What did blockade runners bring to the Confederate states? Or maybe a better question: what didn’t they bring? In previous posts, I’ve briefly mentioned some of the cargoes, but I thought it might be worthwhile to devote a whole post to the subject and dispel a myth or two created by a famous (or infamous) movie about the Civil War.
Gone With The Wind & Blockade Runners
Have you seen the 1939 Hollywood film classic Gone With The Wind? For some folks, Margaret Mitchell’s book and the movie are their reference point to blockade runners. Fictional character Rhett Butler is involved in blockade running, and he brings Scarlett O’Hara fashionable items from Paris. Click here for a video clip of the “green bonnet scene.”
Historically speaking, this detail works well in the story – except it was rather improper for Scarlett to accept gifts of clothing from a man who wasn’t related to her. (But then, when did Scarlett do things the “proper” way?)
However, Gone With The Wind‘s interpretation of blockade runners also gives the impression that blockade runner just brought luxury items and fashions. And that’s just not true…
For The Military
A massive amount of military supplies were imported by the runners. The Confederate government had purchasing agents in Europe and actually signed contracts for products manufactured in Europe. Some contracts in Britain created and shipped machinery to the factory-poor South.
For example, in the last six month of 1864 alone, the Carolina ports received 50,000 rifles.
Boilers and propellers for ironclad ships
600 barrels of gunpowder
6 seventy pound cannons
930 steel-headed artillery shells
35 tons of projectile steel and the machine for molding steel shot
1500 ounces of quinine (valuable medicine)
Leather, Shoes, Wire, Files, Screws, Cast iron, Coffee, Tea, Clothing
25 case of paper
And that just on one ship! (One unlucky ship. It was captured and sent to a Northern port.)
Notice how weaponry, armament, or the materials and machines to make it are on this list. We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: the blockade runners were the “lifeline” to the Confederacy, bringing enough guns, ammunition, food, fabric, and hope to keep the armies in the field.
For The Surgeons
In the Confederacy, medical supplies were in short supply quickly. By 1862, capturing medicines, surgical instruments, and other items from Union armies was a quartermaster and medical director’s dream day.
An often overlooked cargo brought to the Southern states was medical supplies. The best surgical instruments of the era were crafted in Britain. Pharmaceuticals were also readily available there (notice the quinine on the list in the previous section.)
We’ll use quinine as an example. It’s a medicine that was from the bark of the Cinchona Tree from South America and it was used to reduce malarial fevers. (And there were lots of malarial fevers during the Civil War; remember, more men died of disease than from battlefield injury.) Now, the available quinine in the South got used pretty quick, and by 1862, prominent Confederate doctors were wandering into the woods to dig roots and compound herbal remedies as a replaced for quinine and other medicines. The blockade runners brought in quinine, literally saving lives.
For The Civilians
And now we’ve come full circle. Yes, blockade runners did bring necessary and unnecessary items for civilians. Investors and merchants wanted to make a profit, and if folks were willing to pay the price for a silk bonnet, champagne, hooped skirts, and other items, they’d bring them.
But it wasn’t just expensive items. Plain cloth, tea, coffee, food, paper, and a host of other “everyday” items were scarce in the Confederacy and the blockade runner carried some of those items in their holds. They would be terribly expensive if they ever reached the stores, but some would arrive and if the civilians still had ready money or inflated Confederate dollars they could obtain what they needed.