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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The First Boat of the America's Cup was a Blockade Runner

by Gordon Thorsby

The gaff schooner America was the first American yacht to win the race for the United States trouncing 15 other boats that rounded the Isle of Wight on August 22, 1851. The race then became the America’s Cup Challenge. A very interesting part of the race’s history is that the first schooner, America would also serve as a fast Confederate blockade runner.

In November, 1850 a group of five wealthy businessman contracted to have the fastest schooner built. “Fastest” was worded in the contract that John Cox Stevens demanded in return for $30,000 which was a huge sum for a 100 foot long (30-meter) specially designed racing craft. Once built, the sailing yacht required only 20-days with thirteen crewman to arrive off Le Havre, France. Later, at the Hundred Guinea Cup race, no schooner came close to America and the trophy went to New York.

Throughout the 1850’s, the racing schooner was sold, renamed, redesigned and re-masted. She was named Camilla. There was owners like John de Blaquiere, 4th Baron, then a Henry Montague Upton, 2nd Viscount Templetown, a Henry Sotheby Pitcher (renamed her Camilla), a shipbuilder in Northfleet, Kent and finally Henry Edward Decie in 1860, who took her back to the States and sold her to the CSA.

In 1861, the Confederacy seceded and needed resources for international supply. Under a blockade, blockade runners were demanded and Confederate Chief of Ordnance, Major Josiah Gorgas put an approved plan for purchase into effect. The fast sailing ships and acquire arms from foreign contractors and governments and out run blockaders. It was exactly what America was built to do. The Confederate government purchased the America from the Frenchman Decie. Confederate Navy Captain, Raphael Semmes proposed a plan utilizing privateers to quickly build up shipping and America was part of it. Confederate President Jefferson Davis wholeheartedly approved of the plan. The America was seen next nearly a year later under the name Memphis, flagged a Confederate ship in Savannah, and now as a blockade-runner. Her specific voyages are unknown but she ran the blockade in the Georgia/Florida area.

In April 1862, with Union forces capturing Crescent City, Florida (near St. Augustine), the USS gunboat, Ottawa discovered Memphis scuttled in Dunn’s Creek off of the St John’s River. The masts protruded from the water and upon inspection, her hull had been drilled full of augur hoes. The craft was raised, rebuilt, and renamed her original name, America was no longer a blockade runner. She was now a blockader.

America was armed with two 24-lb. smoothbore Dahlgren guns amidships and a 12-lb. Smoothbore Dahlgren gun as a chaser gun in the bow and she joined the South Atlantic Squadron in Charleston. While on night patrol on March 19, 1863, America spotted smoke near Dewees Inlet and immediately launched flares to alert other blockaders. Thee CSS Georgina raced to get away but damaged by the guns of the Unadilla-class gunboat USS Wissahickon she scuttled herself.

America’s next duty was in use as a training ship at the US Naval Academy. Crewed by Academy midshipmen, she was among a number of the America’s Cup defenders, on August 8, 1870, and America and the “Middies” finished fourth.

Her contact with the Civil War was not yet finished. The Academy sold her in 1873 to, retired Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler who purchased the yacht. It was refitted and raced by Butler and his partners for years. When Butler died in 1914, his son continued the family tradition.

The America eventually fell into disrepair under other private owners. In the 1940’s, wood pieces and other parts of her were sold to collectors that obtained $990.90 in scrap.

Sources:, Dec. 4, 2019.

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