The Confederacy needed merchant ships and transports along with warships to defend its harbors and rivers. It also needed ships capable of breaking the blockade. And as a daring strategy, the Confederacy commissioned raiders to disrupt and destroy Union merchant shipping, hoping this would draw Union naval strength away from the Confederate coast.
The Confederacy's major asset for meeting those needs for a navy resided in some 300 officers who had left the Union to join the Confederacy. Although some were aged admirals, others were brilliant officers whose careers had been mired in an antiquated seniority system. Matthew Fontaine Maury, already an internationally respected naval scientist, had chafed against the bureaucracy; he would pioneer the use of torpedoes, or mines. John Mercer Brooke was to design a naval cannon, the Brooke rifle, which was superior to the Union standard designed by his commander, John Dahlgren. Another “scientific sailor” who was to command the Virginia in the first battle of ironclads was Catesby ap R. Jones. These and dozens of other officers added to their experience a wealth of innovative spirit.
To build a serviceable merchant and transport fleet, the Confederacy purchased and, in some cases, commandeered ships in Southern ports. By the fall of 1861, the Navy Department let numerous contracts to private builders to construct small wooden gunboats. In keeping with the need to develop industry, the navy also considered these wartime contracts an investment in postwar industries.
In actual practice, the gunboat policy was plagued by inexperience at every level. It was said that ships were built along any stretch of river with banks level enough to work on. There was slave labor available, but shipwrights, machinists, sailmakers, and all the skilled trades required in shipbuilding were in critically short supply. An increasingly effective Union blockade reduced the availability of ships' machinery and even such items as nails and spikes. Only a fraction of ships laid down were ever fully operational.
The blockade prodded the Confederate navy to devise new means of overcoming the Union's overwhelming advantage. Blockade runners, which could retract a funnel and change profile or burn nearly smokeless coal, were sleek and fast, more like seagoing yachts than transports of guns, ammunition, and medicines.
Seeking to overcome numbers with technology, the Confederates constructed an ironclad on the burned hulk of the Merrimack and rechristened it Virginia. The battle with Monitor in March 1862 changed the course of naval history. During the war, the Confederacy completed twenty‐two ironclads; as with the wooden gunboat projects, however, steam engines were makeshift affairs. There were insufficient supplies of iron for armor, and designs at one site or another were so individually eccentric that mass production was impossible.
One pervasive power of the ironclads was their psychological effect upon Union blockading crews: “ram fever” caused endless anxiety, and even a floating log could send all hands scrambling to battle stations. The semisubmerged torpedo boat, or “David,” also had a powerful effect upon Union blockaders. This small craft was designed to steer in under the guns of a man‐of‐war and detonate a torpedo against the hull below the waterline. Mines, too, were a hazard when deployed in rivers and harbors, and more effective against Union ships than any other weapon.
Confederate innovative technology culminated in the submarine Hunley, first employed at Mobile and then at Charleston. Called a “Peripetetic coffin” because of the crews killed in its operations, Hunley was lost in a mission against the U.S.S. Housatonic, but became the first submarine to sink a ship in battle.
Operating in a rather loosely structured administration that cast about in search of some means to overcome the Union advantage, Confederate naval forces went further in devising strategies. On the Mississippi, cotton was used as armor on the river defense fleet. Raiders in small boats would launch surprise attacks against Union blockaders; capturing the Union Underwriter was one success. A scheme elaborately planned but unsuccessful was a large‐scale covert operation in Canada. The plan was to disrupt rail shipments along the Great Lakes, capture vessels and disrupt shipping on the lakes, and rescue Confederate prisoners in Ohio.
The Confederate navy was spectacularly successful with its commerce raiders, which harassed and destroyed Union ships in global warfare. Alabama was built in England, secretly commissioned in the South Atlantic, and set free under the command of Raphael Semmes to detain and destroy Union merchantmen in the Atlantic, around Africa into the Indian Ocean, and as far east as Singapore. Before being sunk by the Union Kearsarge in a famous battle off Cherbourg in the English Channel, Alabama took sixty‐five ships.
Sumter, Tallahassee, and Florida had briefer careers. The more famous Shenandoah wreaked havoc in the Pacific where American whalers harvested critical supplies of oil. Considered pirates by the Union, these ships captured the world's imagination, and the willingness of neutral ports to welcome the ships and lionize their crews resulted in U.S. claims against England in the 1870s.
Deficiencies in industrial strength, scarcities in raw materials and skilled labor, and the overwhelming numbers of Union vessels express in naval terms the same disadvantages that helped to defeat Confederate armies. In ships, they were outnumbered more than three to one; in enlisted ranks, more than ten to one; yet the Confederate navy employed technologies that, in time, became essential to naval warfare.
[See also Confederate Army, Union Army; Union Navy.]
J. Thomas Scharf , History of the Confederate States Navy, 1887.
Joseph T. Durkin , Stephen R. Mallory, Confederate Navy Chief, 1954.
Milton F. Perry , Infernal Machines, the Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare, 1965.
William N. Still, Jr. , Iron Afloat, the Story of the Confederate Armorclads, 1971.
Tom H. Wells , The Confederate Navy, a Study in Organization, 1971.
Stephen R. Wise , Lifeline of the Confederacy, 1988.
John M. Taylor , Confederate Raider, Raphael Semmes of the Alabama, 1994.
Raimondo Luraghi , A History of the Confederate Navy, 1996.
Maxine T. Turner
NAVY, CONFEDERATE, was established by act of the Confederate Congress on 21 February 1861. On the same day, President Jefferson Davis appointed S. R. Mallory secretary of the Confederate navy. By an act of 21 April 1862 the navy was to consist of four admirals, ten captains, thirty-one commanders, and a specified number of subaltern officers. The naval service consisted of three main classes, including ships that served inland waters and commissioned cruisers to harass Union commerce and privateers. Before the outbreak of hostilities, Raphael Semmes was sent North to purchase ships and materials. No ships were secured but some materials were. Two U.S. shipyards fell to the Confederacy—one when the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, was abandoned and the other when the yard at Pensacola, Florida, was seized. All shipping in the Norfolk yard had been destroyed, but the Confederates raised the hull of the Merrimac and converted it into an ironclad ram. The Pensacola yard was of little value. On 9 May 1861 Mallory commissioned James D. Bulloch to go to England to secure ships for the Confederacy. Bulloch had some success, contriving to secure several ships that did much damage, as Confederate cruisers, to U.S. commerce.
The Confederacy had ample naval personnel, as 321 officers had resigned from the U.S. Navy by 1 June 1861 and tendered their services. Lack of all necessary facilities, however, and the increasing effectiveness of the Union blockade presented grave obstacles to the building of a Confederate navy. The Confederacy is credited with introducing the ironclad vessel, which revolutionized naval warfare. Confederates also contributed to perfecting the torpedo.
Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis, Md.:Naval Institute Press, 1996.
Silverstone, Paul H. Civil War Navies, 1855–1883. Annapolis, Md.:Naval Institute Press, 2001.