CSS TALLAHASSEE MAKES A DARING EXCAPE...
During her first voyage the Confederate cruiser Tallahassee panics northern ship owners and Atlantic costal residents then...Makes Her Escape. This has to be one of the most thrilling stories of the War for Southern Independence.
During a brilliant 19 day raid, from her home port of Wilmington, North Carolina, and return, the Tallahassee created absolute havoc with Union commerce along the Atlantic seaboard. In this short period, she destroyed 26 vessels and captured 7 others that were bonded or released. The 13 knot, twin-screw, man of war, with a complement of 120 officers and men, had sailed in early August to engage in this mission of destruction.
The cruiser's Master was Captain John Taylor Wood, a grandson of Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States. Captain Wood appears to have been well connected, because he was also a nephew of Jefferson Davis.
Captain Wood had sailed the Tallahassee into Halifax Harbor to take on bunker coal and water. Two Federal war ships, the Nansemond and Huron, had chased her north. They now dropped anchor in the main shipping channel at the mouth of the harbor thus blocking her escape.
Under the terms of Queen Victoria's proclamation affecting Civil War belligerents using British ports, the Tallahassee had 48 hours to complete the bunkering process, and then she had to leave. The two Union ships, aware of these terms, patiently waited for her fully expecting to engage the cruiser and blast her out of the water. However, it was not to be.
Local papers of the day were reporting these events on a daily basis. And the citizenry were excited at the prospects of watching 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 20, 1864, Captain Wood took on a local harbour pilot by the name of Jock Flemming. He was from Eastern Passage, a community and body of water that's comprised of several small islands, and he knew these waters well.
From the diaries of Captain Wood, we know that a mild argument took place. The skipper was concerned about the depth of the water, and the rocks, whereas the pilot was uneasy about the length of the cruiser, as they would have to make many turns in the narrow crooked channel.
Captain Wood said to the pilot, "you just find me the water, and with the twin-screws I have, I can turn her like a ruler."
Somewhat reassured, Flemming replied to John Taylor Wood, "Captain, I'll find you the water where the only thing you'll feel under the keel is eel grass."
And so over the next hour, Wood and Flemming began their harrowing task. The lights were extinguished on the Tallahassee, and Wood sent a crew member ahead in a small boat with a hand light to signal when turns were required.
Flemming guided the Tallahassee carefully through the crooked channel where at high tide there would only be a few feet of water under the keel. Painstakingly they eased past Lawlor's Island, twisting and turning, and then Devil's Island to where the ship would be in open water. At this point, the Captain and the pilot bade their farewells, and Flemming got into his rowboat and started to pull towards shore.
As he began to steer a course south, John Taylor Wood looked back across the water, and in the distance he could see the lights of the two unsuspecting Union ships as they lay in wait for him. And as they say, "the rest is history."
At dawn the next day, the Union vessels were still sitting at the mouth of the harbour long after their elusive enemy had vanished.