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Wilmington to Canada:
Blockade Runners & Secret Agents
by Bernhard Thuersam
Cape Fear Historical Institute
The port of Wilmington during the War Between the States was a
vital link that provided arms, munitions and foodstuffs for
the fledgling Confederacy.
During North Carolina’s second bid for independence, Wilmington became the main loading point for government cotton exports and
the importation of supplies, despite the Northern blockade, until its fall on January 16, 1865. To illustrate the importance of Wilmington to the Southern war effort and the immense volume of commercial traffic of its port by 1864, Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin estimated that the annualized 1863 exports from the city were $21 million, almost five times the total foreign commerce of the entire State of North Carolina just five years earlier.”
This vital link was important and long-lasting enough for General U.S. Grant III, President of the US Civil War Centennial Commission in 1961, to remark “(if it) is correct…that between October 26, 1864 and January 1865 it was still possible for 8,632,000 lbs of meat, 1,507,000 lbs of lead, 1,933,000 lbs of saltpeter, 546,000 pairs of shoes, 316,000 blankets, half a million pounds of coffee, 69,000 rifles, and 43 cannon to run the blockade into the port of Wilmington alone, while cotton sufficient to pay for these purchases was exported, it is evident that the blockade runners made an important contribution to the Confederate effort to carry on.”
An Effective Southern Response to the Blockade:
The Canadian View of The War Between the States:
of the British army in Canada argued that Britain should grant the Confederacy diplomatic status. He envisioned that the division of the United States into two separate republics would “immediately strengthen the position of Britain’s Canadian colonies.”
Many Canadians thought that if the South wanted to go its separate way because of cultural and political differences, that “surely this was no different than the desire of the Thirteen Colonies who had declared independence from Britain in 1776. Seen in that light, the disintegration
of the union was merely a continuation of events begun some eighty-odd years earlier.” This understanding of the war was underscored by Canadian newspapers referring to the great conflict as the “American Revolution.”
Wary of a powerful US Army, Canadian Minister of Colonial Defence, John A. McDonald increased his country's active militia to 100,000 men, and Britain developed a well-detailed plan to deal with an expected invasion force coming through the traditional Hudson Valley-Lake Champlain route. In addition to seizing forts on the US side of the border
to delay an American advance, a British expeditionary force of 50,000
men would add to the existing 25,000 troops at Montreal.
Also, the British fleet under Admiral Milne would attack US warships on the high seas as well as blockade northern ports. Had Lincoln and Seward blundered into war with Britain at the same time they were invading the American Confederacy and losing the merchant marine to privateers,
the United States defeat would have been devastating.
Canadian anxiety was increased when several American newspapers
called for the annexation of Canada in December 1864;
and Hastings Doyle, commander of British troops in the Atlantic,
publicized a conversation betwen Northern Generals Grant and Meade
which intimated that Canada would be attacked after French involvement
in Mexico was dispensed with.
In February 1865, Canadian Cabinet Minister D’arcy McGee was referring to the expansionist United States when he said: “They coveted Florida and seized it; they coveted Louisiana and purchased it…they picked a quarrel with Mexico which ended by their getting California…The acquisition of Canada was the first ambition of (America)…Is it likely to be stopped now, when she counts her guns afloat by thousands and her troops by the hundreds of thousands?” Thus, Canada was sympathetic to the South and hoped for two smaller, and less threatening, neighbors who might leave British North America alone.
Entry to Canada:
in August 1864, the Old Dominion and the City of Petersburg delivered 2,000 bales of cotton to Halifax after a five-day sail up the coast and past blockaders. Another runner, the Helen went to Halifax twice in late 1864.
a Yankee prison and made their way to Halifax, Nova Scotia,
then to Bermuda.
Among other commodities leaving and entering the port on Wilmington were government officials of the Southern Confederacy, as well as secret agents and banished Northern peace advocates. Among the latter was Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, who was exiled to the Confederacy for criticizing Lincoln and his pro-war administration, sent to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, then to General William Whiting
in Wilmington to be put aboard the blockade runner Cornubia in June 1863, destined for Bermuda. From there, Vallandigham continued on to Canada, ending up at the Clifton House Hotel in Niagara Falls and running as a peace candidate for Ohio governor in 1863. The Clifton House was
a popular hotel situated on the edge of the Niagara gorge at the foot of present day Clifton Hill Road, now the site of a botanical garden. It began operation in the 1830’s under Harmanus Crysler, and was one of the
most popular tourist hotels in Canada with many famous visitors. According to the Lundy's Lane Historical Society, antebellum boarders included:
"Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale (who) stayed there for three months in 1851 and sang often from its balconies. Charles Dickens and his wife visited the area for 10 days in the spring of 1841" and probably stayed at the Clifton House. "In September 1860. the
Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited for five days...(and) his retinue stayed in "the little cottages which fill the bountiful gardens
at the Clifton Hotel. The Prince visited the Clifton House during his stay and is reported to have watched Blondin perfom his rope-walking stunts from its colonnades."
Another guest at the Clifton House was Floride Clemson, the grand-daughter of famous Southern statesman John C. Calhoun. Floride
visited the Falls in 1863, arriving on the September 7th and spending
time viewing the rapids and gorge. She reported that the hotel
"is a perfect den of secessionists, most driven from New Orleans by
(Northern General Benjamin) Butler. The rest are English." No doubt
some Floride met were Confederate agents and their contacts.
Floride wrote her mother on September 12th that after leaving Niagara:
"the next station to the Suspension bridge having burnt down the night before, doing some damage to the track, we had to go to a
place called Tonawanda where we waited a weary while, then
struck back into the NY Central railroad at Lockport."
The building burned on June 26, 1898, rebuilt in 1906, then ravaged by
fire once again in 1933.
Privateers, Secret Agents and Liberating Southern Prisoners:
An early plan to have the Northern homefront feel the effects of war occurred in mid-1863. Southern commandos led by Robert D. Minor and endorsed by Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, were planning to capture Northern ships on the Great Lakes and turn their guns on Toledo, Cleveland and Buffalo in retaliation for the destruction and burning of Southern cities. Minor and his 15 Confederate Marines departed Wilmington on the blockade runner Robert E. Lee under the command of veteran Captain John Wilkinson on October 7, 1863. They arrived in Halifax on the 16th where Wilkinson turned the Robert E. Lee over to another captain, but quickly found that the plan had been discovered and announced in Northern newspapers. The plan was abandoned and the party returned South.
At the urging of President Davis, the Confederate Congress passed a Secret Service Act in 1864 to provide $1 million for “clandestine operations,” most of it planned for use in Canada. Davis dispatched commissioners, agents and funds to Canada for an effort to aid Southern prisoners in their escape from Northern prisons, and take advantage of the political unrest and Midwesterners (and New York) opposition to the war. In April 1864, Davis sent Clement C. Clay of Alabama, James Holcomb of Virginia, Captain William Cleary of Kentucky and Jacob Thompson of Mississippi to Canada for this purpose, leaving Richmond on May 3rd for Wilmington, and departing on the blockade runner Thistle for Canada on May 6th. These were very distinguished Americans aboard the Thistle, Thompson being President Buchanan’s Secretary of the Interior, and Clay serving two terms as a United States Senator from Alabama in the late 1860’s. The runner Thistle was escorted by the ironclad CSS Raleigh, which turned south to engage blockading ships whilst the Thistle ran north for a spell, then eastward to Bermuda. It was only through the extraordinary efforts of Captain John Pembroke Jones, commanding the Raleigh, in keeping the blockaders distracted that the mission was not captured off Wilmington.
Clifton House, Niagara Falls, Canada West, August 11, 1864
To: Honorable Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State, CSA:
Sir---Since my last dispatch I have visited all the points in Canada
at which it was probable any escaped (Southern) prisoners could be found. I have circulated as widely as possible the information that
all who desired to return to the discharge of their duty could
obtain transportation to their respective commands within
the Confederacy. For this purpose I have made arrangements
with reliable gentlemen at Windsor, Niagara, Toronto and Montreal
to forward such, as from time to time may require this assistance,
as far as Halifax, from which point they will be sent to Messrs. Weir
& Company to Bermuda. The system thus organized will provide
for the return of any ordinary average of escaped prisoners.
With the highest respect, etc.,
James P. Holcombe
Clement Clay posted himself at St. Catherines, a small town not far from Niagara Falls on Lake Ontario. From here he conducted his efforts to effect negotiations for peace and “making overtures…to important men in the North.” As Adam Mayers states in his “Dixie and the Dominion,” “there were at least three parallel operations being run in Canada,…Thompson focused on an uprising in the Northwest (and) Holcombe and Clay wanted to return escaped prisoners to the South and mount an anti-war campaign by influential men in the North.”
The Lake Erie Raid:
was a well-traveled entry into New York for reconnaissance missions,
and agents were aided by Southern-sympathizers in Fredonia, and Dunkirk, New York. Agents met in the Genesee Hotel in Buffalo to
plan the John’s Island operation and also used nearby Port Colborne
in Ontario as a staging area.
It is important to note that New York had those sympathetic to the Southern cause of independence who might assist the Confederates. As
an example of this, on April of 1861 Democratic leader and
New York Assemblyman Francis Kernan stated that:
"I am opposed to, and I trust the National Government will not attempt to carry an aggressive war into the Southern States. Such
a war will neither preserve or restore the Union....If, we cannot
adjust our differences now by concessions which will make us
one people, is it not better to separate peaceably?"
Unfortunately for the South, the Johnson’s Island liberation plans went awry with the Confederate agents betrayed by one of their small group, Northern authorities were alerted, and additional Northern troops were sent to the prison as a precaution. A further difficulty facing the Confederate agents was Lincoln’s infiltration of Democratic political
groups who longed for peace. An immediate result of the failed Fort Erie Raid and the ease with which the agents had used the Niagara region
as a base, was a regiment of Northern troops being sent to Buffalo
to effectively patrol the border.
Peace Conference at Niagara Falls:
Thompson’s Desperate Last Plan:
The War Ends For Captain Maffitt:
July 14, 1865.
Southern Exiles at Niagara on the Lake:
The war’s end brought General John C. Breckenridge and his family to Toronto first, and then Niagara on the Lake in May 1866. Breckenridge served as vice president of the United States under James Buchanan 1856-1860, was a candidate for president in 1860 on the Southern Democratic ticket, (received nearly 850,000 votes) and a Major General in the Confederate service.
One who frequently visited the exiled Southerners was Lt. Colonel George T. Denison, commander of the Canadian Governor-General’s Body Guard, another was General Breckenridge’s “beloved old adjutant,” J. Stoddard Johnston of New Orleans. Johnston was the nephew of General Albert Sidney Johnston, and also served as an aid to Generals Bragg and Buckner. General George Pickett was also in Canada, though perhaps living in Toronto. Soon to join the ex-vice president at Niagara on the Lake were Confederate commissioner to England James M. Mason, General’s Jubal Early, John McCausland, Richard Taylor (son of General Zachary Taylor), John Bell Hood, Henry Heth, William Preston; and a host of
lesser officers and their families. They often commiserated in the shade at Mason’s home, “discussing military matters and the practice of the
soldiers art under the modern conditions inaugurated” by the
War Between the States.
President Jefferson Davis arrived in Toronto aboard the steamer Champion on May 30th, 1867, met by several thousand well-wishers at the foot of Yonge Street. He boarded the Rothesay Castle at 2PM for the journey across Lake Ontario to Niagara on the Lake. He was met there by the Town Council along with General Breckinridge and Mason.
Upon leaving the wharf, Davis looked across the river to Fort Niagara
with the Stars and Stripes floating over it.
He turned to his former commissioner and exclaimed:
“Look there Mason, there is the gridiron we have been fried on.”
Davis stayed in Niagara on the Lake, according to author Nicholas Rescher, “until his 59th birthday on June 3rd, when he returned to Montreal via Toronto and accompanied by Mason. After he had returned to Montreal, the Niagara Mail amply reciprocated Davis’ cordial sentiments (with) “It is a subject of pride to Canadians that they can offer the hospitality of the soil and the shelter of the British flag to so many worthy men who are proscribed and banished from their homes for no crime at all, viz. to assert the right of every people to choose their own form of government.”
during the Canadian Confederation debates. McDonald told an audience that “they could make a great nation, capable of defending itself, and
he reminded them of “the gallant defense that is being made by the Southern Republic---at this moment they have not much more than
four millions of men---not much exceeding our own numbers---
yet what a brave fight they have made.”
About the Author
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of Niagara Falls, New York, he has been a devoted student of world history since 1958, and is a former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum Board of Trustees. Contact him at email@example.com)
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute