Agnes E. Fry

The ‘Agnes E. Fry’ was a US Confederate blockade runner built by the shipyard of Caird & Company in Greenock on the lower River Clyde in Scotland. She launched on 26th March 1864 under the name of ‘Fox’. Built as a paddle steamer, she had an iron hull and was powered by two oscillating cylinder steam engines. The ship was placed under the command of Joseph Fry who decided to rename it after his wife. Fry shared ownership of the vessel with the firm of Crenshaw Brothers who had offices in Glasgow, Liverpool and Bermuda and enjoyed lucrative contracts with the Government.

By October of 1864 the ‘Agnes E. Fry’ had made three unsuccessful attempts to beat the blockade into Wilmington harbour and only the skill of her captain prevented her being captured or sunk by the enemy forces. On 7th November however and despite many of her crew being struck by yellow fever, the Fry finally made it safely into Wilmington after making several runs through the tretcherous sandbanks. Joseph Fry in a letter to his partners later declared he captained the ‘finest of all boats named after the finest of all women’.

Despite many of his crew being hospitalized ashore, Fry took his namesake vessel back to Bermuda only a week after her arrival in North Carolina and made a second successful run during the night of 29/30 November with much needed supplies. His commission from this trip enabled him pay-off his share of the ship when he returned to Bermuda some ten days later.

The ‘Agnes E. Fry’ would make one further attempt to reach Wilmington but this time she encountered heavier opposition and was in danger of being captured. Illness had forced Joseph Fry to engage a new captain for this run, a fellow midshipman from his early career in the US Navy. On this her last and fateful voyage in February 1865, fearing the vessel was about to be trapped and boarded, the ‘Agnes E Fry’ was deliberately grounded and sunk in the vicinity of Oak Island on the Cape Fear River.

(Historical Note: The ship's wreckage was found by sonar on 27th February 2016 – some fifty one years later! Three other blockade runners are known to have sunk in this area  but the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology in researching the Fort Fisher campaign, during which Union forces launched an assault on one of the Confederacy's last trade routes are acutely aware that throughout the war, fast steam ships frequently hazarded the blockade of Wilmington taking cotton and other goods to the outside world and bring vital arms and other supplies back to the south.
Image courtesy: NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources/Office of State Archaeology.

The North Carolina team used sonar to find the 225-foot-long, iron-hulled wreck lying some twenty seven miles from Wilmington; and according to Billy Ray Morris, Director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch, it's notably well preserved and 'among the best we've ever had.' At least three ships that were known to have been sunk in this area, but Morris and his team believes this ship is most likely the redoubtable, 'Agnes E. Fry'.)

Dr Peter McCleish, Maritime Historian, Greenwich, 290 Foundation Member.