Read CHAPTER VI. of The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner , free online book, by John Wilkinson, on

San Domingo. The Island of Hayti and its Inhabitants. St. Thomas. General Santa Anna. The Mail Steamer Atrato. Arrival at Southampton. English Scenery. The Major fails. The Giraffe Purchased. A Claim against the Confederate Government. The Hon. J. M. Mason. Credit of the Confederate Government Abroad. An improper Agent. Captain Bullock. The Giraffe Ready for Sea. Glasgow. Our last Dinner. Our Scotch Landlady and Head Waiter. We part with the Major. Hot Punch and Scotch Babies. A Reminiscence.

We touched at the little port of San Domingo in the island of Dominica on our way to St. Thomas; and lay at anchor there long enough to allow the passengers to visit the shore for a few hours. It was once a prosperous town, but is now in ruins, and hovels stand upon the very sites where once arose magnificent palaces; for it was at one time the chief seat of the Spanish Empire in the New World, and the place of residence of Columbus himself. Cortez, the Conqueror of Mexico, once lived in its vicinity. The cathedral still stands entire and is still used as a place of worship, but the walls of the convent attached to the cathedral have yielded to the corroding influences of time and the climate, and are crumbling into ruins. The palace of Diego Columbus, the son of the immortal admiral, who to Castile and Leon gave a new world, is still pointed out, but that, too, is a mere shell, the roof having entirely disappeared. The population is a wretched mongrel indolent race, and there is little to do there. The whole island, indeed, long ago fell from its high estate, and everywhere thorns and brambles grow where once there were well cultivated plantations. I had previously visited many portions of the island, and saw wherever I went, the same evidences of misrule and indolence; but, the negroes, who hold the western portion of it or Hayti, are physically, at least, a finer race of people than the degenerate, puny hybrids of the eastern part, who have “miscegenated” to an extent that would satisfy the most enthusiastic admirer of our sable “friends and fellow-citizens.” I have never seen finer specimens of stalwart manhood than in “Solouque’s” army years ago, although the “tout ensemble” of it was sufficiently ludicrous; the officers being mounted on ponies a little bigger than goats; and some of them wearing no apparel, except a coat and cocked hat; with spurs on their naked heels; and the ragged half-naked privates chewing one end of a big stick of sugar cane (their only rations) as they marched. Upon one occasion, an officer of the ship to which I was attached, had died at sea, and was buried at Gonaives, with military honors. The drummer and fifer of our guard of marines were little fellows of twelve or thirteen years of age. The black military commandant of the district was so captivated with their appearance, as they marched at the head of the funeral procession, that he “corralled” all the little “niggers” within his district the next day, to select from them a few drummers and fifers; and I believe there would have been a “casus belli” if our little musicians had been sent ashore, for I doubt if he could have resisted the temptation to kidnap them.

We arrived at St. Thomas two days before the mail-steamer was due and took up our quarters at the only hotel of which the town boasted, but it was an excellent one. The black steward, who superintended the staff of waiters, was a noticeable personage, speaking several languages with correctness and fluency. We appreciated the “cuisine” of the hotel, after so long a diet upon garlic and rancid sweet oil; and were content to pass the greater part of the time at the “Ice house,” a refreshment saloon conducted by a Vermont “Yankee,” but who had been so long abroad as to have become cosmopolitan in his ideas and opinions. The residence of General Santa Anna, the old Mexican hero, then in exile, was pointed out to us; a handsome building crowning a hill overlooking the town; and we were informed that the old gentleman was still passionately fond of his favorite amusement, cock-fighting.

“E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires.”

We sailed for Southampton in the British mail steamer “Atrato,” the best appointed and most comfortable ship on board which I have ever taken passage. She was a paddle-wheel steamer of the first class, belonging to the Cunards, who boast that not a life or a mail has ever been lost in their line. There was a very good band of musicians on board, and the weather during the whole voyage was so pleasant that dancing could be enjoyed. The screw steamers, now so rapidly superseding the old “side wheelers,” possess many advantages, it is true, but the superior comfort of the passengers is not to be reckoned among them.

Arriving at Southampton, we took the first train for London. What specially attracted the admiration of our little party as the train sped along, was the exquisite beauty of the country. Almost every view would have furnished a subject for a landscape painter. We saw vast lawns green as emeralds, with clumps of fine trees here and there, and dotted with cattle and sheep; and would frequently catch a glimpse of castles and country seats beautifully ornamented with parks and gardens. It was a series of pictures of rural repose and quiet, embellished with perfect taste. Even the thatched cottages, with their trim hedges, their little flower gardens, and the vines covering the outside, were most picturesque. What a striking contrast with the log cabins and “snake” fences in our own loved “Dixie!”

The Secretary of War, in his instructions to me, had stated that Major Ficklin, who had lately returned from Europe, had been struck by the qualities of a steamer which, in the Major’s opinion, was admirably adapted for blockade-running. She was called the Giraffe, a Clyde built iron steamer, and plied as a packet between Glasgow and Belfast. She was a side-wheel of light draft, very strongly built and reputed to be of great speed. She possessed the last quality, it is true, but not to such a degree as represented, for her best rate of speed while under my command never exceeded thirteen and a half knots. Under the same instructions I was to examine the ship and if the inspection proved favorable, the Major was to negotiate for the purchase. I have always believed that some informal arrangement had been made between the parties concerned during the Major’s late visit to England. However that may have been, we found, on our arrival in London that the Giraffe had been sold within a day or two, to a company about to engage in blockade-running. The manager of this company was Mr. Alexander Collie, who subsequently made such immense ventures, and became so well known in connection with blockade-running. The Major did not lose heart upon learning that the Giraffe had changed hands, but all his efforts to get possession of the vessel were unsuccessful, Mr. C. refusing to part with her upon any terms. As a last resort the Major, whose resources were almost inexhaustible, suggested that I should make an effort. All difficulties instantly vanished, when I informed Mr. Collie that I held a commission in the Confederate States Navy, and had been sent abroad to buy a ship for the Confederate Government. He instantly agreed to transfer possession for the amount paid by him, L32,000, stipulating, however, that the steamer should not be sold, during the war, to private parties without the consent of the company represented by him, who were to have the refusal of her. Although these conditions conflicted with certain arrangements made between the Confederate Secretary of War and Major Ficklin, the latter assented to them; and the Giraffe became the property of the Confederate States Government. The necessary alterations to fit her for a blockade-runner were at once commenced. Her beautiful saloon and cabins were dismantled and bulkheads constructed to separate the quarters for officers and men from the space to be used for stowage of a cargo. Purchases of arms, clothing, etc., were to be made; and after much disgust and vexation of spirit, I employed Mr. Collie, who was a shrewd and practical man of business, to make the purchases on commission, while I found more congenial employment. Long afterwards, when I got a friend in Richmond to prepare my accounts for the auditor, he proved conclusively from the vouchers (which I was careful to preserve) that the Confederate Government owed me L1,000; but I never applied for the “little balance” and now it is buried with the “lost cause.”

The Hon. J. M. Mason, representing the Confederate Government, was living very quietly and unostentatiously in London; and although not officially recognized, he was the frequent guest of the nobility and gentry of the kingdom. He looked, so I thought, the equal of any peer in the land, for he was of a noble presence; and he possessed that rare tact of adapting himself to almost any company in which he might be thrown. We always met with a cordial welcome from him; and it was very interesting to hear his comments upon the government and the social life of England. I am sure the contrast between the conservatism, stability and respect for precedents and laws, so manifest everywhere in that favored land, and the rapidly growing disregard of all these obligations in our own country, struck him most forcibly. He closed a long eulogy of England upon one occasion by remarking, “This is the best Government upon the earth except of course our own.” He, in common with others, who had access to private sources of information, believed, at that time, that the Confederacy would soon be recognized by England and France; and it appears from evidence made public since the close of the war, that their hopes were by no means groundless; the Emperor of the French having proposed joint recognition to the British government; but all efforts in that direction were thwarted by the “Exeter Hall” influence.

We saw of course many of the sights and curiosities of London. One pleasant day of leisure, after a walk to see that magnificent pile, the Houses of Parliament, I was sauntering along, without thought of where I was going, until I found myself in a perfect labyrinth of filthy streets and tumble down buildings and presenting all the other evidences of vice and poverty; the very neighborhood in short of “Tom Allalone’s” lair. Fortunately I met a policeman who guided me into a respectable part of the city. He told me that I was about to invade the worst section of London, almost within a stone’s throw of the Houses of Parliament.

It is astonishing how frequently Dickens’ characters and descriptions come into the memory of a stranger visiting London. No one, who has ever seen them, will forget the houses in Chancery. Situated as some of them are, in the busiest and most crowded parts of the city, and mouldering away from disuse and neglect, the idea constantly presented itself to me as I passed one of them, “there is more of the Jarndyce property,” and I never saw an “old clo’” man that the rascally Fagin and his hopeful proteges did not rise to my recollection. How wonderful is the power of genius which can not only “give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name,” but fix them as realities in our memory forever!

At that period the credit of the Confederate Government abroad was excellent; and either from love of “filthy lucre” or of the cause, some of the best firms in England were ready and eager to furnish supplies. It appeared quite practicable to send in machinery, iron plates, etc., for building small vessels of war; and several firms offered to engage in the enterprise, receiving Confederate bonds in payment. These parties went to the trouble of preparing models with plans and specifications; all of which were afterwards duly submitted to the incompetent Secretary of the Confederate States Navy; but it resulted in nothing. A considerable amount of the Government funds was lavished abroad upon the building of vessels which could by no possibility be got to sea under the Confederate flag while the war lasted; and to make matters worse, the Secretary had sent to England, as special agent for building or buying vessels, a man well known throughout the kingdom to be bankrupt in fame and fortune, who was hawking our government securities about the country at a ruinous rate of discount; and who inflicted much loss and injury upon the Confederate Government in various ways during his connection with it. The management of naval affairs abroad should have been left in the hands of Captain Bullock, the efficient agent of the Navy Department in England, who showed admirable tact in the conduct of affairs entrusted to him.

We stopped at the Burlington Hotel during our stay in London. There was none of the glare and glitter of an American hotel about this highly respectable establishment, no crowded “table d’hote” where the guests scrambled for food, and the waiters must be bribed to wait upon them; no gorgeous bar-room where the clinking of glasses resounds day and night, and no hotel clerk, with hair parted in the middle, who deems it a condescension to be civil. Everything was staid, quiet, orderly, and it must be added, rather slow and expensive. As an illustration of the isolation of the boarders in an English hotel, it may be mentioned that two Southern ladies, acquaintances of a member of our party, were staying at the Burlington at the same time with ourselves, without our knowledge of the fact. Meals were usually served in the coffee room, the regular dinner consisting of a “joint,” and one or two dishes of vegetables, any dish not included in this very plain bill of fare being furnished at an extra charge. Including fees to servants, etc., which are regularly entered in the bill, one may live very comfortably in an English hotel for five dollars a day, but not for less.

In thirty days from our arrival in England, the Giraffe was reported laden and ready for sea. Besides the purchases made through my agency, a large quantity of lithographic material had been bought by Major Ficklin for the Treasury Department; and twenty-six lithographers were engaged for the Confederate Government.

We took the train for Glasgow as soon as we were notified that the Giraffe was ready for sea; parting from our London friends with mutual good wishes and regrets.

There is a striking contrast between the scenery in the south of England, and that in the northern portion. As we approached the “iron country” even the fresh green woods disappeared, and for many miles on our way we could see tall chimneys pouring forth huge volumes of smoke, and we passed numerous coal pits, while the whole busy population seemed to be begrimed with coal dust and iron filings. As we approached Glasgow the scenery again changed to broad and well cultivated plains in the immediate vicinity of the city. Its trade with Virginia and the West Indies laid the foundation of its present prosperity. To this day there are many descendants in Richmond of the old Scotch merchants who formerly traded in tobacco between that port and Glasgow, but of late years it has become chiefly noted for its iron ships and steamers, which are unsurpassed; and it is now, I believe, the second city in the United Kingdom in point of wealth and population. The Clyde, naturally an insignificant stream, has been deepened by art until it is now navigable for the largest vessels.

We were so busily occupied, during our brief stay, as to be able to see very little of the city or its environs. The city itself was enveloped in a fog during the whole time; its normal atmospheric condition, I presume; for once when we made a visit to the romantic “Brigg of Allan,” we passed beyond the suburbs into a clear bright atmosphere; and on our return in the afternoon, we found the pall hanging over the city as usual.

We would have been delighted to take the advice of our hostess to see more of the land immortalized by Scott and Burns. “Ech, Sirs,” she said, “but ye suld gae doon to the Heelands to see Scotland”; from which remark it may be reasonably inferred that she was a “Heeland” woman. We were painfully struck by the number of paupers and intoxicated females in the streets; and some of our party saw, for the first time in their lives, white women shoeless, and shivering in scanty rags, which scarcely concealed their nakedness, with the thermometer at the freezing point. Whitaker’s British Almanac publishes, statistically, the drinking propensities of the population of the three kingdoms, from which it appears that there were consumed per head in 1869

Malt             1,989 bushels   in England.
Spirits           591 gallons          "
Malt             509 bushels     in Ireland.
Spirits          873 gallons          "
Malt             669 bushels     in Scotland.
Spirits          1,576 gallons       "

The inventory taken on board the Giraffe, after she was turned over to the Confederate Government, showed over two hundred pitchers and ladles for hot punch! We came to the conclusion that Scotch babies were weaned upon this beverage, for the law forbade the carrying of that number of grown passengers by the Giraffe.

Having secured the services of a sailing captain, British laws not allowing the clearance of a vessel under the British flag, except under the command of one who holds a certificate of competence, we sent our luggage on board one evening, and sat down to our last meal on British soil. There were many guests at the table; several of our friends having come on from London to see us take our departure, and toasts were duly and enthusiastically drank to the success of “the cause.” The privileged old head-waiter, dressed in professional black, (and ridiculously like an old magpie as he hopped about the room with his head on one side,) “whose custom it was of an afternoon” to get drunk, but always with Scotch decorum, nodded approval of the festivities, until, overcome by his feelings (or Usquebaugh) he was obliged to withdraw.

We bade adieu to our friends late at night, and went on board early next morning. In addition to the Scotch artisans already mentioned, there were several young gentlemen who were about to return home in the Giraffe. These youths had been prosecuting their studies in Germany. They were now about to return home to enter the army. Two of them, Messrs. Price and Blair, are now Professors in Virginia Colleges, after doing their duty as brave and faithful soldiers during the war. It is well known that many thousands of young men, the flower of the South, served as privates during the whole of our struggle for independence; and it is equally well known that they never flinched from dangers or privations.

Many years ago an expedition under the command of Lieutenant Strain, of the United States Navy, was sent to make a reconnoissance across the Isthmus of Darien. The party lost their way among the morasses and almost impenetrable forests, and endured frightful hardships. But the officers survived, while many of the men succumbed to fatigue and famine. During our war, the youths of gentle blood and tender nurture displayed equally wonderful endurance.

We parted from the Major on the wharf before going on board. He promised to meet us in Richmond; preferring himself to return via. New York; and we did not doubt his ability to keep his promise; for he seemed to experience no difficulty in passing and repassing through the lines at his pleasure during the war. He was in Washington, indeed, at the time when President Lincoln was assassinated, and was arrested as an accomplice in that great crime. His numerous friends who had so often suffered from his practical jokes, would have been pleased no doubt, to see how he appreciated the jest, when his head was tied up in a feather pillow to prevent him from defrauding the law by committing suicide in the murderer’s cell. The shrill sound of a whistle was heard in the theatre just before Booth committed the act; and when the Major was arrested in his bed at the hotel a few hours afterwards, a whistle was found in his pocket. It was damaging evidence, but he escaped prosecution as an accomplice by adopting the advice once given by Mr. Toney Weller, and proving an alibi.