San Antonio cattleman
sat in front of the fireplace next to his tearful wife, slowly feeding
folding money to the flames.
He'd had a lucrative contract with Confederate Gen. Henry Hopkins
Sibley to furnish his New Mexico-bound army with beef. While it
had not seemed like an issue at the time, Sibley had paid for the
cattle in Confederate States of America currency. Unfortunately,
by 1864, when Charles C. French remembered seeing his father burning
the bills, the currency had become worthless.
"The fortunes of war had ruined him," French later wrote of his
father, who died of "a fever" the following year.
Now, in the spring of 1865, the newly widowed Mrs. French intended
to leave Texas and return to her native Pennsylvania. But with the
war still underway, there was no easy way to do that. Still, she
was determined to try.
She took two of her young sons - Charles and older brother Sam --
by stagecoach from the Alamo City to Columbus.
From there, they got transportation to nearby Alleyton
and boarded a train for Galveston,
the only Confederate coastal city not in Union hands.
After some delay, Mrs. French succeeded in securing passage on the
British-flagged Evelyn, under a Captain Peters. Once his 446-ton
ship had been loaded with all the cotton she could hold, the captain
waited for a suitable opportunity to slip past the flotilla of Union
warships that lay off Galveston
to prevent the arrival or departure of ships.
That chance came, in classic storybook fashion, on a dark and stormy
"The wind blew a gale," French later wrote, "the rain fell in torrents,
the thunder rolled…[and] except for the lightning, it was as dark
as pitch." (His recollections were published by Bunker's Monthly
Near midnight, the Evelyn's crew slipped her lines and in total
darkness the vessel slowly slid toward the open Gulf of Mexico.
The captain had ordered no lights on board, not even a glowing sailor's
pipe. The Union fleet also operated under blackout conditions.
"There was not a light to be seen on the gunboats, and their location
could only be guessed," French continued. "Suddenly one of them
loomed up in the darkness right ahead of us. Only by reversing her
engines at once was the Evelyn prevented from running into it."
But when the British ship began moving forward again, sparks blew
from her three funnels, and as French put it, "the jig was up."----------------
"In an instant…the [Union] gunboats were ablaze with lights," French
However, the Evelyn had been designed for speed and she easily outdistanced
the Union naval vessels. French and his brother, with free roam
of the deck, took it all in. Their mother missed the show, seasick
in their cabin.
The Evelyn was a brand-new ship, specifically built for the blockade
running trade by Randolph Elder and Co. at Govan on the Clyde River
in Scotland. Her keel laid in 1863, she went down the ways on Jan.
9, 1864. The last of five fast, shallow-draft paddle steamers built
to get cotton from the Confederacy to England, the Evelyn and her
four sisters were owned by D.M. McGregor, as agent for the CSA.
With a 24-foot beam, she extended 270 feet and could make 18 knots
- very fast for that era.
The following day, as the two French boys continued to relish the
adventure of being aboard ship, they heard the lookout shout, "Ship
"Where away?" the captain yelled.
Soon a gun-studded U.S. man-of-war, the stars and stripes fluttering
from above her stern, rose above the horizon under full sail and
with steam engines running "all ahead full." By then, Captain Phillips
had already ordered full steam ahead and the race was on.
When the federal warship drew within gun range, she fired a shot
at the fleeing blockade runner, no matter that she flew the Union
"When the second
shot was fired," French wrote, "the Evelyn changed her course, thus
robbing the man-of-war of its favorable wind, and at once [her]
sails came down. From then on the Evelyn had the advantage ... and
as darkness fell we were soon beyond immediate danger."
The federal warship never caught up with the Evelyn, at least not
until after she sailed into Spanish waters off Cuba, where she was
safe from capture. When the sun came up the next morning, the American
vessel lay at anchor in the harbor nearby.
Later that day, news reached Havana that President Lincoln had been
assassinated and that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army
of Northern Virginia.
"...[T]here was a great celebration by the passengers and crew of
the Evelyn, but I do not know whether this was occasioned by the
successful running of the blockade, or by the news of Lincoln's
death [and the end of the war]," French recalled.
Mrs. French and her two sons took passage on the Spanish-flagged
Moro Castle for New York, and "in due course were safe with my grandmother
What became of the Evelyn has not been determined. One source says
she survived the Civil War, but likely she did not have a long life.
The heyday of the paddle steamer did not last long, with most seagoing
vessels being propeller-driven by the 1888s. If she hadn't sunk
somewhere by then, she surely was scrapped.
French did not return to Texas until 1876, but spent the rest of
his life in the Lone Star State. Following a long career with the
Fort Worth Stock Yard, he died in Cow Town on Aug. 5, 1937 at 84.
He's buried in Oakwood Cemetery, but for some reason has no tombstone.
© Mike Cox
- November 6, 2015 Column
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