By Bob Hurst
Generally, when any discussion is held of remarkable deeds of great valor or exceptional cunning by Confederates, the subjects involved in these exploits are almost always the magnificent leaders and troops of the land forces - be they infantry, cavalry or artillery. This is only logical since the Confederate Navy was quite small and with the exception of just a few vessels ( the C.S.S. Alabama, C.S.S. Shenandoah, and C.S.S. Florida, primarily ) the exploits of most Confederate ships are not well known.
Undoubtedly, though, one of the most noteworthy exploits of the war (on land or water) involved a lesser-known Confederate ship, the C.S.S. Tallahassee, and its daring escape from a blocked harbor by a route which was considered impassable. The amazing escape of the TALLAHASSEE occurred on the evening of August 19, 1864, from the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia, under the command of a not-well-known , but highly interesting, individual named John Taylor Wood.
John Taylor Wood was likely the first white child born in what is now Minnesota. His grandfather was Zachary Taylor who would become the 12th president of the United States. His mother's sister, Sarah Knox Taylor, was the first wife of Jefferson Davis. (Sadly, she died of malaria just three months after the wedding.) John Taylor Wood, thus, had the distinction of having a grandfather who was a U.S. president and an uncle who was a Confederate president. He was also a nephew of Confederate general Richard Taylor and a distant relative of Robert E. Lee. That is some interesting family!
Even though he was born in the Midwest, he yearned to be a seaman and joined the U.S. Navy as an acting midshipman when he was only 16 years old. By the time that war broke out in 1861, he was a professor of seamanship and gunnery at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Despite this , he resigned his commission and joined the newly formed Confederate Navy as a second lieutenant. Interestingly, one of his first assignments was aboard the C.S.S. Virginia which was involved in the famous battle of the ironclads (against the U.S.S. Monitor) at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March of 1862.
In early 1863, Wood was appointed aide-de-camp to President Jefferson Davis and promoted to the rank of colonel of cavalry. Despite the title, he had the primary duty of inspecting naval defenses and vessels at key Southern ports. Later that year he went back to sea and commanded expeditions which resulted in the capture of a substantial number of Union ships. This led the Confederate Congress to recognize him with a joint resolution of thanks. He was also promoted to the rank of commander in the Confederate Navy.
John Taylor Wood's true ambition was to command a Confederate commerce raider and wreak havoc on Northern shipping in the same manner as Raphael Semmes and the C.S.S. Alabama, James Waddell and the C.S.S. Shenandoah and John Newland Maffitt and the C.S.S. Florida. To achieve this end, he went to Wilmington, North Carolina, one of the few Southern ports not subject to a Union blockade, and began looking for a vessel that could be converted into a cruiser for use as a commerce raider.
He finally settled on the ATLANTA which was a 200 foot long iron-hulled steamer of 500 tons which was fore-and-aft rigged and capable of 14 to 15 knots. He armed the ship with three guns and it was officially christened the C.S.S. Tallahassee and commissioned on June 20, 1864. Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory then issued orders for the TALLAHASSEE to be used to find and destroy Northern merchant Ships.
John Taylor Wood was now ready to do some serious damage.
On August 6, Wood and his crew of 20 officers and 110 men headed north. By the time the TALLAHASSEE reached Maine on August 17, 25 Union vessels had already been taken out of commission. The ship badly needed refueling, though, and also some much needed repairs. To achieve this, Wood sailed to the nearest neutral port, Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he dropped anchor on August 18.
In the meantime, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had been notified of the damage done by the TALLAHASSEE and he was fit to be tied. He kept ordering Union warships to go after the TALLAHASSEE and eventually there were a dozen on search missions up and down the Atlantic coast.
Shortly after reaching port at Halifax, John Taylor Wood went to British authorities to discuss his need . He was told that in compliance with the British position of neutrality he could use the port for only 24 hours except in cases of distress. Wood then went to the Confederate agent in Halifax, Benjamin Weir, to obtain his assistance.
During this time, U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had been notified that the TALLAHASSEE was in port in Halifax. Shortly afterwards, two Union warships dropped anchor just outside the three-mile limit off a neutral coast and several more headed toward Halifax. The Union plan was simply to wait until the TALLAHASSEE had run out of its allotted time and then attack the ship as it attempted to leave Halifax by way of the main channel that connected the harbor with the ocean.
The situation seemed hopeless for the TALLAHASSEE as there were only two channels that flowed from the harbor to the ocean. The west channel, called "the main channel", was straight, deep and broad. This channel was used by all large, heavy ships like the TALLAHASSEE. The east channel was narrow, crooked and shallow and used only by small boats. It was considered impassable for any ship the size of the TALLAHASSEE.
Realizing the difficulty of the situation, Wood contacted Benjamin Weir, the Confederate agent, to inquire about the name of the best harbor pilot in Halifax. Weir recommended an experienced pilot named Jock Fleming.
Wood and Fleming then began working on an escape plan. Wood asked if it would be possible to reach the ocean through the east channel as the Union warships were all waiting just outside the main west channel. Fleming advised Wood that the east channel was "narrow and crooked" and with a long ship like the TALLAHASSEE he wouldn't advise it. Fleming then mentioned that with the right tides he might be able to find fourteen feet of water and this would be sufficient to float the ship but the channel would still be narrow and crooked. This was all John Taylor Wood had to hear and he told Jock Fleming that if he could find the water, Wood would keep the ship in the channel no matter how narrow or crooked it might be.
Fleming said they would have to leave by 9 o'clock that night to take advantage of the tides. At 9 o'clock the TALLAHASSEE started out with all lights extinguished on a night that was very dark and overcast. In an amazing feat of seamanship, Fleming and Wood kept the ship in the channel that was considered impassable for all but small fishing boats. For hour after hour the large ship slowly made its way through the narrow, crooked, shallow channel in the darkness of night until finally reaching open waters. The Union ships waiting at the mouth of the main channel to the west never had a clue.
The Halifax newspaper later reported on this feat of daring in a sense of disbelief. I can only imagine that the five Union warships that were waiting at the end of the western channel for an anticipated easy target were also in a state of disbelief when they realized what had happened. I would also imagine that quite a number of people tried to stay as far away as they possibly could from Gideon Welles until some time had passed after this amazing feat.
John Taylor Wood and the crew of the TALLAHASSEE returned to Wilmington to be met with cheers and hero worship. There was also another promotion for Wood but the adventures were not yet over for this daring man.
As the War was coming to a close, Wood joined his uncle, Jefferson Davis, and members of the Confederate Cabinet as they made their way south from Richmond hoping to eventually reach Mexico and other destinations. The group was captured near Irwinville, Georgia, but the ever resourceful John Taylor Wood was able to escape by bribing one of his Union captors. This guy was good! He worked his way through Florida and eventually sailed to Cuba where he joined other Confederates including the great John C. Breckenridge.
Wood eventually worked his way back to Halifax and joined a community of about 30 other unreconstructed Confederates who had settled in Nova Scotia. He started a business in partnership with Wilkinson Wood and they became highly successful. They also proudly flew the Confederate Flag above their offices for many years. He also maintained his friendship with Jock Fleming until the death of the latter.
John Taylor Wood, the man who had done the impossible by making it through the impassable, died in 1904 and is buried in Halifax near the grave of his friend, Benjamin Weir.The heading for his obituary in the newspaper read," Brave and Noted Man has Gone to His Rest".
How very true; but he was, after all, a Confederate!
P.S. I must add a postscript to this tale of John Taylor Wood and the C.S.S. Tallahassee. I have discovered through research that the memory of the TALLAHASSEE lives on in Halifax. In the community of Eastern Passage there is a school named Tallahassee Community School. The motto of the school as stated in Latin on the school crest is, "Through Difficulty to Success". What a poignant reminder of the amazing escape of the ship. The logo of the school contains the image of a twin-masted ship of 1860's vintage. Now, what ship could possibly have served as the model for that? It pleases me no end that there is still a bit of the Confederacy in Nova Scotia. May it ever be so. BH
Bob Hurst is a true Son of the South with special interests in the Confederacy and the antebellum architecture of the South. He is Commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and also is 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV.
Note: Some previous articles of CONFEDERATE JOURNAL are available in book form. Articles from 2005-2007 are in Volume 1 and can be ordered at http://createspace.com3540609/ and articles from 2008-2009 are in Volume 2 which can be ordered at http://createspace.com3543269/