August 10, 1864 – A Confederate commerce raider embarked on a mission to attack Federal shipping on the North Atlantic coast, which spread panic among coastal residents.
Confederate Commander John T. Wood, grandson of former General and President Zachary Taylor, led the blockade runner C.S.S. Tallahassee out of New Inlet at Wilmington, North Carolina. The vessel left port during the night and evaded two blockaders to raid Federal shipping.
The Tallahassee arrived off the New Jersey coast on the 10th and captured six prizes. Wood burned five of the vessels and bonded the sixth, the Carroll, to take all the captured crewmen to New York. Federal Admiral Hiram Paulding at the Brooklyn Navy Yard reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “Pirate off Sandy Hook capturing and burning.”
Welles responded by dispatching three ships from New York to hunt down the Tallahassee. Soon vessels from Boston, Philadelphia, and Hampton Roads were also dispatched. Meanwhile, Wood captured merchant vessels carrying lumber and coal off the New York coast. Panic spread throughout New York and New England, and New York’s Board of Underwriters demanded that Welles do more to stop the Tallahassee’s raid.
By the 15th, the Tallahassee had moved up to the New England coast, continuing to capture and burn Federal ships. Wood next took his raider to British-controlled Halifax, Nova Scotia, to buy coal. The U.S. consul at Nova Scotia, Mortimer M. Jackson, protested the Tallahassee’s arrival, but the lieutenant governor at Halifax observed British neutrality law by granting Wood 24 hours to collect only enough coal to return him to a Confederate port. Wood was granted a 12-hour extension to repair his broken mast.
Meanwhile, Jackson notified Welles of the Tallahassee’s presence. They then alerted the U.S.S. Pontoosuc, commanded by Lieutenant Commander George A. Stevens at Eastport, Maine, that the Confederate vessel was nearby. Wood loaded the Tallahassee with 120 tons of coal and steamed out of Halifax on the night of the 19th. The Pontoosuc arrived there the next morning, seven hours too late to catch the commerce raider.
Stevens took the Pontoosuc north, thinking that Wood was headed for St. Lawrence. But Wood was actually headed back south to Wilmington. The rigid enforcement of neutrality laws in Nova Scotia prevented him from continuing his raid.
The Tallahassee ran the blockade and returned to Wilmington over the night of the 25th and 26th. She fired her way through the blockaders and anchored on the Cape Fear River, under the Confederate guns at Fort Fisher. During the raid, Wood had captured 33 prizes, burning 26 and bonding or releasing seven. This boosted southern morale, which had been shaken by the recent defeat at Mobile Bay. The Federal Navy Department came under intense criticism for allowing the Tallahassee to wreak such havoc in the North Atlantic.
Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 741; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445-50; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10641-71; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 482, 484-88, 490; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554-55; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 200