Set amidst the tumult of the American Civil War (1861-5), Margaret Mitchell’s romantic epic - Gone with the Wind - has the suave pragmatic businessman Rhett Butler as the principal male character.  It would be fair to say that many cinema-goers, mesmerised by so many dramatic sunsets, left their seats with only a vague recollection as to how the lavishly spending Rhett came by his money.  He was the mastermind behind a complex ‘blockade running’ operation.

This was the extremely lucrative business of running arms and luxuries in - and cotton out - from the beleaguered Southern ports in fast steamers.   There were extraordinary profits to be made for those willing to gamble on such a venture - at the height of the war it was reckoned that two return trips paid for the vessel. More than a third of the three hundred odd steamers that ran the blockade were ‘CB’ - Clyde Built.    

At sea, this evolved into a highly dangerous game of ‘hare and hounds’, played out on quarter or moonless nights by sleek steamers, blacked out and painted off-white or battleship grey.  Having made the three-day ocean crossing from Bermuda or Nassau they sought to hug the calmer in-shore line away from the influence and rough currents of the Gulf Stream.  The ‘game’ was then to sneak up to one of the channels of the few Confederate-held ports during the night.  If discovered, they would rely on their greater speed to charge through the inner lines of blockading Federal gunboats to gain the protection of a Confederate coastal battery.  If the stakes for the men who ran the blockade were high then so too were the rewards.  The most successful captains received $5,000 in gold per run and the chief engineers half that amount. 

Where the action story line has been previously told, the human interest has invariably been centred on the dare-doing of a handful of determined young Confederate officers who drove through a hails of shells - flying the Confederate flag in true southern cavalier fashion - to deliver vital arms, munitions and war supplies from the warehouse islands of the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cuba.   Their thrilling, often romanticised, tales of racing through the darkness on their Clyde-built steeds, turpentine-soaked cotton blazing in the boilers, safety valves tied down, a loaded revolver on the lap (should the nerve of the Scots engineer fail) - adds that sense of high adventure to their exploits. 

Less well known are the exploits of the Scottish captains lured by the profits to be made and the thrill of the chase.  As the Scots Captain William Watson of Skelmorlie reflected on his ‘retirement’ from the running business: “privation, danger and anxiety - on the whole a rather enjoyable occupation, with something of the zest of yacht-racing - a kind of exciting sport of the higher order.”

Unlike the heroic Confederate commanders, the Scots who served on the runners - perhaps as many as 3,000 - were careful to conceal their involvement on returning home.  They knew they stood first in line to be prosecuted as mercenaries under the British Foreign Enlistment Act (1819).  

Safeguarding their anonymity was the fact that none returned to the Clyde on the steamers they took out to the blockade.  As often as not, their charges lay wrecked in the approaches to Charleston, Wilmington, Mobile or Galveston.  Those not sunk or captured by the time the Confederacy collapsed, were put up for sale at a knock-down prices at the crowded quays of Havana and Nassau.

For similar reasons, piecing together the murky world of the Clyde shipbuilders’ dealings with the network of covert Confederate agents who frequented their yards is a detective story in its own right.  They came looking, not just for runners, but for armed cruisers and giant armoured rams with which the South could smash the blockade and win the war.

For the full story see ‘Clyde Built’ in Publications.