Portsmouth, Virginia

Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
Copyright. All rights reserved.


An Old Blockade Runner

"Compliments of Dolores White, great granddaughter, February 9, 1972," & Judson Bush

In 1861 I was in Richmond with a load of oysters at the time when the Navy Yard at Norfolk was burned, and was held there in my vessel ten days, in company with other vessels. The U.S.S. Pawnee was expected to ascend the James River, but failed to put in an appearance, consequently, my vessel, the "Martha B. Hackley," was released, and I brought her through the locks to Norfolk, carrying at her top mast the first Confederate flag that passed down the James River.

Whilst proceeding on my voyage I met the steamer "Glencove," ten miles below Richmond, her captain hailed me to lower the flag as the Pawnee was looked for every minute. I positively refused to haul down the colors, and told him that I intended to carry them to Norfolk. Upon arriving at "White Shoal Light," I discovered a fleet of Federal gunboats lying at Newport News. Knowing the channel between the rocks, I went through the Southward of the "High Shoal," following the course of the Nansemond River, from which point I passed through the Nansemond Ridge to Pig Point, from thence I steared from Pig Point to Craney Island, the Confederate colors still flying at my top mast. After which, I laid my vessel abreast of my father's estate on Tanners Creek, remaining there until October, 1861.

On October 6th, 1861, I carried an oyster lighter into the County Dock and plied the oyster business until March, 1862. During the time I was engaged in this occupation my vessel was lying at the mouth of the Nansemond River, abreast of Pig Point. On Saturday, the 8th day of March, from this point of view, I observed the "Merrimac" passing Craney Island, bound for Newport News. Suspecting her mission, I immediately got under way, and steared my course as best I could to obtain a clear view of what I anticipated was about to take place, without exposing my vessel to accident.

Upon this occasion I was not disappointed, meanwhile the "Cumberland" was at anchor a few hundreds yards below what is now the Dry Dock, at Newport News, the "Congress" lay about one half mile below the "Cumberland." Following the "Merrimac" came the little tug "Teaser," finally, the "Merrimac" coming abreast of the "Congress," she received a broadside from the latter, upon which the "Merrimac" replied by firing one shot from the stern of her starboard. The "Congress" thereupon ran up the white flag, after which the "Teaser" ran alongside the "Congress" to take off the prisoners, and was fired upon by sharpshooters from the shore, Captain Hopkins of the "Teaser" being wounded.

Perceiving which the "Merrimac" veered around and fired from one of her stern guns red hot shots, from which she was set on fire, and finally destroyed during the night of March 8th, 1862. Later in the day the "Merrimac" started to ram the "Cumberland," in doing so she received a broadside from the latter vessel, notwithstanding, the "Cumberland" was certainly rammed, and the men on board continued a reckless fire until finally she went down with the last shot sizzling in the water. Meanwhile the "Minnesota" and the "Reliance" perceiving what had happened, whilst on their way to Newport News, suddenly endeavored to gain a safe anchorage at Old Point, in attempting which, the "Minnesota" ran aground on the starboard side of the channel. Upon the approach of the "Merrimac," to engage her, the "Minnesota" opened fire, and the two vessels engaged in a terrific fight until sundown, when the "Merrimac," in consequence of her heavy draught of water, not being enabled to come within close range of her adversary, made for Sewalls Point.

On the following morning, Sunday, the 9th, about 7 o'clock, the fog which had pervaded the river and harbor, silently stole away, at this moment my attention was called to the movements on board the "Merrimac," from which I drew an inference that she was about to proceed to the scene of action, again to engage the "Minnesota." After weighing anchor, she started on a bee line direct for that ship. Upon the "Merrimac's" coming up abreast of the "Minnesota," she at once commenced firing, and was answered by the Federal ship, this firing continued until about 11 A. M. on Sunday, March the 9th. The "Merrimac" was prevented by the shallowness of the water from doing much damage to the "Minnesota." Meanwhile the "Monitor," which had put in an appearance the previous night, and had anchored in close proximity to the "Minnesota," upon witnessing the approach of the Confederate ship immediately started to take up a position to take part in the fight, which she did by commencing a fire with one of her guns. The firing continued until about 11 o'clock.

During the engagement the "Merrimac" would at intervals leave her position from in front of the "Minnesota," and endeavor to ram the "Monitor," upon perceiving which, each time, the "Monitor" would take refuge in shallow water beyond Hampton bar, until finally, in her last attempt to ram her, the "Merrimac" struck the "Monitor" a glancing blow on her port side, and I had thought that the "Monitor" was put out of commission. From this moment the "Monitor" withdrew from the action, and placed herself under the protection of the guns of Fortress Monroe. About this time the "Merrimac," after discharging a few more shots at the "Minnesota," steamed up to Norfolk Navy Yard to repair damages sustained in her encounter with the "Cumberland," at the time of ramming her.

After repairing, and within 6 weeks from this time, the Federal gunboats commenced shelling off Sewells Point and Boush's Bluff sand batteries. Upon the "Merrimac" rounding Lambert's Point the gunboats returned to Old Point. The "Merrimac" continued her course down to Hampton Roads, where she captured a couple of vessels, under the nose of the gunboats, one of which was a brigantine, the other a schooner loaded with hay, and towed them to Norfolk.

Captain Lewis Stodder, claiming to have been a participant in this eventful action, which has revolutionized naval warfare among all the great nations of the world, makes a statement to the effect, that eventually the "Merrimac" was sighted by his crew passing Sewalls Point, looming up as though the whole vessel was suddenly lifted from the water, and bursting apart, was scattered in every direction. I beg to correct this part of the Captain's narrative, for to my personal knowledge and observation, the "Merrimac" was run aground in the bight of Craney Island, then set on fire by her crew, and left to her fate. Her officers and crew marching to Suffolk.

I will end this narrative with a brief sketch of my career from this point until the end of the war.

From the time I purchased the Martha B. Hackley in 1859, I practically made the boat my home. During the interim between 1862 and the greater portion of the year 1863, I was engaged in running the blockade between Norfolk and North Carolina ports, during which time I handled a considerable amount of contraband for the Confederate government.

On April 15th, 1863, I was captured in Nixinton, N. C., with a cargo valued at $3,500, on account of a man turning traitor, whom I had thought to be beyond suspicion. This at the time seemed a sad loss for me, as my cargo consisted of articles which were in great need in those days, such as salt, tea, coffee, and sugar, in addition to which a large assortment of staple goods, such as wearing apparel, etc. I also had $160 worth of quinine concealed under the sheathing of my boat, which was not discovered. A few days later Colonel Chamberlaine came through that section with a raiding party of Confederate troops, recaptured my cargo and conscripted the whole band of guerillas into his service, who had held me up, turned over my vessel to me, giving me an order on the Government at Richmond for the value of my merchandise. Soon afterwards I made another successful trip across the line into North Carolina, with a stock of about $3,000 worth of merchandise, also one hundred dollars worth of quinine.

From a mill situated on Woodville Creek, (upon another occasion,) North Carolina, I purchased 500 bushels of meal, bound to my home port, Norfolk, Va., having secured a valid pass through the United States government station at Norfolk, signed by General Viale. Upon arrival at the Norfolk Navy Yard I was held up by Captain Babcock, of the steamer "Morse," my permit not being recognized by Admiral Lee. About fifteen days later I obtained my release through the influence of Captain Jameison, of the Union army, but with a ruined cargo. Owing to the Federal authorities becoming so hot on the trail of my blockade running into North Carolina, I moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. From here I ran a packet boat to Baltimore, Md., until the year 1866.

Previous to this, on March 2nd, 1864, I saved a schooner named William R. Hatch, of New York, loaded with 500 barrels of beans and a miscellaneous cargo, amongst which she carried 375 baskets of champagne. The "Hatch" went aground between the Cape Henry and Smith Island lights. I hauled her off and took both the vessel and cargo to Fishermans Inlet, from which point I took off the vessel eighteen cases of rifles and twenty-one boxes of uniforms consigned to the Confederacy. These goods I placed on board my vessel, and sailed up the bay to the Pasquotank river, reaching there about midnight. At the mouth of the river I perceived a Federal gunboat lying abreast of the river, anchoring down the bay, below her, my suspicious cargo was placed in my yawl, and rowed with muffled oars, and landed under the lea of Gwinn's Island. We landed them without any difficulty, and succeeded in shipping them along to Richmond, where they were thankfully received by the authorities. The beans in questions were consigned from New York to the house of Capron, of Baltimore, MD. The "Hatch" was a blockade runner, and had intended to have transferred these cases and boxes on board their two yawls, and delivered them to the point named, but on the night of the 2nd of March in a blinding snow storm, she ran aground, one of her yawls was smashed, the other was washed overboard and lost. The "Hatch" was captured on her next trip.

In the month of December, 1866, I moved back to Norfolk, from the Eastern Shore, to my my old home where I was born in November, 1837, again taking up my old occupation, that of an oysterman.


Capt. Tom P. Smith