Patriots of ’61 – “A Young Purser Hoisting the rebel colors”
Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1846, well-known Wilmingtonian businessman, author and philanthropist James Sprunt was a young seventeen year-old who took to sea aboard blockade runners during the War. A successful cotton merchant after the war, he also held the position of British vice consul, German consul, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Navigation and Pilotage, and served as President of: the Seamen’s Friend Society, State Literary and Historical Association of North Carolina, and North Carolina Folk Lore Society – and was a Trustee of the University of North Carolina. His most famous work is entitled “Chronicles of the Cape Fear, published in 1914. When asked on one occasion what suggestion from his experience in life he would offer the young, he replied, “Unswerving integrity, sobriety, perseverance, out-of-door exercise, and faith in the goodness of God.”
A Young Purser Hoisting the Rebel Colors:
“He came to manhood in a troubled time. The War Between the States had begun. The Federal Government proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports. The natural advantages of Wilmington made it an ideal port for blockade runners, as there were two entrances to the river and as the slope of the beach for miles is very gradual to deep water. Therefore, a light draft steamer, hard pressed by the enemy, could run along the outer edge of the breakers without great risk of grounding, whereas the pursuer, being usually of deeper draft, was obliged to keep farther off shore.
In the third year of the War at age seventeen, he took passage on a blockade runner to Bermuda with the promise of a position on the North Heath, a vessel then building on the Clyde. When she arrived at Bermuda, Captain [Thomas] Burroughs, her commander, who had successfully run the blockade twelve times….[on the] Cornubia, appointed him purser of the North Heath.
But shortly after sailing from St. George, Bermuda, bound for Wilmington, they ran into a hurricane and for two days and nights were in imminent danger of their lives. For an entire night she wallowed like a log in a trough of mountainous waves….the water had risen in her hold until every one of the fourteen furnaces was extinguished. Eventually the captain…got the ship under control and she was put about and headed back to Bermuda for repairs. A little later….[Sprunt] was appointed purser of the steamer Lilian [under Captain John Newland Maffitt], and on this vessel he passed through all the dangers and exciting experiences of a daring blockade runner.
[The USS Shenandoah] log of Saturday, July 30, 1864, off Cape Lookout says: “At 3:45PM sighted a steamer [Lilian] burning black smoke to the eastward; made all sail in chase. At 5:45PM he showed rebel colors…[and] began to fire at him with the 30 and 150 pounder rifle Parrott….at 8PM stopped firing, gave up the chase, stopped engines.”
Of this Dr. Sprunt wrote half a century afterwards: “….it was I who hoisted those “rebel” colors on that eventful day fifty-five years ago: and thereby hangs the tale.” Then follows the blood-stirring story of the Lilian, loaded to the hatch combings with gunpowder for Lee’s army; of her hundred-mile chase and bombardment by the Shenandoah, of the “fearful accuracy” of the cruiser’s gunnery….the young purser’s sensations as the hurtling shells passed only a few feet from his head…..the bursting of one of her boilers, reducing her to a desperate condition, of her wonderful escape after nightfall….and on the following morning, though badly crippled, passed through the Federal fleet off Fort Fisher under furious fire from the whole [Northern] squadron and steamed into Wilmington with her cargo of powder.
On the third outward voyage the Lilian was chased and bombarded for five hours by five Federal cruisers, disabled by a shot below the water line and captured, and James Sprunt, sharing the fate of his associates, became a prisoner of war (August 24, 1864) and was confined for some time in a casemate of Fort Macon.
In company with Pilot “Jim Billy” Craig, afterwards well-known as the Reverend J.W. Craig, an honored minister of the Methodist Church, he escaped from prison and they made their way to Halifax, Nova Scotia. His last service afloat in the War was as purser of the Confederate steamer Susan Beirne, of which Eugene Maffitt [son of Captain John Newland Maffitt] was chief officer, and he continued on this blockade runner until the fall of Fort Fisher.”
(Source: James Sprunt, A Tribute from the City of Wilmington, Edwards & Broughton, 1925, pp. 12-18)
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