Prologue Magazine

Civil War Cat-and-Mouse Game

Researching Blockade-Runners at the National Archives

Fall 1999, Vol. 31, No. 3

By Rebecca Livingston


At 5:30 a.m. on September 22, 1863, off Frying Pan Shoals near Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S. Navy Steamer James Adger, on blockade duty with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, spotted the suspicious masts and black smoke of another ship. USS James Adger then went under full sail, "furled the foresail and foretopsail," and started the chase southeast for an hour before its officers made out the unknown ship. It was a side-wheel, lead-colored steamer with two smokestacks, and schooner-rigged with no bowsprit. It showed no colors. For three hours, USS James Adger gained in the chase, and when it came within four miles of its quarry, the blockade-runner began dropping 169 bales of cotton overboard, lightening its load and enabling it to gain distance from its pursuer. By 6:15 p.m., after running 120 miles, the chase ended futilely.

The mysterious gray vessel was the notorious Banshee, built in England for a company that imported cotton from the South. Designed especially for speed in order to run the Union blockade, Banshee ferried cotton and other goods back and forth between Nassau, the Bahamas, and Confederate ports. Larger oceangoing vessels brought goods between Nassau and England. Banshee's captain, Jonathan W. Steele, was a daring Englishman who believed himself immune from arrest if caught by the U.S. Navy because he was a British citizen who had never lived in America. His ship had genuine British registration papers. Banshee made eight successful round trips from Nassau to Wilmington with incoming cargoes of guns, chemicals, metals, and clothing (gray, of course), and outgoing cargoes of cotton.

On his ninth attempt to run the blockade, however, Captain Steele's luck ran out. On November 21, 1863, Banshee, three days out of Nassau, was captured through the joint efforts of the U.S. Army Steamer Fulton and USS Grand Gulf. Steele and his crew of thirty-eight men were taken prisoner, put on board Fulton, and transferred to Ludlow Street County Jail, New York City, and eventually to Fort Lafayette Prison in New York. Six months later, Banshee was sold by the prize court to the U.S. Navy, which reassigned it to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Wilmington. Banshee spent the rest of the war on the Union side. After the war, it was sold to private owners and renamed J. L. Smallwood.

This episode is one of the many stories about civilian blockade-runners in the military records at the National Archives, which possesses a wealth of information about the adventurous, romantic men who risked their lives, fortunes, and freedom to sneak supplies through the Union blockade of Confederate ports. Researching blockade-runners, however, is a complicated and time-consuming process. Historical documents relating to them are dispersed and can be found among the records of many different government agencies. Some of the most fruitful records have no indexes or other finding aides. Researchers must also remember the secretive nature of Civil War blockade-running. Often paperwork was intentionally destroyed, or false paperwork was created in order to delude possible captors. This article is intended to help guide researchers sort through the complexities.

To demonstrate the vast possibilities for researchers, this case study focuses on Banshee and her captain. We selected them for study from the index to the Turner-Baker papers, a collection of files at the National Archives. In part, our choice was random, but we were influenced, too, by the fact that the ship's name rings a bell to anyone familiar with this chapter in U.S. history. The steps involved in tracking Steele's career and his ship help demonstrate the possibilities and pratfalls for researching blockade-runners in general. Except for his British citizenship, Steele was typical of the breed.

Before working with the fragile, original records at the National Archives, researchers should always start with the Navy Department's The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (1874–1922; reprinted 1971 and 1985). This multivolume work, which should be available in most reference libraries, contains reports of operations and other official correspondence. It is also available on CD-ROM.

When you are ready to examine original source material at the National Archives, the type and amount of information that you already have will determine which records to look at first. For example, if you are researching genealogy or family history and only have the name of a particular person who was captured while trying to run the blockade, then a logical place to start is with the Turner-Baker Papers. If the person you are researching was never captured, the Confederate Citizens Papers would be the best place to begin. On the other hand, if you are seeking information about a particular ship, start with the Confederate Vessel Papers or, if the ship was captured, the navy prize records. If you are researching a geographic area (e.g., the blockade at Wilmington), the navy squadron letters or ship logbooks are excellent starting points.

The Turner-Baker Papers

The Turner-Baker Papers consist of case files collected by Brig. Gen. Lafayette C. Baker, Special Agent of the War Department, and Maj. Levi C. Turner, judge advocate. The records relate to the investigation of civilians, military prisoners, and subversive activities in connection with the Civil War, such as spying, disloyalty, fraud, and blockade-running. They are indexed and available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M797. The researcher should start with the index (on the first roll of microfilm), which is arranged by the first letter of the suspect's surname, or by the first letter of the name of a suspect ship, and then by the date of the investigation. In our example, the index showed Banshee and Steele are filed under number 3048. Banshee, for example, is located under "B," while Steele is filed under "S," but both have a common file number.

Dated February 2, 1864, file 3048 contains the proceedings of a military commission held at Fort Lafayette Prison, New York Harbor, including the January 21, 1864, order directing 2d Lieutenant Aiken of the Eighth U.S. Infantry to transfer Steele and the thirty-eight-man crew of Banshee from the Ludlow Street County Jail, New York City, to Fort Lafayette. In addition, the "proceedings" include the answers of each crew member to the military commission's queries about their rating, nationality, and number of times they had previously run the blockade. (See "The Crew of Banshee: A Profile.")

Steele testified that Banshee was manned exclusively by non-U.S. citizens and that it had no more "hands" than was required to work it. Banshee was owned by Edward Lawrence & Co. of Liverpool, England, for whom it was built and launched in November 1862. Lawrence & Co. owned the cargo. When the ship was captured, it had on board only a rifle, two shotguns, and two signal cannons. Steele testified that the cargo on all of his eight outgoing trips from Wilmington had totaled 3,500 bales of cotton. He also claimed, perhaps truthfully, perhaps not, that he had brought weapons into Wilmington on only one occasion. Steele said the Confederate flag captured on board had been procured at Nassau and that he raised it when entering Wilmington and Nassau harbors.

The military commission recommended that Steele and the entire Banshee crew be released from prison because all of them were non-U.S. citizens, and only one crew member had ever lived in America.

Union Prison Records

Once we knew the dates that Banshee's crew were imprisoned at Fort Lafayette, we could use the prison records (for Union Prisons) among the War Department's Collection of Confederate Records. These records are arranged alphabetically by name of prison, and they typically include daily prison arrival rolls, release or exchange rolls, paroles of honor, and if you are very fortunate, letters from relatives to the prisoners. Paroles were documents that released prisoners signed stating the conditions of their release. Typically, blockade-runners signed oaths promising to stay in the North, never to run the blockade again, and never to take up arms against the Union.

In the prison records, we found the arrival roll compiled on January 21, 1864, when Banshee's crew was transferred from Ludlow Street County Jail to Fort Lafayette. The spellings of some names vary considerably from the list in the Turner-Baker Papers; however, it is possible to match up all the men. In the Turner-Baker Papers, crew members are described as Irishmen or Englishmen. The roll lists a city and country after the name of each arriving prisoner. It is difficult to distinguish whether these place names refer to birthplaces or residences, or both. For example, in the Turner-Baker papers, Thomas White describes himself as an Irishman; on the prison rolls it shows Liverpool, England. Was White born in Ireland and a resident of Liverpool? From these records alone, we cannot tell.

Perhaps tellingly, the prison arrival rolls contain no reference to an American "pilot." This omission is curious because pilots capable of navigating local waters were a necessity on blockade-runners. Even ships that had all-foreign crews usually had at least one American pilot who lived in the vicinity of the port and who possessed intimate knowledge of the coastline, particularly the location of coves behind which ships could hide. The entrance to Wilmington harbor is also dangerous to those who are unfamiliar with its tricky sandbars and shoals.

As we continued our search, we also located a letter authorizing the release, with certain conditions, of all but one of Banshee's crew, signed by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Surprisingly, his letter does not list the name of Frederick Foley, even though Foley is on the prison rolls; but it does include the name of George McClusky, who was not listed on the prison rolls or mentioned in the Turner-Baker Papers. There was a question about the release of Foley since the authorities believed he was American; there were some indications that he had lived in Baltimore.

Because they were foreign citizens, Banshee's crew did not have to sign paroles; however, they had to leave the United States within fourteen days, during which time they were under the watch of the police. The prison records include a roll of the men released on February 14, 1864, nearly three months after their capture. This list includes Foley, but not McClusky. Steele's name, however, was not on either the secretary of the navy's letter or release roll. This presents a mystery. There is no further information about Steele in the prison records. Was he released later? Did he die in prison? The prison records are mum.

We did not locate any letters to or from family members for the crew of Banshee while they were in prison. Incidentally, we located letters written by family members to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen M. Mallory and to Confederate Adm. Franklin Buchanan. Both were at Fort Lafayette, New York, at the end of the Civil War.

Other Prison and Judicial Records

The researcher studying captured blockade-runners should also examine the Registers of U.S. Army Courts Martial reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1105. The registers include references to military commissions, which tried civilians, including blockade-runners. The records of proceedings of the military commissions are arranged by the register code (MM, NN, OO), and then by the case number that is provided in the registers. Most of the records relating to military commissions are with the Records of Proceedings of U.S. Army Courts-Martial. The Banshee case was an exception; the records of proceedings were filed with the Turner-Baker Papers.

There may be additional prison or judicial records in Record Group 393, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, among records of particular posts, military departments, divisions, or commands. For example, there are some prison records in the "post" records for Fort Lafayette and records of the Old Capitol Prison in the Department of Washington records. Most blockade-runners taken to Union prisons were sent to Fort Lafayette or to Fort Warren, Massachusetts. Others went to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, or to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington.

Confederate Vessel Papers

Our next step was to check the ship indexes to the Confederate Vessel Papers, available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M909. The ship index is on the first roll of microfilm. From the index we learned that the file for Banshee is "B-28." This file consists of a bundle of papers tied up in red tape that mention the ship's name. They are mostly papers of the Confederate government captured by Union forces or collected after the Civil War by War Department officials. The Vessel Papers include abstracts of ships leaving Wilmington at various dates and receipts for payments by the Confederate government for supplies brought in on Banshee. From these records we learn the dates of successful attempts to run the blockade and cargo information. The "abstracts of foreign vessels clearing Wilmington" list Banshee for May 14, May 30, June 15, July 22, August 19, and September 19, 1863, bound for Nassau. Other documents show Banshee arrived in Wilmington on October 26 and November 3, 1863. According to an August 8, 1863, bill of lading signed by "J. W. Steele," Banshee brought in 7,200 Austrian rifles, 300,000 cartridges, metals (copper, tin, antimony, lead), and chemicals (arsenic, sulphur, alum, camphor). On other trips, Steele brought in 2,300 army blankets, 50 boxes of bacon, clothing, 603 sides of leather, 37 cases of shoes, shovels, and woolens. Companies that shipped merchandise on Banshee included Power, Low & Co. and H. Adderly & Co. of Nassau. When Banshee was captured, it had 37 cases of shoes purchased by the Confederate War Department, 8,000 yards of gray and red flannel, buttons, etc. Some of the cargo was owned by John T. Lawrence, presumably the brother of Banshee owner, Edward Lawrence.

From these documents we learned that at Nassau British shipping companies transferred Banshee's cargo of cotton, which had been loaded in Wilmington, to larger oceangoing ships bound for England and loaded Banshee with supplies for the Confederacy.

In the Confederate Vessel Papers there are reference cards showing other Confederate records among the War Department's Collection that mention the steamer Banshee. For example, there is a reference to chapter II, volume 26, page 175. This volume contains the endorsements (brief notes on letters forwarded to another office) of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The endorsements on page 175 relates to a cargo of iron plating shipped by H. Adderly & Co. of Nassau on Banshee.

The Vessel Papers should be used with caution. The War Department officials who collected the files did not make efforts to distinguish ships with the same name. Within the Banshee file there are some Confederate papers dated 1865, long after the capture of Steele's Banshee. Some papers in the file may relate to Banshee II, another British steamer built to run the blockade. A third Banshee was captured by USS Iroquois on July 29, 1863, off New Inlet, North Carolina. This ship also had British papers and had come from Nassau but had an American owner and master. If you are researching a ship with a common name, you must be very careful that the documents are for the correct ship. War Department notations identifying the ship are sometimes incorrect.

Confederate Citizens and Business Papers

The Confederate Citizens and Business Papers are a good source of information about blockade-runners who carried supplies for the Confederate government. They are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M346. In this collection the War Department filed receipts and records of payments to blockade-runners who brought in supplies for the Confederacy. Files are arranged alphabetically by name of person or company. We did not find a file for Steele or the Edward Lawrence & Co., but there was a file for Henry Adderly & Co. that had brief references to Banshee. The papers contain receipts for large amounts of money to other blockade-runners and pilots who were paid by the Confederate government. Blockade-running was very lucrative for captains and pilots, whether they were paid by the shipping companies in England or by the Confederate government. For blockade-runners who were never captured, this collection may be the only source of information.

Letters Received by the Confederate War Department

The Letters Received by the Confederate War Department, reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M437, include letters relating to some blockade-runners. Although we did not locate Steele's name in the index, we located a letter mentioning Banshee: "When news of the capture of Banshee is known, there will be great dismay." There is a partial "index relating to blockade runners" to this series, but it is so incomplete that it should be used only in conjunction with the general name and subject index to Letters Received by the Confederate Secretary of War available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M409.

U.S. Navy Logbooks

To use logbooks of U.S. Navy ships, you need to know which ship captured, chased, or spotted the blockade-runner and the approximate date of the incident. Since we know USS Grand Gulf participated in the capture of Banshee on November 21, 1863, we can go to the logbook for this date and find a description of the chase, capture, and attempted boarding.

In most cases the logbook will also mention the names of prisoners captured, how they were treated (e.g., put in leg shackles), and where they were taken. Usually "dangerous" prisoners were transferred to ships headed to the North to be turned over to U.S. marshals for eventual imprisonment. Others were released after signing a parole promising never to run the blockade again. Prisoners were considered dangerous if they were captains, pilots, or had special knowledge of local waters. Also considered dangerous were crew members who had run the blockade more than once. Passengers or foreign citizens on blockade-runners had to prove to navy officials' satisfaction that they were not Confederate loyalists or bearing arms against the Union.

In the case of Banshee, when the navy boarding party and prize crew pulled up next to it, officers of the 3d Rhode Island Artillery from the Fulton, who had boarded her first, did not allow them to board. These army officers took charge of the prisoners and captured papers. The logbook shows that the officers on USS Grand Gulf were outraged at being denied the prize that they believed they had captured. The National Archives does not generally have logbooks for U.S. Army chartered or owned ships. Hence, there is no record of the events on the Fulton while Steele and his crew were on board for the trip to New York.

Navy logbooks may include descriptions of blockade-running ships that were chased or spotted but never captured. A researcher studying the blockade of a particular port may find the logbooks very helpful in documenting the arrivals and departures of all types of ships in the area.

Navy Squadron Letters

Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Commanding Officers of Squadrons is available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M89. The letters are arranged by squadron (South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, West Gulf Squadron, etc.) and then chronologically. There is a name and ship index in each volume. These letters include reports of navy officers' contacts with suspicious ships or reports of their capture. Letters of the North Atlantic Squadron for November 21–22, 1863, describe the capture of Banshee in more detail than the logbook. There are also letters about the controversy with the army over who was responsible for the capture. According to the letter from Comdr. George M. Ransom of USS Grand Gulf, "This vessel, after a chase of one hour and ten minutes this morning, by the effect of shots from the 100 pounder Parrott gun, caused the capture of the notorious English blockade runner Banshee by the U.S. Army Transport Steamer Fulton at latitude 34° 25' N., and longitude 76° 51' W. . . . At 10:10, the shots from the 100-pounder Parrott gun of this vessel caused the chase to turn and surrender to the Army Transport Fulton." Two officers from USS Grand Gulf wrote reports about their attempts to board Banshee. They were refused by Major Bailey of the 3d Rhode Island Artillery, who threatened them with bayonets. Acting Rear Adm. Samuel Phillips Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, complained to the secretary of the navy about this episode.

In earlier squadron letters there is a report from Comdr. T. H. Patterson of USS James Adger about the unsuccessful chase of Banshee on September 22, 1863.

Navy Executive Letters

Letters Sent by the Secretary of the Navy to the President and Executive Agencies is available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M472. Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from the President and Executive Agencies is available on National Archives Microfilm Publication, M517. These collections include letters from the State Department and diplomatic personnel relating to blockade-runners. In the cases in which captured blockade-runners claimed foreign citizenship or foreign ships and cargoes were captured or destroyed, the researcher is likely to locate diplomatic correspondence.

In the Banshee case, several letters were exchanged between the British ambassador in Washington, Lord Lyons, and Secretary of State William H. Steward. As a result of Lord Lyons's efforts, the secretary of the navy reluctantly authorized the release of the crew. The letters include more information about the crew members' ages, birthplaces, and residences. (With another list of the names, we also have yet another set of spelling variations.) The profile of the crew is based on information from the Turner-Baker Papers, prison rolls, and the executive letters. We learn from the executive letters that the youngest crew member was only twelve years old. One crew member was black, fifteen-year-old Charles Bethel.

From other executive letters, we learn that Steele swore an oath before the prize court in New York City that he was a British subject. He stated his age, thirty-seven, and that he had been born in Yorkshire, England. For the previous eleven years, he had resided with his wife and children at 17 Sandstone Road, Old Swan, Liverpool. He admitted he had run the blockade eight times and had been captured three times. When asked if he had "always followed the sea," Steele said yes, presumably to dissuade his captors from mistaking him for a Confederate officer. At the demand of Lord Lyons and Secretary of State Seward, Secretary of the Navy Welles wrote a letter, dated February 24, 1864, ten days after Banshee's crew had been set free, authorizing Steele's release.

Confederate Navy Subject File

The Subject File of the Confederate States Navy is available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1091. The file containing records pertaining to blockade-running, designated "SG," is small and disappointing. On the other hand, file "RB," relating to Confederates taken prisoner, is very helpful, and it may include information unavailable elsewhere. Some of the documents in the subject file are typed copies. This is because the records were borrowed from Confederate or Union navy officers around the turn of the century, copied, and then returned to them. In the file "RB-Prisoners captured on Banshee," we located another version of the letter sent by Secretary of the Navy Welles to Fort Lafayette Prison. In this version, Frederick Foley was described as an insurgent, and both Foley and Steele were denied release. There is also another copy of a letter from Lord Lyons about their release.

Letters Relating to Blockade-Runners in Prison

Letters Relating to Blockade-Runners in Prison is a collection of letters from, or about, captured blockade-runners and Confederate naval personnel. It includes many original crew lists and manifests captured on blockade-runners, orders transporting prisoners to the North, letters to and from U.S. marshals relating to the release or treatment of prisoners, and many signed paroles for released prisoners. There also are letters from blockade-runners, their relatives, or friends pleading for release or exchange. There is even one rare photograph of a blockade-runner. The letters are arranged chronologically, March 1863–July 1865. Unfortunately, there are no indexes to the four very thick volumes. The only way to search them thoroughly is to read through all the letters. We located no letters about Steele or the Banshee crew; however, there are wonderful descriptions about life in the prisons and letters discussing conditions of paroles authorized by the Navy Department.

Navy Prize Case Records

Under a U.S. Navy tradition, crews were entitled to a share of the booty from captured hostile enemy ships. After capturing a blockade-runner, U.S. Navy ships would designate a prize crew, typically consisting of a volunteer officer and a few sailors. They would sail the captured vessel to the nearest port where a prize court convened, such as U.S. district courts in New York City, Boston, or Key West. A prize court would determine the value of the ship and cargo and the share of the booty that each crew member and officer, depending upon his rating or rank, were entitled to receive. Captured ships and cargoes were usually sold at auction.

The navy records at the National Archives in Washington do not include the actual court case proceedings, but researchers can find them among U.S. district court records in our regional archives. Navy records do include indexes to the prize cases, summaries, final decrees, and prize lists. According to the indexes, the Banshee case was adjudicated at the U.S. District Court in New York City. The court's September 23, 1864, final decree indicates that the Banshee and its cargo were valued at $111,216. The court subtracted $6,268 for costs and miscellaneous charges. A sum of $22,470 was issued to the Fulton's owners. Another $22,470 was allocated to Fulton's master and crew. The officers and crew of USS Grand Gulf were allocated $59,994, which was divided according to a formula that was based in part on the rank and rating of the crew as indicated by their monthly pay. The commanding officer of USS Grand Gulf received the largest share, while landsmen received smaller shares. Navy Prize Lists show each of the men on USS Grand Gulf and their monthly pay, which was used to determine their prize shares. Navy records also include an index to prize records arranged by the date of capture. This is an excellent source if you know the date of a capture but not the name of the ship.

U.S. Navy Area File, 1775–1910

The U.S. Navy Area File is a large collection of documents from many sources, some private and some official. They are arranged geographically. It was collected by the Navy Department's Office of History and Library, which began acquiring documents from private sources, such as former naval officers, at the turn of the century for use in preparing the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. There are eleven geographic areas that roughly correspond with the navy squadrons. Within each area, records are arranged chronologically. The Confederate Area File is at the end of the collection. The Navy Area File is available on National Archives Microfilm Publication M625. The pamphlet accompanying the microfilm publication contains a map showing the boundaries of the areas.

U.S. Navy Subject File, 1775–1910

The U.S. Navy Subject File is another very large collection of documents collected by the Office of History and Library. It is arranged by subject according to a system of alphabetic codes, and there is a folder list of the subjects. The file for SG is for "information concerning blockade runners, lists, descriptions, etc.," and "blockade running during the Civil War, miscellaneous correspondence relative to the history of." The SG file includes President Lincoln's proclamation establishing the blockade. Another subject, XY, pertains to the disposition of ships and captured property, arranged by squadron and then chronologically. There are about eight hundred pages in the file for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The XZ file relates to prize money and prize lists.

Navy Letters from Consular Agents

The letters from consular agents, September 1861–June 1863, include dispatches about the movement of ships in foreign ports. Some have been published in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. Consular agents at Liverpool reported that Banshee had gone out on a trial trip on January 10, 1863. "The leading men from the house of Fraser, Trenholm & Co., and all other secession houses have gone out on her. It will not be many days before she leaves for the South. Hope may possibly go in her." A dispatch reported the arrival of Banshee at Queenstown, Ireland on February 25, 1863, and provided a detailed description of her appearance, size, speed, draft, and color. Another dispatch from the Consul at Cork reported on March 19, 1863, "Steamer Banshee sailed today—took no mail or passengers. She has been detained here over hauling [sic] her machinery which does not work well. She also painted her pipes and wheel house white."

Nonmilitary Records

The National Archives has custody of many other records relating to blockade-runners beyond the scope of this article. An important source is the American-flag ship registration, enrollment, and licenses for the pre-Civil War and Civil War period among the Records of the U.S. Customs Service (Record Group 36) and Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation (RG 41). There are other consular reports and other diplomatic records among the State Department records (RG 59). Records of the Treasury Department Collection of Confederate Records (RG 365) include records relating to blockade-running. Records of the Boundary and Claims Commissions and Arbitrations (RG 76) include records relating to Civil War claims between the United States and Great Britain.


From this case study we learn that the National Archives possesses numerous records that can help researchers studying Civil War blockade-runners and their pursuers, provided they spend the time and effort to understand the documents' scope and limitations. Blockade-running, by necessity, involved secrecy, stealth, and deception. Decisions made many years ago to preserve records from this era for use by future generations has made it possible for researchers today to shed some needed light on this Civil War cat-and-mouse game.

See also these related records:

Rebecca Livingston is a reference archivist with Old Military and Civil Records at the National Archives and Records Administration. She specializes in U.S. Navy records, 1775–1940.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.