"Think of the captain of a large ship as a blind man entering an immense strange house..." An intriguing notion, and the basis of this small fact-filled book. The pilots who lived in Smithville and other villages on the Cape Fear River before the modern dredging and deepening of the harbor were the guides to these "blind men," able to get them to safe berth.
This invaluable skill became crucial during the Union blockade of the South during the Civil War. It is notable that Cape Fear pilots who were captured by the Yankees were never traded - their abilities were too valuable to risk freeing them to work again. Jim McNeil, who boasts an ancestry of these courageous blockade runners, has collected stories of many of the pilots, and fascinating details about their risks, successes and tragic failures. It fills in an important sketch of this period of North Carolina and Southern history.
"Sons of the pilots of Cape Fear could get their first boat at the age of six...young men became pilots only after serving a long apprenticeship. Some began learning the trade as young as thirteen." The art of piloting the Cape Fear, which became the only useable seaport during the Civil War, was based on "heaving the lead" - dragging a chain with a lead weight on the river's bottom to feel out the contours and avoid shoals known only to the very practiced skipper, who could "get his bearings on the darkest night by a 'taste' of the lead."
Southerners believed - erroneously, as history has borne out - that Cotton was King and would be the salvation of the embattled rebels. Getting shiploads of cotton out beyond the reach of the Yankee ships and to seaports in the Caribbean or Newfoundland became the game of the day, with all the swashbuckling action associated with maneuvers on the high seas. It was also a business. There was money to be made, and a ship's captain stood to gain or lose tidy sums on the turn of a wave. And no one could cross the Cape Fear bar without the aid of the local pilots.
Masters of the Shoals is filled with accounts of bold deeds against great odds. The Widow Greenhow, known as The Rebel Rose, traveled extensively, brazenly raising money for the southern cause. Her ship ran aground trying to negotiate the Cape Fear, and, set out in a lifeboat, the plucky widow drowned, "weighted down by the leather bag of gold sovereigns she always carried with her."
Captain Jim Billy Craig wound up in a Yankee prison and recounted:
"I was repeatedly approached by the Federal officers who offered to pay me any sum I would name if I would join their fleet at Fort Fisher and take part as a pilot in their attack against my home. I told them the United States Government did not have enough money to induce me to accept such a proposition..."
Pilots were a boisterous group like all sailors and soon gave Wilmington a wild reputation. But one can forgive their raucousness in port when one considers the hardships they endured and the courage they displayed. John Anderson, languishing near death from yellow fever as his ship made its approach to harbor, realized that he and only he could get her in. He had himself dragged to the wheelhouse - "his face was as yellow as gold, and his eyes shown like stars." Vomiting blood, he calmly directed the vessel home, and died before his wife could get to the ship.
It is tales like this that bring Jim McNeil's book alive. North Carolinians, seafarers, and southerners of all regions will read it with pride.