The Blockade That Failed

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The manifest impossibility of guarding every inlet on the East Coast caused the Navy Department, from the beginning, to adopt a policy of concentrating its ships around the major ports of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah (Norfolk having been occupied early in the war) in an effort to halt the South’s trade with Europe and prevent the exportation of cotton, which was financing the Confederacy’s war effort. But the approaches to these ports were heavily fortified and well-defended, their guns often commanding a good five miles of sea (as at Wilmington) so that the blockaders had for a long time to keep their distance. It was not until the end of 1864, when the number of vessels in the blockading squadrons had risen to 600, that the blockade became truly effective.

Professor Frank L. Owsley, in his admirable study of the foreign relations of the Confederacy, King Cotton Diplomacy , estimates that the record of the Navy’s four-year battle with the blockade runners stands thus: in 1861, one runner in ten destroyed or captured; in 1862, one in eight; in 1863, one in four; and by the late spring of 1864, one in three. (Two-thirds of the blockade runners were still getting through while Lee was falling back to Petersburg from Cold Harbor!) That the record rose to two out of three blockade runners bagged by January, 1865, when Wilmington fell, is scarcely of any importance. Appomattox, then, was less than three months away, and no amount of supplies brought through the blockade in 1865 could have affected the outcome of the war.

To most of the blockaders, the fall of Wilmington on January 12 meant merely that they would shift their activities to the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. consul at Tampico reporting on January 27 that his port was becoming “a second Nassau.” Blockade running by a fleet of 150 steamers continued for more than a month after Appomattox, and as late as May 10, 1865, a cargo of cotton ran the blockade from Galveston to Nassau aboard the steamer Imogene . The Confederacy, though mortally wounded, still breathed, and the blockade runners were humanly reluctant to believe that the era of fabulous profits was over. So great was their faith in the indestructibility of the South that even on May 30, 1865, a customer could be found who was willing to accept Confederate currency at the rate of a thousand to one for gold—the last transaction of its kind of which we have any record.

Although the blockade failed in its purpose, which was to prevent matériel of war from reaching the southern Confederates, the Confederate government, from the very first, had reason to be agitated by it—for both the French and British recognized the “legality” of Lincoln’s blockade in October, 1861. Here the French and British were governed by expediency rather than by international law: they did not want any trouble with the United States. Their recognition of the legality of the blockade did not prevent them from encouraging and assisting their nationals to run it, but the slap in the face—to the Richmond government—of recognizing the blockade caused Jefferson Davis and his government to take action, in the first year of the war, which almost strangled the infant Confederacy in its swaddling clothes as effectively as any blockade could have done.

Irked by the hypocrisy of the British and French in recognizing a nonexistent blockade, the Confederates tried to bludgeon Her Majesty’s Government into a quick recognition of the South by withholding cotton from the world market. Cotton was the cornerstone of the Confederacy, but it was also one of the keystones of Britain’s economy. Britain’s need for the South’s cotton was great, and without it the mills of Lancashire would close down—they did, eventually—and the children of tens of thousands of British workingmen would go hungry.

The cotton embargo, however, proved to be a mistake, for the British had on hand a surplus of many hundreds of thousands of pounds of cotton as a result of the bumper crop of 1859. The Board of Trade reported a stock of 1,105,780 bales on hand in June, 1861, or 450,000 bales above normal. Under these circumstances the British could afford to wait and see, and they did. The chief fear of the cotton brokers of Liverpool was not that the blockade would be enforced, but that the South would win the war quickly and dump four million pounds of raw cotton on the market thereby causing the bottom to drop out. Nothing was done by Her Majesty’s Government to aid the southern states except to recognize the patent fact of their belligerency.

The apprehensions on both sides of the Atlantic in 1861 proved unfounded. The war rolled along, the South girded for a long struggle, and the British found that they could buy cotton by sending the ships to bring it home. Since a profit of a quarter of a million dollars each way was a not uncommon return (cotton could be bought for three cents a pound in gold in the Confederacy and sold at fifty cents in England), the owners could afford to lose a vessel after two successful trips. If this seems rough on the captain and crew, an examination of the paybook of a blockade runner gives the answer.