The Minna and the Circassian, Irish blockade runners

This month’s blog comes from the pen of my cousin James and gives a fascinating glimpse into an era of history that many will have a general idea of and the Irish involvement. However, what was a surprise to me was the scale of Irish participation in the blockade running and the many Waterford connections too.

At the onset of the American civil war the Southern states faced a major predicament, theirs was mostly an agrarian economy based primarily around cotton. The Confederacy lacked major manufacturing capacity and after losing access to the steel mills and ironworks in the North of America by necessity they turned to foreign suppliers of the material of war. Cotton became currency and European merchants started to capitalise on the southern state’s desperation and the soaring price of cotton.  Irish merchants weren’t immune to this new business opportunity and one of the best-known examples is Peter Tait of Limerick who manufactured over 50,000 uniforms for the Confederacy.

Peter Tait and other merchant adventurers faced one major obstacle; the Union blockade. The North quickly moved to close the ports of the Southern states with their superior naval forces. Initially, this blockade was fairly loose but became more complete as the war progressed. European merchants with the aid of Southern agents started to break this blockade and even constructed purpose-built blockade runners with a focus on speed and stealth.  Low, dark painted hulls with telescopic funnels to reduce silhouettes these ships were nearly impossible to spot at night as they dashed at speed through the Union blockade. This article will focus on an unusual encounter between two vessels with Irish connections both involved in the blockade of the South.

Title: Federal Vessels Driving Back the Iron-Plated Rebel Steamer Yorktown, which attempted to Run the Blockade. Creator(s): Balling, Ole Peter Hansen, 1823-1906, artist. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. USA. Public Domain Access. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.22590/

Sometimes the tortoise catches the hare and this was certainly the case on the morning of the 9th of December 1863 when the USS Circassian captured the blockade runner Minna. The Circassian was a hybrid vessel carrying both sails and a steam engine and nearly twice the size of the Minna a modern screw driven steamer capable of higher speed.

Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command. Original Creator: Painted by Erik Heyl.
https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-63000/NH-63870.html

The seizure of the Minna was a major blow to the Confederate states and made international news with papers as far away as England carrying the story of the “capture of the celebrated blockade runner Minna, splendid barkantine steamship of Waterford, undoubtedly one of the finest prizes of the war”[i]

The same newspaper that described the Minna in such tones of admiration also provides some insight into how the Circassian came to capture the Minna. It described the arrival of the vessel Ocean Wave into New York harbour and reported how it had lent assistance to the Steamer Minna of Waterford which had developed a leak whilst bound for the Confederate port of Wilmington[ii]

On the morning of the 9th of December, the Minna didn’t try run from the Circassian which was the usual tactic of the faster blockade runners which used speed to get themselves out of trouble.  Whether the Minna simply couldn’t run if it was leaking or whether it was taken totally by surprise is hard to tell. Another contributory factor to her quick surrender was that the Circassian mounted a 30-pound canon and Captain Upon of the Minna decided discretion was the better part of valour and ordered the Minna to stop and strike her colours.

As per standing orders, Upton ordered the Minna to be scuttled to avoid falling into enemy hands.  Anticipating such a move a boarding party from the Circassian was sent across with orders to save the vessel. The boarding party was led by a young engineer Theodore F Lewis who wrote home to his uncle to tell of his exploits. His proud uncle had the letter published in the Vermont Record explaining how Mr. Lewis and the executive officer of the Circassian “worked hard with a Colt revolver at the head of Minna’s engineer and succeeded in keeping the vessel afloat”.  The article also mentions the value of the Minna being set at $250,000 and bonus for the prize crew that seized the vessel; they were entitled to a one tenth share of the value. [iii]

A less fortunate fate awaited this blockade runner – Sullivan’s Island, S.C. Wreck of blockade-runner near the shore. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. USA. Public Domain Access. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018666904/

Although physically very different vessels the Minna and the Circassian had a lot in common.  Firstly both were built in Britain; the Circassian on the Clyde and the Minna on the Tyne. Both vessels also shared strong Irish connections, Minna was built for the Malcomsons of Portlaw and registered in Waterford. In 1863 the Minna was sold to MG Klingender and later to CK Prioleau [iv] although she remained registered in the port of Waterford.  Klingender and Prioleau wouldn’t be your usual Waterford names and were both based in Liverpool working for a law firm called Fraser Trenholm, agents of the Confederate States of America.

The time period of the American Civil War was devastating to the Malcomson commercial empire, as the blockade of Southern ports by the Union navy tightened, their cotton factory in Portlaw started to run low on southern cotton and the Malcomsons financial fate rested on the outcome of the civil war. Additionally, William Malcomson head of the family at that time had started to diversify with varying degrees of success and was a major shareholder in the Galway Steamship company which owned several ships, one of which was the steamer Circassian.

As if a cotton shortage wasn’t bad enough, through a series of ill-advised business moves the Galway steamship company encountered heavy losses and it is estimated that William Malcomson personally lost nearly one and a half million pounds[v]. One of the other major shareholders in the Galway steamship company was John Orrell Lever, who had a shared interest in cotton manufacture and shipping. In 1861 Lever organised the sale of  the Galway Steamships companies paddle steamer Pacific to Fraser Trenholm  (a firm he also had a financial interest in) and the Circassian began its career as a blockade runner soon after. [vi] 

An 1862 Harper’s Weekly engraving of captured blockade runners: The ‘Circassian’ is in the right foreground (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Circassian had a short career as a blockade runner, she was encountered by the USS Somerset in broad daylight under full sail and steam in May of 1862. She initially ignored calls to stop but a live round fired through the rigging from the Somersetconvinced the Circassian tosurrender[vii].  She would enter union service as the USS Circassian soon after.  

Another unusual feature of the encounter of the Circassian and the Minna was the freight being run. When the Minna was towed into Fort Monroe on the 14th of December it was reported that she carried a mixed cargo of spices, quinine, rifles, powder, vitriol, wines & liquors, agricultural tools, hardware and general merchandise[viii].  The report also mentioned the Minna carried a valuable marine engine probably destined for one of the new home made iron clad fleet adopted by the Confederacy. Part of the general cargo was a large consignment of Bibles printed in England and destined for the south.  What the desperate confederate soldiers might have thought of valuable space on a blockade runner being taken up by bibles is anyone’s guess.

The extent of involvement of Irish merchants in blockade running into the Southern states is difficult to estimate as it was a clandestine activity with union agents watching European ports for the departure of vessels bound to run the blockade. One strategy used to circumvent the blockade was transhipment. Large shipments were sent to ports such as Nassau and Havana with legal bills of lading, if these ships were intercepted mid journey by the Union navy they had committed no crime. Once landed the goods would be unloaded and ran at night into Southern Ports. 

Island Queen, owned by Curran & Co of Dungarvan was involved in the South American trade, and at one point took on a lucrative consignment of rifles and war materials which was freighted from Le Havre to the confederacy.  Having successfully out manoeuvred the blockade she was escorted to Fort Fisher near New Orleans by a Southern battleship and berthed amidst loud cheers from the quayside.[ix]

Despite the huge profits to be made, blockade running it was a risky business; the ships involved were only expected to make a handful of runs before being captured. As a consequence of this expected short life span some shipbuilders started to cut corners and the sea worthiness of some vessels was questionable. An example of this which also offers a insight into the makeup of a typical blockade running crew was the paddle steamer Hattie.  The vessel was launched on the Clyde in August 1864 and left in the depths of winter for the Atlantic crossing. The Hattie suffered storm damage and put into Waterford for repairs she left on the 15th of December and was never heard from again. After the disappearance, a crew list was published which revealed a crew of 26 of which 6 were Irish with only one American crew member; the master of the ship [x].

Peter Tait of Limerick’s blockade running activities are well established with his ships such as the Evelyn leaving Foynes to run his uniforms into the south for the confederate army.  The Circassian and the Minna were both controlled by Fraser Trenholm of Liverpool and Charleston but the purpose of their sale must have been known by their previous owners.  At the conclusion of the war complex legal arguments ensued between Great Britain and America concerning the legalities surrounding the running of the blockade and seizure of blockade runners.  One ship called the Alinehad arrived in Liverpool in June of 1865 as the war drew to a close. The American government launched a legal case to seize its cargo and some of the names mentioned in the cases prove insightful. One of the defendants listed was CK Prioleau of Fraser Trenholm a William Greer Malcomson and an Andrew Malcomson were also listed in the case[xi]. These Malcomsons were cousins of the Waterford branch of the family and were based in Liverpool.

Another vessel with a Waterford connection the PS Denbeigh, not alone called for fuel but was repaired in Malomsons Neptune ironworks. Photo sourced from https://nautarch.tamu.edu/PROJECTS/denbigh/

Legal action between Britain and America came thick and fast after the war with claim and counter claim, a look through some of the legal actions reveals some more interesting Irish connections.  Another Waterford connection is Captain John Read of Tramore, Master of the bark Science (built at Waterford by Whites Shipbuilders in 1836, originally brig rigged) which was seized by the Union on the 5th of November 1863 sailing from the south with a cargo of cotton bound for London[xii].

Legal papers also reveal that the Waterford vessel the Queen of England in July of 1861 was turned back from the Southern coast by an armed Union vessel. The Queen of England had sailed from the port of Waterford and was due to collect tobacco from Richmond for a Dublin based distributor. The owners of the vessel launched legal action after the war in an attempt to recover loss of earnings[xiii].

Another facinating Waterford link is the number of vessels that actually called to the port or the outlying villages such as Passage East where fuel for the crossing was taken on. A practice that certainly raises some interesting questions, as does the common way this event was reported. Source: Waterford Chronicle; Friday 16th September 1864; page 2

The American Civil War had far reaching economic impacts with fortunes made and lost by merchant families across the globe. Some reliant on Southern exports backed the Confederacy out of necessity whilst others hoped to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the conflict. The Irish participation in blockade running is a topic worthy of further research.

For anyone with an interest in the Irish participation in the American Civil War I would thoroughly recommend following the work of Damian Shiels who has worked tirelessly over the years to explore this topic https://irishamericancivilwar.com/

I would like to thank James for this fascinating account on a story that has opened my eyes to another area of Waterford’s rich maritime heritage which I was unaware of.  There must have many more twists and turns to be unearthed in such activities  If you have any other information to share with James he can be contacted through twitter on his very popular Irish Smuggling site @IrishSmuggling


[i] Greenock Advertiser 29/ 12/1863

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Vermont Record 01/01/1864

[iv] www.tynebuiltships.co.uk

[v] Bill Irish, Shipbuilding in Waterford.  2001.  Wordwell Books

[vi] The Galway Line in Context: A Contribution to Galway Maritime History Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Vol. 47 (1995)

[vii] Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Harrisburg, PA : National Historical Society, 1987.

[viii] Perthshire Constitutional & Journal

[ix] Irish. P40

[x] Clydebuilt , Eric J Graham Birlinn publishing 2006

[xi] The Morning Advertiser 27/07/1865

[xii] British and American Claims, British Claims No. 1 to 478 Memorials, Demurrers, Briefs, and Decisions Available at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=wklHAQAAMAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PA1

[xiii] Ibid

5 Replies to “The Minna and the Circassian, Irish blockade runners”

    1. Eye opener for me too Kev. A New Ross merchant named Jeffers was involved as a part owner in one of the cases taken after the war for loss of earnings

  1. The story of the 40,000 Irish and Scots-Irish Confederates that fought with the southern army have been mostly written out of the history books by the revisionist that want to tell a different story. Thank you for for writing this story. In the south, most of our Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors would have starved to death if it wasn’t for the blockade runners.
    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/irish-confederate-army-civil-war.amp

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