- Historic Sites
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
Thus handicapped at the start with an inadequate navy and having a 3,600-mile coast line to patrol, the Navy Department can hardly he hlamed lor not having established an efficient blockade ol the Gull and Atlantic ports ol the Confederacy in less than three and a hall years. That it was able to build or charter 250 armed vessels by the end of 1862, and 600 by the end of the war, is a remarkable achievement in some respects but one which fell far short of accomplishing its object, which was to ellect an airtight blockade.
During 1861, as might be expected, the blockade cast hardly a shadow on Confederate waters. In July, a British vessel steaming i’rom Hampton Roads to Wilmington reported that it did not encounter a single blockader en route. There was one, the Daylight , which entered Wilmington waters on July 20, but its commander and lhe British skipper managed to pass each other unseen. In December ol the same year, a British warship, the Desperate , commanded by Captain John Ross, Stood close in to the harbor of Galveston to test the presence of blockaders.
The Desperate made her presence known by smoke from her funnels, and withdrew. Nothing happened, and Captain Ross wrote in his journal: “Having seen no United States man-of-war there, I concluded that the port was not effectively blockaded, and it will be my duty to report the same to my superior ofRcer.” (Great Britain had just recently, in 185!), joined with the other major European nations in the Declaration of Paris, which enunciated the principle of international law that blockades, to be legal, must be effective.)
That was the situation, east and west, during the Jirst twelve months of the war, and on April 7, 1862, the British consul at Charleston, describing a situation which was general in the Atlantic ports ol the Confederacy, wrote: “The blockade runners are doing a great business. Everything is brought in, in abundance. Not a day passes without an arrival or a departure. Passengers come and go freely, and no one seems to think there is the slightest risk, as indeed there is not.”
On the day on which the British consul wrote, the Federal Navy had 226 ships with which to blockade 3,549 statute miles of coast, or one ship to every seventeen miles of sea from the Potomac to the Gulf—an impossible task. In addition, although the age of steam was under way, many of the blockaders were sailing vessels which were useless unless the blockade runners they sighted were sailing vessels also.
Even as early as 1862, few of them were. Blockade running had become big business and the majority of the contraband was carried in swift iron steamers designed and built in England especially lor the purpose. Some of them, like the celebrated Banshee , were built of steel, and still others could attain the incredible speed, even when loaded, of seventeen knots. (The Banshee was the first steel commercial ship to cross the ocean and the second one ever to be built.) Burning smokeless anthracite coal and painted the color of a Hatteras fog, the custom-built blockade runner on a dark night—knife-prowed and about 200 feet long—was “absolutely indiscernible at a cable’s length,” and most of them made the trip through the Federal blockading cordon with no more hindrance than a passenger threading his way briskly through the crowds in a railway station.
From the beginning of 1863 until the spring of 1864, when the efforts of the Federal shipbuilding program began to show results in the form of a fleet of ironclads constructed, five out of six of the runners were getting through on the East Coast. No record is available for the Gulf Coast after the fall of New Orleans, but in the vaster expanses of the Gulf of Mexico blockade runners were even harder to catch, and the traffic to the Gulf, judged by the amount of goods taken in and the amount of cotton taken out, undoubtedly equaled that of the East Coast. In all, it is estimated that about 8,000 round trips, at least, were made through the blockade by a fleet of 1,650 vessels.
Not only were the Federal ships outclassed in speed and maneuverability by the professional blockade runners, but the nature of the Atlantic seaboard was such that a fleet of several thousand armed, shallow draft vessels would have been needed to make even a pretense of patrolling it. The whole region seemingly had been designed by nature as a smuggler’s paradise. From the Virginia Capes to Wilmington, North Carolina, the seaboard is a narrow, bow-shaped belt of sand, broken only by shallow inlets and spearheaded by the headlands of Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Cape Fear.