Starting in 1861, the Union blockade was meant to stop Southern commerce and hurt the Confederacy during the Civil War. In response, Confederate blockade runners worked to bring much needed supplies to the struggling Confederacy. Learn about the blockade and blockade runners in this lesson.
By April of 1861, of the 33 states in the Union, seven had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Once the first shots of the war were fired in Charleston Harbor on April 12th, President Abraham Lincoln called for thousands of volunteers to put down the rebellion, and four more states left and entered into the Confederate ranks. For Lincoln and the Union government, this was a terrible situation.
The new Confederacy comprised a sizable portion of the United States, and something had to be done to bring the South back into the Union. One of the first measures which Lincoln and his government took to do this was to effect a blockade on the entire Confederacy, attempting to shut off the Confederacy from all trade and commerce. Let's learn more to see whether or not this tactic was successful.
The Strategy of Blockades
Blockading is an old naval tactic that has been used throughout the years by various nations in attempts to starve, outlast, or simply destroy their enemies. Blockades are meant to prevent ships from reaching enemy ports with goods, food, supplies, or support of any kind.
In 1861, when the Civil War began, the South was far behind the North when it came to industry, manufacturing, and goods. This meant that the Confederacy would have a more difficult time obtaining the materials necessary to wage a war, such as weapons and ammunition. The South's main economic staple was its cotton crop, grown and picked largely by slave labor. Money from cotton made the South a player on the world stage because countries such as England and France used Southern cotton in their textile mills.
A blockade against the Confederacy would theoretically hurt the South's economy by damaging trade. It would also make it more difficult for the South to acquire food to feed its civilian population. Thus, there were clearly several good reasons for the Union government to blockade the Confederacy.
For the Confederacy, this was a frightening scenario. In the early days of the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis offered to issue letters of marque authorizing private ships to transport goods for the Confederacy, dealing with the South's deficiency in naval and transportation ships.
Blockading the Confederacy
On April 19, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln announced the federal blockade of the Confederacy. This was one major feature of the plan put out by General Winfield Scott, the General-in-Chief of Union forces at the start of the Civil War. Scott's plan, known by its moniker the Anaconda Plan, called for the Union to blockade the South and seize the Mississippi River, in effect strangling the Southern states. While the Anaconda Plan was never fully adopted, the blockade was a central feature of this plan and Union strategy early on in the war.
The Union blockade was to cover over 3,500 miles of seashore along the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines. Among the many port cities affected by the blockade were Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans, Louisiana. In order to accomplish this goal, however, the United States Navy had to drastically increase in size and strength. The Navy ballooned from less than 9,000 men in the antebellum years to over 24,000 at the end of 1861. The blockade was carried out with squadrons set up at various points along the Confederate coast line. These were groups responsible for monitoring specific areas.
During the course of the Union blockade, the U.S. Navy had several notable victories and accomplishments. One of the biggest, and perhaps notable, occurred in April 1862 when two major victories occurred. First, in early April, Savannah, Georgia, fell to Union forces when Fort Pulaski surrendered. A few weeks later, Flag Officer David Farragut led his fleet into New Orleans, capturing the city that served as one of the most important ports in the entire Confederacy.
Another major victory which occurred for the U.S. Navy was in August 1864 when then Rear Admiral David Farragut seized Mobile, the last Confederate port in the Gulf of Mexico. These victories made David Farragut one the most important and prominent naval leaders for the Union during the Civil War.
Fighting the Blockade
The Confederacy did not sit idle during these years of blockading. The South did everything possible to circumvent the federal blockade. Ships fast enough to slip past the U.S. Navy were known as blockade runners, and they were used widely during the Civil War. Many of them were steam ships built for the ocean.
The majority of these ships were not owned by the Confederacy, but rather they were private ships commandeered into Confederate service with letters of marque, official documents authorizing the private citizen to attack, capture, or seize enemy ships on the oceans. Some of these vessels were built in England and used to transport goods between Great Britain and the South, allowing the British to continue using some Southern cotton during the Civil War.
Throughout the war, blockade runners became so important that they were the primary means of bringing in supplies and goods for the Confederate cause. Often, goods would be shipped from Great Britain to Nassau or Havana in the Caribbean, where the Southern blockade runners would acquire the goods, normally dropping off cotton which would be sent on to Britain. Then, with their material in stow, the runners would attempt to slip back to Confederate shores. If they were stopped or seen by Union vessels, the ships would either attempt to evade them or simply use their steam power to outrun them, speeding away as fast as possible.
This was the system that brought significant portions of the materials needed for Confederate armies on the battlefields of the Civil War. To supplement the blockade runners, the Confederate government did all it could as well. Josiah Gorgas, the Chief of Ordinance for the Confederacy, oversaw Confederate vessels operating directly for the government in trying to bring supplies from England to the South.
Innovation in Naval Warfare
The blockade of the South during the Civil War, as well as Southern attempts to circumvent it, signaled a new era in naval warfare. Steam ships being used in war was new enough, but the Union and Confederate governments began building ironclad ships for use in battle. Union forces used these ships on the rivers of the South at places such as Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee and Vicksburg on the Mississippi River.
On the oceans, the famed USS Monitor did battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia off the Virginia coast in March 1862. Ironclad ships were a major threat to wooden vessels, and their use both enforcing and attempting to break through the blockade was an innovation of war. Another innovation of war that was tied to the blockade was the advent of submarines. The Confederacy experimented with using submarine vessels to destroy Union blockade ships for months in 1863 and 1864.
In February of 1864, the hand powered CSS H.L. Hunley became the first submarine vessel to successfully sink an enemy ship in Charleston Harbor off the South Carolina coast when it rammed and sunk the USS Housatonic. The Hunley sank as well and its crew was lost, but its impact on history was noticeable. In a direct effort to damage the blockade of Charleston, Confederates had begun yet another trend in naval warfare.
The blockade of the South and the Confederacy's attempt to circumvent it is one of the story lines of the Civil War that few people know about, but it was still very important. While the Union blockade did have a definite impact on the Confederacy by limiting its trade and closing major ports, Southern blockade runners were successful enough to maintain Confederate ties to European nations, bringing in important supplies for Southern civilians and Confederate armies.
Ultimately, however, the lack of a full and robust economic trade took its toll on the Confederacy, which was unable to fight Union armies, feed its population, defend its soil, and fend off the Union blockade all at the same time. The lack of supplies had an impact on Southern armies and civilians by 1864, and by the end of the war in 1865, the Union blockade had become one of the more effective weapons against the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Explore this lesson's topics in order to:
- Describe the Union's blockade plan for southern ports and river towns
- Understand the necessity of this plan
- Recall that the blockade runners would ply their trade for the Confederacy
- Provide the names of the naval innovations that were developed for use during the Civil War