The Civil War Blockade

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American Civil War Blockade History
Union Blockade and Confederate Blockade-Runners


The Blockading of the Southern Seaports in the Civil War

        The first measure of naval warfare undertaken by the Administration, and the one which it carried out for four years with the most sustained effort, was one that seemed at the outset in the highest degree impracticable. A navy of thirty-five available modern vessels, while it might be expected to produce substantial results by concentrated attacks at isolated points on the seaboard, or in engagements with the enemy's ships-of-war, counted for almost nothing as an effectual barrier to commerce along 3,000 miles of coast. To undertake such a task, and to proclaim the undertaking to the world, in all its magnitude, at a time when the Navy Department had only three steam-vessels at its immediate disposal in home ports, was an enterprise of the greatest boldness and hardihood. For the days of paper blockades were over; and, though the United States were not a party to the Declaration of Paris, its rule in regard to blockade was only the formal expression of a law universally recognized. "Blockades, to be binding, must be effective--that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy;" or, according to the general interpretation given to the treaty, sufficient to create an evident danger in entering or leaving the port. In this sense, the Government understood its responsibilities and prepared to meet them.        

Union Blockade Squadrons
Union Naval Blockade US Naval Blockade Map.jpg
Federal Blockade and Confederate Blockade-Runners

        It was natural, in view of the inadequacy of the force, that foreign governments should look at the measure with suspicion, and should watch its execution with careful scrutiny. Commercial communities abroad doubted the seriousness of the undertaking, because, in their ignorance of the energy and the resources of the Government, they doubted its feasibility. An effective blockade on such a scale was a thing unprecedented, even in the operations of the foremost naval powers of the world. It seemed to be an attempt to revive the cabinet blockades of half a century before, when England and France laid an embargo upon each other's coasts, and captured all vessels at sea whose destination was within the proscribed limits; and when Spain interdicted commerce with the northern colonies in South America, and as a matter of form, kept a brig cruising in the Caribbean Sea.

        No time was lost in announcing the intentions of the Government. On the 19th of April, six days after the fall of Sumter, the President issued a proclamation declaring the blockade of the Southern States from South Carolina to Texas. On the 27th the blockade was extended to Virginia and North Carolina. The terms of the proclamation were as follows:


"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 any 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 he deemed advisable."


        Upon the issue of the proclamation, the Government immediately found itself confronted with the question whether the movement at the South should be regarded as rebellion or as war. From the legal point of view the acts of the insurgents could be looked upon in no other light than as armed insurrection, "levying war against the United States," and under the constitutional definition, the actors were guilty of treason. But the extent of the movement, its well-defined area, and, above all, its complete governmental organization, made it impossible to put the legal theory into practice; and almost from the beginning hostilities were carried on precisely as in a regular war. The Government, however, in its dealings with foreign powers always asserted stoutly that the movement was purely an insurrection, and that those in arms against it were rebels, and not belligerents.

        This position, though it involved occasional inconsistencies, was maintained with considerable success, except in relation to the status of prisoners, and in those cases where the operations of the war affected foreign interests. The question first arose in reference to the blockade. Blockade, in the ordinary sense, is purely an act of war. It means the closing of an enemy's ports, and the capture of all vessels, neutral or hostile, attempting to enter with knowledge of the blockade. It enables a belligerent to seize vessels on the high seas bound for a blockaded port. It stands on the same footing as the right of search, which is exclusively a war right; and like the right of search, it is a benefit to the belligerent, and a hardship to the neutral.

        Even after the President's proclamation, which was to all intents a belligerent declaration, and after the blockade had been set on foot, the Government still held to its theory that the parties to the contest were not belligerents, and that rebellion was not in any sense war. In his report of July 4, 1861, at the special session of Congress, the Secretary of the Navy referred to the blockade in these terms:


"In carrying into effect these principles, and in suppressing the attempts to evade and resist them, and in order to maintain the Constitution and execute the laws, it became necessary to interdict commerce at those ports where duties could not be collected, the laws maintained and executed, and where the officers of the Government were not tolerated or permitted to exercise their functions. In performing this domestic municipal duty, the property and interests of foreigners became to some extent involved in our home questions, and with a view to extending to them every comity that the circumstances would justify, the rules of blockade were adopted, and, as far as practicable, made applicable to the cases that occurred under this embargo or non-inter-course of the insurgent States. The commanders of the squadron were directed to permit the vessels of foreigners to depart within fifteen days, as in cases of actual effective blockade, and then vessels were not to be seized unless they attempted, after having been once warned off, to enter an interdicted port in disregard of such warning."

Civil War Blockade History
Civil War Blockade History.jpg
Southern Blockade-Runner

        In referring to the blockade in these words, the Navy Department clearly had in mind a measure of internal administration; and this domestic application of a belligerent right was excused on the ground of a desire to extend every possible comity to foreigners. But in putting forward this plea, the Secretary failed to see that the application of the rules of blockade to a domestic embargo, so far from extending comity to foreigners, abridged their rights, and imposed on them liabilities and penalties which no domestic embargo of itself could produce. It was not the foreign trader, but the belligerent cruiser that gained by the adoption of the rules of blockade. A government has the right to close its own ports, and to impose heavy penalties upon all who attempt to enter; but it cannot by virtue of any such measure search and seize foreign vessels on the high seas, even though bound for the embargoed port. To do this it must establish a blockade. In other words, it must wage war, and the two parties in the contest must become belligerents.

        Although it may have been the intention of the Executive in July to regard the blockade as a domestic embargo, it soon gave up the idea in practice. Neutral vessels were searched and captured at sea. Prizes were sent in for adjudication, and condemned for breach of blockade and for carrying contraband, "in pursuance of the laws of the United States and the Law of Nations in such case provided," and not in pursuance of any law imposing civil forfeitures or penalties for violation of a domestic embargo. The forms of examination and procedure were those of belligerent prize-courts; and the decisions expressly recognized a state of war, and could be founded on no other hypothesis.

        Under these circumstances, the complaint against the British Government of having done an unfriendly act in recognizing the rebels as belligerents, had no very serious foundation. The Queen's proclamation of neutrality, published on May 13, was a statement that hostilities existed between the Government of the United States and "certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America,'' and a command to British subjects to observe a strict neutrality between the contending parties. Its form and contents were those commonly found in the declarations of neutrals at the outbreak of war. The annoyance it gave to the Government and the elation it caused at the South were due to the fact that it appeared somewhat early in the struggle, and that it was the first recognition from abroad of the strength and organization of the insurgent Government. As a matter of law, Great Britain had the right to declare herself neutral, especially after the blockade was proclaimed, as blockade is a purely belligerent act. Her offence, reduced to its exact proportions, consisted in taking the ground of a neutral before the magnitude and force of the insurrection were such as to justify it. But the hopes raised at the South by the proclamation led to the prevalent belief throughout the Union that it was dictated by unfriendly motives; while the undisguised sympathy for the Southern cause shown by the upper classes in England tended to strengthen the impression and to aggravate the wound.

        The inception of the blockade was somewhat irregular. Ordinarily a blockade may begin in one of two ways; either by a public announcement coupled with the presence of a force before the blockaded port; or by stationing the force without an announcement. The first is a blockade by notification; the second is a blockade in fact. As breach of blockade only becomes an offence when accompanied by knowledge, actual or constructive, of the existence of the blockade, it is a question of some importance when the blockade begins and how knowledge of it is to be acquired. In a blockade by notification, knowledge is held to have been acquired when sufficient time has elapsed for the notice to have been generally received; and after this time a neutral vessel, by sailing for the blockaded port, has committed an offence and incurred a penalty. With a blockade that is purely de facto, on the other hand, knowledge must be obtained on the station, and neutrals have a right to sail for the port and to be warned off on their arrival.

        Whether a blockade is initiated as a blockade by notification or as a blockade de facto, the indispensable condition of its establishment is the presence of a force at the blockaded port. Actual notice of the fact can never precede the existence of the fact. The President's two proclamations did not therefore constitute actual notice, because at the date of their issue there was not even a pretence that the blockade existed. Nor do they appear to have been so intended. The idea was rather to publish a manifesto declaring in a general way the intentions of the Government, and then to carry them out as promptly as circumstances would permit.

        The blockade therefore began as a blockade de facto, not as a blockade by notification. During the summer of 1861 vessels were stationed at different points, one after another, by which the blockade at those points was separately established. Notices, of a more or less informal character, were given in some cases by the commanding officer of the blockading force; but no general practice was observed. When Captain Poor, in the Brooklyn, took his station off the Mississippi, he merely informed the officer commanding the forts that New Orleans was blockaded. Pendergrast, the commanding officer at Hampton Roads, issued a formal document on April 30, calling attention to the President's proclamation in relation to Virginia and North Carolina, and giving notice that he had a sufficient force there for the purpose of carrying out the proclamation. He added that vessels coming from a distance, and ignorant of the proclamation, would be warned off. But Pendergrast's announcement, though intended as a notification, was marked by the same defects as the proclamation. The actual blockade and the notice of it must always be commensurate. At this time, there were several vessels in Hampton Roads, but absolutely no force on the coast of North Carolina; and the declaration was open to the charge of stating what was not an existing fact.

        The importance of these early formalities arises from the fact that the liability of neutral vessels depends on the actual existence of the blockade, and upon their knowledge of it. Until the establishment of the blockade is known, actually or constructively, all vessels have a right to be warned off: When the fact has become notorious, the privilege of warning ceases. In the statement about warning, therefore, the President's proclamation said either too much or too little. If it was intended, as the language might seem to imply, that during the continuance of the blockade--which, as it turned out, was the same thing as during the continuance of the war--all neutral vessels might approach the coast and receive individual warning, and that only after such warning would they be liable to capture, it conceded far more than usage required. If it meant simply that the warning would be given at each point for such time after the force was posted as would enable neutrals generally to become aware of the fact, it conveyed its meaning imperfectly. In practice, the second interpretation was adopted, in spite of the remonstrance's of neutrals; and the warnings given in the early days of the blockade were gradually discontinued, the concessions of the proclamation to the contrary notwithstanding. The time when warning should cease does not appear to have been fixed; and in one instance at least, on the coast of Texas, it was given as late as July, 1862. The fact of warning was commonly endorsed on the neutral's register. In some cases the warnings had the same fault as Pendergrast's proclamation, in being a little too comprehensive, and including ports where an adequate force had not yet been stationed. The boarding officers of the Niagara, when off Charleston, in May, warned vessels off the whole Southern coast, as being in a state of blockade, though no ship-of-war had as yet appeared off Savannah; and the Government paid a round sum to their owners in damages for the loss of a market, which was caused by the official warning.

        The concession of warning to neutrals at the port, if it had continued through the war, would have rendered the blockade to a great extent inoperative. Vessels would have been able to approach the coast without risk of capture, and to have lain about the neighborhood until a good opportunity offered for running past the squadron. In other words, the first risk of the blockade-runner would have been a risk of warning, instead of a risk of capture; and the chances in his favor would have been materially increased. The courts, as well as the cruisers, disregarded the proclamation as soon as the blockade was fairly established, and held, in accordance with English and American precedents, that warning was unnecessary where actual knowledge could be proved.

        It is probable that when the blockade was proclaimed it was thought that the measure could be adequately carried out by stationing a small squadron at the principal commercial ports, supplemented by a force of vessels cruising up and down the coast. The number of points to be covered would thus be reduced to four or five on the Atlantic and as many more on the Gulf. Had this expectation been realized, the blockade would have been by no means the stupendous undertaking that it seemed to observers abroad. Acting upon such a belief, the Government entered upon its task with confidence and proceeded with despatch. The Niagara, which had returned from Japan on April 24, was sent to cruise off Charleston. The Brooklyn and Powhatan moved westward along the Gulf. Before the 1st of May, seven steamers of considerable size had been chartered in New York and Philadelphia. One of these, the Keystone State, chartered by Lieutenant Woodhull, and intended especially for use at Norfolk, was at her station in Hampton Roads in forty-eight hours after Woodhull had received his orders in Washington to secure a vessel. The screw-steamer South Carolina, of eleven hundred and sixty-five tons, purchased in Boston on May 3, arrived off Pensacola on June 4; and the Massachusetts, a similar vessel in all respects, and bought at the same time, was equally prompt in reaching Key West.

        Notwithstanding these efforts, the blockade can hardly be said to have been in existence until six weeks after it was declared, and then only at the principal points. When the Niagara arrived off Charleston on the 11th of May, she remained only four days; and except for the fact that the Harriet Lane was off the bar on the 19th, there was no blockade whatever at that point for a fortnight afterward. The British Government called attention to this fact, and suggested that a new blockade required a new notification, with the usual allowance of time for the departure of vessels; but the State Department did not regard the blockade as having been interrupted. Savannah was blockaded on the 28th of May. In the Gulf, Mobile and New Orleans received notice on the 26th from the Powhatan and the Brooklyn; and a month later the South Carolina was at Galveston. At the principal points, therefore, there was no blockade at all during the first month, and after that time the chain of investment was far from being complete. Indeed it could hardly be called a chain at all, when so many links were wanting. Even Wilmington, which later became the most important point on the coast in the operations of the blockade-runners, was still open, and the intermediate points were not under any effective observation.

Union Civil War Blockade History
Union Civil War Blockade History.jpg
Union Blockade and Confederate Blockade-Runners

        As liability for breach of blockade begins with the mere act of sailing for the blockaded port, the distance of this port from the point of departure becomes an important consideration to the blockade-runner. The longer the distance to be traversed the greater the risk; and some method of breaking the voyage must be devised, so that as much of it as possible may be technically innocent. The principal trade of the South during the war was with England; and it became an object to evade liability during the long transatlantic passage. For this purpose, all the available neutral ports in the neighborhood of the coast were made entrepots for covering the illegal traffic.

        There were four principal points which served as intermediaries for the neutral trade with the South; Bermuda, Nassau, Havana, and Matamoras. Of these Nassau was the most prominent. Situated on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, it is only about one hundred and eighty miles in a straight line from the coast of Florida. Florida, however, was not the objective point of the leading blockade-runners. It had neither suitable harbors nor connections with the interior. The chief seats of commerce on the Eastern coast were Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington. The run to these points from Nassau was from five hundred to six hundred miles, or three days, allowing for the usual delays of the passage. For such trips, small quantities of coal were needed, which gave great room for stowage of cargo. There was no great depth of water at Nassau, which was an advantage to the blockade-runners; and the cruisers generally took their station off Abaco Light, fifty miles away. New Providence was surrounded by numbers of small islands, over whose waters, within a league of the shore, the sovereignty of a great power threw a protection as complete and as effective as that of guns and fortifications. A vessel bound to Nassau from one of the blockaded ports must have been hard-pressed indeed if she could not find a refuge. The navigation among the islands was dangerous and difficult, the channels were intricate, and reefs and shoals abounded; but skilful pilots were always at the command of the blockade-runners.

        Nassau was a place of no special importance before the war. Its inhabitants lived chiefly by fishing and wrecking. But with the demands of the moment, it suddenly became a commercial emporium. Its harbor was crowded with shipping. Its wharves were covered with cotton-bales awaiting transportation to Europe, and with merchandise ready to be shipped for the blockaded country. Confederate agents were established here, and took charge of the interests of their Government in connection with the contraband trade. Money quickly earned was freely spent, and the war, at least while it lasted, enriched the community.

        Bermuda shared, though in a less degree, the profits of the blockade-running traffic. Its connection was closest with Wilmington, which was six hundred and seventy-four miles distant, and which was the favorite port of the block-sale-runners, especially in the last year of the war. In the Gulf, Havana had a similar importance. The run to the coast of Florida was only a little over one hundred miles. But Key West was inconveniently near, the Gulf blockade was strict, and after New Orleans was captured, the trade offered no such inducements as that on the Atlantic coast. Nevertheless it is stated by Admiral Bailey, on the authority of intercepted correspondence of the enemy, that between April 1 and July 6, 1863, fifty vessels left Havana to run the blockade.

        The situation of Matamoras was somewhat peculiar. It was the only town of any importance on the single foreign frontier of the Confederacy. Situated opposite the Texan town of Brownsville, on the Rio Grande, about forty miles from its mouth, and in neutral territory, it offered peculiar advantages for contraband trade. The Rio Grande could not be blockaded. Cargoes shipped for Matamoras were transferred to lighters at the mouth of the river. On their arrival at Matamoras they were readily transported to the insurgent territory. Accordingly, in 1862, the place became the seat of a flourishing trade. The sudden growth of the city was a notorious fact, as was also the cause that led to it. Yet the Government was unable to put a stop to the traffic, unless evidence could be brought to show that the cargoes were really destined for the enemy. Several vessels bound for Matamoras were captured and sent in, but in most of the cases the prize court decreed restitution, on the ground that a neutral port could not be blockaded, and therefore there could be no breach of blockade in sailing for it. Even in the case of the Peterhoff, which was captured near St. Thomas under suspicious circumstances, and whose papers showed Matamoras as her destination, only the contraband part of the cargo was condemned.

        When the advantage of a neutral destination was fully understood, it became the practice for all the blockade-runners out of European ports to clear for one or the other of these points, and upon their arrival to wait for a favorable opportunity to run over to their real destination. Nobody could be deceived by this pretence of an innocent voyage; and the courts, looking only at the final destination, condemned the vessels when there was evidence of an ultimate intention to break the blockade. This decision rested upon an old principle of the English prize-courts, known as the doctrine of continuous voyages, according to which the mere touching at an intermediate port of a vessel engaged in an illegal voyage could not break the continuity of the voyage or remove the taint of illegality. Hence, if a vessel cleared from Liverpool with the intention of merely touching at Nassau, and then proceeding to Charleston, and if this intention could be proved from the papers, the character of the cargo, and the examination of persons on board, the two voyages were held to be one, and condemnation followed.

        In order to meet the new difficulty, a new device was adopted. Cargoes were sent out to Nassau, and were there transshipped, sometimes directly, from vessel to vessel, in the harbor, sometimes after being landed on the wharf; and thence were transported in a new conveyance to the blockaded port. Return cargoes were transshipped in the same way. This had a double advantage. It made the continuity of the transaction much more difficult of proof, and it enabled the capitalists engaged in the trade to employ two different classes of vessels, for the service for which each was specially adapted. For the long voyages across the Atlantic heavy freighters could be used, of great capacity and stoutly built; and the light, swift, hardly visible steamers, with low hulls, and twin-screws or feathering paddles, the typical blockade-runners, could be employed exclusively for the three days' run on the other side of Nassau or Bermuda. But here again the courts stepped in, and held that though a transshipment was made, even after landing the cargo and going through a form of sale, the two voyages were parts of one and the same transaction, and the cargo from the outset was liable to condemnation, if the original intention had been to forward the goods to a blockaded port. Nor did the decisions stop here. As all the property, both ship and cargo, is confiscated upon proof of breach of blockade, it was held that the ships carrying on this traffic to neutral ports were confiscable, provided the ultimate destination of the cargo to a blockaded port was known to the owner. In the words of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, "The ships are planks of the same bridge, all of the same kind, and necessary for the convenient passage of persons and property from one end to the other."

        The adoption of this rule by the highest courts in the United States raised a loud outcry on the part of those interested in the traffic, trod was severely criticised by implicists abroad, especially by those who favored, in general, the continental view of the laws of war. The United States were accused of sacrificing the rights of neutrals, which they had hitherto upheld, to the interests of belligerents, and of disregarding great principles for the sake of a momentary advantage. In truth, however, the principle adopted by the court was not a new one, though a novel application was made of it to meet a novel combination of circumstances. It had formerly been applied to cases where neutrals, engaged in illegal trade between two ports of a belligerent, had endeavored to screen the illegality of the voyage by the interposition of a neutral port, with or without the landing of goods and the employment of a new conveyance, in these eases Lord Stowell held that the continuity of the voyage was not broken, unless the cargo was really imported into the common stock of the neutral country. That the principle had not been applied to blockades was due to the fact that circumstances had never called for it, as the practice of breaking a blockade had never before been carried out on such a scale, with such perfect appliances, and by the use of such ingenious devices. The really difficult question before the court was as to the sufficiency of the evidence in each case. It was to be expected that every artifice in the nature of simulated papers, pretended ownership, false destination, and fictitious transfers would be adopted to escape liability; and it was the business of the court to penetrate all these disguises, and to ascertain the real character of each transaction. It is probable that in no case was injustice done in brushing aside and disregarding the various ceremonies, more or less elaborate and artificial, that were performed over blockade-running cargoes at Nassau and Bermuda; and it must often have happened that the ingenuity of shipper's was rewarded by a decree of restitution for the want of technical evidence, when there was no moral doubt as to the vessel's guilt.

Civil War Blockade
Confederate Blockade-Running.jpg
Confederate Blockade-Running

        As a last resort, the blockade-running merchants adopted an expedient so original and so bold that it may almost be said to have merited success. As cargoes from Liverpool to Nassau ran a risk of capture, the voyage was broken again, this time not by a neutral destination, but by one in the country of the very belligerent whom the trade was to injure. Goods were shipped to New York by the regular steamship lines, to be carried thence to Nassau, and so to find their way to the blockaded territory. It was supposed that the United States would not interfere with commerce between its own ports and those of a neutral. This expectation, however, was not well-founded. The Government of the United States, although federal in its organization, was not so impotent in regard to the regulation of trade as was that of Great Britain in enforcing the neutrality of its subjects; and if action could not be taken through the Courts, it could be taken through the custom-houses. As soon as it was discovered at New York that the trade with Nassau and Bermuda was assuming large proportions, instructions were issued to collectors of customs in the United States to refuse clearances to vessels which, whatever their ostensible destination, were believed to be intended for Southern ports, or whose cargoes were in imminent danger of falling into the hands of the enemy; and if there was merely ground for apprehension that cargoes were destined for the enemy's use, the owners were required to give ample security.

        The instructions were perfectly general in character, naming no particular port or country. The agents of the blockade-runners, however, styling themselves merchants of Nassau, adopted a tone of righteous indignation, and actually had the effrontery to complain of this "unjust discrimination'' against what they ingenuously called the trade of the Bahamas. As if, indeed, the Bahamas had had any trade, or Nassau any merchants, before the days of blockade-running! They succeeded, however, in persuading Earl Russell to take up the diplomatic cudgels in their behalf; but from the long correspondence that followed, the English Government, being clearly in the wrong, derived little satisfaction, and a stop was put to the traffic.

        The character of the blockade changed materially as the war went on. At first the prevailing idea seems to have been that its object was to lint a stop to legitimate trade, and that this object was secured by the official declaration. The squadrons seem to have been employed rather to comply with the requirements of international law, and to make the prohibition binding upon neutrals, than as being themselves the agency by which the prohibition was to be enforced, and without which it was only so much waste paper. This idea had some foundation in view of the fact that from the beginning, though the blockading force was then inconsiderable, the regular course of trade at the Southern ports was actually interrupted, neutrals for a time respecting the proclamation, or being satisfied to receive their warning and to go elsewhere. In place of the regular commerce, however, a contraband trade grew up, little by little, which, beginning with any materials that came to hand, and carried on chiefly by people along the coast, gradually grew to considerable proportions. Then, and then only, was the true character of the blockade recognized, and measures were taken, by increasing the force and by perfecting its organization, to make the watch so close as really to prevent egress and ingress. But by this time the capital embarked in the business was so large as to secure the construction of vessels built especially for the purpose, beautifully adapted to the work, and far more difficult to capture. Therefore, while the efforts of the blockaders were redoubled, the difficulties before them were vastly increased. The old traditional idea of a blockade, maintained by a few large vessels moving up and down before a port, at a distance, gave place to the entirely novel practice of anchoring a large number of small and handy steamers in an exposed position close to the bar at the entrance of the blockaded harbors; and the boldness with which, after the first six months, men kept their vessels close in with the shore and manfully rode out the gales at their anchors--a thing which seafaring men, as a rule, had regarded as impossible, and which would have appalled the stoutest captains of former times--showed as clearly as the actual engagements the real stuff of which the navy was made.

        As to the legal efficiency of the blockade after the first six months, there can be no question; and by the end of the second year its stringency was such that only specially-adapted vessels could safely attempt to run it. If proof of its efficiency was needed, it could be found in the increased price of cotton and in the scarcity of manufactured goods at the South. In the last year it became as nearly perfect as such an operation can be made. Taking its latest development as a type, it is probable that no blockade has ever been maintained more effectually by any State; and it is certain that no State ever had such a blockade to maintain.

        Apart from its enormous extent, it had four characteristics which mark it as wholly unprecedented: in the peculiar formation of the shore, which gave almost a double coastline throughout, penetrated by numerous inlets, giving access to a complicated network of channels; in the vicinity of neutral ports friendly to the blockade-runners; in the cotton-monopoly of the South, which made the blockade a source of irritation to neutrals; and finally, but the most important consideration of all, in the introduction of blockade-running vessels propelled by steam.

        The success of this undertaking, so unprecedented both in its magnitude and difficulty, can best be judged by the results. The number of prizes brought in during the war was 1,149, of which 210 were steamers. There were also 355 vessels burned, sunk, driven on shore, or otherwise destroyed, of which 85 were steamers; making a total of 1,504 vessels of all classes. The value of these vessels and their cargoes, according to a low estimate, was thirty-one millions of dollars. In the War of 1812, which has always, and justly, been regarded as a successful naval war, the number of captures was 1,719. But the War of 1812 was waged against a commercial nation, and the number of vessels open to capture was therefore far greater. Of the property afloat, destroyed or captured during the Civil War, the larger part suffered in consequence of the blockade. Moreover, in the earlier war, out of the whole number of captures, 1,428 were made by privateers, which were fitted out chiefly as a commercial adventure. In the Civil War the work was done wholly by the navy; and it was done in the face of obstacles of which naval warfare before that time had presented no example or conception.

        As a military measure, the blockade was of vital importance in the operations of the war; and it has been commonly said that without it hostilities would have been protracted much longer, and would have been far more bitter and bloody than they were. Its peculiar importance lay in the isolation of the Southern States and in their dependence upon the outside world for the necessaries of life. The only neutral frontier was along the Rio Grande; and the country, for many miles on both sides of the boundary, offered few facilities for trade or transportation. All supplies must come from the seaboard; and the purely agricultural character of Southern industry made supplies from abroad a necessity. Had the position of the two opponents been reversed, and an efficient blockade maintained against the Northern ports, it would have told with far less severity than at the South.

        Besides the exclusion of manufactured goods, and especially of munitions of war, which was one of the prime objects of the blockade, its second and equally important object was to prevent the exportation of cotton, with which at this time the Southern States supplied the world. The amount of floating capital at the South was never large; land and slaves were the favorite forms of investment; and the sale of cotton was therefore the main source of income. When exportation was cut off, the Government was deprived of its revenues for the war, and the people of the very means of existence. It was the common impression at the South that the rest of the world, and especially England, had too great an interest in the cotton supply to tolerate a prohibition on exportation; and it was believed, or at least hoped, that the blockade would prove a fatal measure for its originators, by the injury it would work abroad. The injury was not over-estimated; and it doubtless had its effect upon the sympathizes of the interested foreign state. Lancashire, the great centre of the cotton manufacture, was compelled to close its mills; and the distress that resulted among the operatives may be estimated by the fact that, two years after the war had begun, no less than ten millions of dollars had been disbursed by the Relief Committees. But the British Government, whatever may have been its disposition, had at no time a plausible pretext for intervention; and the blockade continued to be enforced with increased rigor.

        As the war went on, the naval forces, securing the cooperation of small bodies of troops, gradually obtained a foothold at various points and converted the blockade into a military occupation. These points then became the headquarters of the different squadrons--ports for rendezvous, refitment, and supply, for the "repairs and coal" that were forever drawing away the blockaders from their stations at critical moments. By the spring of 1862 all the squadrons were well provided in this respect, though some of the centres of occupation were occasionally recovered by the enemy. Especially on the coast of Texas, blockade and occupation alternated at the different Passes throughout the war, partly in consequence of the want of troops to hold the occupied points. Curiously enough, too, these centres of occupation became in a small way centres of blockade-running--Nassaus and Bermudas on a diminutive scale. Norfolk, Beaufort in North Carolina, Hilton Head with its sutler's shops, Pensacola, and New Orleans each carried on a trade, prosperous as far as it went, with the surrounding coast. At New Orleans, the blockade of Lake Ponchartrain was kept up long after the city was taken, not to prevent access to the port, but to capture the illicit traders that cleared from it; and Farragut was obliged to remonstrate sharply with the Collector for the readiness with which papers covering the trade were issued by the custom-house.

Source: The Blockade and the Cruisers, Chapter 2, by James Russell Soley

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Recommended Reading: Naval Strategies of the Civil War: Confederate Innovations and Federal Opportunism. Description: One of the most overlooked aspects of the American Civil War is the naval strategy played out by the U.S. Navy and the fledgling Confederate Navy, which may make this the first book to compare and contrast the strategic concepts of the Southern Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory against his Northern counterpart, Gideon Welles. Both men had to accomplish much and were given great latitude in achieving their goals. Mallory's vision of seapower emphasized technological innovation and individual competence as he sought to match quality against the Union Navy's (quantity) numerical superiority. Welles had to deal with more bureaucratic structure and to some degree a national strategy dictated by the White House. Continued below...

The naval blockade of the South was one of his first tasks - for which he had but few ships available - and although he followed the national strategy, he did not limit himself to it when opportunities arose. Mallory's dedication to ironclads is well known, but he also defined the roles of commerce raiders, submarines, and naval mines. Welles's contributions to the Union effort were rooted in his organizational skills and his willingness to cooperate with the other military departments of his government. This led to successes through combined army and naval units in several campaigns on and around the Mississippi River.

Recommended Reading: Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (Studies in Maritime History Series). From Library Journal: From the profusion of books about Confederate blockade running, this one will stand out for a long time as the most complete and exhaustively researched. Though not unaware of the romantic aspects of his subject, Wise sets out to provide a detailed study, giving particular attention to the blockade runners' effects on the Confederate war effort. It was, he finds, tapping hitherto unused sources, absolutely essential, affording the South a virtual lifeline of military necessities until the war's last days. This book covers it all: from cargoes to ship outfitting, from individuals and companies to financing at both ends. An indispensable addition to Civil War literature.


Recommended Reading: Naval Campaigns of the Civil War. Description: This analysis of naval engagements during the War Between the States presents the action from the efforts at Fort Sumter during the secession of South Carolina in 1860, through the battles in the Gulf of Mexico, on the Mississippi River, and along the eastern seaboard, to the final attack at Fort Fisher on the coast of North Carolina in January 1865. This work provides an understanding of the maritime problems facing both sides at the beginning of the war, their efforts to overcome these problems, and their attempts, both triumphant and tragic, to control the waterways of the South. The Union blockade, Confederate privateers and commerce raiders are discussed, as is the famous battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. Continued below…

An overview of the events in the early months preceding the outbreak of the war is presented. The chronological arrangement of the campaigns allows for ready reference regarding a single event or an entire series of campaigns. Maps and an index are also included. About the Author: Paul Calore, a graduate of Johnson and Wales University, was the Operations Branch Chief with the Defense Logistics Agency of the Department of Defense before retiring. He is a supporting member of the U.S. Civil War Center and the Civil War Preservation Trust and has also written Land Campaigns of the Civil War (2000). He lives in Seekonk, Massachusetts.


Recommended Reading: Civil War Navies, 1855-1883 (The U.S. Navy Warship Series) (Hardcover). Description: Civil War Warships, 1855-1883 is the second in the five-volume US Navy Warships encyclopedia set. This valuable reference lists the ships of the U.S. Navy and Confederate Navy during the Civil War and the years immediately following - a significant period in the evolution of warships, the use of steam propulsion, and the development of ordnance. Civil War Warships provides a wealth and variety of material not found in other books on the subject and will save the reader the effort needed to track down information in multiple sources. Continued below…

Each ship's size and time and place of construction are listed along with particulars of naval service. The author provides historical details that include actions fought, damage sustained, prizes taken, ships sunk, and dates in and out of commission as well as information about when the ship left the Navy, names used in other services, and its ultimate fate. 140 photographs, including one of the Confederate cruiser Alabama recently uncovered by the author further contribute to this indispensable volume. This definitive record of Civil War ships updates the author's previous work and will find a lasting place among naval reference works.


Recommended Reading: The Rebel Raiders: The Astonishing History of the Confederacy's Secret Navy (American Civil War). From Booklist: DeKay's modest monograph pulls together four separate stories from the naval aspects of the American Civil War. All have been told before but never integrated as they are here. The first story is that of James Bulloch, the Confederate agent who carefully and capably set out to have Confederate commerce raiders built in neutral England. Continued below...

The second is that of the anti-American attitudes of British politicians, far more extreme than conventional histories let on, and U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams' heroic fight against them. The third is a thoroughly readable narrative of the raider Alabama and her capable, quirky captain, Raphael Semmes. The final story is about the Alabama claims--suits for damages done to the U.S. merchant marine by Confederate raiders, which became the first successful case of international arbitration. Sound and remarkably free of fury, DeKay's commendable effort nicely expands coverage of the naval aspects of the Civil War.

Recommended Reading: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Toll, a former financial analyst and political speechwriter, makes an auspicious debut with this rousing, exhaustively researched history of the founding of the U.S. Navy. The author chronicles the late 18th- and early 19th-century process of building a fleet that could project American power beyond her shores. The ragtag Continental Navy created during the Revolution was promptly dismantled after the war, and it wasn't until 1794—in the face of threats to U.S. shipping from England, France and the Barbary states of North Africa—that Congress authorized the construction of six frigates and laid the foundation for a permanent navy. Continued below…

A cabinet-level Department of the Navy followed in 1798. The fledgling navy quickly proved its worth in the Quasi War against France in the Caribbean, the Tripolitan War with Tripoli and the War of 1812 against the English. In holding its own against the British, the U.S. fleet broke the British navy's "sacred spell of invincibility," sparked a "new enthusiasm for naval power" in the U.S. and marked the maturation of the American navy. Toll provides perspective by seamlessly incorporating the era's political and diplomatic history into his superlative single-volume narrative—a must-read for fans of naval history and the early American Republic.

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