The Vesta's Final Chapter


The Vesta

Part Three

Last time, we left the Vesta run aground and set ablaze by her captain. After outrunning eleven blockading ships and perhaps over celebrating via the whiskey stores, the captain ordered the pilot to take the ship in to Fort Fisher. The Vesta of course did not run aground at Fort Fisher. It ended its short life as a blockade runner right here in Sunset Beach.

Fortunately all of the passengers and crew were taken ashore and they eventually made their way to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. The Vesta remained alone in the waves but the smoke from the fire attracted notice once the sun rose. The blockading ship Aries was ordered to investigate the smoke by Acting Rear Admiral S.P. Lee (third cousin of Robert E. Lee.)  On January 11 at 10:30 a.m. they “discovered a double propeller steamer on shore 4 miles below and to the westward of Tubb’s Inlet.” Acting Lt. Devens reported that he saw “two companies of infantry on shore; fired three rifled shot at them.”  You may remember mention of the Aries in Part One. She was also built by the Dudgeon Brothers in London and was a blockade runner until captured and later converted to a blockading ship. The Aries returned the next day and boarded the Vesta. They found the ship unsalvageable and recovered only two anchors which sadly are lost to history.

The fate of the Vesta is emblematic of the importance of blockade runners, particularly at that point of the Civil War. Although the initial naval blockade of southern ports was difficult to enforce, by 1864 federal forces were increasingly successful in blocking those ports.The loss of vital supplies and the ships that carried them had a devastating effect on the Confederate war effort. By the beginning of 1864 only the ports of Wilmington and Charleston remained open. Only a few ships were able to enter Charleston Harbor. Once the rail lines were cut, Charleston was no long a source of military supplies.

Lee famously stated that as long as he had Wilmington he could supply his troops. However, in late December 1864 a long planned attack was launched on Fort Fisher. A ship disguised a a blockade runner was filled with explosives and towed in close to the fort. A huge explosion occurred according to plan, but it did no damage to the fort and the attack was unsuccessful.

The federal troops regrouped and after planning a much more organized attack, launched a naval bombardment of Fort Fisher on January 12, 1865. This was followed up by a land attack and finally on January 15, the fort was taken. This ended the essential flow of supplies from blockade runners to Lee.

February saw the final battles raging for Wilmington beginning on the 12th of February and finally ending on February 25 with the fall of the city. On April 12, 1865 the war ended with the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox.

For the next chapter in the Vesta’s story, we fast forward one hundred years. Hurricane Hazel struck our coast in October 1954 bringing death and destruction to much of Brunswick County. Even weeks after the storm, the tides continued to bring interesting items to shore. On Bald Beach (the previous name of Sunset Beach), a local resident and his dog traveled to the island by boat for a peaceful walk. Frank Nesmith noticed a chunk of metal poking through the sand. Upon further examination and verification by an expert, it was determined to be a piece of a 30 lb. Parrott shell. Although no one can say with one hundred percent accuracy, it is almost certainly from one of the “three rifled  shot” fired at the artillery companies by the Aries. You can see this shell fragment and other Civil War artifacts at the Old Bridge Museum (once it is able to safely reopen.)

And where is the Vesta now? When the original Vesta Pier was built, a gap was left in the pilings over the buried ship. Its iron hull would not let the pilings be placed over it. Many longtime residents recall seeing it at low tide and sitting on it to fish. The photo you see above was taken sometime in the sixties. Time marched on and the accretion of sand over the years has enlarged the beach significantly. One hundred and fifty years later, it lies buried deep under the sand close to the Pier house.

If you'd like to know a little more, here are some stories connected to the Vesta.

As you will recall from the Vesta, a  Union ship was sent to explore the smoking ruins of the foundered vessel. Acting Volunteer Lt. Devens,  in command of the Aries, made two trips to the ship and reported back to Acting Rear Admiral S. P. Lee, Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. That last name does ring a bell, right? Lee? Could they be related you wonder, and the answer is yes, they were third cousins. But actually, that is not the most interesting part of the story.

Samuel Phillips Lee was born in Fairfax County, Virginia on February 13, 1812. He was related to numerous famous Lees including his grandfather Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  He was appointed as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy and made a career in that service. His choice to remain in the service of the United States stood in sharp contrast to his cousin's decision to join the Confederacy, just one more example of how the Civil War divided families.

Lee's wife Elizabeth was born in Frankfort, Kentucky. Later her family moved to Washington D.C., where her father became quite influential in political circles. He purchased a house not too far from the White House and numerous distinguished figures were guests. Elizabeth's closest friend, Emily Donelson, was the niece of President Andrew Jackson and served as First Lady for her widowed uncle.

Elizabeth and Samuel met in 1839 and married four years later. Her father built a house next to his and gifted it to the couple. During their marriage the Lees were frequently apart due to Samuel's duties in the Navy. Elizabeth wrote to him daily about the goings on in Washington and the influential people she met. Among her friends was Mary Todd Lincoln. Over the course of their fifty-four year marriage, she wrote thousands of letters which were preserved by her descendants. You can find several sources for the letters online.

If you wonder why she is included in our stories, perhaps it will help you to know Elizabeth's maiden name, Blair, and the address of the house at 1657 Pennsylvania Avenue. Today we know it as Blair House, the President's guest house. Blair-Lee House, as it was known originally, was purchased by the U.S. Government in 1942 at the urging of President Roosevelt.

Another interesting story from the Vesta concerns the passengers. As you'll remember, the paying passengers, including three women, and crew all made it safely to shore. But what happened to them then? They couldn't exactly call an Uber but they did manage to travel to Richmond and therein lies the story.

Although we don't know exactly how they traveled to Wilmington, it is likely that they were able to get a ride by coach or wagon. Once in Wilmington they would have boarded the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad (and that's where the story gets interesting.) In 1833 the NC General Assembly approved a charter for a railroad connecting Wilmington and Raleigh. The idea was that it made sense to connect the largest port with the state capitol. However, there was not sufficient financial support from Raleigh and the train took (pardon the pun) a different track.

The Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad company took in the Halifax and Weldon Railroad and in 1835 the charter was changed to reflect this. Thus, the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad was officially named.  Once the WWR was completed in 1840, it stretched 161 ½ miles and was the longest railroad in the world! It connected with the Petersburg Railroad and another line to Richmond would have delivered our passengers to both the capitol of Virginia and of the Confederacy.