Marauders of the Sea, Confederate Merchant Raiders During the American Civil War

CSS Tallahassee. 1864. Captain John Taylor Wood

CSS Tallahassee.
As Florida left the US coast to proceed to sea on the 11th. of July, 1864, down at Wilmington, North Carolina another Confederate ship was being prepared.

CSS Tallahassee
CSS Tallahassee

This ship was firstly Atlanta, built with her sister Edith, on the Thames in March 1864, both started as blockade runners, both flirted briefly with being commerce destroyers.

Captain T.E.Symonds Royal Navy was responsible for their design, twin screws run by separate 100 horse power steam engines drove the ship at 17 knots, by reversing one screw, the ship could turn about her centre. 220 feet in length, with a 24 foot beam, she drew 14 feet to displace 700 tons.

Commander John Taylor Wood, Captain of CSS Tallahassee
Commander John Taylor Wood Captain of CSS Tallahassee

Given her speed and low profile, broken up by two funnels and two sparsely rigged masts, the ship was ideal for running blockades, but left a lot to be desired as a raiding cruiser. Coal was necessary to drive the ship, and her design suitable for journeys of only 1,000 miles, hardly condusive to the role of long days/weeks at sea demanded from a commerce raider.

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From April/July 1864, Atlanta, had run four trips with war supplies for the South, from Bermuda to Wilmington, it was here that the ship was seen by Mallory, and he bought the ship for $125,000, and in July, commenced work to convert her for a role as a Confederate Cruiser, named CSS Tallahassee.

She was manned with three guns, a rifled 32 pounder forward, a rifled 100 pounder amidships, and finally, a heavy Parrott aft.

Lieutenant John Taylor Wood was named as her Captain, he just happened to have as his uncle, the Southern President, Jefferson Davis.

Wood had joined the US Navy at the Annapolis Academy in April 1847, and on graduation was second in his class in 1853.

With the advent of the Civil War, Wood sold his Maryland farm, and moved his family down to Richmond, he had been involved in training gunners for Virginia ( Merrimack ) at Portsmouth, and was on board for the historic battle with Monitor.

By the time Wood joined Tallahassee, her crew of 120, with Lieutenant William H. Ward as executive, and boarding officer, John Tynan as chief engineer, and Charles Jones as paymaster, were ready to take the ship to sea.

On the 4th. of August 1864, Wood took his ship down Cape Fear River to Smith's Island, secured to a buoy under Fort Fisher, the island divided this river into two channels, six miles apart. New Inlet with Fort Fisher on guard, and Old Inlet protected by Fort Caswell.

At high tidemark that evening, without a moon, Wood headed down the deeper of the two exits, New Inlet, after only sailing a short distance, the ship grounded on an area known as the Rip, not an auspicious start to a raiding career. Two hours wasted in gaining freedom, now postponing his run for a day, only to go aground again, this time it took three steamers, all straining together to pull the ship free.

Now it was the 6th. of August, and the Old Inlet channel was tried, at 2200 ( 10PM ) Wood crept slowly down the channel, his ship bounced over the bar, at last the open sea beckoned, only to face a ring of Union warships in two cordons, an inner ring  of slower ships around the river mouth, and a secondary ring of faster ships.

Faced with the threat of so many Union guns, it was not a case of fighting ones way past, Wood could but rely on his speed and the ensuing blackness of the night.

Turning to his engineer, Wood ordered:"Open her out, sir....let her go for all she is worth."

The increased speed caused a flurry of sparks to fly from the funnels, signalling the

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impending escape attempt by Tallahassee.

Two Union ships loomed up ahead, but Wood steered his vessel in between them, steaming so close to one of them, the order to fire the guns was clearly heard, the shot passing between his funnels.

Having raised her speed to 15 knots the Raider was assisted by her low freeboard, and three further Union blockaders were passed unobserved, but still to be negotiated were more Union ships about 50 miles to seaward.

Two more pursuers were shaken off by speed, but a third and a fourth ship appeared, the latter opening fire when Tallahassee failed to stop as ordered, all shots fortunately missed their mark, the last of the blockade avoided, within 24 hours, Wood had managed to outwit, and outrun, 11 of the 50 ships used by the Wilmington blockading Squadron.

Now free, for three days Wood steamed north along the Gulf Stream, several ships stopped but all flying British colours, now at last an American, on the 11th. of August, 80 miles off Sandy Hook, Sarah A. Boyce, was captured, rather than bring attention to a fire, holes were chopped into the hull, and the ship scuttled.

Off New York, was a pilot boat obviously touting for business, and fooled by the American flag on display, the pilot, sporting a high hat and a large sparkling gold watch as he stepped on board, looked aft, and was amazed to see a Confederate flag fluttering in the breeze, a moment before it was the Stars and Stripes, he suddenly realised his lovely pilot boat James Funk would be burned.

But Wood had other ideas, he sent 2 officers and 20 men to James Funk, telling them to overhaul ships, pilot them to him in Tallahassee, and he would then decide on their disposal.

This ploy worked well, soon, two brigs, Carrie Estelle and A. Richards, and the barque Bay Estate had all fallen to this plot, and the schooner Carroll bonded for $10,000 and given the task of landing all the 40 odd prisoners safely on shore.

A second pilot boat came sniffing around the growing fleet of ships, but became suspicious and left in a hurry, Wood gave chase, and his guns caused William Bell, to luff her sails and be captured. Now all prizes were disposed of by burning them.

The 12th. of August was another productive day, 6 prizes taken including, the 989 ton Adriatic, with 170 German immigrants, they were transferred to Suilote, a bark captured earlier, this was bonded, as was the 222 ton Robert E. Packer on her way to Richmond full of lumber, prisoners from Atlantic, Spokane, and the brig Billow all went over to Suilote, and the other ships except Billow, were burned. Wood thought he had scuttled Billow, but she stayed afloat, and USS Grand Gulf

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coming across her still afloat, took her in tow safely to port.

It was time to move, the current hunting grounds becoming too hot, Wood set sail for New England, and on the 13th. of August, the 789 ton Glenarvon fell foul of the Raider, she had exited Glasgow with a load of iron for New York, all usable provisions and her crew were taken aboard, and she was scuttled.

The same day, a schooner Lamont Du Pont from Wilmington, laden with coal ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and the next day with his ship eating up coal at an alarming rate, Wood was grateful to take the 547 ton James Littlefield, full of lovely Cardiff antrhracite, but both fog,and very rough seas precluded him getting his hands on this coal, and this latest capture had to be scuttled.

The 15th. of August found Wood picking up 6 small schooners ranging from 39 tons to 148, 5 went down, whilst the 5th. Sarah B. Harris became the conveyance for all the prisoners, sent off to Portland.

The next day, another 4 small schooners and the 283 ton bark P.C.Alexander came the way of Wood’s ship, all were torched.

The 17th. of August found 4 more Yankee schooners and the 286 ton Neva coming into Tallahassee’s outstretched arms, Neva was bonded for $17,500, and loaded with the swag of prisoners. The small fishing schooners Diadem and D.Ellis loaded with neutrally owned fish were both released.

Wood’s ship was down to but 40 tons of coal, he had to stop his rampaging, as much as he and his crew were enjoying their success, he was offered pilotage into Halifax, and decided to quickly recoal, and return to his hunting grounds.

At Halifax, as one would expect, the US Consul Mortimer M. Jackson, quickly sent off the vital information about the whereabouts of the Confederate ship to Welles, next he tried to stop any coaling assistance, lurid tales from returned prisoners gave the Confederate crew a bad name, in fact, Wood was meticulous in how he treated his prisoners, they were always properly fed and cared for.

The British Admiral, Sir James Hope, was diffident about supplying coal to the renegade, Wood appealed to the Lieutenant Governor Richard MacDonnell, he cited the Queen’s Proclamation of Neutrality, a belligerent should only receive adequate coal to allow them to steam to their nearest home port.

Consul Jackson kept up the pressure on the Lieutenant Governor, seeking a no coal at all order from him, MacDonnell was caught between two cross fires, he felt his way out, was to order the ship to sea as soon as possible. He would allow 100 tons only to be loaded, on the 19th. of August, Wood said he had loaded 80 tons to give the impression he would finish coaling the next day. 

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Wood told the Governor he also needed an extension to replace his mainmast, this was granted, but the Captain really did nor intend to stay, he anticipated the arrival of Union warships at any time, he wanted to off, and he hired the reportedly best Halifax pilot, Jock Fleming to get them immediately to sea.

At 0100 ( 1AM ) on the high tide of the 20th. of August, Tallahassee made for the inlet, one hour later she was clear, and headed south, he had let it drop in Halifax, that when he left, he intended to attack the Northern fishing fleet in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Wood had timed his departure well, at 0615 ( 6.15 AM ) USS Pontoosuc arrived at Halifax, but his quarry had flown.

Welles, as Wood had hoped sent off his warships, seeking Talahassee in the Gulf of St.Lawrence, but of course, to no avail.

Wood did not have sufficient coal to continue cruising, he was making for Bermuda, but on board, yellow fever broke out, he curtailed taking the course to Bermuda, and decided to make for home at Wilmington.

On the way, a small 127 ton brig Roan became the final capture of this Raider, her time as such was finished, to regain Wilmington, a number of blockading Union ships were avoided, and on the 26th. of August at 2230 ( 10.30 PM ) Talahassee anchored under the guns of Fort Fisher, her raiding days under Wood were at an end.

Wood made a recommendation she be retained as a Raider, and with her name changed to CSS Olustee, under Lieutenant William H. Ward, the ship made a brief sortie along the North Atlantic coast to destroy 6 ships.


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