American Civil War

Iona II was a blockade runner for the American Civil War.

The conflict & British involvement

The conflict

The American Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865, with the slave owning southerners fighting against the industrialised northerners. While essentially it was a single country war, its effects spread far and wide, including to the United Kingdom. Several participants in the war have also entered into world history such as General Robert E Lee who was on the Confederate side and President Abraham Lincoln who led the Union states.

One of the major tactics of the northern Union states was to blockade the southern Confederate states’ ports to cut off their trade routes. To export the main southern commodity, cotton, and import weapons, the Confederates needed fast vessels to break the blockade. The best place to find suitable vessels was on the Clyde.


British Involvement

During the 1860s, the world leader in producing ships was the Clyde. Up to 14 of the vessels that came out of the J. & G. Thomson yard during this short time were destined for the American Civil War.

Some of these vessels were built as river steamers and then sold on by local shipping agencies at high prices to the Confederates while others were purpose built for the cause. This was typical of most Clydeside yards and, in 1864 alone, 50 vessels were launched intended for blockade running.

To a certain extent, the American Civil War was responsible for encouraging this burgeoning shipbuilding industry. As the Union blockade negatively affected the Scottish textile industry, involvement in the American Civil War was seen as a way to support this industry and provide an alternative income stream for the region. There were many Clyde-based shipbuilders and middlemen acting for Confederate businessmen, willing to risk infringing Britain’s neutral status by running the blockade for the chance of a quick fortune.

Despite Britain's official neutrality, the Iona II was purchased on behalf of Confederate business interests for use as a blockade runner. They were looking for fast steamships that could break the Union naval blockade of the Confederacy from bases in Bermuda and the Caribbean.

The Iona II was registered in the name of David McNutt and sold to an agent of the Confederacy, Charles Hopkins Bostier of Richmond, Virginia. Very little is known about this man and it may be that Charles Hopkins Bostier was a pseudonym. 

Blockade runner

Blockade Running Ships

It became apparent that the design of the local Clyde river steamers, with their shallow draughts and small size, made them well suited to the shallow approaches of many southern American ports and their speed meant that they had a reasonable chance of running the blockade. Although they were clearly not designed for the Atlantic crossing, the scale of the potential profits to be made from running even small cargoes meant that there were plenty of speculators willing to try to get them across when demand outstripped the supply of larger ocean-going vessels.

The blockade runners had to be fast and reliable in any weather situation in order to be successful. Sailing ships were therefore ruled out as they were dependent on the wind and fast steam ships were used for this risky task. Having made a three-day crossing from the neutral ports of Nassau or Bermuda, and having been blacked-out and painted off-white or battleship grey, they attempted to use their superior speed to charge through the lines of blockading Union gunboats and gain the protection of Confederate shore batteries. At the time of the American Civil War, many of the more suitable ocean-going vessels had already been acquired or were unavailable.

Several local contemporary newspapers described the Iona II as being a gun-runner or a vessel carrying gun powder.

“If report speak true, she was intended for a blockade runner, for which her long, low built and rare sailing qualities admirably fitted her. By all accounts she was one of those slippery craft numerous enough at the present time along the American coast, in every way calculated to show her tail to the squadron blockading the Confederate ports.” North Devon Journal 4 February 1864.


Ferry to Blockade Runner

To prepare it for the Atlantic crossing the Iona II’s luxurious fittings were removed and the hull structure was reinforced. The Board of Trade inquiry reported on the £3,282 (about £270.000 today) worth of alterations that were made in November 1863 in the yards of J. & G. Thomson Ltd.

 •   saloon decks were replaced with temporary deckhouses

 •   side lights plated over

 •   additional deck stringer plate added

 •   bulwark was raised from 3'6” to 4’3”

 •   stanchions were strengthened and increased in number

 •   addition of two schooner rigged masts with all the associated fittings

These alterations to strengthen the long, thin hull of the river steamer were considered sufficient by a ship surveyor to cope with the increased wave heights and rough weather conditions of the open ocean. Schooner masts were added because, despite being filled with coal, steam engines at this time were relatively inefficient and most steamships would have required the assistance of sail to actually make it across to America.