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The Blockade That Failed
Not until the Civil War was about over did the U.S. Navy manage to put a halt to the South’s imports
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
The two outstanding facts concerning the blockade of the southern states by the United States Navy during the Civil War are, one, that it was, lor the first three and a half years, almost totally ineffective, insofar as preventing supplies from reaching the rebels was concerned, and, two, that by the end of 1864, when it did become effective, the war was already over, for all practical purposes.
The Confederate armies had been beaten in the field by a preponderance of manpower and equipment on the part of the North. The popular notion of the South as a nation-in-arms strangled slowly in a sea blockade, a notion which lias been accepted at face value by many historians, is an historical fallacy. The misconception arises out of the ghastly shortages suffered in the South, which were due to the failure of the land transportation system of the Confederacy and military action of the Federals, rather than to any failure of supplies to get through the blockade.
The supplies, in fact, were coming through, from first to last. (The port of Wilmington, Lee’s chief source of food and ammunition, did 66 million dollars worth of business in gold in the last year of the war and exported 65 million dollars worth of cotton.) The Confederate soldier fought the war with arms imported from abroad—the finest that European markets could afford—and he could not have got them anywhere else. The U.S. arsenals seized by the state governments in the South in 1861 could not begin to supply the needs of the armies in the field, and that the South had a minimum of heavy industry with which to manufacture weapons is a fact too well-known to require restatement.
The shotgun and the squirrel rille of the embattled southern farmer, picturesque though they might be, could not have stemmed the tide at Kredericksburg or won the Battle of the Wilderness. Nor could the southern soldier supply himself with arms captured on the battlefield. The war was on too vast a scale for that. In the hemispheric struggle in which the Confederacy was engaged, English Enfields, Austrian and Brunswick rifles, Napoleon howitzers, heavy Whitworth siege guns, the new modern rifled cannon, and an astronomical quantity of gunpowder were needed. These were purchased abroad by Confederate agents, paid for by cotton shipped on government account, and run through the blockade in the dark of the moon from the entrepôts of Bermuda, Nassau and Havana.
Six hundred thousand stands of small arms alone reached the Confederacy via the blockade, 330,000 of them into the Gulf ports.
Not only guns, with bullets to fit them, but practically everything else the Confederacy needed came through the blockade. An insatiable war machine called for food, boots, buttons, cloth for uniforms, thread, stockings, civilian clothes, medicines, drugs, salt, boiler iron, shoes, steel, copper, zinc and chemicals in an endless flow—to cite the inventory of just one blockade runner. Such items as si’lks, brandies, laces, perfumes, linens and wines also went through despite the Richmond government’s ban on luxuries.
As low as was the standard of living in some parts of the South during the war, it would have been far lower but for the inefficiency of the blockade. The Confederacy lived by its trade with Europe and Mexico, and if the blockade could have been enforced at any time, the Rebellion would have been ended in short order. (|ust before the defenses of Wilmington were battered down in a great combined sea-and-land attack on January 12, 1865, General Lee wired Colonel Lamb, the Confederate commander at Fort Fisher: “If Fort Fisher falls, I shall have to evacuate Richmond.”)
Much has been made historically of the fact that the Confederacy had no navy, but it is seldom remembered that un April 19, i8(ii, when Lincoln proclaimed the blockade, the Union had none cither worthy of the name. The country had not IeIt much need loi a navy since the War of 1812, and most Americans would have agreed with the sentiments of Lincoln, expressed in an early political speech, that not in a thousand years could a European conqueror such as Napoleon invade the continental United States or water his horses in the muddy channels of the Mississippi.
As a result of this dependence upon the splendid isolation of the United States, the Navy was at a low ebb in 1861. There were only 42 vessels commissioned for active service, and of this number only 24 were steamers. Furthermore, the best part of the fleet, was in foreign waters, eighteen of the ships being scattered around the globe from the East Indies to Brazil. In all the ports of the North there were only three steamers actually at the disposal of the Navy Department: the Mohawk and the Crusader in New York, and the Pawneee at Potomac dock in Washington. The Mohawk and the Crusader were screw steamers, third class, and the Pawnee was a screw sloop. The Navy’s only steam warship of the first class in commission, the screw frigate Niagra , was 10,000 miles from home on the return voyage from Japan. The other two warships were the sailing frigates Sabine , of the Home Squadron at Pensacola, and the Congress , stationed in Brazil.