Monday, November 26, 2012

The Confederate War Department Buys a Giraffe, November 1862

Blockade Runner Giraffe/Robert E. Lee
In the Fall 1862, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas were beginning to tire of blockade runners.  While the typical blockade runner brought in needed war supplies, they often brought other goods that were sold to the Southern public at a high mark up while doing little to help out the war effort. To fix this issue, Seddon and Gorgas formed a plan to maximize efficiency and support to the Confederate cause.  The War Department would directly own their own fleet of blockade runners.

Lieutenant John Wilkinson
With the assistance of the Confederate Treasury Department, the War Department successfully procured five steamers: Cornubia, Merrimac (sic), Phantom, Columbia, and Giraffe.  The fifth ship of this group had the most success. The iron-hulled Giraffe was a fast Clyde River ferry boat purchased by Confederate agents from bankrupt Scottish owners.

 Though the War Department owned the vessels, the Confederate States Navy was needed to man the ships.  In this respect, the CSN cooperated fully, providing the highly talented Lieutenant John Wilkinson.  One Confederate historian later wrote that Wilkinson "did more to sustain the Confederacy than any other one man. As a seaman he was unsurpassed. He knew the ocean, as a boy does his alphabet."

 As soon as Giraffe was in Confederate hands, men went to work to transfer the luxury coastal ferry boat into a ship of war.  Fancy furniture from the saloon and tea rooms were thrown out to make space for war supplies when traveling west and cotton when sailing east.  For the first journey west, workers loaded up guns and powder as well as engraving equipment.  During the war, the Confederate Treasury Department lacked the necessary tools and skilled labor to produce money.  Thus, the Confederate Treasury procured the equipment and hired thirty-two Scottish engravers.

The trans-Atlantic journey went well enough.  Wilkinson's seamanship paid off, as he maneuvered the ship in shallow waters around the Bahamas in order to evade U.S. Navy warships.  He then decided to make a run for Wilmington.  As the ship approached Cape Fear at night, either the pilot or Wilkinson panicked and made a navigation error.  Though none of the five U.S. Navy warships spotted Giraffe, the ship, going flank speed, struck an underwater sand formation known as the "Lump."  Giraffe came to a screeching halt and almost had her hull cracked.  Wilkinson immediately ordered the small boats over the side and for the engravers and their equipment out first.  They all made it to shore.

Eventually, Wilkinson and his crew freed Giraffe and the ship steamed into Wilmington.  It would the first of several adventures for the ship and her captain.  Later on in the war, the ship would have her name change from Giraffe to Robert E. Lee.

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