The Celt (also called the Sylph and the Colt) was built in Charleston, and launched from her wharves in 1862-63. This was at a time when it seemed to many that the Confederacy’s independence was still a possible outcome of the Civil War. Even though the South won signal victories on land during that period, they continued to lose the war at sea. This was especially true when it came to breaking the blockade; a fleet of Union ships that bottled up the major Southern ports. As the blockades effectiveness grew, less and less of the desperately needed food, munitions’ and medicine managed to reach the interior. The Confederate Navy was severely under manned and under equipped, and could do little to break the stranglehold.
A class of entrepreneurs called Blockade Runners would try to alleviate these mounting shortages. These Rhett Butler types, some motivated by patriotism, others by profit, would try to slip past the blockade at night in sleek specially crafted boats. Their goal was to reach a foreign port such as Nassau, exchange their cargo of cotton for necessities and slip back through the net once more. Dozens of these vessels ran, or attempted to run, the blockade through the Civil War, and The Celt was one of these.
The Celt’s success as a blockade runner is difficult to gauge. Another larger British ship bore the same name, and over the years the history of the two has become intertwined. There is no record of the Charleston-based Celt clearing or returning the port before February of 1865. Likely the ship tried to run the blockade several times, but was turned away by weather or circumstance. It seems the first documented run of the Celt was also its’ last. Late on the evening of Feb 14, the Celt, loaded with 190 bales of cotton, attempted the blockade. In the process of hugging the coast to escape detection it ground ashore near the rocks of Sullivan’s Island. The surviving crew went their separate ways, one group would brave the water and try to go ashore in the dark, and another seven would row out to the blockading fleet in a small boat and surrender.
Days later, the city of Charleston and all the batteries and forts in the harbor would be abandoned as the Confederates evacuated. The incoming Union navy scoured the coastline and examined the wrecked corpses of the numerous failed blockade runners, including the Celt, that littered the seaboard. According to one Union officer “The Celt lies stranded on the beach at Sullivan’s Island back broken, full of water and decks ripped up. The machinery is in irreparable condition, some few pieces might be removed and be of service. Boilers are mostly below water, but judging from the condition of those parts visible, we are of the opinion they are not worth the expense of removing.”
Over the years, the waves carried away much of the stranded ship, erasing it from memory. Yet, even in the late 20th century, wreckage from the Celt could still be seen off Sullivan’s at low-tide, although this debris was so covered with marine growth that it appeared to be simply part of the rocky shore. Few who passed by, or fished in the surrounding waters, realized that a relic from the War Between the States was in their midst.
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.