Photo by O.M. Wildey
Photo by O.M. Wildey
Born in Skaneateles, Ben Porter was a young man whose heroism in the service of the Union was proved many times during the Civil War before his death on the field of battle. Ben’s brother Stanley, a Corporal in the army, also gave his life for the Union cause.
And then there was their eldest brother, Seth Grosvenor “Grove” Porter, whose service for the Confederate cause underscored the fact that the Civil War divided not just a nation, but families as well.
Ben, Stanley and Grove Porter were sons of James Gurdon Porter (1808-1885) of Skaneateles and Lockport, N.Y., and Sarah Grosvenor (1811-1882), daughter of Capt. George H. Grosvenor of Natchitoches (“Naka-dish”), Louisiana. In 1829, James and Sarah were married by the Rev. Cyrus Mason, in New York City. From the first, they had family and sympathies both in the North and South.
For a time, the couple lived in Skaneateles, where their eldest daughter, Laura, was born in 1833. In 1854, Laura Porter married Cornelius van Schaak Roosevelt, Jr., of New York City. One of her husband’s brothers was Theodore Roosevelt Sr., who in 1853 had married Martha “Mittie” Bulloch of Roswell, Georgia.
Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt had a half-brother, James Dunwoody Bulloch, a Georgia-born sea captain whose ships traveled a circuit between New York City and New Orleans. When in port, he made his home in New York with his wife, the former Harriott Cross, and was a part of the large Roosevelt family circle, which included Laura Porter Roosevelt.
In 1856, Bulloch’s path would converge with that of Grove Porter, Laura’s brother. Porter was born in 1835, in New Orleans. In 1854, at the age of 19, he went to sea, sailing out of New York City, and served as a midshipman on the Baltic, the Pacific, and the Celestial.
In 1856, Porter shipped as a mate on the S.S. Cahawba, a side-wheel steamer. Once a month, the Cahawba carried mail, cargo and passengers from New York City to Havana and New Orleans, and then back to New York, a circuit of about 23 days. The Cahawba’s captain was James Bulloch, and for the next two years, James and Grove would be shipmates.
In January of 1859, Grove Porter became the Master of his own ship, the W.H. Webb, sailing out of New Orleans. James Bulloch, in 1860, was given command of the newly built S.S. Bienville, whose owners were in New York City.
The lives of the two men, linked by ties of family, occupation and friendship, might have sailed smoothly along, but history intervened.
The state of South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 24, 1860. Bulloch and the Bienville left New York City on a scheduled voyage to Havana on January 2, 1861. On February 8th, the Confederacy was founded. When Bulloch and the Bienville arrived in New Orleans, the port was literally in a foreign country, the Confederate States of America.
Upon returning to New York City, the Bienville was seized for having “improper” customs declarations from New Orleans, i.e., the declarations were not Federal documents and came from a nation the Union did not recognize.
The Bienville was eventually released from New York, but on its next trip was detained in New Orleans, where local authorities wanted to buy the ship for the Confederacy. However, as the ship was privately owned, more highly placed officials decided they could not force Bulloch to hand it over.
In New Orleans, on April 13th, Bulloch heard the news of the Confederate forces firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor the previous day. The Civil War had begun. Bulloch immediately wrote a letter to Judah P. Benjamin, the new Attorney General of the Confederacy, offering his services. However, a man of honor, he first had to return the Bienville to its owners in New York City, and he instructed Benjamin to reply via the shipping company there.
On April 19, 1861, while Bulloch was en route to New York, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of the 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline. Bulloch delivered the Bienville to its owners on April 22nd, and at the shipping company found a reply to his letter, saying “Come at once to Montgomery.” (Montgomery, Alabama, was the Confederacy’s capital from February through May of 1861.)
Bulloch destroyed the letter, and, acting in haste but with as much discretion as he could muster, placed his property in his wife’s name, entrusted his family to the Roosevelts, and set out to slip through the border of the two warring nations: From New York City, he caught a train to Philadelphia, then a train to Pittsburgh, where he boarded a steamboat to Louisville, where he caught the next train to Nashville. He spent the night there, then took a train to Montgomery, where he met with the Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory. The Confederacy needed a navy, and Liverpool, England, was the place to build it. Mallory said, “I want you to go to Europe. When can you start?”
Bulloch took the next train to Louisville, changed for Detroit, crossed the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario, took a train to Montreal, and made his way by ship to Liverpool, England.
Grove Porter joined Bulloch in Liverpool—probably traveling by an easier route such as New Orleans to Havana to Bermuda to Liverpool—to work with him on buying and outfitting ships.
Their efforts were necessary because the Confederacy, the South, was woefully ill-equipped for warfare and had little manufacturing capacity to produce what it needed. In addition to ships, other supplies would have to come from England, the South’s major trading partner. England wanted the South’s cotton for its textile mills; the British Navy needed resin, pitch and turpentine from the pine forests of North Carolina. The South wanted guns, gunpowder and fabric for its uniforms.
But hampering the exchange of goods was the Union blockade of Southern ports. The solution was two-fold.
In Liverpool, in the summer of 1861, Bulloch commissioned the building of commerce raiders to be used in the Atlantic to draw U.S. Navy ships away from the blockade.
Between 1862 and 1864, the CSS Florida, commanded by John Newland Maffitt, captured and burned 37 merchant ships that were headed to or from the Union, always taking their crews and passengers safely to neutral ports. (Reading of Maffitt’s exploits, some in Skaneateles may have recalled his visit here in the 1850s and his host, Erastus Mills Beach of Charleston, S.C., whose summer home at the top of Leitch Avenue still stands.) Between 1862 and 1864, the CSS Alabama was even more successful, burning 65 Union merchant ships.
The other part of the solution was to run the blockade with ships designed for the task. The ideal blockade runner had a shallow draft to clear the sand bars of coastal waters. It was built long and narrow for speed. To make it more difficult for blockaders to see, a blockade runner had a low profile, was painted a dull gray, and burned hard coal, which produced less smoke. On a moonless night, such ships were virtually invisible. They were the cigarette boats of the 19th century.
But even on the best of nights, speed, skill and stealth were the blockade runners’ only weapons. In his book Never Caught, “Captain Roberts” a.k.a. Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden, wrote:
“It must be borne in mind that the excitement of fighting, which some men (inexplicable, I confess, to me) really love, did not exist. One was always either running away, or being deliberately pitched into by the broadsides of the American cruisers, the slightest resistance to which would have constituted piracy.”
For blockade runners, the island port of St. George, Bermuda, was a major hub and coaling station (the other being Nassau, in the Bahamas). Bermuda was British, and thus neutral territory. It was also farther than Nassau from the Union naval base at Key West, Florida, and thus there were fewer blockading ships to contend with.
Shortly after the Alabama was launched, Bulloch sent Grove Porter to St. George as an Ordnance Bureau official and, when called upon, as captain of Bureau ships running the blockade between St. George and Wilmington, North Carolina.
Wilmington was the ideal port. The river’s entrance was shielded by a long cape, and the guns of Fort Fisher kept the Union blockaders, the prudent ones at any rate, far from shore and out of the cannons’ range.
But the Confederate Ordnance Bureau was not the only group running the blockade. If fact, anyone could and did buy and build ships for that purpose: cotton sellers in the Confederacy, cotton buyers in England, the Confederate Navy, Southern states and cities, and investors from anywhere, even from the North. Yes, the North. Because if anything was more motivating than patriotism, it was money. And there were enormous amounts of money to be made. In Hamilton Cochran’s Blockade Runners of the Confederacy (1958), he notes:
“Cotton, which could be bought anywhere in the South for 6 cents a pound, brought from 56 cents to 66 cents a pound [when] laid down in England… A steamer with an average capacity of 800 bales often earned $420,000 on a successful round trip. It was a common saying among the blockade-running fraternity that a ship owner could shrug off the loss of his vessel after two safe round-trips through the blockade.”
While the Ordnance Bureau brought only war supplies — cannon, shot, shell, lead and saltpeter — from England, other blockade runners were free to bring in whatever would reap the greatest profit. In Rogues & Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War (2003), Catherine Lynch Deichmann notes:
“The cargo manifest of the Minho, which departed Bermuda in September 1862, illustrates the amount of space private shippers reserved for non-essential goods. Along with gunpowder and cases of ‘hardware’ and ‘merchandise,’ the Minho carried whiskey, candles, thread, tea, stationery, sugar, sardines, mustard, starch, cigars, brandy and almost 1,000 cases of wine.”
Also in Blockade Runners of the Confederacy, Cochran writes:
“On one occasion a captain arrived in Wilmington with his cabin crammed with boxes of shoe thread. One Southern speculator promptly bought up the entire lot, paying $3.00 a pound. The captain cleared $8,000 in a matter of minutes.”
The military of the Confederacy clearly could not count on the selfless patriotism of private shippers. The Ordnance Bureau, which Bulloch and Porter served, bought its own ships in Liverpool and had more built.
Capt. Porter’s activities did not go unnoticed by Union officials. In March of 1863, the U.S. Consul in St. George, Charles Maxwell Allen, wrote to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, “The steamer Merrimac has been thoroughly overhauled, her masts taken out, except the foremast, bottom cleaned and hull and upper works painted lead color. She is in charge of a person by the name of Porter said to belong to New York and formerly an officer in the U.S. Navy… report says he is the person who took the Alabama from Liverpool to Fayal.”
Blockade runners rarely carried passengers; they took up space that could be used for more lucrative cargo. But on one occasion, Capt. Porter had a very special passenger aboard the Phantom.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow of Washington, D.C., was a passionate secessionist and something of a charmer. She beguiled senior Union officers and officials, encouraged pillow talk, and eventually smuggled a message to Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard which led to his victory at the First Battle of Bull Run. When her role as a spy was discovered, she was imprisoned. Too influential to be executed, Greenhow was released from Federal custody with her daughter on May 31, 1862, on the condition they leave the Union and stay in the Confederacy. In Richmond, Greenhow was welcomed by President Jefferson Davis, who later enlisted her as a courier and an informal ambassador to Europe. All she had to do was get to Europe, which meant running the blockade.
On August 4, 1863, Greenhow wrote to President Davis from Wilmington:
“In a few hours I shall be aboard the Phantom, the tide now being favorable. Tonight Captain Porter intends to make the attempt to get out. The Yankees are reported as being unusually vigilant, a double line of blockaders bars the way.”
In her diary, Greenhow wrote of her trip through the blockade:
“At twelve o’clock in the morning of 5th August , I left Wilmington to go on board the Phantom, one of the vessels of the Confederate States successfully engaged in running the blockade between this port and the island of Bermuda. Capt. Porter of the Phantom and Mr. [James M.] Seixas, our polite and gentlemanly [Ordnance Bureau] agent at Wilmington, escorted us aboard. Soon after, we dropped down the river to be in readiness for the tide and the friendly screen of night to get over the bar and through the blockading squadron out at sea, when we should consider ourselves fairly launched upon our voyage.
“During the day, all was preparation in the little vessel. She had been but recently transferred to the Confederate service, having been built and owned by one of our merchant marines, Mr. [George Alfred] Trenholm of Charleston, Capt. Porter being in command for the first time. I was his only passenger, including my little girl. The Captain took me to my stateroom where everything good taste could suggest was provided for my comfort…
“The Elizabeth and Hebe lay near, being in the same perilous venture. The port officers came on board and went through the usual ceremonies of mustering the crew and fumigating the ship in order to be certain that no one was concealed on board who was not authorized to be here. This done, all the officers departed. We were in eager expectation of the momentous moment… The Elizabeth and Hebe steamed out ahead of us… Capt. Porter said, in rather a piteous voice, ‘There they go ahead of me.’ To which I replied ‘O, never mind, Wait ‘til full tide is in.’ He sat with his watch in his hand watching the moments, which seemed to move on leaden wings. At last the time was pointed 9 o’clock, and the order to swing the ship was given…
“Under a full head of steam, we got under weigh. We passed the Elizabeth and the Hebe, who had each got aground, but our anxiety was too great on our own account to bestow much thought upon our friends.
“At this moment the Yankees threw up rockets, which revealed to us the fact that we were in the midst of five of her ‘blockaders,’ but right gallantly we went through them at the rate of sixteen knots. The nearest three of them followed in pursuit, which we distanced, and finally lost sight of them…
“Capt. Porter had a mattress spread on deck, upon which I lay by turn watching the moon, which had risen and was shining gloriously high in the Heavens, and pitying myself as the victim of that most unfortunate infirmity of seasickness…
“I was arisen about daylight by the ship being again put under a full head of steam and her course changed. Capt. Porter shortly after came to tell me that we were again chased by a Yankee cruiser… We soon, however, left our dangerous neighbors far out of sight. But a sharp lookout was kept all the time by Capt. Porter, for eternal vigilance is the price of freedom in a blockade runner…
“Our cargo was very valuable, being some flour, medicine and fifty bales of cotton, besides turpentine. The return cargo would pay for the ship, which has admirable qualities for the trade. She is steel-clad, short, point narrow like a needle, of light draft and great speed, and Capt. Porter proud of her as if she were his lady love.
“On Saturday evening, the fourth day out, we hoped to reach the Island, but alas, a cruiser fell on our track and we were again forced to change our course and so ran four hours out of our course to get rid of her. This brought us [to the port] in the night, and as the harbor is difficult, we did not venture in without a pilot… At daylight, the pilot got aboard and at 6 o’clock, much to my joy, we anchored in the harbor of St. George… Here the port officer came on board and was introduced to me and kindly offered the civilities of the place. Capt. Porter went ashore to secure accommodations for me at Mrs. Haywood’s, a sort of lodging house or hotel, and the only one which the place afforded.”
Here she parted from Porter, but her story merits a conclusion: In London, she wrote a memoir, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. It sold well and she turned $2,000 of the profits into gold for the Confederacy. She set out for Wilmington aboard the Condor, a British blockade runner. On September 30, 1864, pursued by the USS Niphon, the Condor ran aground at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Fearing capture, Greenhow insisted upon going ashore by rowboat, despite heavy seas. The boat capsized; Greenhow, weighed down by the gold coins sewn into her clothing and hung in a bag around her neck, sank and drowned.
One of Porter’s trips in particular underscored the nature of the Civil War. On April 13, 1863, Capt. Porter ran the blockade into Wilmington with 1,100 barrels of gunpowder and an 8-inch Blakely rifled cannon for the defense of Fort Fisher. On January 15, 1865, his youngest brother, Lt. Ben Porter, U.S.N., died in the Union assault on Fort Fisher.
The fall of Fort Fisher and the loss of the Confederacy’s last open port, Wilmington, was the death knell for the Confederacy and for blockade running.
Following the end of Civil War hostilities in 1865, there were many in the North, including President Andrew Johnson, who wanted civil and military officials of the Confederacy to stand trial for treason. Even after a general amnesty was declared, it excluded Confederate civilians or military officers who served outside the Confederacy, who were thought to be “the most treasonous.”
So, discretion being the better part of valor, Capt. Porter went to England, and in 1865 was recognized as a Master in the Merchant Service by the Privy Council of Trade.
James Bulloch remained in Liverpool, and eventually became a British citizen. He was close to the Roosevelt family all his life, and was the favorite uncle of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., with whom he discussed naval history and tactics during family visits to England and through the mail. Bulloch instilled in young Teddy Roosevelt a nation’s need for a strong navy, lessons he carried into the Presidency in 1901.
In Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1916), the former President wrote of his Bulloch uncles:
“My mother’s two brothers, James Dunwoodie Bulloch and Irvine Bulloch, came to visit us shortly after the close of the war. Both came under assumed names, as they were among the Confederates who were at that time exempted from the amnesty. ‘Uncle Jimmy’ Bulloch was a dear old retired sea-captain, utterly unable to ‘get on’ in the worldly sense of that phrase, as valiant and simple and upright a soul as ever lived.”
In 1866, Grove Porter married Annette Cross, the sister of James Bulloch’s wife, Harriott. They had a son, Grosvenor A. Porter, born in Maryland, but Annette died in 1868 and was buried in a cemetery near New York.
In January of 1893, an article in the New York Times described Porter’s post-war life:
“On the close of the struggle Capt. Porter went to England, and for a number of years ran English steamers under English certificates. He finally worked back to America, and entered the service of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. While with the Pacific Mail he commanded alternately for a number of years the Colon and the Acapulco. He ran at various times nearly all the steamers of the Pacific Mail doing service on the Atlantic side.”
From other sources we know that, in 1871, he captained the Morro Castle sailing from New York to Nassau and Havana. In 1875, he was commanding the Andes of the Atlas Line, running between New York and South America.
In August of 1875, Porter visited Skaneateles. The Skaneateles Democrat noted:
“Capt. S.G. Porter, of New York city, has been spending a few days in town during the past week. Captain Porter is a son of James G. Porter, esq., a former resident of this place. A quarter of a century ago, he was known among us as Grove Porter, but he has been absent from Skaneateles many years. He commands the steamship Andes, of the South American line from New York, and ranks among first-class ocean commanders. We are happy to welcome him to his boyhood’s home.”
In 1876 and 1877, Porter captained the Republic for the White Star Line, running between Liverpool and New York. When in port, he lived with his sister, Laura Porter Roosevelt and her husband, Cornelius V.S. Roosevelt Jr. in New York. The Social Register listed them in New York City during the winter, and at Roosevelt’s Maplewood, N.J., estate, “The Hickories,” during the summer.
Late in life, Sarah Grosvenor Porter, the mother of Laura and Seth Grosvenor, also lived at the Roosevelt home in New York City, “where all that wealth and affection could furnish or suggest.” She had long been an invalid, and her death on April 2, 1882, was mourned but not unexpected. Her remains were taken by train to Skaneateles where the funeral would be held; her husband, James Gurdon Porter, came from Lockport to met the train in Syracuse.
Marie Mensing, the youngest Porter daughter, who had married Adolf Mensing, a German naval officer, was also at the Roosevelt home in New York, with her children. Five days after Sarah’s death, on April 7th, Marie’s 5-year-old daughter Marie Elizabeth Niobe Mensing died. Her name would be added to Sarah Porter’s gravestone. Six days later, on April 13th, Marie’s 1-year-old son, Frederic Franz Adolf Mensing, died, of scarlet fever. He was buried next his grandmother and sister, with his own gravestone. The Lockport Daily Journal noted, “These two deaths, together with that of Mrs. James G. Porter, also very recent, causes grief to a very large circle of devoted relatives and friends.”
That same month, the remains of Annette Cross Porter, Grove Porter’s wife, were moved from a cemetery near New York City to the Porter family plot in Lakeview Cemetery, a small piece of ground that was filling rapidly with stories of love and loss.
But life went on. That summer, Grove Porter was amusing himself with sailing canoes in the waters off Oyster Bay. At the end of one race, sailing Roosevelt Schuyler’s Lilly, he misjudged the wind direction and “came to all standing, and speedily found himself astride his canoe, which lay upset beneath him.”
On the second day of 1885, James Gurdon Porter died, having endured the loss of his wife, six children and two grandchildren.
In 1887, Grove Porter was a member of the Corinthian Yacht Club and had a racing cutter, the Circe, brought over from England. In 1892, he was again sailing the Circe, recently refreshed after a two-year rest, with new decks, larger spars and larger sails from the boat yard of Henry Piepgrass.
The 1893 New York Times article gives us a fuller image of Porter:
“For the information of those who believe Grosvenor Porter to be dead, it can be said that he is not only living, but living in luxury that becomes a blockade runner who made seventeen successful round trips. In personal appearance Capt. Porter is slightly below the medium in height, with a well-knit figure that seems to be made up of a bundle of nerves. He has a finely-chiseled face, set off by a deep bronze which could only be acquired by long years spent at sea. When it is known that Porter was only twenty-two years of age at the time he commanded the Phantom, in 1864, it is seen that he to-day is not over fifty years old.
“Although Capt. Porter has spent at least thirty years of his life in the hardest kind of sea service, he strikes one more as a man who has lived mostly among the clubs… Capt. Porter has given up going to sea, and is now enjoying life at his ease. He occasionally amuses himself in yachting. He is in every respect a man still in the prime of life, and doubtless would be one of the first to seek hazardous employment again if there was any surety of finding it without too much hunting.”
In 1900, Grove’s sister Laura died; they had lived together for 25 years. Her death prompted the dissolution of her late husband’s estate and real estate holdings, which included the family’s home at 13 E. 48th Street.
In 1901, Porter received a $1,000 annuity from the estate of his sister’s husband, and in December, he sailed to Bremen, Germany. In October of 1910, Seth Grosvenor Porter died in Stuttgart, at the age of 76, having survived a war, his parents and all but one of his siblings.
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Never Caught: Personal Adventures Connected with Twelve Successful Trips in Blockade-Running During the American Civil War, 1863-64 (1867) by “Captain Roberts” (Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden)
The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner (1877) by John Wilkinson
“Death of Mrs. James G. Porter,” Lockport Daily Journal, April 3, 1882
The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped (1883) by James D. Bulloch
Echoes from Niagara: Historical, Political, Personal (1890) by Mrs. Richard Crowley
“Under the Stars and Bars: Four English Officers Who Ran Blockades: Capt. Grosvenor Porter, Himself a Famous Blockade Runner, Contributes a Chapter to History,” New York Times, January 8, 1893
Running the Blockade: A Personal Narrative of Adventures, Risks and Escapes during the American Civil War (1896) by Thomas E. Taylor
Blockade Runners of the Confederacy (1958) by Hamilton Cochran
Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (1988) by Stephen R. Wise
Rose O’Neale Greenhow and the Blockade Runners (1995) by George Johnson Jr.
Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear: Running the Civil War Blockade (1998) by Dawson Carr
Rogues & Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War (2003) by Catherine Lynch Deichmann
Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy (2005) by Ann Blackman
Dispatches from Bermuda: The Civil War Letters of Charles Maxwell Allen, United States Consul at Bermuda, 1861-1888 (2008), edited by Glen N. Wiche
James D. Bulloch: Secret Agent and Mastermind of the Confederate Navy (2012) by Walter E. Wilson and Gary L. McKay
“Rebel Rose” O’Neale Greenhow’s European Diary & Address Book, edited by John W. O’Neal II and Beverly Ann Crowe (www.onealwebsite.com/rebelrose/rosediary/roseeuropediary.pdf)
My thanks to W.J. Krug for the tour of Fort Fisher and all things Wilmington.
Notes on the Porters
Seth Grosvenor Porter’s obituary noted that he was survived by one son, Grosvenor Arthur Porter, born in Frederick county, Maryland, in August of 1867. His mother died just one year later; his father would have been at sea during his childhood. At the age of 10, “Grove” Porter was placed in St. Paul’s Military School in Garden City, Long Island. However, it is said he “caught the cowboy fever” as a result of the tales of adventures of Theodore Roosevelt, his uncle, and ran away to Cheyenne, Wyoming, riding the range for six years.
Later, Porter was appointed deputy marshal, and then a deputy sheriff in Laramie County, where he served for four years. He was a member of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. In the early 1900s, he served as a U.S. Marshal in Indian Territory, before it became the state of Oklahoma. Afterwards he was Chief of Police in the Panama Canal Zone, and served with the U.S. Secret Service.
Theodore Roosevelt and Grove Porter corresponded, and Roosevelt appointed Porter to government positions when he was President, but I can find no record of Grove Porter ever having spent time with his father.
* * *
In 1873, Laura Porter Roosevelt donated a stained-glass window to St. James’ Episcopal Church, Skaneateles, in memory of six deceased siblings. The monograms across the bottom memorialized:
The last of the Porter children, Marie Mensing, died in Berlin in 1924.