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The Blockade and Blockade Runners During the Civil War: Definition & Purpose

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  • 0:03 Civil War
  • 0:53 The Strategy of Blockades
  • 2:23 Blockading the Confederacy
  • 4:44 Fighting the Blockade
  • 6:38 Innovation in Naval Warfare
  • 8:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
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.

Civil War

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.

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