More info about "The Cotton Run"



The Cotton Run


Daniel Wyatt



a Mushroom eBooks sampler

Copyright © 2009, Daniel Wyatt

Daniel Wyatt has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the Author of this work.

First published in United Kingdom in 2009 by Mushroom eBooks.

This Edition published in 2009 by Mushroom eBooks,
an imprint of Mushroom Publishing,
Bath, BA1 4EB, United Kingdom

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

ISBN: 9781843198024 (PDF complete edition)


This is a sampler of The Cotton Run by Daniel Wyatt. If you enjoy reading these sample chapters and would like to read the rest, you can buy the complete Mushroom eBook edition from the usual bookshops online, or find more details at




Chapter one
Chapter two
Chapter three
Chapter four
Chapter five
Chapter six
Chapter seven
Chapter eight
Chapter nine
Chapter ten
Chapter eleven
Chapter twelve
Chapter thirteen
Chapter fourteen
Chapter fifteen
Chapter sixteen
Chapter seventeen
Chapter eighteen
Chapter nineteen
Chapter twenty
Chapter twenty-one
Chapter twenty-two
Chapter twenty-three
Chapter twenty-four
Chapter twenty-five
Chapter twenty-six
Chapter twenty-seven
Chapter twenty-eight
Chapter twenty-nine
Chapter thirty
Chapter thirty-one
Chapter thirty-two
Chapter thirty-three
Chapter thirty-four
Chapter thirty-five
About the author
Books by Daniel Wyatt




The American Civil War was not only a conflict that pitted brother against brother, state against state, American against American, Union against Confederate, Johnny Reb against Billy Yank. It wasn't only a struggle in support of preserving slavery, liberty, or the Union, although these motives were significant and honorable. The American Civil War was, for the most part, a fight for business interests and new markets. History unfailingly shows that there's money to be made in war, and the American Civil War was no exception.

The North had the advantage, the means to wage war. They had more people, more railroad tracks, more factories, more steel, and a much stronger economy. For example, the Gross National Product of the entire Confederacy was equal to less than one-quarter of New York State. The Confederacy, however, did have cotton, the commodity that had blessed the Southern states with rich bountiful crops for several decades. With King Cotton, the South thought it could rule the world. Before the hostilities of 1861-1865, the South's top customers were the Northern states, France, and England, the latter having one in four of its population employed in the textile industry. Lacking the means and power to produce enough manufactured products itself, the Confederacy depended on imports to anchor its economy. Shipping was crucial. The exchange of cotton for outside goods was the lifeblood of the South.

Within two days of the Confederates' firing on Fort Sumter to initiate the war, President Abraham Lincoln announced a naval blockade on the Confederate coastline with the intention of starving the fledgling nation into submission. The Southerners reacted the only way they could. With no industrial base and no merchant fleet of its own to speak of, the Confederacy relied heavily on British manpower and shipping interests. Immediately, the art of blockade-running sprang up, ushering in an infamous era of adventure, danger, greed, and deceit. From a handful of Southern ports, courageous sea skippers and their crews (a sprinkling of British and Rebel officers and sailors) ran the blockade, their ships stacked high with bales of cotton. They set sail for neutral ports to transfer their cargoes and return with military and domestic goods, reaping a hefty profit along the way.

The spring of 1863 saw four of the original Confederate ports still open: Galveston, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; Charleston, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina. The most strategic of these ports was Wilmington, for it was the closest by rail to the Confederate capital of Richmond and the crucial fighting in Virginia. The chief depot for Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the Wilmington docks carried the hopes of the Confederacy. From there, the neutral cargo-transfer destinations of the Bahamas and Bermuda were only three days away. These ports were the main sources of the South's communication with the outside world.

"Without firing a shot, without unsheathing a blade, we can bring the whole world to its knees before us. With equanimity, if needs be, the South could refrain for a year, or two years or more, from cultivating a basketful of cotton. But what would be the result? There can be no doubt. Old England would tumble from her proud industrial perch, the whole of civilization toppling with her, joining in her ruin. No sir, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dare make war on it. Cotton is King."

Senator James H. Hammond of South Carolina, March 4, 1858



Chapter one

Cape Fear, North Carolina - April 1863

The captain slid his hand through his reddish-blonde hair and sniffed, his tall, hard-muscled body absorbing the breeze. Rain was on the way. No doubt about that. He could smell it in the damp, heavy air. He turned west, where his weathered clean-shaven skin caught the last of the setting Carolina sun.

Time to move out.

Inside his cabin, Captain Joshua Denning switched from his white frilled shirt, black tie and black slacks into his functional, all-gray ensemble. Outside, the Silver Sally crew slipped the ship's cables on schedule at nine o'clock, and pulled away. In order to dodge the numerous sandbars at the mouth of Cape Fear, Denning preferred to depart Wilmington an hour or so early and make his escape just as the tide reached the high-water mark, which tonight would be shortly after midnight.

The southerly eight-knot cruise in the inky darkness gave the meticulous Denning time to check his last minute details and plot his strategy. Night had brought a gloomy hush to Cape Fear. Pressed in around him were seven-hundred pound cotton bales piled firmly on the ship's deck, so high that his tanned, well-built Southern sailors in similar gray garb to his had to stand on the bundles to perform their tasks. This was a lucrative cargo at their feet; a Confederate fortune of five hundred and sixty-four bales of American Sea Island, the finest-fibered cotton grown in the South, two hundred and seventy-five bales of the general purpose Georgia Bowed, and thirty cases of turpentine.

Skimming down the Cape Fear River, Denning now had one of two choices: New Inlet, off the port bow, with Fort Fisher and Fort Buchanan as covers, or Old Inlet, guarded by Fort Caswell and Fort Holmes, farther down river. The mouth of the river was divided into these two openings, only six miles apart and separated by the triangle-shaped Smith Island and numerous underwater sandbars, the worst of which were the Frying Pan Shoals.

The Silver Sally drew even with New Inlet.

Denning brought his telescope to his eye... and shook his head. Too many enemy gunboats for his liking. And they were too close. First mate Matthew Balsinger had a saying for it: as thick as fleas on a dog's ass. Denning didn't wish to take on the cross wind either. The escape route now had to be Old Inlet and the Frying Pan Shoals, no matter what was waiting for him.

As the Silver Sally slid on, the only sound aboard was the soft drone of the ship's powerful engines. Clouds from the southeast had blotted out the quarter moon. The mild breeze up the river before nightfall had peaked at twenty knots. From the port rail near the bridge, Denning watched the silhouettes of the pine and palm trees along the bank give way to the towering oaks and the weighty smell of the swampland along Smith Island. The moon poked through the clouds for a brief moment.

He checked his pocket watch, angling it to catch what little natural light there was. It was 11:25. Forty minutes till high tide.


* * * *

They neared the southern mouth of Cape Fear River.

Through a thin path between two rows of bales, Denning observed Balsinger's solid figure in the night. Denning raised his hand - the signal. Balsinger slipped away and commanded the engineer below deck to stop the engines. They were getting too close to the opening of the river now to use the voice tube. Denning heard the defiant growl of the engines drop. The ship drifted, then slowed to a moderate crawl. He threw his partially smoked cigar in the water, then tapped the barrel of his revolver strapped to his thigh. It was loaded and ready. No Union captain was going to take him, not if he could help it. After several more minutes, the ship stopped altogether. Slowly, quietly, the anchor was lowered overboard. Denning eyed his watch again.

It was 12:05. Maximum high tide down to the last minute.

The ship rolled on the incoming waves. Still, Denning waited. He peered through the darkness for the vital sign from Fort Caswell, at the tip of Oak Island off starboard, a few hundred yards over the water. By now all lights aboard were snuffed out. The engine room hatches were covered with tarps. Smoking was forbidden. The hinged masts and telescope smokestacks were lowered. The Sally's signal officer, holding the coding apparatus, stood facing the fort. Denning and the officer could see the same danger that those in the fort saw. Two blockaders were combing the waters off the channel. Beyond the ships, a lantern-lit vessel, which Denning took to be the senior officer's ship, was at anchor. The Federals had always kept their distance from the Rebel shore batteries during the day. But now, under night's blanket, they were roaming closer toward the Cape Fear mouth.

At 12:11, Denning caught the all-clear lantern blink from the batteries. His signal officer identified the Morse Code and replied promptly. Through his powerful brass telescope, Denning studied the inside position of the Union gunboats just out of range of the Rebel guns. He would soon depend upon another arsenal of friends: stealth, speed, and tide. They were friends he knew well, and so far they were as faithful as his crew.

"Up anchor - and I don't want to hear it," he whispered his new order.

"Aye, sir." The nearest sailor telegraphed the order to the next man, who in turn whispered to the man next to him. And on it went, quickly.

No one made a sound as the sailors waited for the next cue from their captain who they knew would not hesitate to fire a pistol shot through the head of anyone who showed an open light aboard the vessel. Once Denning saw the anchor on ship, he quietly climbed the steps of the bridge and darted for the pilot house, midships under the smokestacks. Inside the house, a husky man was bent over the ship's helm, opposite a long, rectangular piece of glass facing the bow. He was intent on the cone-shaped cover placed over the compass, allowing him to plot his moves without light escaping. Across from him in the darkness sat the navigator, ready to plot a course to Nassau once they broke the line of gunboats. Silently, Balsinger brushed past a row of cotton bales and eased alongside the pilot house.

"All ahead two-thirds," Denning said calmly and quietly to his helmsman, Homer Cogswell. Balsinger nodded at Denning, then left to relay the order to the engineer and his stokers.

"Mind your helm. Hug the shoreline until I say so."

"Aye, aye, skipper."

"Keep your weather-eye open. Get us through, Homer."

"Aye, skipper."

Under the pressure of the engines, Cogswell was heading the ship into the teeth of the enemy. He steered around the underwater sandbar, Burch Shoal, off the tip of Smith Island. Despite her extreme length and burdensome load, the Sally handled smartly for him, as she always did. The tall lighthouse and the walls of Fort Holmes formed through the glass... and slid past to port. The jagged features of oak and pine tops drifted by. He guided the ship burdened with cotton into the region of the dreaded Frying Pan Shoals. The waves became choppy now, and no wonder. They were reaching the point where Cape Fear met the Atlantic Ocean, where the river ran to join the tide. Cogswell - the only Catholic officer aboard - made the sign of the cross with fervor.

Denning continued to study the warships.

Most remained at anchor. The others were cruising offshore near the horizon, eight to ten miles removed from the inner line. Cutting through the more heavily defended first line was always the most hazardous. From what he could determine, there was a gap to starboard, between both sets of Union positions. He watched it closely, his eye pressed to the long lens. After several minutes, he nodded, satisfied. The gap was widening out to sea.

"There's an opening, Homer," Denning said. "Two points off the starboard bow. Steady as she goes." With that, Denning bolted off to stand on a low stack of bales outside the cabin.

The Silver Sally veered away at half-speed from the safety of Smith Island, slicing through the dark waters, her engines no longer hidden by the sound of the pounding surf, her hull no longer camouflaged against the sand dunes. The only protection now was the low mist. On deck, the men hid behind the bulwarks. All orders now would be relayed in an organized set of whispers.

And God help anyone who messed up.

Less than a nautical mile from shore, Denning brought his telescope to eye level. He focused on the blackness, looking for any man-made objects that seemed out of place. The unmistakable outlines of three massive warships loomed ahead in the night, spread out in a semi-circle. No one aboard had to tell Denning that they were within gun range of all three blacked-out cruisers and the senior officer's anchored ship off port side. Earlier in the year, the runner skippers had been able to use the well-lit gunboats as guides. Then the Union officers realized their ships stood out like beacons and they switched to a method where only the senior officer's ship in the middle of the fleet was lit by just a single lantern. The runner skippers adjusted. They used the ships to get their bearings on the position of the rest of the squadron. Denning swore by the same strategy now, careful to observe that the senior vessel would often try to lure the runners into a shoal. But Cogswell was no idiot. He knew where the shoals were. He wouldn't be fooled.

Denning stood over the engine room, where he met Balsinger. "Stop engines," he whispered hoarsely to the engineer, trying to control his voice. "Now!"

"What's the matter, skipper?" Balsinger asked.

"Look! There!"

Balsinger focused his eyes to where Denning pointed, toward the dark image of a Union gunboat now turning toward them, a hundred yards off the bow. Denning feared that the Union captain had caught sight of something. If Denning could see them, it was possible the Yanks could see him. "Just hope he doesn't spot us."

Balsinger could only nod.

Denning hid behind the rail with Balsinger and other deck hands. The paddle wheels cracked to a stop. The runner took some time to slide silently to a creep. Denning strained his eyes in the cloudy night. Then he saw it, through the thinning mist. His pulse quickened. The sound of the gunboat's engines swelled in the night, as they steered closer to starboard. Denning primed himself for a possible collision. They had never been this close to the enemy before. He felt so helpless. The gunboats were armed with potent deck guns that could blow any ship to bits in seconds. The Sally only had small arms. Hand guns.

Denning leaned toward his first mate. "Steady, Matt." Denning was already calculating where he'd be in the next crucial minutes, providing the gunboats, especially the nearest one, remained on their present courses. "Get to the pilot house. Inform Homer that as soon as he hears our engines start up, he's to steer to port, away from the nearest gunboat. Go." His voice was a mere caution. "And stay down, damn it."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Denning squatted over the engine hatchway, looking down at the sweaty, bare-chested engineer. "Stay sharp."

"Aye, sir."

Denning returned to the rail, barely making a sound. The enemy ship chugged closer. He could hear voices aboard. Northern accents! They couldn't be any more than forty yards apart now. He expected any second to see the captain fire a warning flare into the sky to alert the other ships. In minutes, a half-dozen warships could be hunting down the Silver Sally.

But to Denning's shock nothing happened. No collision. No shouts. No orders to pass the shell. The warship merely steamed on by, at one point only twenty yards away. They don't see us, Denning thought to himself, amazed.

"They missed us. How could they miss us?" Balsinger said, in a low voice.

"I don't know," Denning answered. "But they did." He watched as the gunboat slid off in the opposite direction.

"Start 'em up," he whispered down the hatch.

The engineer and stokers flew into action.

In a few minutes, the Sally was a safe distance behind the first line of gunboats. Denning worked his way forward on the ship and extended his telescope again. He saw the large gap in the second line that had presented itself earlier. It was still ready for the taking.

At the pilot house, he pointed ahead for Cogswell. "See it?"

The pilot nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Full speed!" Denning said to a sailor beside him. The order was quickly relayed by the other sailors to the engine room. The crew immediately positioned themselves in the proper places. Despite the darkness, they shot the masts and smokestacks up. The Silver Sally cut the water at an incredible speed, assisted by her streamlined body, a draft of only eight and a half feet, and a hull only five feet above the water line. At eighteen knots it didn't take long to leave the second line of enemy boats in her wake. There was no catching them now. Denning had poked a hole through the center of the Cape Fear blockade and got away with it for the eighth straight time.

Denning strolled toward the ship's stern, Balsinger by his side. The breeze filled the sails and stiffened the Bars and Stars Rebel flag. The feint smell of burning coal drifted down from the smokestacks. Beneath them, the engines rumbled a mechanical beat of a smooth sixteen knots.

A hard-working seaman with a rich bass voice, Balsinger was as tall as his captain, but thicker around the waist. Earlier in the evening, Balsinger's glassy dark eyes and exhausted expression had given him away again. He had been out on another drunk the night before, but that never bothered Denning as long as Balsinger made sure his in-port flair for the opposite sex and stiff liquor didn't get in the way of his obligation as the Sally's first mate.

"You play much chess, Matt?"

Balsinger shrugged. He thought he caught the captain smiling. "A few times, skipper. Why?"

Denning clenched his cigar between his teeth, the red fire lighting his face on an inhale. "I think I'd call that a checkmate. Wouldn't you?"

"If you say so, sir."

"I'm going to sack out for a spell. Fetch me if you have to."

"Aye, sir. We'll look after things."

* * * *

Denning lay on his bunk inside the plush cabin in the rear quarter-deck of the Silver Sally.

Joshua Denning's naval career had been a chain of ups and downs, much like his disposition of late. He had never been that interested in the Navy, per se. When he grew up, he had just wanted to get away from the farm and those damn chickens. He wanted to see the rest of his country, sail the oceans, and set foot on other countries. His father had the good sense to see that his son had no aspirations to be a Virginia chicken farmer and packed him off to the Navy academy at Annapolis where Joshua could fulfill his dreams of adventure on the high seas. At school, Denning had risen from an intelligent country boy to a bright young officer fascinated by politics and business.

After graduation in 1852, Denning had spent nine years on active service with the United States Navy. By February 1861, a frustrated Denning asked for a leave of absence. He felt he had spent a long enough time commanding an antiquated frigate. Three years as her skipper seemed like eternity. He was tired of navy life. He saw no future in it, except for a moderate officer's pension once he retired. He was irked by pompous, overbearing superiors who couldn't envision the changing nature of naval defense, with modern guns and metal hulls.

Where was the adventure he sought?

With his savings, he had sailed to Europe. It was an extended vacation to observe the world, to ponder his future as an unmarried modern man, closing in on forty years, with no definite plans in sight. He left behind him a splintered nation, states seceding and a harsh line drawn between North and South. He had been in Paris not even two months when the stunning news broke of the firing on Fort Sumter. Hostilities had begun. The news in the same week of a Union blockade on Southern ports and of Virginia seceding caught his attention.

Virginia separating! How could they?

Thousands of miles away, he had pondered the situation over. Coming out of Annapolis, he was one youngster in a throng of eager newly-commissioned officers. He had high hopes. The future was his. He had sworn allegiance to the United States of America, to defend her at all costs. Not anymore. Now his loyalties were to his native state of Virginia. Although his father had owned slaves for a time, slavery was never an issue with Denning. The blacks should be freed eventually, he had always felt. He was no abolitionist, either. The matter needed time, that's all. But for Virginia to leave the Union in support of slavery was absurd. If slavery was the reason.

Virginia seceding? Virginia had been the home state of seven presidents, such founders as George Washington and Andrew Jackson. The other states - North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Florida and the rest of them - what did they need independence for?

Independence from what? What was the matter with people?

Denning had remained in Europe until the spring of 1862, then sailed across the English Channel for Great Britain, where the shipbuilding yards of Clydeside in Scotland, and Liverpool in England, had finally opened Denning's eyes to an opportunity he couldn't ignore. The industrial dry docks were swarming with Confederate government agents supervising the construction of a fleet of new and radical ships called blockade runners. Denning pictured himself commanding a runner. Not only could he help his fledgling country by running cotton through the blockade, but he could also make a profit, far more than his navy pay could provide. It was the law of supply and demand in wartime. His country was threatened by an enemy, regardless of the fact they were fellow Americans from the North. There was a civil war across the ocean, and it was his duty as a Virginian to fight in it in the way he could. Of course, he sided with the South. He could not comprehend raising his hand against his relatives, his friends, his home. Never mind his Navy oath.

By this time, Denning was out of money. Fired by a combination of patriotism, profit, and adventure, he convinced a large British bank that had invested heavily in the cotton industry to finance the purchase of one of these light, slender, pencil-shaped paddle-steamers. And he would be the ship's commander. He demanded one of the longest and fastest runners ever built, with a beefed-up keel, and a new, revolutionary steel hull which was lighter and stronger than all the other hulls. He knew that any strong magnetic compass aboard the ship would give inaccurate readings over long distances and would have to be compensated for. A good navigator worth his salt would take care of that and make the adjustments. Denning's ship had to have the most powerful of engines. Eighteen knots under a full load was an absolute necessity.

The finished product was a seven-hundred ton rakish runner measuring two hundred and seventy-seven feet by thirty-six feet by fifteen feet with three telescope smokestacks, one more stack than considered normal. The Sally was one of the newest ships - a super runner. Under the cloud of war, Denning had entered the newfangled world of paddle-wheeled, steam and steel ships.

Denning's investors were impressed with his leadership experience on frigates and his five-year expedition surveying and mapping the Atlantic coast for the United States Navy, including the first detailed excursion to Cape Cod. As part of the agreement, the English bank had its own demand for collateral. Half the crew had to be English until the ship was paid for. Denning wasn't certain whether British sailors would accept orders from a Southerner. The bankers insisted. After some hesitation, Denning agreed. He knew they had him by the short hairs.

It took only three successful return trips through the Union blockade for Denning to open his own foreign bank accounts in both Hamilton, Bermuda, and Nassau in the Bahamas. From his profits, he reimbursed the forty-five thousand pounds he owed the banking firm for the ship. He immediately replaced the English crew members with Southerners, mostly locals from Cape Fear who knew every channel, beach, swamp, and submarine sandbar in the area. The crew was thirty-three in all, from seventeen to fifty in age, all well-paid, splitting over twenty thousand dollars in gold per trip.

With his full Southern complement, he also demanded that the officers and enlisted men all be armed and ready to fire their weapons with accuracy when ordered, something the English sailors couldn't do. It had annoyed Denning that the British had faced the fewest risks. The Union policy of the war at sea assured them of that. When blockade-runners were captured, the foreigners were set free. The Southerners aboard became prisoners of war and were banished to a Northern prison where the chances of living beyond a year were slim to none. Denning simply wanted to provide his fellow Southerners with the incentive to succeed, as well as being able to defend themselves. He was glad to see the British off his ship. They were risks he couldn't afford. Once they were gone, Denning was in total control.

The only way he wanted it.

Captain Joshua Denning blew the oil lamp out and looked up to the ceiling. He was going to play this game through for what it was worth. What was to become of him? He didn't know. His mind drifted. The academy came to mind.

Then he thought of him. Again. Damn. Why? How many times was it that week? Carlisle. That son-of-a-bitch Bobby Carlisle. Where was he? Still in the navy? And did it matter? To hell with him.

Denning closed his eyes and listened to the beat of the engines.

And he fell asleep in minutes.


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