Throughout the Civil War, government and civilian goods were shipped into the Confederate states on vessels known as blockade-runners. The vessels that carried these supplies through the northern blockade were vital components in a trade that sustained the Confederate armies. Though South Carolina had numerous harbors and inlets, only Charleston had the proper railroad connections and port facilities to sustain an efficient overseas trade. A blockade was established off Charleston on May 28, 1861. Large sailing ships that could carry a profitable cargo were easily captured, so the mainstay of the trade quickly became specialized, steam-propelled blockade-runners that could outrun enemy gunboats and carry 500 to 2,000 bales of cotton.
Though the Confederate government operated blockade-runners, the majority of the vessels were owned and run by private companies that made tremendous profits by importing supplies and exporting cotton. The majority of the war’s blockade-running firms were formed at Charleston. Among them were the Palmetto, Chicora, and Charleston Importing and Exporting Companies and the Importing and Exporting Company of South Carolina. The South’s largest and most successful blockade-running firm was operated by George A. Trenholm, who oversaw the Charleston-based John Fraser and Company and its Liverpool office, Fraser, Trenholm and Company, which was operated by Charles K. Prioleau. Trenholm’s firms operated some thirty-five blockade-runners; shipped more than 45,000 bales of cotton, or nearly twenty percent of all cotton to leave the South during the war; and imported tons of civilian and military goods. The firm worked closely with the Confederate government and served as the Confederacy’s bankers in Europe. The firm made an estimated $20 million.
Charleston served as the Confederacy’s main port from November 1861 to July 1863. During this time some thirty-six steam-powered blockade-runners made 125 trips in and out of Charleston, carrying out nearly 30,000 bales of cotton. The majority of the ships operated out of Nassau, although some came from Havana and Bermuda. Primarily private companies used Charleston, while Wilmington, North Carolina, was home to the government’s blockade-runners. Most vessels entered Charleston through the main ship channel parallel to Morris Island, while others used the shallower Maffitt’s Channel, which ran along Sullivan’s Island. The two channels joined off Fort Sumter where an opening was maintained through the harbor’s obstructions. In the summer of 1863 a Federal attack on Charleston captured Morris Island, closed the main ship channel, and placed Union warships close to Fort Sumter. The tightened blockade caused blockade-runners to shift their operations to Wilmington.
Blockade-running at Charleston virtually ceased until the late summer of 1864, when companies began running in small steamers using Maffitt’s Channel. Among the firms sending vessels to Charleston was the Importing and Exporting Company of South Carolina, which in 1864 had entered into a partnership with the state of South Carolina to carry in goods needed by the state for its soldiers and civilians.
From the fall of 1864 until February 1865, another twenty steamers completed ninety runs in and out of Charleston. The vessels brought in valuable supplies, including hundreds of thousands of shoes and other needed quartermaster goods. One of the vessels using Charleston was the Syren. Owned by the Charleston Importing and Exporting Company, she was the war’s most successful blockade-runner, making thirty-three trips through the blockade, fifteen of them to Charleston. The last blockade-runner to clear Charleston was the G. T. Watson, which escaped on February 17, 1865. The next morning the occupying Union forces captured the Syren, which had arrived on the previous day. After the fall of Charleston, the Confederacy prepared Georgetown as a possible port of entry, but no vessels came to the port before its occupation by the Union navy.
Charleston was the second-most-active port in the Confederacy (Wilmington, North Carolina, was first). Supplies were essential to sustaining the war effort, and the government cotton shipped from Charleston was used to finance the South’s purchasing operations in Europe. Charleston blockade-running firms made tremendous profits. Although Trenholm and his partners were unable to retain their proceeds due to litigation by the federal government, dividends from other firms paid to such individuals as George W. Williams, an officer and investor in numerous companies, were used to help revive Charleston’s postwar shipping trade.
Foster, Kevin. “Phantoms, Will of the Wisps and the Dare, or the Search for Speed under Steam: The Design of Blockade Running Steamships.” Master’s thesis, East Carolina University, 1991.
Nepveux, Ethel Trenholm S. George A. Trenholm: Financial Genius of the Confederacy. Anderson, S.C.: Electric Printing Company, 1999.
Wise, Stephen R. Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running during the Civil War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.