Monday, January 11, 2016

A walk in Bermuda: Bumping into the 'rogues' of Confederate blockade running

Blockade runner at St. George's (Wikipedia, public domain)

My wife, eldest son and I winged our way Saturday to Bermuda for a quick (25-hour) getaway. We lucked out on the weather and saw much of the gorgeous British territory by ferry, bus, taxi and on foot.

After marveling at the rocky north shore of St. George’s Island, we left the azure waters and gentle breeze and sauntered down to the village of the same name. While walking the charming streets (Duke of York Street, to be precise) at midday Sunday, I stumbled into the American Civil War.

A sign on the stucco wall of the site, now the Bermuda National Trust Museum at the Globe Hotel, calls the building the “Confederate Headquarters during the American Civil War." Apparently, commercial agent Maj. Norman Walker used the second floor of the 300-year-old building to coordinate “the flow of guns; ammunition and other war supplies through the Union blockade.”

The museum was closed, but I pledged to do a little reading when I got home last night.

Picket photo
Rogues & Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War” is the star attraction among several exhibits. An accompanying book talks about how the Confederacy turned to Bermuda, Cuba and the Bahamas as vital stops for blockade running. Those harbors “teemed with ships full of arms and supplies for the South and others loaded with cotton on their way back to Europe as payment.”

Blockade runners were employed to fight the North’s “Anaconda Plan” of choking off Southern ports. There was a lot of profiteering and many items early in the war were meant for civilians willing to pay high prices.

But, according to a U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries article, “To prevent blockade-running companies and captains from loading their ships with high-value commodities for better profit, the Confederacy operated government-owned runners, and, in 1864, the Confederate Congress passed a law banning luxury goods on the steamers to focus the incoming cargoes on what was needed to win the war.

Great Britain controlled Bermuda and the Bahamas and encouraged blockade running. According to a teacher resource guide produced by the museum, although Bermuda was neutral, most of its residents favored the South.

The upper floor of the Globe Hotel was used by Confederate Commercial Agent John Tory Bourne and Confederate Shipping Agent Major Norman Walker as the office from which they coordinated the flow of desperately needed guns, ammunition, uniforms and other war materiel through the Union blockade, established to starve the southern Confederacy,” reads the guide. “It was a turbulent yet profitable period in St. George’s history and the Globe was at the heart of it.”

Former Globe Hotel now houses museum (Picket photo)

Goods that were brought from Europe and meant for the South were transferred from larger vessels to the faster blockade runners in Bermuda.

The guide continues: “The opportunities for Bermudians to profit from blockade running were boundless. Ships needed coal and provisions. Crews required lodging, food and entertainment between runs. Cargoes had to be unloaded, stored and reloaded, while crews and cargoes had to be ferried to ships lying at anchor. Bermudian pilots guided the ships through the reefs; those with skills as mates, carpenters, firemen and ordinary seamen signed on as crew. The Civil War proved to be the road to riches.”

The U.S. government during the Civil War tried to pressure Bermuda to quash such trade. Occasionally, navy ships tried to capture the fast and daring blockade runners, which used the territory as a stopping point in journeys from England to Wilmington, N.C, and Charleston, S.C.

Bow of Mary Celestia (NOAA photo)

Among the blockade runners that sank off the southern Bermuda shore was the 1864 steamer Mary Celestia, which has been explored by archaeologists and is the subject of a film documentary. A case of fine wine was discovered a few years ago among the well-preserved contraband. The vessel -- and wine -- never made it to Wilmington.

The venue in St. George’s apparently used to be called the Confederate Museum -- and the name change and exhibit title brought out some online critics, including those who blamed the conflict on the North and used terms such as “invasion.” One wrote that the Yankees were the real rogues.

Mary Celestia perfume bottle
One commenter said he didn’t think the trust was being disrespectful to the memory of those who fought in the war: “I think to be fair that the title ‘Rogues and Runners’ is more a jibe at us islanders and those who were not directly involved in the war in gun running etc. Many of the Captains of the runners were English naval officers for example on extended leave who made huge sums of money from this enterprise – together with those of ‘us’ islanders who were in it just for the money were the real ‘rogues’ in all of this.”

On a side note, there’s an exhibit in St. George’s Tucker House about Joseph Rainey, a free black man from South Carolina. Rainey, who later became a U.S. congressman, escaped Confederate service and went with his wife to Bermuda, which had abolished slavery in 1834. The couple lived there for four years before returning to the United States.

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