More Than Just Blockade Duty

By Robert M. Browning Jr.

The Gulf of Mexico's American coast is a vast expanse. The only remaining Federal presence in early 1861 after the South seceded was at its entrance, Key West. The coastline from there to Brownsville, Texas, was nearly 2,000 miles long. Numerous shallow inlets and barrier islands protected inward passages, and shallow coastal waters made the use of large blockaders hazardous. In 1861 the Navy's fleet mainly consisted of deep-draft warships, and Mervine initially had only 11 ships under his command. Thus the task of effectively blockading the Gulf coast was almost impossible. During that year, more than 400 different vessels would run through the Union cordon over 1,600 times. 2

In several ways, blockading the Gulf Coast was more difficult than sealing off the East Coast. While both Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, attracted Confederate trade, the expansive and shallow waters of the Gulf Coast also invited blockade running and made the blockade's enforcement more difficult. The trade there differed, however, because small sailing vessels ran the cordon throughout the war. From 1861 to 1865, there would be nearly 3,000 attempts, about two a day, to run the Gulf Coast blockade-a rate 33 percent higher than along the East Coast. 3

Schooners would violate the Gulf blockade more than any other type of vessel. They were fast, could sail close to the wind, and could escape into small, shallow inlets. On dark nights and in foggy or rainy weather they were nearly impossible to detect. The owners of these craft were also their operators, and the schooners typically carried local produce, like cotton and sugar, out of port and imported dry goods, medicines, and other items that could be sold locally. 4

Larger, steam-powered blockade runners, however, received the most attention from the U.S. Navy. Their passage through the blockade was usually heralded in local papers and noted by the Navy Department. Consequently, the most important Gulf ports for U.S. warships to seal off were the ones that could accommodate these oceangoing ships-New Orleans; Mobile, Alabama; and Galveston, Texas. In the case of New Orleans, this meant patrolling the mouth of the Mississippi River's five channels. The Navy tried to maintain a strong blockade of all three ports, but it was often at the expense of leaving shallow coastal entrances unwatched. Once the Confederates began building ironclads at Mobile, the blockade's enforcement there became more dangerous and unpredictable.

Unable to stop blockade running in the Gulf and having little to show after four months of command, Mervine was relieved by a seemingly more energetic officer on 22 September 1861. While more active, Captain William W. McKean, 61, quickly suffered a setback.

On 12 October, the Confederate ram Manassas and six small gunboats sortied from New Orleans down the Mississippi River. At Head of the Passes, where the Mississippi's five entrances converge, four Union blockaders under the command of Captain "Honest" John Pope of the screw sloop Richmond lay at anchor. The approach of the turtle-like Rebel ship sent unprepared Union crews to general quarters. After ramming the Richmond, the Manassas fired rockets to signal accompanying Confederate gunboats to release fire rafts. In response, the Union ships fired widely at the ram as the vessel, damaged in her collision with the sloop, withdrew. Pope, meanwhile, ordered his force to retreat into the Gulf. 5

Termed "Pope's Run" by Welles, the incident was an embarrassment to the Navy that revealed the weakness of its forces in the Gulf. The incident also signaled to the Navy Department, which was then considering an attack on the Mississippi Valley's gateway-New Orleans-that another change in squadron commanders may be necessary.

Capturing the Crescent City

Two major factors made New Orleans an important target for Union capture: It was the South's largest city and a leading manufacturing center, and the entrances to the Mississippi River were difficult to patrol with the small Union naval force available. Moreover, capture of New Orleans was part of the Navy Department's larger goal of gaining control of the Mississippi.

Secretary Welles realized he had to choose a bold commander to lead the attack against the Crescent City. Going through the possible candidates, he settled on a relatively unknown officer, Captain David Glasgow Farragut, who was optimistic about the expedition's prospects when he was briefed about it. On 9 January 1862, Welles appointed Farragut to command the newly formed West Gulf Blockading Squadron, a division of the Gulf Squadron whose area of responsibility stretched from Pensacola to Brownsville. Welles not only instructed Farragut to clear the river but also to keep "a vigorous blockade at every point." 6

The capture of New Orleans would not be easy. Forts Jackson and St. Philip guarded the river at a bend about 70 miles below the city and more than 20 miles above the Mississippi's entrances. Other defenses included the River Defense Fleet, a motley collection of poorly armed ex-merchant vessels; the Manassas; the unfinished ironclad Louisiana; and a barricade of hulks chained together to stop an ascent by Union warships.

To battle its way upriver, the West Gulf Blockading Squadron had 24 warships, mounting about 200 guns, and a flotilla of 19 mortar vessels. The latter ships were sent to bombard the forts to ease the warships' passage past the strongpoints. An Army force under Major General Benjamin Butler would help secure the city.

By mid-April Farragut had nearly all his vessels in the Mississippi, and on the 18th, the mortar flotilla began a nearly continuous bombardment of Fort Jackson, just downriver from St. Philip. Meanwhile, under cover of darkness on the night of the 20th, a naval expedition breached the river barricade. On the 23rd, with mortar fire having failed to materially damage the fort and the guns' ammunition nearly exhausted, Farragut boldly decided to steam past the forts.

At 0200 the next night, the vessels got under way in three divisions. After passing the forts, the Union warships were halfheartedly attacked by the River Defense Fleet. In the melee, Farragut's squadron destroyed most of the Confederate naval force while losing one vessel, the gunboat Varuna, the only U.S. ship sunk in the battle.

On 25 April, the Union squadron arrived off New Orleans in a pouring rain. Farragut sent a few officers ashore to ask for the city's surrender, but negotiations dragged on for days until the garrisons of forts Jackson and St. Philip surrendered. On 1 May, General Butler's forces arrived to take over the city.

Riverine Operations: Splitting the Confederacy

With the capture of New Orleans, the Navy Department was confident the Mississippi River would soon be in Union hands. In a pincer movement, Northern warships were also moving downriver as the West Gulf Blockading Squadron advanced northward. On 8 May, Farragut's ships arrived at Baton Rouge and demanded and received the town's surrender. Five days later, naval crews landed at Natchez, Mississippi. Farragut's warships then continued upriver toward Vicksburg, which an advance division of the fleet reached on the afternoon of 18 May. A demand for the city's surrender was quickly rebuffed by Confederate authorities, who in part said, "Mississippians don't know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy." 7

Farragut, after arriving off Vicksburg and observing the enemy emplacements high above the river, realized his ships could not reduce the batteries, and no troops were available to take the fortifications. With his squadron short on supplies, Farragut left behind six gunboats to blockade Vicksburg and returned downriver with the rest of his vessels. When he arrived at New Orleans, the squadron commander found messages reprimanding him for leaving Vicksburg. A dispatch from the Navy Department stated that his original instructions called for his warships to clear the Mississippi River, with the aid of the Western Flotilla, under the command of Flag Officer Charles Henry Davis. With the promise of troops from Butler, Farragut made preparations to return upriver. 8

By the summer of 1862, it appeared that the Navy would soon accomplish its goal of securing the length of the river. On 6 June, the Western Flotilla, advancing downriver, captured Memphis, leaving the Mississippi virtually under Union control with the exception of Vicksburg. With his squadron augmented by the mortar flotilla again below Vicksburg, Farragut began bombarding the city on 26 June. At 0200 on the 28th, eight of his warships steamed past the fortified town under heavy fire. Three days later Flag Officer Davis and his flotilla joined the blockading squadron's ships. 9

The united Union naval force, however, soon suffered an unexpected setback while awaiting the arrival of troops. On 14 July, the ironclad CSS Arkansas sortied down the Yazoo River toward its confluence with the Mississippi. Along the way, she surprised three Union warships sent to locate her. Quickly reversing course, the U.S. vessels engaged in a running battle with the Arkansas as they headed downstream. After disabling one of the ships, the ironclad Carondelet, the Confederate vessel continued chasing the others into the Mississippi. Catching the West Gulf Blockading Squadron and the Western Flotilla unprepared, the Arkansas fought her way through their anchorage and pulled up under Vicksburg's guns. 10

Farragut, angry about the Confederate ironclad's escape, attempted to destroy her that evening as his ships again ran past Vicksburg under heavy fire from shore batteries. The effort failed, with only one shot hitting the Arkansas. Since Flag Officer Davis' Western Flotilla included ironclads, and with water depth in the river falling and sickness taking a toll on his crews, Farragut received permission to drop downriver to Baton Rouge.

On 3 August, the repaired Arkansas was ordered to the same city to support a Confederate attack there. Three days later, just before reaching Baton Rouge, her engines failed and the Confederates destroyed the ironclad, ending her short career. With the Arkansas no longer a threat to Union operations, Farragut was able to take most of his force downriver to New Orleans, where word arrived of his promotion to rear admiral on 12 August.

In the spring of 1863, Union military and naval leadership again stepped up efforts to take Vicksburg, as well as Port Hudson, about 200 miles downriver. Beginning work in the fall of 1862, the Confederates had turned the latter into a heavily fortified bastion. While the Western Flotilla, now under Rear Admiral David Porter's command, and troops led by Major General Ulysses S. Grant moved against Vicksburg, Farragut's squadron operated with Army forces under Major General Nathanial P. Banks to capture Port Hudson.

Farragut brought his warships, including mortar vessels, upriver once more and prepared to pass the batteries at Port Hudson on 14 March. Before setting out that night, he had gunboats lashed to the port sides of three of his large screw sloops, including his flagship, the Hartford. The admiral hoped that doing so would allow greater mobility, and if one ship was seriously damaged perhaps her consort could save her. The side-wheel frigate Mississippi would make the run alone. The ships came under fire at 2320. This attempt to steam past Confederate guns, however, was less successful than the squadron's earlier efforts. Damage to two pairs of ships caused them to drop out of line and then downriver, and the Mississippi, which ran aground, was destroyed. Only the Hartford and her consort, the Albatross, managed to steam above the batteries. 11

For more than three months Banks' troops and Farragut's warships besieged Port Hudson, while for much of that time Grant and Porter invested Vicksburg. The surrender of both fortified positions in July opened the entire Mississippi River to Union traffic, cut the Confederacy in two, and allowed Farragut to fully concentrate on the blockade and the capture of Mobile.

Disasters in Texas

Clearing the Mississippi was strategically important, but it had been at the expense of a more rigorous blockade. Nowhere was that more evident than along the expansive coast of Texas. The blockade of the Lone Star State was overly difficult because of its numerous shallow inlets, bays, and barrier islands. With the nearest permanent coaling station and repair facilities at New Orleans, maintaining steam vessels off these points was nearly impossible. Despite Union efforts to blockade the coast, small vessels were able to continually make their way into and out of port.

With the surrender of Galveston in late 1862, however, the strategic situation seemed to improve for the Texas blockaders. On 4 October, Commander William B. Renshaw had led eight warships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron into the port and demanded its surrender. Believing he could not successfully defend the town, the local Confederate commander evacuated his forces. Renshaw's naval contingent was the sole Union force holding Galveston until Christmas, when three companies of the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment arrived to garrison Galveston Island.

Additional Union troops sent to Galveston, however, did not reach the town before Confederate Major General John Bankhead Magruder arrived to retake the island. He had gathered cavalry, infantry, artillery, and two river steamers converted into cottonclads, the Bayou City and Neptune. Arriving at Galveston on New Year's Eve, the Confederates quickly overwhelmed the Federal troops ashore. The five Union ships off the town could not maneuver in the shallow water, and the cottonclads captured one of them, the Harriet Lane, a former revenue cutter that had been transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1861. Renshaw's flagship, the side-wheel steamer Westfield, ran aground, and her commander died in a bungled attempt to blow her up. The other Union ships left the port, and Galveston remained under Confederate control for the rest of the war. 12

Less than two weeks later, Farragut's command received another blow. On the afternoon of 11 January, blockaders off Galveston spotted sails on the horizon, and the gunboat Hatteras was ordered to give chase. Coming up on the stranger at dusk, Commander Henry T. Blake asked the ship's identity. She replied, "HBMS Spitfire." As the two vessels closed and the Stars and Bars was hoisted above the mysterious ship, however, a different answer came across the water: "We're the CSS Alabama." Captain Raphael Semmes' cruiser quickly opened fire. The two warships fought for about 20 minutes at ranges from 25 to 200 yards. The Alabama's shots, though, quickly took effect and sank the outgunned Hatteras. This loss was another blow to the prestige of the squadron and its commander.

In addition to large-scale riverine operations, the West Gulf Blockading Squadron also participated in amphibious expeditions. In the summer of 1863, with French troops fighting in Mexico, the Lincoln administration wanted to again raise the U.S. flag in Texas. On 7 September, four small gunboats accompanied by transports carrying 5,000 troops arrived off Sabine Pass intending to land the infantrymen, who were to march to the state's interior. Located two miles inside the channel, the Confederate defenses consisted of Fort Griffin-six guns (two 32-pounders, two 24-pounders, and two 32-pounder howitzers) manned by 42 men under the command of Lieutenant Richard "Dick" Dowling.

On 8 September, the vessels began entering the pass, and the gunboats Clifton and Sachem steamed ahead to silence the fort's guns. Instead, shots from the fort disabled both ships' boilers, and the gunboats surrendered. The transports, meanwhile, retired without landing their troops. In the war's most lopsided defeat, the Union forces lost 19 killed, 9 wounded, 37 missing, and 315 captured, while the Confederates suffered no casualties. 13

Blockade of Mobile

After the capture of New Orleans, Mobile was the most important Confederate port to patrol. While not the most difficult harbor in the Confederacy to blockade, Mobile Bay did have features that complicated enforcement. Outside the main channel into the bay were several bars and islands that dissected the entrance. The outer bar was more than three miles from the bay's throat. Deep-draft ships could use the main channel, but shallow-draft vessels could also access the bay and port via shallower passages along the coast. Complicating the blockade's enforcement at the bay's mouth was the shallow water to either side of the main ship channel. Only warships with the shallowest of drafts could maneuver in those shoal areas. Union ships also kept their distance from the bay's mouth because of Confederate defenses there.

The Mobile blockaders usually anchored during the day. At night, they typically moved nearer the mouth of the bay but withdrew out of range of the Confederate forts before daylight. As the war progressed and more vessels were available off Mobile, Union warships patrolled farther from the bay and along shipping lanes. They particularly monitored the routes leading to and from Havana, the port most often used by steam blockade runners.

The commerce raider CSS Florida twice showed the Mobile blockade's impotence. On 4 September 1862, the recently commissioned cruiser ran past Union ships and into the bay under a tremendous fusillade of gunfire. Severely damaged, she was repaired. On 16 January 1863, her commanding officer, Captain John N. Maffitt, again steamed her through the blockade, and the raider went on to capture or destroy 38 prizes.

During the war, the Union Navy discovered that the only way to completely seal a port was by capture. The service's commanders, especially Farragut, always considered Mobile a key target; however, it was not until the summer of 1864 that the Army could spare troops for the effort, which were needed to seize the forts guarding the bay's entrance as well as the port itself. On 5 August, the West Gulf Blockading Squadron's entry into the bay effectively closed the port. Union troops soon captured the forts at the bay's mouth and at war's end finally seized the city of Mobile.

The West Gulf Blockading Squadron's support of Army movements had been essential in closing the Mississippi River. Yet the important goal of shutting down Mobile to seaborne commerce was left until late in the war. The loss of Mobile Bay proved the coup de grace for blockade running in the Gulf. While Galveston remained open for ten more months, it was incredibly difficult for ships to run into the port. Moreover, cargoes arriving there were of relatively little value to the war effort because Galveston was so far from the battlefront.

Statistics for the blockade of the Gulf Coast during the Civil War make the cordon look like a sieve. Blockade runners made nearly 2,500 successful runs into Gulf ports and had an 83 percent success rate. But hundreds of those trips were made during the first year of the war. 14

Numbers, however, do not tell the full story. Most successful runs were made by small craft whose cargoes contributed little to the war effort. The squadron's effectiveness increased during the war, and after 1862, mainly the fastest and most specialized steam vessels were running the blockade, into and out of Mobile and Galveston. While the overall Union cordon did strangle the Confederate economy and Admiral Farragut did his utmost to keep "a vigorous blockade at every point," the West Gulf Blockading Squadron's work with the Army to secure the Mississippi River was a strategic blow from which the Confederacy never recovered. 

1. Welles to Mervine, 7, 14 May, eds. Richard Rush et. al., Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 31 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894-1927), ser. 1, 16:620-21 (hereafter cited as ORN).

2. Price includes the entire Gulf in his figures, which would include the ports in West Florida. Marcus W. Price, "Ships that Tested the Blockade of the Gulf Ports: 1861-1865," The American Neptune, Vol. XI, No. 4 (Oct. 1951), p. 290.

3. Ibid.

4. See William Watson's The Civil War Adventures of a Blockade Runner, London: Unwin Brothers, 1892.

5. Pope to McKean, 13, 17 October 1861, ORN, 1, 16:703-705, 709-11.

6. Welles to Farragut, 9 January 1862, ORN, 1, 18:5.

7. Autrey to Lee, 18 May 1862, ORN, 1, 18:492.

8. Farragut to Fox, 30 May 1862, ORN, 1, 18:521-22.

9. Farragut to Welles, 28 June 1862, ORN, 1, 18:588.

10. Brown to Lynch, 15 July 1862, ORN, 1, 19:68-69.

11. Faxon to Farragut, 13 March 1863, ORN, 1, 19:661; Farragut to Welles, 16 Martch 1863, Ibid., pp. 665-69.

12. Court of Enquiry, 12 January 1863, ORN, 1, 19:447-450.

13. See Edward T. Cotham Jr.'s Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

14. Marcus W. Price, "Ships that Tested the Blockade of the Gulf Ports: 1861-1865," The American Neptune, Vol. 12, No. 3 (July 1952), p. 236.

Dr. Browning is the chief historian for the U.S. Coast Guard. He has written more than four dozen articles relating to the Coast Guard and naval and maritime history and is the author of From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War (University of Alabama Press, 1993) and Success Is All that Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War (Brassey's, 2002). He is currently finishing a book on the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.


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