Abraham Lincoln had announced a blockade of the vast Southern coastline on April 19, 1861, but lack of ships and crews kept the promise from being fulfilled until the first week of July.
A group of observers known as the “JOLOs” was organized to keep careful watch for Union blockaders from their cupola on the top of the Hendley Building at 20th Street and The Strand.
The meaning of the initials “JOLO” is uncertain, but it likely is that the last two letters stand for “lookouts,” as that is the function they performed. As the weeks stretched into months and no Union blockaders appeared, the lookouts began to wonder if the North really was serious about blockading the port of Galveston.
The June 20 entry in the JOLO logbook, which is preserved in the Rosenberg Library, states: “Lincoln declines presenting himself, why!! We know not,” and concludes that the president “must have his hands full elsewhere.”
For weeks, the most dramatic events recorded by the JOLOs on The Strand were the donation of pies and the damage done to the telescope by drunken night guards.
The light-hearted tone of the entries in the JOLO log changed abruptly on the afternoon of July 2, 1861. At 1:10 p.m., the log recorded the ominous appearance of the Union steamer USS South Carolina and the beginning of the blockade of Galveston that would continue for almost four years.
As newspaperman Ben Stuart later recorded, the South Carolina’s arrival “threw the people of the city into a temporary state of violent convulsions. There followed a wild rushing to and from the tops of buildings and many upper story windows were filled with anxious gazers discussing the terrible consequences they expected soon to follow.”
It is ironic the ship that caused this panic, the first Union ship to initiate the blockade at Galveston, carried the name of a state that had joined Texas in seceding.
The USS South Carolina started life as the civilian steamship South Carolina. Built in Boston in 1860, the 1,165-ton iron screw steamship was purchased by the U.S. Navy in May 1861 for Civil War service.
She was commissioned later that month and assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron. While serving along the Texas coast during the next few months, she captured or destroyed more than a dozen would-be blockade runners, mainly sailing vessels.
In command of the South Carolina was Capt. James Alden. From Portland, Maine, Alden was a descendant of Mayflower pilgrim John Alden.
An experienced seaman, Alden had been appointed a midshipman in 1828 and had seen action in the 33 years that followed from the Fiji Islands to the coast of Mexico. He arrived in Galveston 150 years ago today determined to enforce the blockade to the best of his ability. But it was far from an easy task.
The very first ship Alden encountered on the day following his arrival managed to evade his grasp and slip into Galveston Bay under cover of a rain squall. But in the next week, the South Carolina succeeded in capturing or destroying 11 ships. Some of the captured ships were added to the blockading force.
One of the first boats to visit the South Carolina was the schooner Royal Yacht, which carried Capt. Thomas Chubb and Col. J.S. Sydnor as representatives of the Confederate forces in the Galveston area.
Alden assured Chubb and Sydnor that he hoped to have friendly relations with the residents of Galveston, many of whom he hoped supported the Union.
When Chubb informed Alden that his assumption was erroneous and asserted there were no Union men in Galveston at all, Alden expressed surprise. “Great God!” he said. “Is it possible that you have really none among you who are still loyal to the government of our fathers?”
After the initial shock of the South Carolina’s arrival wore off, a citizen’s committee went out to visit with Alden and was received very courteously by the Union commander.
The small delegation of Galvestonians reported that the captain had no orders to invade or bombard the city. His instructions were to blockade the entrance to Galveston Bay, but the residents relaxed after being assured that there was no immediate threat to their homes and property.
During the course of the four years that were to follow, many ships would test the blockade at Galveston.
Although statistics suggest most of these attempts were successful, some ended in expensive disasters as the ships ran aground or were captured.
This all-or-nothing risk factor made the wartime trade in and out of Galveston very risky and very lucrative.
As other Confederate ports were captured, Galveston gained increasing importance as a lifeline between the Confederacy and the outside world. Eventually, at the end of the war in June 1865, Galveston would be the last major Confederate port anywhere.
Vast fortunes were made running the blockade in and out of Galveston, and it was said that for a long period after the war many prominent families in Galveston and Houston could trace the core of their wealth to successful blockade running ventures.
Edward T. Cotham Jr. is the author of four books on the Civil War, including “Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston.”