Union Blockade

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1861 Cartoon map of the blockade

The Union Blockade was the closing of Confederate ports 1861-1865, during the American Civil War by the Union Navy, a form of economic warfare.. The U.S. Navy maintained a massive effort on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the Confederate States of America designed to prevent the local and international movement of cotton, supplies, soldiers and arms into or out of the Confederacy. The vast majority of vessels from other nations obeyed the blockade. However, specialty ships were built to slip through, called blockade runners. They were mostly new high-speed ships with small cargo capacity. They were built and financed by British interests and operated by the British (using Royal Navy officers on leave) and ran between Confederate-controlled ports and the neutral ports of Havana, Cuba (Spanish); Nassau, Bahamas (British) and Bermuda (British), where British suppliers had set up supply bases.

President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the blockade on April 19, 1861. His strategy, part of the Anaconda Plan of General Winfield Scott, required the closure of 3,500 miles (5,600 km) of Confederate coastline and twelve major ports, including New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, the top two cotton-exporting ports, as well as the Atlantic ports of Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, and Wilmington, North Carolina.[1] The Navy department built 500 ships, which destroyed or captured about 1,500 blockade runners over the course of the war. At first five out of six attempts to slip through the blockade were successful; by 1864 only half were successful (which mean the life expectancy of a blockade runner was one round trip). The blockade runners carried only a small fraction of the usual cargo. Thus, Confederate cotton exports were reduced 95% from 10 million bales in the three years prior to the war to just 500,000 bales during the blockade period.

Proclamation of blockade and legal implications

On April 19, 1861, President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports

"Whereas an insurrection against the Government of the United States has broken out in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas...Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States...have further deemed it advisable to set on foot a blockade of the ports within the States aforesaid, in pursuance of the laws of the United States, and of the law of Nations, in such case provided. For this purpose a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels from the ports aforesaid. If, therefore, with a view to violate such blockade, a vessel shall approach, or shall attempt to leave either of the said ports, she will be duly warned by the Commander of one of the blockading vessels, who will endorse on her register the fact and date of such warning, and if the same vessel shall again attempt to enter or leave the blockaded port, she will be captured and sent to the nearest convenient port, for such proceedings against her and her cargo as prize, as may be deemed advisable.

Recognition of the Confederacy

Lincoln was sharply criticized by Congress for not simply closing the ports. [2] Under international law and maritime law, however, nations had the right to search neutral vessels on the open sea if they were suspected of violating a blockade, something port closures would not allow. In an effort to avoid conflict between the United States and Britain over the searching of British merchant vessels thought to be trading with the Confederacy, the Union needed the privileges of international law that came with the declaration of a blockade. Furthermore, Britain and France would not accept the pretense that the Confederacy did not exist and had no belligerency rights.[3]

Under the Declaration of Paris, 1856, international law required that a blockade must be (1) formally proclaimed, (2) promptly established, (3) enforced, and (4) effective, in order to be legal.[4]

However, by effectively declaring the Confederate States of America to be "belligerents"—rather than insurrectionists, who under international law would not be legally eligible for recognition by foreign powers—Lincoln opened the way for European powers such as Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy. Britain's proclamation of neutrality was consistent with the position of the Lincoln Administration under international law—the Confederates were belligerents—giving them the right to obtain loans and buy arms from neutral powers, and giving the British the formal right to discuss openly which side, if any, to support.[5]


In May 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells appointed a "Blockade Board" to assess the Union's naval blockade of the South. Naval captain Samuel F. Du Pont chaired the board, which included Alexander D. Bache, head of the US Coast Survey; Charles Henry Davis, an astronomer associated with the navy; and Major John G. Barnard, a US Army engineer with expertise in coastal defenses. They published ten reports that detailed such strategic suggestions as dividing the Atlantic Blockading Squadron into two parts and capturing two Atlantic and Gulf Coast locations for coaling and supply stations. Many of their recommendations were implemented and remained in effect for the duration of the Civil War. The board's urged the navy to enable federal troops around the Confederate periphery to stab into the interior, threaten railroads, and play a major role in bisecting the country along the Mississippi River. As a result, expeditionary forces were sent to occupy Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina; Port Royal, South Carolina; Fernandina, Florida; and Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi. The fear of a seaborne force was a powerful threat to the Confederacy.

In the initial phase of the blockade, Union forces concentrated on the Atlantic Coast. The November 1861 capture of Port Royal in South Carolina provided the Federals with an open ocean port and repair and maintenance facilities in good operating condition. It became an early base of operations for further expansion of the blockade along the Atlantic coastline[6]. Apalachicola, Florida, received Confederate goods traveling down the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and was an early target of Union blockade efforts on Florida's Gulf Coast.[7] Another early prize was Ship Island, which gave the Navy a base from which to patrol the entrances to both the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay. The Navy gradually extended its reach throughout the Gulf of Mexico to the Texas coastline, including Galveston and Sabine Pass.[8]

Union Navy

File:USS Passaic (1862).jpg
USS Passaic of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron

At the start of the war the United States Navy—with a strength of only 90 vessels, of which half were sailing ships—was grossly inadequate for the task at hand, but the Navy Department quickly attempted to correct this deficiency. In 1861, nearly 80 steamers and 60 sailing ships were brought into service, and the number of blockading vessels rose to 160.[9]

To implement its ambitious plan, the Navy grew by the end of 1861 to 24,000 officers and enlisted men, over 15,000 more than in antebellum service, and four squadrons of ships were deployed, two in the Atlantic and two in the Gulf of Mexico.[10]

The Union Army's control of the port of Beaufort, North Carolina, during the Civil War made the navy's blockade of the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, much more effective. Beaufort served as an efficient supply depot for the ships involved in the blockade; coal for Union vessels was shipped and stored there, and naval stores from the Carolinas were shipped north from Beaufort. The port was also used for repairs to vessels and as a launching point for attacks on Fort Fisher, the stubbornly defended Confederate earthen fort at the entrance to the harbor at Wilmington.[11]

Coles (1992) Describes the activities of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron of the US Navy during the Civil War. The squadron was created in 1862 to blockade 1,300 miles of Confederate coastline, from Cape Canaveral to St. Andrew Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. The accomplishments of this Civil War fleet can be seen in the activities of two important ships, the James L. Davis and the Tahoma. In three and one-half years, the 85-ship fleet captured or destroyed 283 Confederate blockade-runners; eliminated the sugar and salt industries along the Florida coast, provided sanctuary for thousands of white and black refugees, and helped to project federal military power into the Florida interior.

Blockade service

Blockade service was attractive to Federal seamen and landsmen alike. Blockade station service was the most boring job in the war but also the most attractive in terms of potential financial gain. The task was for the fleet to sail back and forth to intercept any blockade runners. More than 50,000 men volunteered for the boring duty, because food and living conditions on ship were much better than the infantry offered, the work was safer, and especially because of the real (albeit small) chance for big money. Captured ships and their cargoes were sold at auction and the proceeds split among the sailors. When the USS Aeolus seized the hapless blockade runner Hope off Wilmington, North Carolina, in late 1864, the captain won $13,000, the chief engineer $6,700, the seamen more than $1,000 each, and the cabin boy $533, rather better than infantry pay of $13 per month. The amount garnered for blockade runners widely varied. While the little Alligator sold for only $50, bagging the Memphis brought in $510,000 (about what 40 civilian workers could earn in a lifetime of work). In four years, $25 million in prize money was awarded.

Blockade runners

The type of ship most likely to evade the naval cordon was a small, light ship with a short draft—qualities that facilitated blockade running but were poorly suited to carrying large amounts of heavy weaponry, machinery and other supplies badly needed by the South. For example, it was impossible to import a train engine by blockade. To be successful in helping the Confederacy, a blockade runner had to make many round trips, evading capture every time; eventually most were captured or sank.

Ordinary ships were too slow and visible to escape the Navy. The blockade runners therefore relied mainly on new ships built in England with low profiles, shallow draft, and high speed. Their paddle-wheels, driven by steam engines that burned smokeless anthracite coal, could make 17 knots (31 km/hr). Because the South lacked sufficient sailors, skippers and shipbuilding capability, the runners were built, officered and manned by Brits. Private British investors spent perhaps £50 million on the runners ($250 million in U.S. dollars, equivalent to about $2.5 billion in 2006 dollars). The pay was high: a Royal Navy officer on leave might earn several thousand dollars (in gold) in salary and bonus per round trip, with ordinary seamen earning several hundred dollars. On dark nights they ran the gauntlet to and from the British islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas, or Havana, Cuba, 500-700 miles (800-1,100 km) away. The ships carried several hundred tons of compact, high-value cargo such as cotton, turpentine or tobacco outbound, and rifles, medicine, brandy, lingerie and coffee inbound. They charged from $300 to $1,000 per ton of cargo brought in; two round trips a month would generate perhaps $250,000 in revenue (and $80,000 in wages and expenses).

On 18 September 1861 the "SS Bermuda," from the English shipyard of Pearse, Lockwood, & Co. became the first British ship to reach Savannah, Georgia, through the blockade. The Bermuda was captured on its second voyage, in April 1862, and taken into US Navy service. Most of the English steamships involved in the war delivered cargo to neutral ports for the true blockade runners; they were not molested by the Union Navy. Only the Pet succeeded in making repeated successful runs, making 11 to 18 runs between Nassau in the Bahamas and Wilmington, North Carolina, from January 1863 to February 1864, before being captured. The paddle steamer Whisper, made a round trip between Bermuda and Wilmington at the end of 1864, making it the last vessel to complete a blockade run.[12]

In November 1864, a wholesaler in Wilmington asked his agent in the Bahamas to stop sending so much chloroform and instead send "essence of cognac" because that perfume would sell "quite high." Confederate patriots held "Rhett Butler" types[13] and the other nouveau riche blockade runners in contempt for profiteering on luxuries while Robert E. Lee's soldiers were in rags. On the other hand, their bravery and initiative were necessary for the nation's survival, and many women in the back country flaunted imported $10 gew gaws and $50 hats as patriotic proof that the "damn yankees" had failed to isolate them from the outer world. The government in Richmond eventually regulated the traffic, requiring half the imports to be munitions; it even purchased and operated some runners on its own account and made sure they loaded vital war goods. By 1864, Lee's soldiers were eating imported meat. The blockade was especially effective in shutting down the delivery of quinine and other medicines to the Confederate medical department.

Blockade running was reasonably safe for both sides. It was not illegal under international law; captured foreign sailors were released, while Confederates went to prison camps. The ships were unarmed (cannon would slow them down), so they posed no danger to the Navy warships.[14]

One example of the lucrative (and short-lived) nature of the blockade running trade was the ship Banshee, which operated out of Nassau and Bermuda. She was captured on her seventh run into Wilmington, North Carolina, and confiscated by the U.S. Navy for use as a blockading ship. However, at the time of her capture, she had turned a 700% profit for her English owners, who quickly commissioned and built the Banshee No. 2, which soon joined the firm's fleet of blockade runners.[15]

Impact on the Confederacy

The Union blockade was a powerful weapon that eventually ruined the Southern economy, at the cost of very few lives. The blockade severely reduced cotton exports and choked off munitions imports. The measure of the blockade's success was not the few ships that slipped through, but the thousands that never tried it. Ordinary freighters stopped calling at Southern ports. The interdiction of coastal traffic meant that long-distance travel depended on the rickety railroad system, which never overcame the devastating impact of the blockade. The blockade caused other hardships as well, especially the maldistribution of food. Throughout the war, the South produced enough food for civilians and soldiers, but it had growing difficulty in moving surpluses to areas of scarcity and famine. Lee's army, at the end of the supply line, nearly always was short of supplies as the war progressed into its final two years.

Bread riots in Richmond and other cities showed that patriotism was not sufficient to satisfy the demands of housewives. Land routes remained open for cattle drovers, but after the Federals seized control of the Mississippi River in summer 1863, it became impossible to ship horses, cattle and swine from Texas and Arkansas to the eastern Confederacy. The blockade was a triumph of the U.S. Navy and a major factor in winning the war.

Confederate response

In 1863 the Confederate government took over control of blockade running in an effort to organize it and make it more effective. Supplies were always needed, especially munitions, and privately sponsored blockade runners could not meet the demand. In 1863 Josiah Gorgas of the Ordnance Bureau began to operate government runners. The shipping operations soon outgrew the bureau and, in 1864, the Bureau of Foreign supplies was established, headed by Major Thomas L. Bayne. This bureau had virtually total power over exporting and blockade running. Although these government measures were effective, they came too late to weaken the blockade's effectiveness.[16]

North Carolina had some textile mills; they ran overtime to turn raw cotton into cloth. The state purchased a blockade runner which shipped in textile machinery and parts. At war's end a number of the mills had been destroyed and the remainder were virtually worn out.

Horres (1996) evaluates the value of two immense, imported Blakely rifles for the defense of besieged Charleston, South Carolina. Many private citizens and military officials felt that they would provide a defense against the Union's ironclads. Purchased for $600,000 in Confederate money, the two 12.75-inch rifled guns from England successfully penetrated the blockade aboard the Gibraltar at Wilmington, North Carolina. Lacking an instructional manual, one of the Blakelys was damaged on its initial test firing. Although both weapons were eventually put into service, they had more psychological value than actual military importance, since Union forces at sea never penetrated within their range.[17]

The Confederacy tried to use torpedo boats, generally small, fast steam launches equipped with spar torpedoes, to attack the blockading fleet. Some torpedo boats were refitted steam launches, others, such as the CSS David class, were purpose-built. The torpedo boats tried to attack under cover of night by ramming the spar torpedo into the hull of the blockading ship, then backing off and detonating the explosive. The torpedo boats were not effective and were easily countered by simple measures such as hanging chains over the sides of ships to foul the screws of the torpedo boats, or encircling the ships with wooden booms to trap the torpedoes at a distance.

One historically notable naval action was the attack of the H. L. Hunley, a hand-powered submarine launched from Charleston, South Carolina, against Union blockade ships. On the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley attacked the USS Housatonic. The Housatonic sank with the loss of 5 crew; the Hunley also sank, taking her crew of 9 to the bottom.

Major engagements

The first victory for the U.S. Navy during the early phases of the blockade occurred on April 24, 1861, when the sloop USS Cumberland and a small flotilla of support ships began seizing Confederate ships and privateers in the vicinity of Fort Monroe off the Virginia coastline. Within the next two weeks, Flag Officer Garrett J. Pendergrast had captured 16 enemy vessels, serving early notice to the Confederate War Department that the blockade would be effective if extended.[18]

Early battles in support of the blockade included the Blockade of Chesapeake Bay[19], from May to June 1861, and the Blockade of the Carolina Coast, August-December 1861.[20] Both enabled the Union Navy to gradually extend its blockade southward along the Atlantic seaboard.

The Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864, closed the last Confederate port in the Gulf of Mexico.

In December 1864, the Navy attacked Fort Fisher, which protected the Confederate's access to the Atlantic from Wilmington, North Carolina, the last open Confederate port.[21] The first attack failed, but with a change in tactics (and Union generals), the fort fell in January 1865, closing the last major Confederate port.

Completed blockade

As the Union fleet grew in size, speed and sophistication, more ports came under Federal control. After 1862, only three ports—Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mobile, Alabama—remained open for the 75 to 100 blockade runners in business. Charleston was shut down by Admiral John A. Dahlgren's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1863. Mobile Bay was captured in August 1864 by Admiral David Farragut (tied to the rigging of his flagship, he cried out, "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!"). Blockade runners faced an increasing risk of capture—in 1861 and 1862, one sortie in 9 ended in capture; in 1863 and 1864, one in 3.

Economic impact on Confederacy

By war's end, imports had been choked to a trickle as the number of captures came to 50% of the sorties. Some 1,100 blockade runners were captured (and another 300 destroyed). British investors frequently made the mistake of reinvesting their profits in the trade; when the war ended they were stuck with useless ships and rapidly depreciating cotton. In the final accounting, perhaps half the investors took a profit, and half a loss.

The military, social, and economic impact on Texas, for example, was severe. Low levels of manufacturing made Texans more dependent on overseas imports even though Texas possessed a neutral border with Mexico through which goods might be imported with difficulty. Militarily, vessels of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron captured Confederate shipping, bombarded coastal towns, raided the Texas shoreline, and cooperated with the army in combined operations. These activities forced state and Confederate forces to expend considerable resources defending their shore. The blockade also imposed social, economic, and psychological hardships on Texans. Seaborne attack and bombardments forced residents to abandon their homes and businesses and flee to the interior causing economic dislocation and depopulation along the coast. The interdiction of trade led to economic deprivation among all classes throughout the state. Planters, farmers, and merchants suffered serious financial hardships. Shortages of all goods, combined with a sense of isolation, created despair among the people. These problems contributed to the decline of morale and weakened support for the Confederacy in Texas. Attempts to counter the blockade were generally unsuccessful. A few well placed merchants profited from the overland trade with Mexico, but many merchants living in the interior lost money and planters who took their cotton to Mexico made little profit. Governmental agencies attempted to exchange cotton in, and regulate trade with Mexico, but did no better. As a result, trade with Mexico contributed little to the Confederacy. Blockade running in Texas was also poorly organized and added little to the Confederate war effort. In the final analysis, the blockade played the major role in causing hardship and demoralization among the people of Texas, convincing them that further resistance was useless.[22]

Sudrum (2001) argues the Union Navy's control of the American coastal and internal waterways was a decisive factor in the Civil War, but its exact role is often misunderstood. In order to assess that role, one must consider what would have happened had the South not only prevented or lifted the Union's blockade of southern ports, but mounted attacks against or blockaded northern ports. Northern naval superiority had three crucial effects upon the war, according to Sudrum. First, the North's naval blockade prevented the South from exercising its price-setting power in the market for raw cotton. Although some have contended that the demand for southern-grown raw cotton was destined to decline in the 1860s, the evidence indicates that, in the absence of the blockade-induced shortage of raw cotton, the demand for southern-grown cotton would have continued to be robust and growing. Instead, the blockade constricted exports of raw cotton and suppressed revenue; actual southern revenue from raw cotton was reduced by up to $700,000,000 during the war. This revenue loss severely impaired the South's war-making ability, particularly its ability to acquire a first-class navy. Second, Federal control of the coastal waters and inland rivers impeded southern intra-regional movement of goods, cutting off needed supplies of beef and other foodstuffs from Texas and Florida to civilians and soldiers throughout the eastern Confederacy. Since the North's control of the American waters exerted such deleterious effects upon the southern economy, one should ask whether the North was vulnerable to attacks upon its economy. This leads to the third, and perhaps most important, effect: preventing the South from mounting naval actions against northern ports. Such attacks would have created economic hardships and eroded support for the Lincoln administration and the northern war effort. Given these effects of northern naval superiority, it is hard to see how the North could have defeated the South without its possession of a superior navy.

Some historians have argued, "The blockade, because it did not deny the South essential imports, failed to have a major military effect."[23] That analysis ignores the inability of the Confederacy to clothe and feed its remaining soldiers, or to use its long coastline to move troops and supplies by boat. Most economic analysis agrees the blockade crushed the Southern economy and decisively weakened the military's maneuverability and logistics. Surdam shows the blockade denied the Confederacy the badly needed purchasing power that exporting its cotton and tobacco would have generated, raised the costs and reduced the volume of imported goods, and hampered intraregional trade. Without these effects the North would have faced much greater difficulties in subduing the South. [24] Elekung (2004) concludes, "The fall of Fort Fisher and the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, early in 1865 closed the last major port for blockade runners, and in quick succession Richmond was evacuated, the Army of Northern Virginia disintegrated, and General Lee surrendered. Thus, most economists give the Union blockade a prominent role in the outcome of the war."


  1. Wise (1998)
  2. Jenkins essay
  3. Stuart Anderson, 1861: Blockade vs. Closing the Confederate Ports" Military Affairs 1977 41(4): 190-194. Issn: 0026-3931 Fulltext: in JSTOR
  4. See Blockade essay
  5. Lincoln biography
  6. Time-Life, page 31.
  7. See National Park Service
  8. See U.S Naval Blockade
  9. See Blockade essays
  10. Time-Life, page 33.
  11. Blair (2002)
  12. Peter Barton, "The First Blockade Runner and 'Another Alabama': Some Tees and Hartlepool Ships That Worried the Union." Mariner's Mirror 1995 81(1): 45-64. Issn: 0025-3359
  13. Rhet Butler was the scoundrel in Gone With the Wind (1939) who became rich as a blockade runner.
  14. Neely (1986)
  15. Time-Life, page 95.
  16. Warren W. Hassler, "How the Confederates Controlled Blockade Running." Civil War Times Illustrated 1963 2(6): 43-49. Issn: 0009-8094
  17. C. R. Horres, Jr., "Charleston's Civil War 'Monster Guns,' the Blakely Rifles." South Carolina Historical Magazine 1996 97(2): 115-138. Issn: 0038-3082
  18. Time-Life, page 24.
  19. National Park Service
  20. National Park Service
  21. Charles M. Robinson, III, Hurricane of Fire: The Union Assault on Fort Fisher. (1998) and Amphibious Warfare: Nineteenth Century
  22. Fisher, (1995)
  23. Archer Jones, "Military Means, Political Ends: Strategy," in Gabor S. Boritt, ed. Why the Confederacy Lost. (1992) p. 74
  24. See Surdam (1998) and Surdam (2004) for elaborate detail.