Blockade, Civil War

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The first action of naval warfare in the American Civil War was the blockade of Southern ports by the Union Navy. Starting on April 19, 1861, the blockade was part of General Winfield Scott's strategy called the Anaconda Plan, which was an effort to reduce the South's ability to make war. Scott knew that the South relied heavily on manufactured goods from the Northern states and foreign countries. In addition, the South relied on them to purchase Southern cotton and other cash crops. With these ideas in mind, the main objectives of the blockade were to prevent desperately needed goods—including war material, manufactured goods, and luxury items—from reaching the South and to stop the exportation of raw cotton to foreign manufacturers.

Accomplishing these objectives in 1861 proved to be a challenge because the Union Navy at the beginning of the war had only thirty-five modern vessels (only three of which were steam powered) to patrol 189 harbors and 3,000 miles of coast. Although at first the blockade proved to be porous, it soon began to affect the South. The Confederate government was desperate to acquire war material such as guns, powder, cannons, clothes, and other supplies from blockade-runners, but it was difficult for the government to persuade them to ship what it needed. Instead, the blockade-runners preferred to ship luxury items such as silks and liquor, as these goods brought the highest profits. To counter this problem, early in the war the government tried to require blockade-runners to reserve one-third of their load for military supplies. Initially, with the Navy spread so thin, the blockade was not effective and allowed Confederate and foreign blockade-runners to elude capture easily.

As the war progressed, so did the North's ability to make the blockade more effective with the commissioning of almost 700 vessels. Although it never came close to completely cutting the Confederacy off from the rest of the world, it did reduce the usual flow of goods and supplies to the South. The reduced flow of goods led to shortages and higher prices that contributed to civilian discontent. This did not starve the Confederacy, but it did severely hamper its war-making efforts and forced the government in March 1864 to require blockade-runners to allot half of their cargo for military supplies. The blockade succeeded only because of two important achievements: it disrupted interregional trade and denied the Confederacy revenue from exporting raw cotton and other staple products.

Before the war, the South relied on water routes, especially its coastline, to ship goods and products to other regions. The blockade forced the Confederacy to use less effective avenues for trade and transportation, including roads and the railroad system. This increased demand on the railroads increased in turn the cost of transporting goods, thus damaging the Southern economy. The other achievement of the blockade involved restricting the exportation of cotton and other staple products. Prior to the war, the South supplied 75 to 80 percent of the world's raw cotton, and the reduction in cotton revenue severely disrupted the Southern economy and further weakened its ability to wage war. Overall, the Union blockade did not stop all supplies from reaching the Confederacy, but it disrupted the usual flow of supplies into and out of the South enough to severely restrict its ability to make war. The blockade proved to be an effective noncombative means to help the Union win the war.

The Civil War blockade demonstrated that war was no longer a matter only for soldiers, and that the effects of the war were no longer confined to the battlefield. Civilians were now combatants in the sense that war strategy was intended to undermine their morale and their capacity to support conflict. Thus warfare was aimed not only at destroying armies, but also at causing great

suffering among ordinary people by disrupting the economy and depriving them of goods, even food.


Carse, Richard. Blockade: The Civil War at Sea. New York: Rinehart, 1958.

Surdam, David. Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Charles D. Grear