Blockade Runner’s Ruse
Capt Harry ROCKHILL, who recently died in London, spent the greater part of his life in the search of sport. Every corner of the earth was visited by him in the course of his 70yrs. It was purely his love of adventure that prompted him to become a blockade runner during the civil war, and he often declared that this occupation had furnished the greatest sport he ever experienced.
” I suppose it was the novelty of the thing” he remarked, “a sort of changing places in the game, becoming the hunted instead of the hunter. I fought Malay pirates the whole summer but it was not nearly so interesting as slipping in and out of Charleston Harbour through the Federal Guard ships.”
While Capt ROCKHILL owned and commanded his ship the LAUGHING LASS, he never derived any profits from his blockade running, he took on a cargo of medicine and supplies purchased by a Confederate agent in England and landed them in Confederate territory, there can be no doubt that he was the means of saving lives that would otherwise have been sacrificed through lack of medicines.
The LAUGHING LASS was a handsome and swift schooner yacht, in all her career no United States ship ever saw more than her topsails as they faded away in the distance, although on one occasion she passed within 50ft of a steam warship, when there was scarcely enough wind to give steerage way. This occurred off Charleston when she was coming out after landing a cargo.
She had lain with loosened sails behind the Confederate batteries for 10 days before an opportunity presented itself for her to escape from the iron-ringed harbour, but on the night of February 17th 1864, the same night the submarine HUNTLEY went out to her tragic and glorious fate, a heavy fog came up from the south and it was decided to make the attempt of escape.
Every precaution was taken on the schooner to prevent noise, every rope end secured and the crew provided with felt-soled shoes. The hull of the vessel had been painted lead-grey, similar to the war paint of the United States vessels of the present day, her sail instead of white canvas were a brownish shade. Not a light was shown and the schooner slipped off through the fog like a spirit ship. The wind had shifted to the west, it would not be long before the fog would be blown out to sea, and they intended to go with it, at 10 miles out she would be likely to encounter one of the blockading ships, then the wind failed almost entirely.
Occasionally a sail would flap, there was hardly a ripple under her forefoot.
Suddenly, with startling distinctness in the death like silence, there came to the strained ears of those on board, the sound of oars, and a moment later a hail.
“Boat Ahoy!” came a voice out of the fog and then the sound of feet on a deck.
“Ahoy! Is this the HOUSATONIC?” came the answer, as the small boat evidently rested on its oars.
“Yes, what boat is that?”
“Boat from the flagship” was the response, and the oars again began their regular beat. A moment later those on the schooner heard the row boat bump into the man-of-war and the noise of a man scrambling up the ladder.
“She is on the port quarter” Capt ROCKHILL whispered his mouth within an inch of the Pilot’s ear.
“No, on the starboard” the Pilot muttered, his eyes piercing the cloud which enveloped them. A small breeze stirred the fog, the schooner heeled over and a boom creaked.
”Did you hear that Sir?” a voice exclaimed excitedly on the guard ship.
“There is a ship close I can hear movement of her on the water.”
The men on the LAUGHING LASS scarcely dare to breathe. In the air was a strain of intense lightening, a sail flapped and drew tight with a short snap.
“You are right Lieutenant there is!” said a voice, “Get the men to their stations, and make no noise.”
Capt ROCKHILL realised that within a few minutes an alarm would be sounded and the whole fleet would know a blockade runner or Confederate cruiser was trying to slip the cordon. He touched the Chief Officer on the shoulder.
“Get the long boat over as quick as you can without a sound.” he whispered.
There was not the slightest splash when this was done.
"Get that dog that followed me on board the other day” was Capt ROCKHILL’S next command. “Put him in the boat with a fresh beef bone, and cut the boat loose.”
Minutes later this was done and the dog was gnawing contentedly on his bone. The breeze was steady and the schooner was gliding silently forward at about 3knots ph. From the slight sounds the man-of-mar was now evidently astern a little on the port.
“Load with grape, double charges” was an order distinctly heard, followed by the sound of the gunners working about their artillery.
The dog, out adrift in the long boat was several hundred yards away as Capt ROCKHILL expected, realised he was alone, the loneliness of the fog shrouded waters struck into his heart and he howled mournfully, again and again.
“They are right alongside! Ship Ahoy! Heave to or we’ll sink you!” an officer shouted.
The only reply was the yelping of the dog at the sound of a human voice.
“Answer or we fire!” was the next shout.
In the next instant was the roar of a gun and the flash of flame glimmering faintly in the fog. Another and another gun crashed, directed towards the dog’s howls, far to the stern of the LAUGHUING LASS. From the next guard ship a rocket sped upwards then from the next, and the next, then the sea was faintly illuminated by a light being burned by the ship, which the schooner had so narrowly missed. The light must have disclosed to them the boat empty save for the dog as the firing ceased. Then came the sounds of the engines as she got under away.
The wind was now blowing stiffly every sail aboard the LAUGHING LASS was drawing as she sped away towards the open sea. When the grey dawn broke and the fog dissipated by the rising sun, not even a trail of smoke could be seen upon the horizon.
The blockade runner had slipped safely through.
Copyright 2002 / To date