The CSS Tallahassee was a twin-screw steamer and cruiser in the Confederate States Navy, purchased in 1864, and used for commerce raiding off the Atlantic coast. Named after the Confederate state capital of Tallahassee in Florida she was built on the River Thames by J & W Dudgeon of Cubitt Town, London for London, Chatham & Dover Railway Co. to a design by Capt. T. E. Symonds, Royal Navy - ostensibly for the Chinese opium trade. Previously known as the blockade runner 'Atalanta', she made several successful blockade runs between Bermuda and Wilmington, N.C. before the Confederate Navy purchased her.
Almost immediately, two Union ships appeared ahead, but Wood steered his vessel between them, steaming so close as to allow two guns to be fired. Fortunately both shots passed harmlessly between his ship's funnels. Having raised his vessel's speed to fifteen knots, three further Union blockaders were passed unobserved but still to be avoided, were more Union ships sailing about fifty miles to seaward. Two more Union ships were shaken off by the 'Tallahassee's' superior speed but when a third and a fourth ship appeared, the latter opened fire when the Confederate vessel failed to stop. Again, all shots fortunately missed their mark and the last of the blockaders had been thwarted. On the first day of his new command at sea, Commander Wood had managed to outwitted or outrun eleven of nearly fifty ships used by the Wilmington blockading Squadron.
For the next three days Wood steamed north along the Gulf Stream stopping several ships but found all flying British colours. On August 11th, some eighty miles off Sandy Hook, the 'Sarah A. Boyce' was captured. Rather than risk bringing attention to his presence by burning his prize, holes were chopped in the hull and the ship scuttled.
Off New York, a pilot boat was fooled by the American flag being flown and the pilot, was amazed to see a Confederate flag fluttering in the breeze as he stepped aboard, where a moment before it had been the Stars and Stripes. Too late, he suddenly realised his lovely pilot boat 'James Funk' would be burned. Wood however, had other ideas. Sending officers and men to the 'James Funk', he used the vessel to overhaul other ships and 'pilot' them back to the 'Tallahassee'.
His ploy worked well. Two brigs, the 'Carrie Estelle' and 'A. Richards', along with the barque 'Bay Estate' were soon his captives. Later, the schooner 'Carroll' was bonded for $10,000 and given the task of landing his growing numbers of prisoners safely on shore. August 12th was another productive day in which six prizes taken including, the 989 ton 'Adriatic', carrying German immigrants. They were transferred to 'Suilote', a bark captured earlier and bonded along with the 222 ton 'Robert E. Packer' on their way to Richmond loaded with timber. Prisoners from 'Atlantic', 'Spokane' and the brig 'Billow' were subsequently transferred to the 'Suilote'. With the exception of the 'Billow' these vessels were burned. Wood intended to scuttle the 'Billow' but she stayed afloat and was recovered, still afloat some hours later by the USS Grand Gulf.
Wood now set sail for New England, and on August 13th, the 789 ton 'Glenarvon' fell foul of the 'Tallahassee'. Loaded with a load of iron for New York, all usable provisions and her crew were taken aboard before she too was scuttled.
A relief schooner 'Lamont Du Pont' from Wilmington laden with coal, ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean; and the next day with his ship eating up coal at an alarming rate, Wood was relieved to capture the 547 ton 'James Littlefield', full of quality anthracite. Unfortunately, dense fog and stormy seas prevented him transferring this coal and the 'Tallahasse's' latest capture had to be scuttled.
August 15th found Wood picking up a further six small schooners ranging from 39 to 148 tons, using one, the 'Sarah B. Harris' to again convey prisoners to shore.The next day, another four schooners and the 283 ton bark 'P.C. Alexander' fell victim to Wood’s ship. All were burned. On August 17th four more Yankee schooners and the 286 ton 'Neva' were taken. The 'Neva' was bonded for $17,500 and loaded with prisoners. Two small fishing schooners 'Diadem' and 'D.Ellis' were found to be neutral and released.
The CSS Tallahassee was now down to less than forty tons of coal and her Captain was forced to sail his vessel into Halifax Harbour on August 18th to take on bunker fuel and supplies. Neutrality laws however, limited her stay in Halifax to twenty four hours; but Commander Wood obtained an extension for an extra twelve hours to fix a broken mast. Curiously, outwith the terms of Canada’s neutrality laws, she was only allowed to load enough coal to take her to the nearest Confederate port.
This posed Wood with a problem. Two Federal war ships, the USS Nansemond and USS Huron
, had pursued him north and were believed to be waiting for the 'Tallahassee' outside the harbour entrance. Local newspapers of the day were reporting on these ships on a daily basis and the residents of Halifax were becoming excited at the prospect of seeing a naval battle on their own doorstep. Many of them either walked or rode their horses out to a good vantage point to witness what they fully expected would be the end of the 'Tallahassee'.
Captain Wood agonized over the route he should take to attempt an escape. Providence now began to play a part. After looking at marine charts, he made a bold decision to make his getaway through the seldom used eastern passage on the far side of McNab's Island. Late at night on August 20th 1864, Captain Wood took on a local harbour pilot by the name of John 'Jock' Flemming. He was from Eastern Passage, a community and body of water that's comprised of several small islands; and knew these waters well.
From the diaries of Commander Wood, we know that prolonged disagreement on the route took place. The captain of the Confederate ship was concerned about the depth of the water rocks, whereas the pilot was uneasy about the length of the cruiser, as they would have to make many sharp turns in the narrow crooked channel. Wood is reported to have told the pilot, "You just find me the water and with our twin-screws I'll turn her like a ruler." Flemming, reassured by this replied. "Captain, I'll find you the water where the only thing you'll feel under the keel is eel grass."
The CSS Tallahassee succeeded in negotiating the passage out of the harbour only to discover no Northern warships were in fact waiting. Her departure however was well timed. The Union gunboat USS Pontoosuc did arrive and took up station at the harbour entrance several hours after the Confederate cruiser departed. Being unable to procure enough coal to stay at sea for any length of time, Wood was forced to return to Wilmington where he arrived safely on August 26th 1864.
In an effort to disguise her origins, the 'Tallahassee' was again renamed, this time as the CSS Olustee under a new commander, Lt. W.H. Ward. The 'Olustee' once more evaded the blockade but suffered some damage from Union ships in the process. Off the Delaware coast she captured and sank six merchant vessels before returning to Wilmington for more coal. Arriving on November 6th 1864, she avoided attempts by the USS Sassacus and four other Union men of war to capture her, finally reaching port the following morning.
Link to model of the CSS Tallahassee