That put the U.S. Navy in the unfamiliar role of being the dominant naval power. In both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the smaller U.S. Navy had necessarily avoided fleet engagements with its powerful enemy and relied instead on attacking British commercial shipping, a strategy known by its French name as guerre de course . The British had countered by attempting to blockade the American coast both to interfere with trade and to prevent potential commerce raiders from getting to sea in the first place. In effect, the superior navy employed a blockade, and the weaker naval power turned to commerce raiding. That is also what happened in the Civil War; the Union Navy employed a blockade, and the Confederates turned to a guerre de course . In addition to the blockade, the U.S. Navy played a critical role on the Western rivers and conducted a determined, though only partially successful, pursuit of Confederate commerce raiders.
Initial Blockade Problems
President Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a blockade on 19 April 1861, only four days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, was the administration’s first important strategic decision, and from the very start there were two huge problems to be overcome.
The first was legal. A declaration of a blockade was an act of war, and Lincoln’s pronouncement therefore seemed to grant belligerent status to the Confederacy. For his part, the President insisted that the Confederacy had no legal standing—as far as he was concerned the conflict was simply a rebellion against the government. Consequently, a blockade declaration that seemed to acknowledge the Confederacy was something of an embarrassment. Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, tried to get around the implications of a formal blockade by announcing that domestic unrest in some of its Southern ports required the closing of them to commerce.
This transparent subterfuge did not work, however, because the European powers recognized a blockade when they saw one. Besides, merely closing certain ports would not have allowed Union warships to patrol for blockade violators beyond the immediate coastline. In the end, the Union government had to accept the term “blockade” along with whatever it might imply about the legal status of the Confederacy. 1
Lincoln’s declaration was one factor that led to the British decision to grant belligerency status (though not formal recognition) to the Confederacy. Initially, the United States saw that as a danger. In fact, the decision worked to the Union advantage since it meant that warships and privateers from both sides were barred from using British ports as bases. Though the British would stretch the meaning of neutrality to the near-breaking point during the war, Confederate commerce raiders remained barred from bringing their prizes into British ports—including those in the West Indies—a circumstance that severely limited their effectiveness.
The second problem with the blockade declaration was that according to international law, neutral powers did not have to respect a blockade unless the blockading power established a naval presence off every port that was declared to be under blockade. You could not simply say that a coast was blockaded, you actually had to do it. And that was a problem for the Union because the Confederacy claimed a coastline of some 3,550 miles that was pierced by 189 harbors, inlets, and navigable river mouths. Clearly the Union Navy’s few score warships could not be physically present off all of those places at once. Indeed, at most of those ports and harbors a single ship would be wholly inadequate; at some of them it would require more than a dozen ships even to make a pretense of an “effective force.” Consequently, in spite of the fact that it was already greatly superior to its foe, the U.S. Navy’s first order of business was to expand exponentially to 5, 10, even 15 times its prewar strength.
Most of the new ships were converted merchantmen. Sometimes all it took to turn a steam merchant ship into a man-of-war was strengthening the decks enough to enable them to sustain the weight of the naval ordnance and constructing a magazine below the water line. Those conversions took place at various Northern naval yards. During the course of the war, men working 12-hour shifts at the Brooklyn Navy Yard successfully refitted some 190 ships. In one exceptional case, workers transformed the merchant steamer Monticello into a warship in less than 24 hours. 2
Seizing a Base of Operations
The North’s ability to mobilize so many ships so quickly was a measure of its industrial and maritime supremacy over the South, but maintaining that force off a hostile coast for four years was equally challenging. Since all but a very few of the ships were steam powered—and therefore coal burning—keeping them on the blockade necessitated seizing and holding a number of bases along that coast where they could be refueled and resupplied. One of the first recommendations of the Blockade Strategy Board, established by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles at the beginning of the war, was to secure two coaling stations along the South Atlantic coast. Initially, the board recommended Bull’s Bay, South Carolina, and Fernandina, Florida, but after further consideration, the initial target was shifted to Port Royal, South Carolina.
Port Royal became the objective for two reasons. First was its location between Charleston and Savannah, which would afford blockading squadrons at both those cities a convenient base. A second factor was Port Royal’s geography. Not only was it an enormous roadstead, large enough to accommodate the entire Union Navy, but also its swampy marshes separated the offshore islands from the mainland and protected occupying Union forces from a counterattack by the Rebel army.
Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont, who had chaired the Strategy Board, commanded the fleet that would conduct this first major operation against the enemy shore. He led a huge armada—75 ships in all—the largest naval force ever assembled under the American flag. En route to the target, a terrible storm off Cape Hatteras scattered the fleet all over the ocean—a few of the transports fetched up on the coast of Ireland. Over the next several days, however, most of the ships came in, one by one, and at 0900 on 7 November 1861, Du Pont led his warship squadron into Port Royal Sound.
Up to that point, conventional wisdom was that guns in forts were superior to guns in ships. After all, ships were made of wood, and forts were usually constructed of stone. Forts often had bigger guns and an unlimited supply of ammunition. Finally and decisively, forts did not sink. As the New York Tribune had declared during the Fort Sumter crisis, “ships are no match for land batteries.” 3
But those assumptions did not take into consideration recent dramatic changes in naval technology. Du Pont’s wooden steamers, led by the frigate Wabash , could remain in motion while firing; they could maneuver independent of the wind; and their new and much larger naval guns were more than a match for anything the Confederates had in either Fort Walker or Fort Beauregard, the two works guarding Port Royal. Moreover, the forts were not masonry structures, like Fort Sumter in Charleston. They were log-and-dirt fortresses thrown up just a few months earlier and armed with mostly older, smaller artillery pieces.
Du Pont attacked the larger of them, Fort Walker, first. When the Union ships opened fire, the navigator on board the Wabash remembered that “the air over the fort was filled with clouds of sand, splinters, and fragments of gun carriages and timbers.” After three passes, the Federal gunners had disabled most of the fort’s guns, and the defenders were down to only 500 pounds of powder. Accepting the inevitable, the garrison struck its flag and abandoned the fort, as did Beauregard’s defenders, leaving the roadstead in the hands of the Union. Du Pont’s destruction of Fort Walker demonstrated that a squadron of modern steam warships was more than a match for such defenses. 4
The Federal victory at Port Royal had several important consequences. Psychologically, the news was extremely welcome in the North, which was still burdened by the incubus of the defeat at Bull Run that summer. Strategically, it provided the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron with the base it needed to maintain the blockades of Charleston and Savannah. For the rest of the war, only Hampton Roads surpassed Port Royal in importance as a Union naval base on the enemy coast. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the North could have maintained its blockade of the South Atlantic coast at all without possession of Port Royal. The Union blockading fleet also relied on Key West, Florida, and Ship Island, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, as supply bases for the other squadrons.
The successful seizure of Port Royal also affected Confederate strategy. One interested observer of the engagement was General Robert E. Lee, then acting as Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ military adviser. Sent to South Carolina to observe and report on coastal defense efforts, Lee concluded that the superiority of the Union Navy, its ability to move quickly from place to place, and the impact of its heavy guns meant that the South simply could not defend its coast everywhere. It would have to choose a handful of specific sites that could be defended, and let the rest go by default. From then on, the Confederacy energetically defended only a half dozen key ports: Galveston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina. Most of the rest of the Confederate coast was subsequently occupied by Union forces that were supplied and maintained by sea because of Union naval superiority.
Assessing the Blockade’s Effectiveness
Southern supply bases greatly simplified the U.S. Navy’s job, but maintaining the blockade remained a challenging and often thankless task. The general pattern of trade was for conventional cargo vessels from Europe to bring their goods to a neutral port such as St. George in Bermuda, Nassau in the Bahamas, or Havana, Cuba. There the cargoes were off-loaded into low, fast blockade runners. The vessels, almost always unarmed, then attempted to run into a blockaded port, usually at night. Blacked out and painted a dark gray, they sought to dash past Union warships without being sighted, or if they were spotted, to outrun their pursuers. Those that made it into port would later attempt to dash out to sea, usually loaded with cotton or other exports.
Given the difficulty of spotting or catching them, it is not surprising that most of the ships that tried to run the blockade did so successfully. A more important factor, however, was that relatively few ships tried it. In the last full year of peace, some 20,000 ships entered or left Southern ports, but during the war, that number dropped to only 2,000 ships per year. Even more telling, cotton exports from the South dropped from just under 3 million bales a year before the war to just over 50,000 in the first year of the conflict—less than 2 percent of the prewar total. 5
A precise calculation of just how much the Union blockade hurt the Confederacy is elusive. On the one hand, the South was able to import the essential matériel it needed to sustain its economy and war effort—including 400,000 rifles, 3 million pounds of lead, and more than 2.2 million pounds of saltpeter for manufacturing gunpowder. Historian Stephen Wise is undoubtedly correct in concluding that “without blockade running the nation’s military would have been without proper supplies of arms, bullets, and powder.” 6
On the other hand, the blockade had a cumulative eroding effect on the Southern economy and contributed to inflation and war weariness within both the civilian population and the Army, thereby undermining the Confederate war effort. As historian William H. Roberts put it, if the blockade was “never airtight” it “was constricting enough that the South was constantly gasping for economic breath.” It is likely that the Union would have won the war even without the blockade, as long as the Northern population sustained the Lincoln administration, but almost as surely the war would have lasted longer and been more costly. So it is possible to argue that the blockade probably saved many thousands of lives. 7
Advantages, Disadvantages on the Western Rivers
After the blockade, the most important assignment for the Union Navy was on the rivers in the Western theater—the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Significantly, while the rivers in the East nearly all ran horizontally (as viewed on a map) and thus acted as barriers to any Union advance, rivers in the West mostly flowed vertically, either north to south like the Mississippi, or south to north like the Tennessee and the Cumberland. As a result, the latter served as potential avenues for Union advances. Both sides knew that whoever commanded the Western rivers had a tremendous strategic advantage.
As in the saltwater war, the Union had the benefit of possessing an industrial base that allowed it to produce more and better warships for use in the river war. Even before the transformation of the Merrimack into the Virginia or the construction of the Monitor , salvage expert James Buchanan Eads of St. Louis built a flotilla of small river gunboats that were armor plated and powerfully armed yet still capable of maneuvering in relatively shallow water. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman is said to have remarked admiringly that they could navigate in a heavy dew.
The South, too, attempted an ironclad-building program for the Western rivers and laid down two big ironclads at New Orleans and two more at Memphis. In the end, however, the Confederacy’s inferior industrial base and the rapid conquest of both of those Southern cites derailed the effort. Only one of the four ironclads was ever completed (the CSS Arkansas ), and for the most part, the South had to depend on shore fortifications to try to prevent Union armies from using the axes of the rivers as avenues of advance. They initially erected a defense line—the so-called “long Kentucky line”—from Island Number Ten on the Mississippi to the Cumberland Gap, more or less approximating the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The ensuing Union campaign to break this line pitted Union ironclad warships backed by land forces against Confederate fortifications.
One problem the Union had in executing its campaign was that there was no existing protocol for joint operations in the 19th century—no Department of Defense or Joint Chiefs of Staff. There was simply no such thing as a Joint Command in either the North or the South. The ability of generals and admirals to work effectively together depended entirely on the willingness of the commanders to cooperate. After some confusion in the early months of war, what emerged was an arrangement in which the Union Army retained strategic control of operations within the Western theater, and U.S. Navy officers exercised tactical command of their ships and squadrons. Even then, however, it became clear that the key to Union success on the Western rivers was the willingness of Army and Navy officers to work together, because neither could give orders to the other.
Key Early Victories
The first trial came at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, in his first important operation, and Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote combined to break through a key position in the long Kentucky line. Foote’s ironclad gunboat flotilla carried Grant’s troops to a point just above Fort Henry, and then took the fort under fire from the river as Grant’s Soldiers advanced overland. As it happened, the Confederate commander at Henry, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, recognized the vulnerability of his position and evacuated his infantry, choosing to defend the fort with his artillery alone. In the ensuing gun duel, Foote’s four ironclads overwhelmed the fortress’ batteries, and Fort Henry capitulated before Grant’s men could arrive. Foote’s gunboats then steamed past the fort, seven miles upriver to destroy the railroad bridge over the Tennessee River, thereby cutting a crucial east-west link for the Confederacy. That compelled two Confederate armies to evacuate not only all of Kentucky, but most of Tennessee as well.
If the Navy won the honors at Fort Henry, the Army had its turn at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, only a day’s march east of Henry and the linchpin of Confederate defenses in the West. There, Foote’s gunboats proved far less formidable, because Donelson was situated on higher ground and its defenders could fire their artillery down into the vessels on the river with plunging fire. This time it was Grant’s army that compelled the surrender of the Rebel fort, on 16 February 1862.
Army-Navy cooperation proved more efficient in the Union campaign against Island Number Ten on the Mississippi River in April. The island, so named because it was the tenth island in numbered sequence from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, was the site of the principal Confederate defense of the Mississippi. Protected by an impassable marshland to the east and the river itself to the west, the fort was secure from a conventional overland attack except from the south. Union forces could assail the Rebel defenses only if the Navy could somehow get past the Confederate fortifications on the island to escort Union troops across the river.
On 4 April, Commander Henry Walke, captain of the ironclad Carondelet , volunteered to run his ship past the enemy batteries. Foote was skeptical but gave his permission. Despite a harrowing journey, Walke made it, and his example inspired a second run by the Pittsburg two nights later. The two gunboats then escorted the army of Major General John Pope across the river to the Confederate rear to achieve a nearly bloodless victory. It was a model of effective joint operations. Neither the Army nor the Navy working alone could have pulled it off, but working together they made it look easy.
From the Crescent City to Vicksburg
That same month, 500 miles to the south as the river flows, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut ran his oceangoing warships past the forts on the lower Mississippi that protected the city of New Orleans. Farragut’s feat was particularly significant because the Rebel fortifications were not quickly erected dirt-and-log forts, like those at Port Royal or Island Number Ten, but large masonry structures; between them, Fort Jackson (on the western bank) and Fort St. Philip (on the eastern side) boasted a total of 128 heavy guns. Nevertheless, on 24 April Farragut’s wooden oceangoing warships steamed through an opening cut in a log-and-chain boom across the Mississippi and took the forts under fire. Fourteen of the vessels successfully ran the gauntlet against the river’s current, and easily dispatched the small squadron of Confederate warships that came out to contest their passage, Farragut proceeded up to New Orleans, anchored off Jackson Square, and demanded the city’s surrender. New Orleans was the largest city and most important seaport in the Confederacy, and its fall so early in the war was a tremendous blow to Southern hopes.
With command of the lower Mississippi, Farragut steamed upriver past Baton Rouge to Vicksburg. But he could not capture the city. As Farragut’s foster-brother Commander David Dixon Porter archly noted, ships “cannot crawl up hills 300 feet high.” As at Island Number Ten, the key to eventual Union success at Vicksburg was the cooperation of Union Army and Navy commanders. Fortuitously, the triumvirate of Grant, Sherman, and Porter, who took command of the Mississippi Squadron of gunboats in September 1862, proved to be a model of cooperation, especially when contrasted with the confusion and disagreement that characterized the Confederate high command in the West.
In April 1863, when Grant asked Porter to run his squadron past the Vicksburg batteries, the naval officer agreed to do it. He did not have to; Grant could not order it. But Porter’s gunboats nevertheless steamed through heavy Confederate gunfire on 16 April and subsequently escorted Grant’s army across the river. After a harrowing march into Mississippi, several battles, and a 47-day siege, Vicksburg fell on 4 July. Once again, Grant could not have done it without the Navy, nor could Porter have had done it without Grant. It was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Cooperation proved essential, too, in the Union effort to close down the last of the important Confederate ports along the Atlantic coast: Charleston, Mobile, and Wilmington. At each of these places a joint effort was essential to Union success, though cooperation was more evident at some venues than others. Bickering between Union Army and Navy commanders at Charleston continued throughout a siege that lasted more than two years, and in the end, the city fell only when it was threatened by Sherman’s army marching north from Savannah in February 1865.
The Union assault on Mobile, Alabama, was also a joint operation, though the city was effectively neutralized as a haven for blockade runners when Farragut damned the torpedoes and ran past Fort Morgan into Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864. In December 1864, the first joint Union assault on Fort Fisher, which guarded the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, failed in large part because of mistrust between the Union Army and Navy commanders, Major General Benjamin Butler and now–Rear Admiral Porter. However, a second attempt in January 1865, with Major General Alfred H. Terry replacing Butler, proved successful.
War on the High Seas
The third element of the Union naval effort in the Civil War was its pursuit of Confederate commerce raiders such as the Alabama , Florida , and Shenandoah . Initially, Jefferson Davis sought to attack Yankee merchant shipping by issuing letters of marque to Southern privateers. But the experiment was short-lived simply because the combination of the Union blockade and the British declaration of neutrality eliminated most ports where prizes could be sent for adjudication and condemnation. Without the opportunity to make a profit, the whole raison d’être for privateering disappeared.
Consequently, commerce raiding was left to Confederate Navy warships that were built or purchased in England and manned by international crews. The most successful of these was the Alabama , commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes. Over the course of two years (July 1862–June 1864) Semmes and the Alabama captured and burned no fewer than 64 Union merchant ships and sank one Union warship, the Hatteras . Northern merchants were horrified by the success of these “pirates,” as they were called in the Northern press. The New York Chamber of Commerce pressed Welles to establish convoys to protect American shipping. Convoys might well have worked, but the concept was unpopular with professional Navy men, and Navy Secretary Welles rejected the idea. He could not inaugurate a convoy system without weakening the blockade, which he considered more important. Instead, he sent out fast, heavily armed ships to try to hunt down the raiders, a strategy that mostly proved frustrating and ineffectual. Nevertheless, Union warships did capture or destroy two of the most notorious raiders in 1864.
One was the Alabama . In a classic ship-to-ship duel on 19 June, the Kearsarge , commanded by Captain John Winslow, sank the raider off Cherbourg, France. In October the Wachusett , under Commander Napoleon Collins, captured the Florida in the neutral port of Bahia, Brazil. The sinking of the Alabama triggered unalloyed celebration in the North, but the seizure of the Florida caused some embarrassment. Collins had flagrantly attacked the Florida in a neutral port, and for that he was subsequently found guilty at a court-martial and sentenced to be dismissed from the Navy. Months later, however, after tempers had cooled and the war had ended, he was quietly restored to duty.
The last of the Rebel raiders was Commander James I. Waddell’s CSS Shenandoah . After savaging the North’s Pacific whaling fleet in the spring and summer of 1865, Waddell learned that the war had ended in May. Fearing reprisal for the captures he had made after that, he directed the Shenandoah back to England, where her flag was hauled down in November 1865, the last Confederate surrender of the war.
The Union did not win the Civil War because of its naval superiority, but it was an important element in the victory. The blockade created shortages and hardship within the Confederacy and effectively cut off the nascent nation from the rest of the world. The Navy was a full partner in the strategically important victories in the Western theater that split the Confederacy nearly in half. For all their success, the handful of Rebel commerce raiders could not threaten Union naval superiority or change the war’s outcome. In the end, despite such innovations as ironclads, mines, and even a submarine, the South simply found itself overmatched at sea.
2. Craig L. Symonds, “The Economics of Civil War: Money, Manufacturing, and Commerce,” in Harold Holzer, ed., Lincoln and New York (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2009), p. 87.
3. “Can Fort Sumter be Taken?” New York Tribune , reprinted in Washington Constitution , 14 January 1861.
4. John D. Hayes, “The Battle of Port Royal, S.C. from the Journal of John Sanford Barnes, October 8 to November 9, 1861,” The New-York Historical Society Quarterly (October 1961), 45:379.
5. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea , pp. 54–57.
6. Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running in the Civil War (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), p. 226.
7. William H. Roberts, Now for the Contest: Coastal and Oceanic Naval Operations in the Civil War (Lincoln, NE: 2004), p. 164; Symonds, The Civil War at Sea , p. 58.
Was the U.S. Navy Ready for War in 1861?
By Craig L. Symonds
Virtually every general history of the Civil War emphasizes how unprepared for war the United States was in 1861. If these books mention the Navy at all, they report that it was in more or less the same situation. After all, in 1861 the U.S. Navy had only 90 vessels listed on its Register of Ships , fewer than half of which (42) were capable of active service, and most of those were on distant stations from Brazil to China. Soon after he was inaugurated, President Abraham Lincoln asked his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, what kind of naval force could be made available in case of war, and Welles named only 12 ships that could “at once” be put into service. Clearly that was not a Navy that was prepared to command the South’s coastline, impose an impervious blockade, pursue Confederate commerce raiders, fight on the Western rivers, and do all the other jobs it would be assigned in the forthcoming struggle.
On the other hand, the catalog of inadequacy overlooks the fact that the Civil War marked the culmination of an era of technological innovation that had a dramatic impact on the character of naval warfare. These innovations included the screw propeller, more efficient steam engines, rifled and banded naval guns, and exploding ordnance, among others. To employ the new technologies, the United States had authorized and built from the keel up no fewer than 24 major new combatants in the decade before the outbreak of war. It was the country’s largest peacetime naval expansion since the Naval Act of 1816. Because of that, though the 1861 Navy was relatively small, it contained a disproportionate number of new, up-to-date warships that gave it an insurmountable superiority over its Southern foe.
The first ships of this dramatic expansion were five Merrimack -class screw (that is, propeller-driven) frigates, all named for American rivers and therefore sometimes called River-class frigates. (The others were the Wabash , Minnesota , Roanoke , and Colorado . Included in this same authorization was a sixth frigate, the Niagara , which was somewhat differently designed, being longer with sharper lines and having fewer guns.) Superficially, at least, they looked very much like sailing frigates of an earlier age. Nevertheless, they were steam-powered and propeller-driven and boasted an impressive armament consisting entirely of shell guns. When the Merrimack visited English ports in 1856-57, her powerful battery so impressed the British that they began planning a new class of steam warships of their own.
Southerners complained that the Merrimacks were so large (they drew more than 23 feet) they were unable to operate in shallow Southern ports. In 1856, therefore, President Franklin Pierce’s Navy Secretary, James C. Dobbin, went back to Congress to urge the construction of another new class of warships: smaller, shallower-draft steam sloops, and the first U.S. Navy warships to have twin screws. The ships were named for American cities. The first and the namesake of the class was the Hartford , which during the Civil War became famous as the flagship of David Glasgow Farragut. (The others were the Richmond , Brooklyn , Pensacola , and Lancaster .) Launched in 1858, the Hartford drew only 18 feet of water, which allowed her and her sister ships to enter most Southern ports where the bigger Merrimacks could not go. This pleased Southerners, though once the war started they were less pleased. During the conflict, the Hartford , as well as the Richmond and Brooklyn , would steam up the Mississippi to Vicksburg and fight her way into Mobile Bay.
The same year the Hartford was launched, Congress appropriated money for yet a third type of new steam warships. The first of these screw steamers, the Mohican , was launched only a year later, in 1859. (The others were the Pawnee , Wyoming , Iroquois , Dacotah , Seminole , and Narragansett .) Though these smaller ships also carried masts and spars, their sail pattern was much reduced, and they were the first warships in American history to be classified as genuine steam warships rather than auxiliary steamers.
Thus it was that between 1854 and 1859—that is, between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—the U.S. Congress authorized funds for three new classes of steam-powered, propeller-driven warships, as well as a handful of others—24 altogether. These timely appropriations enlarged and modernized the U.S. Navy so that it can be fairly argued that the service was better prepared for war in 1861 than for any previous war.