Union Blockade of the South: History & Map

Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

The Civil War may be the ugliest piece of American history. Learn here what forced the Confederacy to surrender - the blockade of the southern economy.


Union General Winfield Scott was well trained in warfare. He understood that war is won well beyond the battlefield. He developed the Anaconda Plan to strangle the economy of the Confederacy until it collapsed. The Anaconda Plan focused on a large scale blockade of southern ports. A blockade is obstruction of an area to prevent goods and supplies from getting through a certain point.

The Confederate states were built for agriculture; tobacco and cotton had become huge cash crops for southern plantations thanks to extensive trading with Europe. There was enough money coming into the southern economy that the south felt no need to industrialize. This lack of industry caused the south to not be able to make many of the items necessary to carry out a prolonged war.

Most of the large manufacturing areas in the United States were located in the large, northern cities. This would allow the north to be more successful as the war went on. General Scott expected a long-lasting war, and he knew how to exploit a great weakness in the Confederacy. Depriving the Confederacy of weapons, clothing, food, and other goods would force them to surrender, but it would take much longer than expected.

Blockade Runners

The European traders stood to lose a lot of money due to the blockade of their southern growers and consumers. The Union blockade made it near impossible for large cargo ships to enter the southern ports. To ensure a steady flow of cash, they used smaller and quicker ships to get goods into the southern ports. Blockade runners were built to carry smaller loads, be vertically shorter to hide, and use speed to evade blockade ships.

These blockade runners were very successful, with estimates that over 80% of runs attempted actually made it to port. The problem blockade runners had was their lighter cargo load was less beneficial to the Confederacy. The Confederacy needed lots of materials to fight the war, but they were not receiving enough.

Union Navy

The southern states generally had ports and waterways better suited for Navy Vessels, and the Confederacy took control of many ships when the war began. At the beginning of the war, the Union Navy had less than 175 ships.

The Union quickly turned some of their industry into ship building to help cover the thousands of miles between northern Virginia and the southern coast of Texas. They also traded some goods with Great Britain in exchange for older ships. Any ship that was caught attempting to run the blockade was also taken and made official Union Navy vessels. These different strategies helped greatly increase the effectiveness of the blockade. By the end of the Civil war, the Union Navy was well over 600 ships. Even with over 600, the economies of the Confederacy and Europe were still attempting to get goods past the blockade.

Confederate and European Economies

The Confederate economy was able to import and export enough goods to still have fairly normal lives until the ports at New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama fell.

Europe heavily relied on trade with the southern states as a source of materials and income, bringing in tons of cotton and tobacco while sending millions of dollars' worth of clothing, weapons, and other refined goods back into the southern economy. England and France depended on southern cotton for their textile industry and both nations saw unemployment rise and the price of cotton skyrocket as the supply decreased. Those two nations were forced to find other sources of cotton, and did so in Egypt. France had also been selling liquor to the southern states before the war, which was mostly cut off.

The blockade was effective but did not have the full effect the Union wanted until all the major ports were closed.

Major Ports & the End of the Civil War

The Union focused on closing major ports in the Confederate States. The two most important ports, which were the two largest cotton exporting ports, were New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama. New Orleans was the wealthiest city in the Confederacy and the main target by the Union Navy. New Orleans fell to the Union in the spring of 1862 and was the first of the major southern ports to come under Union control. Mobile, Alabama fell in August of 1864.

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