150 Years Ago: Rebel Raiders Off New York!
150 Years Ago this week New York merchants were in a panic, as a Confederate raider was sinking their ships almost within sight of the city! Between August 11 and August 20, the CSS Tallahassee sunk, burned, scuttled or bonded over 30 Union merchant ships - most of them off the coasts of New Jersey, New York and New England.
In late July, Commander John Taylor Wood and 120 volunteers, most drawn from the Confederate James River Squadron, arrived in Wilmington, N.C. and took charge of a the blockade runner Atlanta. They strengthened her hull and decks and fitted her with three massive guns: a 100-pound rifle, a 32-pound rifle and a Parrot gun. Wood not only had a ship that could fight most Union gunboat; he also had what he boasted was "the fastest warship afloat" - one that could run down or out run any vessel flying Yankee colors.
Wood, who had been on the CSS Virginia in its epic battle with the USS Monitor, had no illusions about battling his way through the blockade. He steamed out quietly and stealthily under cover of night (and the guns of Fort Fisher) and ran for the open sea. Eleven Union warships chased him for 50 miles, even firing shells that flew between the raider's twin stacks, but CSS Tallahassee sped on, eventually outdistancing his pursuers. Instead of heading for the broad Atlantic, Wood set a course for the Yankee coast: his goal, to bring the war to the North.
On August 11 off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, Wood did just that, capturing seven ships in a single day. On the 12th, Wood captured another six.. On August 13 he took a pair of vessels - the bark Glenavon and the schooner L. Du Pont. He scuttled the first and burned the second - the smoke from which reportedly was seen from Long Island. The New York Board of Underwriters shot up their insurance rates and telegraphed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, demanding he send all available ships to hunt down the raider. Welles complied, but while his fleet gathered, Wood went on up the coast to New England, capturing another 17 vessels before reaching Halifax to take on coal on August 18. The CSS Tallahassee left the harbor only hours before a mighty Union warship (USS Pontoosuc) arrived. Knowing that Welles had sent dozens of ships out to look for him, Wood made a beeline for Wilmington, taking one last prize before dashing through the blockading squadrons, guns blazing, at 14 knots, to triumphantly return to port on August 26.
The strategic Civil War naval game Rebel Raiders on the High Seas captures the drama of such daring captains as John Taylor Wood. Confederate blockade runners and raiders must elude the net the Union player casts for them, hoping their efforts will keep the Southern economy going long enough to frustrate the march of Yankee armies south.