The new blockade runner Fox, shown at Cork, Ireland in 1864. By April 1865, she had been repainted white or very light gray.
Several years ago while working on the Denbigh Project, I came across an account in the Galveston Daily News of the blockade runner Fox, running through the Union fleet in broad daylight, in early April 1865. It was a dramatic and compelling story, written in dense and somewhat florid prose, but also apparently slanted, emphasizing the heroics of the runner’s crew and the dangers through which they passed. Too many times, one reads accounts of the same event from opposite sides in the conflict, and it’s hard to see how the authors could possibly have been writing about the same thing.
John Freeman Mackie (1835-1910)
But today I discovered an eyewitness account from a participant on the Union side, by John Freeman Mackie, a Marine sergeant aboard U.S.S. Seminole. And it turns out that the Galveston Daily News account was not only accurate, the actual incident was even more amazing than originally described. Mackie himself was a notable character, being the first U.S. Marine to receive the Medal of Honor, for heroism under fire at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on the James River in 1862. Although Mackie’s account appears in a volume dedicated to firsthand accounts by the “men and the women who created the greatest epoch of our nation’s history,” he didn’t write about his own heralded exploits, but about an otherwise little-known incident in a relative backwater of the Union blockade of Confederate ports.
I wish I knew what material Mackie, writing decades after the war, had access to in compiling his account. He gives details he couldn’t have known at the time, including the runner’s cargo and a description of the steamer’s reception in the harbor. My guess is that in the intervening years Mackie had corresponded with someone on the Confederate side, perhaps the pilot, Henry Wachsen. There are several instances of parallel phrasing between the 1865 Galveston News account and Mackie’s, including the quotes from Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, although the latter was a well-known classic in the late 19th century, and an obvious literary analogy.
Fox was a steel-hulled sidewheeler launched by Jones, Quiggin & Co. of Liverpool in 1864. She measured 219 feet between perpendiculars (about 230 feet overall), with a beam of just 22 feet. She made nine round trips through the blockade, mostly on the East Coast; the incident described here represented her only known run to Galveston.
U.S.S. Seminole (left) and U.S.S. Pocahontas, 1861. Both ships were active elements of the Union blockade on the upper Texas coast during the latter part of the war.
Seminole was classed as a third-rate screw sloop, launched in 1859 at Pensacola. Although she was about the same length as Fox, Seminole was much heavier, at 1,235 tons displacement. In June 1863, Seminole was armed with one 11-inch smoothbore gun, one 30-pounder rifle, six 32-pounders smoothbores guns, and one 12-pounder rifle. Several weeks after the events described here, a boat’s crew from Seimnole would board and burn the stranded blockade runner Denbigh on Bird Key, on the edge of the swash channel where Fox would finally elude her pursuers.
The April 16, 1865 Galveston Daily News article is here (PDF). Mackie’s published account, from 1896, is here (PDF).
Running the Blockade: Escape of the Fox
John F. Mackie
Late of U.S. Marine Corps, U.S.S. Seminole
One of the most magnificent displays of fine seamanship, cool courage, and daring that I ever saw, took place off Galveston Bay, Texas, on the morning of April 1, 1865. Having participated in most of the important naval battles during the entire war, I witnessed many gallant acts of devotion, but none ever exceeded this for heroic conduct.
The Fox, an English Clyde-built [sic., Mersey-built] side wheel steamer commanded by Captain S[impson]. A. Adkins, which had successfully run the blockade several times, left the Bahamas [Havana?] in the latter part of March, with a valuable cargo for the port of Galveston, Texas, expecting to make the port on the evening of April 1st, and run through the Federal fleet which was closely guarding the entrance with twelve large steam sloops-of-war.
The fleet was busily engaged on Saturday morning, April 1st, as usual, when the weather permitted cleaning ship, holystoning the decks, scraping the masts and spars, painting the iron work, scrubbing the paint work ,and performing the thousand and one things necessary to cleaning the ship from keelson to main truck, fore and aft.
About ten a.m., when we were up to our eyes in dirt, sand and water, and the general confusion incident to such occasions, with a fresh breeze blowing from the southeast, with hazy weather, which usually prevails in those latitudes, the sea perfectly smooth except a heavy ground swell setting in from the eastward, the mast head lookout reported “Sail O.”
“Where away?” demanded the officer of the deck.
“Two points off the weather bow, sir.”
U.S.S. Ossipee, with her crew manning the yards, Honolulu, 1867. Ossipee fought in Admiral Farragut’s line at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, and remained on active service until 1889. Ossipee was in the same four-ship class as Housatonic, the first warship to be sunk by a submarine in combat. U.S. Navy Photo.
All eyes were turned in the direction, and a faint line of smoke lay along the eastward horizon, showing a steamer apparently coming toward us. This fact was reported to the flagship Ossipee, Captain [John] Guest, who ordered the Penguin to get under way and interview the stranger. In a few minutes the Penguin was off and steaming rapidly to the eastward. She had not gone more than a couple of miles when the lookout at mast head again reported, “Sail O.”
“Where away?” again demanded the officer of the deck
“Right abeam, sir.”
An officer sprang into the weather with a glass, and, taking a good look at visitor, reported a long low steamer about eight miles to the eastward, burning black smoke, steaming rapidly to the northward and westward. The flag officer ordered the Seminole to get under way at once and overhaul her
Captain [Albert G.] Clary ordered the cables to be slipped, and in less than five minutes we were rapidly steaming four bells to the eastward. “Call all hands to quarters.” Buckets, brooms, holystones, and swabs were quickly thrown down the forehold, and the decks “cleared for action.” The strange steamer, which proved to be the Fox, sighted us at the same time, and instantly changed her course from west to northwest, and steamed directly for the Texan shore, distant about eight miles, which trends rapidly to the northeast above Galveston. By this course the Fox would strike the shore in about an hour, unless prevented by us from so doing. If successful, she could reach an inner channel which runs between the shore and a sand bar, which runs along the Texan coast, distant about a mile from the mainland; but on this bar there is only about six or eight feet of water, while on the inside there is twelve and fifteen feet. But in order to do this she would have to run the gauntlet of the whole fleet, all heavily armed. That she could escape by so doing seemed impossible. As this was the apparent object of the Fox, and as she was going ahead full speed, sailing much faster than we were, Captain Clary sent for the chief engineer, Mr. Stephenson, and asked him:
“Can you get any more speed out of the ship ? The blockade runner is getting way from us.”
“I will do the very best I can, sir.”
In a few minutes the Seminole fairly shook with the throbbing pulsations of the engines, as they were doing the very best that could be got out of them. We were now speeding along at the rate often knots an hour, the best I ever saw her do under steam alone. The Seminole was gaining rapidly on the Fox, when the latter suddenly changed her course to the northward, set her jib and foresail, and was getting away from us again in fine style.
Just as soon as she did this, Captain Clary seized a trumpet from the officer of the deck, sprang into the horse block, and shouted:
“Stand by the fore and main top sail sheets and halliards — lead out the jib sheets and halliards — lead out the fore and main sheets — are you all ready there?”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
“Let go, sheet home, hoist away!”
In a minute the Seminole was staggering under a cloud of canvas, trimmed well aft — every rope drawing as tight as a fiddle string — causing the sea to boil like soapsuds under our bows as we fairly flew through the water.
This diagram, overlaid on an 1880s chart of the Galveston entrance, shows (very) roughly the general movements of the vessels as described by Mackie. None of the positions or courses are precisely known, and this diagram is intended only to illustrate the general outline of the action described, for those not familiar with the local geography. Not to be used for real-world navigation. Note: Updated diagram — the original version missed one of the runner‘s turns.
Let us board the Fox for a few minutes. When the chase opened, her pursuer was about eight miles astern; after a short consultation with her pilot, Harry Wachsen, Captain Adkins decided to make a run through the fleet for Galveston. But here was the difficulty of running from one foe: she must run through a dozen more, all dogs of war of a most savage breed. Her course was instantly taken for the coast sixteen miles to the eastward [of Galveston] to get as far away from the fleet as possible. She was carrying a very heavy cargo — seventeen hundred barrels of beef and pork, besides a large quantity of miscellaneous articles, such as saltpeter, lead, hardware, and other heavy freight. It was just such a chase as Sir Walter Scott so beautifully describes:
Nor nearer might the dogs attain
Nor further might the quarry strain
But in this case the friends of the Fox might have repeated the advice given the flat boatman by his friend – “Go it, old man, he’s a gaining on you.”
The Fox began to obey the Bible injunction, to lay aside every weight that might retard her progress, and, stripped for the race, made directly for the beach, closely pursued by her fleet antagonist, sanguine of her capture or destruction, which seemed just within his grasp.
The Seminole was overhauling her rapidly. Captain Clary ordered the quartermaster to “heave the log.” “Aye, aye, sir!” “Well, sir, what are we making now?” “Twelve knots, sir.” “Good, good, is that the best we can do?” “Yes, sir, with the present breeze.”
The distance was being rapidly closed between the two ships, now about three miles off, running full speed for the shore. For the first time the Seminole‘s men got a good look at the Fox, a long, low side wheel steamer, schooner rig, with a fearful rake in the masts and smokestacks, all painted a grayish white, common to all blockade runners, so as to make them undistinguishable against the foggy horizon which prevails in the Gulf. The Fox was now within range of our guns.
“Fo’castle there!” called out Captain Clary, “do you think you can reach her with the rifle?”
In a few seconds a flash and a puff of smoke announced that a thirty pound Parrott shell was flying toward the Fox, but it went over and exploded in the water beyond.
“Try it again, sir,” and a second shell exploded in the air above her.
“Very good, sir, but try it again,” and a third shell exploded under her bow. But she paid no more attention to these than if she had been going on about her regular every day business, and we were amusing ourselves with a little target practice.
The ships were now within less than two miles distance, when we opened on her with our eleven-inch pivot, exploding a shell right under her bow, nearly deluging the ship with water, but doing no further harm.
While we were reloading the pivot, she suddenly put her helm “hard-a-starboard,” and ran right across our bow, heading directly for the shore, distant about a mile and a half, apparently intending to run herself ashore
While this was being done we were not idle. The change compelled us to “shorten sail.” I have often seen our men do some handsome work in “fleet exercise,” but never before in my life did I ever see such quick work or more splendid seamanship than our officers and men exhibited on this occasion. The fore and main topsails, the fore and main sheets and the jib were hauled down, clewed up and stowed, and the men back to their stations at the guns in less than five minutes, without the least confusion, but amid the most intense excitement
As soon as the last man reached the deck Captain Clary shouted:
“Put your helm hard-a-starboard, sir!”
“Hard-a-starboard, sir,” answered the officer at the wheel, putting the wheel sharply over, and the ship turned on her heel as if she knew what was expected of her, and started directly for the shore with the Fox now right abeam [on the] starboard side, about a mile off. Bringing our whole battery of five guns to bear directly upon her, Captain Clary called out:
“For’ard rifle there, fire as soon and as quickly as you can, without further orders, but don t waste any ammunition. Pivot there, fire carefully; aim at the wheel house; sink her if you can. Go ahead now, and show us what you can do. Quarter deck battery (six 32-pounders), fire as rapidly as you can; aim at the wheel house; don’t let her get away from us.”
An 11-inch smoothbore gun, similar to that on Seminole. (Shown on U.S.S. Kearsarge.)
All this was done in less time than I have taken to describe it, and we were now rapidly nearing the Fox. It seemed impossible that she could escape us. A shell from the rifle exploded over the Fox; a shell from the 11-inch pivot burst close alongside, and the 6-inch guns were sending their compliments thick and fast as hornets when enraged. Yet, strange to say, not a single shot had hit her in a vital spot; she seemed to bear a charmed life. We were only about half-a-mile distant from each other, and about a mile from the shore, when the Fox suddenly changed her course to south-southwest, and started to run down along the beach, running directly across our bow
At this moment the leadsman in our fore chains called out:
“By the deep three fathoms.”
“Hard-a-starboard, quartermaster,” shouted Captain Clary; and as the ship’s head swung to port he remarked, “By God, we d been ashore in another minute!” The Seminole was drawing sixteen feet, and deep at that.
It was now nip-and-tuck. The Fox was going to run for it, and had the bar between us. Our only chance was to sink her, if we could, before she got out of range.
Apparently nothing now could save the Fox. The Penguin and the Ossipee, with all the other vessels of the fleet, had joined us, and opened fire upon her, with no better success than ourselves, all shots flying wide of the mark. The most tremendous excitement prevailed on board each vessel. Captain Clary raved and stamped about in an intense but subdued tone, swore like a pirate, and directed in as cool a manner as if we were having a race for a purse, but all to no effect. Shot after shot went over her and exploded on the beach beyond. Some exploded short of the steamer and covered her with spray; some in the air over her deck; others cut the water just ahead of her; one just grazed her stern, but not one touched her so far as we could see. It seemed impossible to hit her, The men worked the guns as if they were toys; in excitement loading and firing as if their lives depended on the accuracy of each shot. So rapidly did we fire that we had to wait for the smoke to lift before we fired the next shot.
We were now rapidly approaching Galveston harbor, and it seemed as if the Fox going to get away from us in spite of all our efforts. Since changing our course the last time we were sailing, or rather steaming, to windward but the Fox was the lighter draught and was slowly but surely getting from us.
Her captain for the last hour had been walking the bridge between the wheel houses, both hands in the pockets of his pea jacket, smoking a cigar as unconcernedly as if was nothing going on that should cause any uneasiness on his part. But there was evidently a feeling that their lives and property hung only on a single thread, as was manifest in the way those wheels flew around, leaving a track of boiling, foamy sea far astern; and the thick, huge volumes of black smoke that poured of the funnels told a story that did not need a trumpet to announce it.
The channel now began to widen, and if she could only hold her own for twenty minutes she would escape. What must have been the thoughts of that captain as he walked to and fro on that bridge, with the air full of flying missiles, now hid in their smoke, the next minute drenched with spray, again, in a second or two later, one flying a few feet above his head. He never flinched an inch or changed his manner, but kept quietly on, directing his ship as if it were an every-day affair.
But let us board the Fox and hear what the pilot thinks about it.
The Fox was now in the condition of poor Reynard, as described by the poet’s hero, glorying already in anticipation of his prize, closely followed by his friends, eager to be present at the closing scene:
For the death wound and death halloo,
Mustered his strength his whinyard drew,
The wily quarry shivered the shock,
And turned him from the opposing rock;
And dashing down the darksome glen,,
Soon lost to hounds and hunters ken.
So our Fox, when apparently about to dash herself on the beach, suddenly turned square off to the southwest and made for the pass as if all the fiends who fell from heaven had joined in the chase; and in fact, the whole squadron was belching fire, smoke, steam, shot and shell, as though they would tear the fugitive into more shreds than even poor Reynard was rent into by the largest pack of hounds. The Fox kept close in to the shore, while one or two of her pursuers, forced to remain in deeper water, kept alongside, firing broadsides as fast as they could load, and the whole fleet fired up and joined the chase, trying to intercept the fugitive vessel.
Shot, shell, grape, shrapnel, and every other missile known to mankind were thrown with the rapidity of lightning and the abundance of hail at, around, over, and into the water beneath the doomed victim; elongated shot and shell shrieked before, behind, and over her, or struck the water and ricocheted over her decks like a flock of sheep over a pair of bars. Strange to say, although hundreds of shot were fired at her, but four took effect. An ugly shell about two feet long exploded a few yards from the ship. A portion of it struck a forward sheet plate and burst it in about two feet above the water, but beyond making a rent in the bow did no further damage. A ten-inch shell came over the rail and passed out the other side, doing no harm, while the wind took the breath of two persons who stood near it. The shrouds were cut under another man as he was ascending the rigging, but he suffered no other injury. A piece of shell cut the escape pipe above the deck, but nobody was hurt by it.
There were a number of old veterans on board who had seen service in several closely contested engagements on Confederate vessels, who pronounced the affair a very gallant one, but took it as a matter of course that was to be expected on occasions like this, and paid a high compliment to the officers and crew for the admirable manner in which they handled the ship. As they passed out of danger they were received with three cheers, which they took with the utmost composure, like a man answering a fulsome toast.
As we viewed the scene at this moment from the deck of the Seminole, it was one of the most picturesque that I ever saw. The fleet all around was looking with eager eyes to see us sink the flying steamer, the bay gradually widening with the white sand hills in the distance, the city of Galveston to the south, and its piers filled with sympathetic spectators; the fort in the bay with the Confederate flag flying, and its ramparts crowded with men watching and praying for the success of the flying steamer; the three warships leaping through the water like hounds, oftentimes hid by the smoke of their own guns. But fate decided in favor of the Fox. In spite of every effort that could be made to prevent her, she reached Galveston Bay, which is nearly three miles wide, and, as the channel is very dangerous to vessels drawing more than ten feet of water, we were rapidly getting into less than three fathoms again. So with intense chagrin we were obliged to give up the chase, sending as a parting compliment an eleven-inch shell with our regrets.
As the Fox passed out of range, her captain hoisted the Confederate flag and dipped it three times, at the same time taking off his cap and waving it toward us, bowing gracefully in our direction his adieu, [and] steamed in under the guns of the fort at Galveston, and dropped his anchor safe at last
We returned the salute and returned to anchorage for the night, as it was nearly sundown, after one of the most exciting days ever spent, with less credit to ourselves than could possibly be supposed under the circumstances showing that
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft aglee
at sea as well as on shore. The Fox discharged her cargo, reloaded with cotton, successfully ran the blockade again through the gauntlet of ten warships, at night, and reached Havana in safety. The war by this time had ended, Her pilot, Harry Wachsen, was the commander of the steamer Buckthorn at Galveston for several years and as he passed in and out of the port had no occasion to hurry, as he did on the occasion when his Fox was so harried.
From Under Both Flags: A Panorama of the Great Civil War (Veteran Publishing Co., 1896), 329-332.