Blockade and Blockade Running

views updated

Blockade and Blockade Running

The announcement of a blockade of the southeastern coastline of the North American continent was the second military proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln in the opening days of the American Civil War, following his call for 75,000 men to suppress the Rebellion. It was in part a response to recent events at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. When Confederate batteries opened fire on the Union-held fort in April 1861, precipitating the Civil War, neither side foresaw a prolonged conflict, and thus neither government had a strategy for extended military and naval engagement. The action at Fort Sumter was to some degree a naval conflict, as the necessary supplies, military reinforcement, and proposed relief of the fort needed to come by sea to a military installation originally established to protect the city from coastal invasion. A small relief force was sent by sea from New York City, but arrived too late. Fort Sumter was forced to surrender on April 14.

The loss of Fort Sumter and the port of Charleston underscored for both sides the importance of coastal access. For the Union, an effective blockade now seemed essential. As part of the initial call to arms, President Lincoln announced the naval blockade of the enemy coastline on April 19. Almost immediately, potential conflicts with international law became apparent. The federal government did not recognize the Confederate States as a country, but as an organization of insurrectionists leading an illegal rebellion. If the Confederacy was not a country, then foreign nations could grant them neither official recognition nor aid. If this were the case, could the United States legally "blockade" its own coastline? Could such a blockade be construed as an implied recognition of the Confederacy as a nation? The matter was troubling for Gideon Welles, Lincoln's secretary of the navy. Welles believed that the proper action would be to close all Southern ports, a concentrated naval action that would place considerably fewer demands on the small naval force available at the current time and in the foreseeable future. However, Lincoln and his closest advisor in the cabinet, Secretary of State William Seward, believed that the blockade was imperative. They chose to ignore the issue of legality under international law, and instituted the blockade.

Welles readily complied with the official position. Initially, three blockading squadrons were created: the North Atlantic Squadron, the South Atlantic Squadron, and the Gulf Squadron. Just before Admiral David Far-ragut's capture of the city and port of New Orleans in 1862, however, the Gulf blockade force was divided into an East and a West Squadron, resulting in a total of four squadrons. The U.S. Navy, however, lacked the ships necessary to establish a true blockade. The enemy coastline ran from Virginia to Florida along the Atlantic Coast, north along the western coast of Florida, and west along the southern border on the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Rio Grande, the border between Texas and Mexico. To institute a total blockade, the squadrons would need to cover more than 3,600 nautical miles of coastline with numerous tributaries that opened on navigable rivers. In the course of the war, approximately 1,300 ships attempted to elude the blockade; 1,000 or more did so successfully.

In 1861 the total strength of the U. S. Navy was ninety ships. Of that number only forty-two were in commission. Just twenty-four of the commissioned vessels were steam-powered, and eighteen of these were cruising in distant seas around the world, maintaining American presence and protecting commercial shipping. In the waters of the North Atlantic, only three steam-powered ships were available for blockade duty. To meet the immediate need, Welles began acquiring any available vessel that could mount a few guns and was sufficiently seaworthy to sail south along the coast of the Confederacy and help to establish the blockade. He also began an extensive shipbuilding and acquisition program that would, by 1864, increase the total number of ships from ninety to more than 670 (Simson 2001, pp. 53–54).

To implement the blockade effectively, Welles formed an advisory panel called the Blockade Strategy Board, charged with collecting and reviewing information pertaining to coastal surveys and charts, weather, tide and current conditions, and distances. A primary concern was the establishment at selected locations of refueling stations for blockading steamships. It was essential that a Union ship that might sight a blockade-runner have sufficient coal for the full head of steam needed for effective pursuit and capture. The board was an experienced and highly competent group, with scientific resources unavailable to the Confederacy.

Welles's first appointment was Alexander Dallas Bache, a great grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Bache was the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, an independent agency charged with the responsibility of charting the North American coastline. In addition to Bache were Captain Samuel F. Du Pont and Commander Charles H. Davis, both active naval officers, Major J. G. Barnard of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Vasa Fox. The Board produced five reports at intervals throughout the summer of 1861. The first report of July 5 called for a secure refueling and supply depot to be established at Fernandina, a small town on Amelia Island just off the Atlantic coast of Florida at the mouth of the St. Marys River. The second report of July 13 suggested the establishment of refueling and supply stations at three locations on the coast of South Carolina: Bulls Bay, north of Charleston; St. Helena Sound, between Charleston and Savannah; and Port Royal Sound, slightly north of Savannah.

The third report of July 16 recommended that the area patrolled by the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron be divided into two parts. The coastline from Cape Henry, Virginia, to Cape Romain, South Carolina, a distance of 370 miles, would be the northern sector. The southern sector would extend 220 miles further south, from Cape Romain to St. Augustine, Florida. The northern sector was topographically different from the southern, and was largely comprised of barrier islands of sand that often altered with tides and currents. These barrier islands separated the inland rivers and sounds from the Atlantic, and were linked to the open sea by inlets that occurred at irregular geographic intervals. The Board proposed blocking these inlet channels with hulks, out-of service-ships that would be towed to the appropriate location and scuttled. Particular emphasis was placed on Hatteras Inlet at the southern end of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The inlet provided access to both Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound, two of North Carolina's principal outlets to the sea.

The fourth report, delivered on July 26, cited the particular importance of the coast of Georgia, and of controlling the inland waterway from Savannah to the St. Marys River. The fifth and final report, received by Welles on August 9, concentrated on the Gulf of Mexico, beginning with the Florida Keys and placing particular emphasis on the details of the coastal areas of New Orleans and Mobile Bay (Simson 2001, pp. 57–58).

Jefferson Davis, president of the newly formed Confederate States of America, attempted to counter the Union blockade by calling for privateers—nonmilitary, privately owned vessels—that would, with government authorization under what were termed letters of marque, attack and pillage enemy shipping. Davis's invoking of this kind of government-sanctioned piracy, which had already been outlawed by most of the maritime powers of Europe, was hasty and injudicious, but it underscored a serious deficiency in the Confederacy's power to wage war effectively: It had no navy.

Welles's counterpart, newly appointed Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, realized that the South did not have the resources and industrial strength to build a navy that would compare in size to the North's, so he developed other priorities to combat the blockade and render it ineffective. Mallory had little faith in privateers, and quietly treated Davis's proclamation with benign neglect. He knew that history had shown that privateers had never proved decisive in winning any war. They were also civilian enterprises, not subject to naval discipline, and could not be relied upon to carry out established strategy. Mallory preferred instead the idea of commerce raiders—armed commercial ships that would avoid conventional naval engagement but were instead specifically charged with the mission of attacking the commercial shipping of the Northern states. He proposed to concentrate on New England shipping, reasoning that if the Confederacy could inflict sufficient damage on New England's maritime economy, the New England states would force the federal government to sue for peace.

Other priorities of Mallory's for building an effective navy included equipping all vessels fighting for the Confederacy with newly developed "rifled" guns, which were far more accurate than the more common smoothbore weapons, and experimenting with submarine warfare. His highest priority, however, was the production of the ironclad warship, the new naval weapon of the future. With a sufficient number of steam-powered ironclads, Mallory believed the Confederacy could break the blockade at will and even seize control of the North Atlantic. When Virginia's secession from the Union resulted in the Confederate seizure of the Federal shipyard at Norfolk and of the steam frigate, the U.S.S. Merrimack, Mallory took the opportunity to fulfill his highest priority. The Merrimack was converted into the Confederacy's first ironclad, the C.S.S. Virginia (newspapers in the North continued to identify the ship by its original name). In March 1862 at Hampton Roads, the Virginia inflicted the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Navy prior to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in World War II: Three ships were sunk, one was severely burned, and three others were run aground and left helpless. Three hundred men on the Union side were killed. Only the falling tide and the Virginia's shallow draft and limited mobility prevented a greater disaster. On the second day of the battle, the Virginia fought to a draw with the Union ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor. Ironclads would continue to be built and commissioned by both sides, but they would never prove decisive for the Confederacy in naval engagements. The outcome at Hampton Roads also made it clear that Confederate ironclads would not be able to destroy the Union blockade.

The Effects of the Blockade

Despite this disappointment, President Davis and many others in the South believed that the blockade would eventually be effectively destroyed by the European need for cotton, particularly that of Great Britain. Europe had become highly dependent on high-quality American Cotton. In 1840 the South produced 60 percent of the world's cotton. In the years just before the war, 80 percent of Great Britain's cotton came from the North American continent.

Nathaniel Dawson, a cotton grower, lamented in an 1862 letter to his fiancée, Elodie Todd, that the "largest cotton crop ever" sat in warehouses unable to move because of the blockade. In her reply, Ms. Todd prayed for "foreign aid in breaking the blockade," expressing the hope of many in the South (Sword 1999, p. 106).

For a time, Great Britain seemed strongly inclined to recognize the Confederacy, and intervene. Attempting to force the issue, the Confederacy began to severely restrict its cotton shipments—a strategy dubbed King Cotton diplomacy. The hope was that the denial of prized cotton would force Britain to use its naval power to open the blockade and restore European maritime trade with the Confederacy. The Confederate government called upon cotton growers to use the land to grow much needed food instead. In New Orleans, 2.5 million bales of cotton were burned. Geoffrey Ward (1990) cites a letter written on April 26 by a young Louisiana woman who witnessed the conflagration: "We went this morning to see the cotton burning—a sight never before witnessed and probably never again to be seen. Wagons, drays—everything that can be driven or rolled—were loaded with the bales and taken to burn on the commons" (p. 95). It was common belief that without American cotton, the economy of Great Britain could not survive. "The cards are in our hands!" declared the Charleston Mercury, and "we intend to play them out to the bankruptcy of every cotton factory in Great Britain and France for the acknowledgement of our independence" (Ward 1990, p. 94).

Although many of the Midland cloth mills in England were shut down as the blockade took effect, British mill owners had a surplus of American cotton purchased in 1860, and also began to look to cotton from India and Egypt to offset the eventual deficit. In the beginning, there was considerable sympathy for the Confederacy. The infamous Mason and Slidell affair of November 1861, in which the U.S.S. San Jacinto stopped the Trent, a British mail steamer, and took two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, as prisoners, greatly inflamed public opinion in London and other capitals of Europe. British diplomacy brought about their release before the end of the year. To many in positions of power in Great Britain, the Confederacy seemed a gallant enterprise, fighting for its independence and the preservation of a way of life dominated by landed gentry, a culture not unlike that of Great Britain. Officially, Great Britain asserted a political and imperial view that did not sympathize with geographic entities declaring independence, but it did nonetheless have a need for unrestricted cotton trade. It was also annoyed with the Federal Navy's growing presence in the North Atlantic in the exercise of the blockade. As Great Britain weighed the matter, certain events came together that made the British government decide to remain neutral: the failure of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to win decisive victories in the North after attempts at Antietam and Gettysburg, and the fall of Vicksburg and subsequent Union control of the Mississippi, which effectively split the states of the Confederacy. Finally, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863) eclipsed the states' rights issue by bringing the moral issue of slavery to the forefront. As a nation, Great Britain took great pride in its reputation as the naval power that had eliminated the transatlantic slave trade thirty years earlier.

Blockade Running

In the early years of the war, the blockade seemed to have little effect, as blockade-runners, the South's only connection to an outside world cut off by the cessation of maritime trade, seemed able to penetrate at will. The small ships that ran the Union Blockade were swift steamers with shallow drafts, streamlined vessels often designed with innovative features such as collapsible funnels and masts that would enable them, if pursued, to reduce wind resistance and gain additional speed. The Bermuda, the first of these runners to get through the blockade, arrived in Savannah from Liverpool, England, on September 18, 1861. Its primary cargo consisted of four large pieces of artillery. In October the Bermuda departed for England, where it sold a cargo of prized cotton for a high profit (Norris 2000, p. 243). In addition to whatever cargo the blockade-runners brought, they also did much for the general morale of the people of the South. Mary Chestnut, the noted diarist of Confederate life on the home front, offered this succinct and somewhat poetic observation: "An iron steamer has run the blockade at Savannah. We raise our wilted heads like flowers after a shower" (Ward 1990, p. 166).

David Farragut: First Admiral of the U.S. Navy

The naval battles of the Civil War generally receive less attention than the land campaigns, even though the Union blockade of the Confederacy and several naval engagements in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Mississippi were important factors in the outcome of the war.

The Union Navy was unprepared for war; it consisted of ninety ships of war, but only 42 were ready for active service in the spring of 1861. It had only 7600 sailors and 1467 officers in 1861, but by the end of the war, the Navy had 51,500 sailors and 7500 officers. The Union sailors included 18,000 African Americans (twelve of whom were women); unlike the Union Army, the Navy accepted black volunteers from the beginning of the Civil War. Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, issued an order in September 1861 providing for the hiring of runaway slaves as seamen, firemen, or navy yard employees with full pay.

The Civil War was a turning point in the history of naval as well as land warfare. Prior to the 1840s, fighting ships around the world had been constructed largely of wood and powered by sail. The U.S. Navy was one of the earliest to recognize the importance of steam-powered vessels; in the twenty years before the Civil War, the Navy had largely replaced its older sailing vessels with steamships. Its fleet was the third most efficient in the world, surpassed only by the navies of England and France.

At the head of the Union Navy was David Farragut (1801–1870), the son of a Spanish merchant captain who had come to America in 1776 and served in the Revolutionary War. Farragut was born in Tennessee and settled in Virginia, but decided to remain in the Union Navy at the beginning of the Civil War. He had joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1810, when he was only nine years old. He served in the War of 1812; at the age of twelve, he was given command of a British ship captured by the U.S.S Essex and brought the captured vessel safely to port.

Farragut proved himself one of the ablest Union commanders of the Civil War. Given the U.S.S Hartford as his flagship, he took the port of New Orleans on April 29, 1862, an important morale boost for the Union. The Navy created a new rank for him, that of rear admiral, in July 1862. Prior to that time the Navy had used only the term flag officer in order to separate itself from the aristocratic traditions of European navies.

Farragut won another strategic victory for the Union at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. Mobile, Alabama, was the Confederacy's last remaining port on the Gulf of Mexico. The battle was the occasion for the quotation by which Farragut is still remembered. At the time of the Civil War, a torpedo was a naval mine placed in a harbor, not a self-propelled underwater weapon of the type used by twentieth-century submarines. When Farra-gut's fleet entered Mobile Bay, which had been heavily mined by the Confederate Navy, one of the Union ships struck one of the torpedoes and sank. The others began to pull back. Farragut asked the captain of one of the other ships what the trouble was. When told that it was torpedoes, Farragut replied, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" The rest of Farragut's fleet succeeded in entering the bay and forcing the surrender of the Confederate ships. After the victory of Mobile Bay, Farragut was promoted to vice admiral in December 1864 and to full admiral in July 1866, the first four-star commander in the history of the U.S. Navy.

rebecca j. frey


Black Sailors: The Howard University Research Project. Available from http://

Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

The standard pattern for a blockade-runner returning from a foreign port was to stop in Bermuda (a British possession), Havana, or one of the smaller ports in the Caribbean. Goods from Europe came in heavy merchant ships, which were able to transport large quantities. In the Caribbean ports the goods were transferred to the somewhat smaller, but decidedly faster, shallow draft blockade-runners. Some blockade-runners were lightly armed, but most were not armed at all. Under international law, the crew of a ship that returned fire while being lawfully pursued would be officially guilty of piracy and subject to hanging.

The independent blockade-runners, however, were not as patriotically motivated in their pursuit of the Confederate cause as commonly believed. Unlike the North, the South, with its largely agricultural economy, did not have the manufacturing base it needed to fight the kind of war it had undertaken. It had to import cannons, gunpowder, small arms and rifles, uniforms, and other things needed to meet the logistical needs of a modern army. Cloth, medicine, and machinery were also much needed imports. The Confederate government commissioned merchant ships as blockade-runners, but the South was never a maritime power; it had nothing that even approximated a merchant fleet. Inde-ppendent blockade-runners would often run the blockade with cargoes of prized cotton, but found it more profitable to bring back cigars from Havana, perfume and fine wines from France, and silks, soaps, spices, and other luxury items. Although generally recognized staples, such as books or stationery, were in short supply, luxury items were often readily available, albeit at very high prices.

Patriotic idealism aside, the law of supply and demand frequently led the South to circumvent the naval blockade in one way or another to get the things it desperately required. The South, for example, needed salt, necessary to preserve meat in the days before refrigeration, and salt came from the North. The South also needed medicines, surgical instruments, clothing, leather goods, and, to feed both the white populace and slaves in an agricultural economy largely given over to cotton and sugar production, it needed corn and pork. At the same time, the North still needed things from the South, such as cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. Despite the war, the North and the South carried on a brisk trade in basic commodities, to the decided advantage of Northern merchants.

This exchange of contraband goods developed in those Southern cities that came under Northern occupation. Nashville and Memphis, once the Union established control, were both depots through which Northern goods were shipped to the South. General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was in command in Memphis before his army moved toward Georgia, tried to stop the passage of contraband to the South, but was unsuccessful. Finding that many of the confiscated goods on the way to the South came from Cincinnati, he noted with some slight exaggeration that "Cincinnati furnishes more contraband goods than Charleston, and has done more to prolong the war than the whole state of Carolina" (Catton 1981, p. 144). A Congressional committee appointed in 1864 to investigate the trade in contraband between North and South remarked that Union-occupied New Orleans "had helped the Confederacy more than any of the Confederacy's own seaports, with the exception of Wilmington, North Carolina" (Catton 1981, pp. 144–145).

Throughout the war, there were few signs of notable deprivation among the middle class. In a January 1864 letter to her mother, Mary Mallard described the unexpected abundance she had discovered in Atlanta: "You would be amazed to see how full all the stores are at present. They are flooded with calicoes, and light spring worsted goods" (Myers 1972, p. 1134). Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, an English officer with the elite Coldstream Guards, and a noted chronicler of the war who would later publish a compelling account of the battle at Gettysburg, remarked on the evident lack of hardship at a dance he attended in Galveston, Texas, shortly after entering the country through Mexico in 1863: "[T]he ladies were pretty, and considering the blockade, they were very well dressed" (Fremantle 1957, p. 185).

Those without the resources to pay the exorbitant prices for contraband goods did what they could with what they had, and came up with creative substitutes for articles in short supply. "Confederate needles" were made from the thorns of hawthorn bushes, rope was fashioned out of Spanish moss, and paintbrushes used hog bristles (Ward 1990, p. 166). Coffee substitutes were made out of all manner of things, including peas, corn, beets, and pumpkin seeds. The Macon Daily Telegraph, commenting on these improvised brews, declared that "all that is wanted is something to color the water; it is coffee or dirty water, just as you please" (Ward 1990, p. 166).

In the course of the war, blockade-runners brought in approximately 60 percent of the rifles and small arms, 30 percent of the lead needed for bullets, and about 60 percent of the saltpeter (potassium nitrate) needed for the production of gunpowder. Although 92 percent of all attempts to run the blockade were successful, it wasn't enough to satisfy the essential needs of the Confederacy. As the war progressed, the effectiveness of the Union blockade grew, slowly constricting the South's ability to traffic the high seas. The blockade remained in effect until officially lifted by President Andrew Johnson, on June 23, 1865.


Anderson, Bern. By Sea and by River: The Naval History of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War, ed. John Leekley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Fowler, William M., Jr. Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War. New York and London: Avon Books, 1990.

Fremantle, A. J. L. "A Journey across Texas: Three Months in the Southern States: April, June, 1863." In The Confederate Reader, ed. Richard B. Harwell. New York: Longmans, Green, 1957.

Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis, MD: Navy Institute Press, 1996.

Myers, Robert Manson, ed. The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1972. Letters written by the family of the Rev. Dr. Charles Colcock Jones between 1854 and 1868.

Norris, David A. "Blockade of the CSA." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, eds. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992.

Simson, Jay W. Naval Strategies of the Civil War: Confederate Innovations and Federal Opportunism. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001.

Sword, Wiley. Southern Invincibility: A History of the Confederate Heart. New York: St. Martin's Press/ Griffin, 1999.

Ward, Geoffrey. The Civil War: An Illustrated History. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Richard C. Keenan