by Karen Abbott
In April 1861, as soon as President Lincoln declared a blockade of 3,500 miles of coastline in an attempt to cut off the Confederacy’s overseas trade, savvy Southerners found ways to evade it. England, which remained neutral, allowed agents to buy at will, and a blockade-running business flourished abroad. Low, sleek ships like the Bermuda set sail from Liverpool and broke the cordon, slipping into the wharf at Savannah with a million-dollar cargo: cannon, rifles, cartridges, gunpowder, shoes, blankets, morphine, and ever-valuable quinine, which was used to treat malaria. Domestically, two Philadelphia-based, politically connected chemical manufacturing companies, Powers Weightman and Rosengarten Sons, supplied quinine to Union troops, but employees who valued profit over patriotism or sympathized with the South were always eager to make a deal.
Smugglers and spies swarmed the towns along the Potomac River, a burgeoning network that linked rebels in Virginia and Maryland, the latter a tobacco-producing border state with a significant slave population. Despite constant patrolling by the federal navy, hundreds of rebels crossed the river at Pope’s Creek, where the water stretched fewer than two miles wide. A farmer named Thomas A. Jones—who would aid John Wilkes Booth’s escape in 1865—lived on the Maryland side. He had calculated a sliver of time, just before dusk, when the sun grazed the high bluffs above Pope’s Creek and threw a shadow across the river, enabling small rowboats to land and hide without detection.
Jones cooperated closely with Benjamin Grimes, a fellow farmer on the Virginia side, and together they orchestrated at least two crossings a night—some of them conducted by nine-year-old Robert Fitzgerald, the father of the future writer. Boats set sail from Grimes’s property, deposited packages in the fork of a dead tree on Jones’s shore, and collected packages from the same spot if, for some reason, Jones himself was not standing on the beach waiting with them in hand. When it wasn’t safe for a boat to cross from Virginia, Miss Mary Watson, the 24-year-old daughter of a Confederate major, sent a signal by draping a black shawl from the window of her home.
Women proved to be some of the most dependable and daring blockade runners. One managed to conceal inside her hoop skirt a roll of army cloth, several pairs of cavalry boots, a roll of crimson flannel, packages of gilt braid and sewing silk, cans of preserved meats, and a bag of coffee—the contraband tally for a single crossing. Another found a functioning pistol on a battlefield, took it apart, and endeavored to smuggle the pieces to a rebel solider. She hid the two halves of the wooden butt in between soft ginger cookies, pushed the barrel into a loaf of bread, and buried the screws in a jar of potted shrimp, also filched from a Union officer. Large quantities of quinine passed through, sometimes packed in sacks of oiled silk and tucked inside the hollowed, papier-mâché heads of children’s dolls.
As the war progressed the blockade had its intended effect, interrupting business and choking the Confederacy of supplies. No one could receive checks or access funds held in northern banks. Coffee was a luxury good. Atlanta jewelers set coffee beans instead of diamonds in breast pins, and newspapers printed suggestions for ersatz brews: take the common garden beet, wash it clean, dice into small pieces, roast in the oven and grind, boil with a gallon of water, settle with an egg. Newspapers dealt with shortages by printing on wallpaper, wrapping paper, and the backs of business forms. Textbooks became an entrepreneurial enterprise and adopted a decidedly local flavor. One arithmetic book posed the problem: “If one Confederate soldier kills 90 Yankees, how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?”
Ultimately it was the occupation of the Confederate ports, rather than the vigilant watch kept by federal cruisers, that stopped the blockade runners. Union capture of Mobile Bay in August 1864 closed what was virtually the last port on the Gulf. Charleston and Wilmington, the South’s last ports on the Atlantic Coast, fell in early 1865, and the Confederacy was finally starved into submission.
Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. Her next book, a true story of four female Civil War spies, will be published by HarperCollins in 2014.
Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1988; author interview with Catherine Wright, curator of the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA.