for one of them."
Day was not far off, and The Banshee must make haste to get inside the cordons of the blockade. She was headed straight for the white line of surf on the shore. As much speed as possible was made, and all eyes were strained for any familiar landmarks.
Daylight now streaked the East. Fort Fisher was some distance off, and the gunboats were still on the watch for blockade-runners. In a half hour, The Banshee would be safe, or else captured.
Six or seven gunboats appeared out of the mist, and headed for the blockade-runner, to discover her identity.
"Full steam ahead, and a race for the fort," cried the Captain.
Displaying her flag, she ran full steam toward the protecting guns of the fort. It was now a question of speed and distance, for The Banshee was discovered, and her purpose was known! Boom! came the roar of guns across the waters. Splash! Splash! fell the shells, uncomfortably near the runner, which was carrying a cargo of ammunition.
But Fort Fisher was now awake, and the guns began to roar. Every minute brought The Banshee nearer to safety, and the gunboats into greater danger. The guns from the fort rained shells over The Banshee, and into the sides of her pursuers.
With a sullen roar, and a parting shot, the gun-boats drew off, and the blockade-runner glided under the walls of the fort.
In and out ran The Banshee, trip after trip, bringing in guns, ammunition, and medicines, and carrying out cotton and tobacco. Her daring crew had many narrow escapes before the war came to an end.