She was a beautiful vessel. On that everyone agreed, whether they wore the blue or the gray. But lovely lines or no, her enemies were determined to destroy her if they got the chance. The Ivanhoe was a blockade runner and thoroughly looked the part — long and low with twin smokestacks, powerful side-wheels and a pair of stubby masts. Her iron hull had been laid down in a Scottish shipyard, and upon completion, she had crossed the Atlantic to Bermuda and then made Cuba. In late June 1864, she departed Havana for a dash into Confederate Mobile, laden with desperately needed arms, ammunition and medicines. Ivanhoe’s prospects of success were good, despite the Union screw steamers and gunboats prowling the mouth of Mobile Bay. She was a veritable rocket on the water, capable of an astonishing 16 knots, and there wasn’t a ship that could catch her.
So it was that on the night of June 30 the Ivanhoe resolutely steamed west in the Swash Channel, a 12-foot-deep trench that ran along Fort Morgan Peninsula to the Bay. Blockade runners favored this route since the Confederates could cover it with field pieces and, closer to Mobile Point, Fort Morgan’s big guns. Standing on the vibrating deck with his eyes straining into the darkness, Henry Gorst, the Ivanhoe’s captain, fretted about the engine noise and the phosphorescence churned by his big paddle wheels. If his ship could just avoid detection, Mobile Bay, and safety, was only two miles distant.
Other eyes were out there straining, too, and when a flare lit the sky to port, Gorst knew the game was up. “Ahead full!” he barked. With a powerful surge, the Ivanhoe lurched forward, her sharp prow cleaving the Gulf like a knife blade. In an attempt to intercept, the Union gunboat Glasgow “ran for the beach,” as Adm. David Glasgow Farragut later put it, and loosed five shots at the steamer. Gorst later blamed what happened next on “an ignorant pilot.” Sheering to starboard, the Ivanhoe suddenly groaned and shuddered as she drove hard aground, her stern lifting with the abrupt check and her wake surging past her into the inky darkness ahead.
Intent on salvaging the cargo and, if possible, refloating the vessel, two boatloads of Confederates quickly rowed the 50 or so yards out to her. Decades later, one of these men, George S. Waterman, penned a vivid account of their ensuing struggle.
“We got two kedge anchors out,” he wrote, “each with a long scope of cable, in order to get her off the beach; but all our efforts at the windlass, with the steamer ‘backing’ with all her might, were unavailing.” Since they weren’t likely to save the vessel, the men began offloading the cargo and rowing it ashore.
Gray dawn revealed the scurrying salvors to the Union fleet, and Farragut ordered his ship captains to shell the grounded runner. Two hundred rounds were fired, most going wide of the mark. But Waterman found the Yankee fusillade frightening.
“Solid shot was tearing great holes through the upper works,” he recalled, “and shells were bursting every minute above and around the ill-fated vessel.”
One projectile smashed into the Ivanhoe’s foremast, another exploded in the wardroom, a third punched through her bow and a fourth stove in an iron plate, allowing water into her hold. One man was killed, another showered by splinters.
Observing matters through his binoculars from much farther away, Union Capt. Percival Drayton was unimpressed.
“I must confess that I could see no signs of the least damage to the blockader,” he grumbled in a dispatch, “although wonderful stories are told. And if we don’t keep a pretty sharp lookout the enemy will get her off tonight.”
Farragut agreed and ordered several small boats in to destroy the Ivanhoe. Because they had already offloaded the majority of the cargo, the Rebel salvors were camped ashore and didn’t see the Yankee boarding party stealthily clambering onto the runner.
“The duty was performed promptly,” a Yankee officer proudly reported, “the vessel boarded and set on fire.”
As soon as the flames flickered into view, the Rebels rowed out to save the ship. Luckily for them, a gunpowder keg failed to explode, but the flames were fast spreading. “Once started, the fire seemed possessed of a demon-like energy and fierceness,” Waterman marveled. “It leaped from amidships to stern with inconceivable rapidity.”
Shouting men jumped into the water to save themselves, and small boats bobbed about, plucking them from the brine. By the time the fire burned out, the Ivanhoe was a hopeless wreck.
Mother Nature did the rest. Even as the Rebels labored to remove the vessel’s machinery, rising winds and seas conspired against them. “The Ivanhoe rose and fell as the waves struck under her counter,” Waterman later wrote, “and the continued thumping of the vessel in the quicksand caused a bank to form around her, on which our launch and first cutter struck while riding the heavy surf.” Gorst ordered his men to take down the ship’s yardarms, swaying crazily in the gale, but torrents of water were sluicing along the deck and big waves were smashing over the bulwarks, sending curtains of spray well above the men’s heads. Waterman eyed the scudding clouds and then noticed the vessel’s handsome figurehead, “the carved figure of the Knight of Ivanhoe … buried in ridges of foam.” The roaring seas swept several men overboard, where they sputtered and clutched at life rings thrown their way, kicking with all their might for shore. No one drowned, but it was time to leave the Ivanhoe to her fate.
In the overall saga of the American Civil War, the Ivanhoe’s story rates as little more than a footnote. But when recent hurricanes scoured this stretch of coast, once again revealing her elegant lines to pilots and boaters, the thrilling scenes that enveloped her 155 years ago seemed suddenly more immediate, tangible and profound. Should her half-buried hull ever be excavated by marine archaeologists, it will doubtless reveal further fascinating insights into the exciting world of Mobile Bay’s storied blockade runners.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History,” due fall 2019 from the University of South Carolina Press.