In implementing the blockade, the Union grappled with a fundamental contradiction. The North maintained throughout the war that the Confederate States of America did not exist—that the Federal government faced merely a domestic insurrection. If that was indeed the case, foreign governments had no justification for recognizing or aiding the Confederacy. But at the same time, if the Confederate States did not exist, could the Union legally blockade its own southern coastline? U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, taking such legal complications seriously, personally opposed a "blockade," favoring instead a policy of "closing" Southern ports, a traditional technique in times of domestic insurrection. Yet for practical military, political, and diplomatic advantages, President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward chose to ignore the legal technicalities of the issue and continued to maintain both positions—that the Confederate States did not in fact exist but that the Union could blockade the coastline.
Lincoln's proclamation created practical problems for both the Union and Confederate governments. With only a handful of ships available to blockade some 3,000 miles of Southern coastline (much more if the inland waterways are included), the Union faced the challenge of turning a paper blockade into a real one. Secretary Welles disbanded overseas squadrons and called home their ships. He also proceeded to buy or commandeer virtually every steamer available. These were soon armed with a few guns and converted into blockaders. At the same time he instituted a massive shipbuilding program that bore fruit later.
Welles organized the ships into three squadrons: the Home Squadron, based at Fortress Monroe; the Coast Blockading Squadron (soon redesignated the Atlantic Blockading Squadron), with the Potomac Flotilla (centered on the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and charged with the defense of Washington); and the Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron. The Atlantic Blockading Squadron had responsibility for enforcing the blockade all the way from Alexandria, Virginia to Key West, Florida, a distance of some 1,000 miles. The Gulf Coast Squadron covered the even greater distance from Key West to Brownsville. Given the vast distances involved, in October 1861 Welles further divided the squadrons. He separated the Atlantic blockaders into two: a North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, responsible for the Virginia and North Carolina Coasts, and a South Atlantic Blockading Squadron for the Southern coastline from South Carolina to Key West, Florida. In February 1862 Welles also divided the Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron, making four Federal blockading squadrons in all. The East Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron patrolled from Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast of Florida to St. Andrews Bay on the Florida Gulf Coast. The West Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron had responsibility for the Southern coast from St. Andrews Bay to Brownsville.
Few vessels were available at first. Ships returning from foreign station required repairs, and it was many months before the navy was able legally to blockade many Southern ports. At first, single warships took up station off key Confederate ports. On May 10 the screw sloop Niagara just returned from Japan, initiated the blockade of Charleston, while on May 26 the Brooklyn arrived off the Mississippi River, and on June 8 the Mississippi set the blockade of Key West.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis embraced a plan, although it was never officially announced as policy, to suspend cotton exports in the mistaken belief that this "Cotton Diplomacy" would bring British intervention. Southern leaders assumed that this would bring such economic pressure as to force the British government to dispatch warships to assist in breaking the Union blockade. It did not happen. Not only were cotton markets accessible to Britain in Egypt and India but Northern "corn" (grain) was immensely important to Britain.
The South thus missed a great opportunity. Before the Union blockade could become effective, it should have rushed all available cotton to European markets in order to purchase arms and manufactured goods. Its gold reserves soon exhausted, the Confederacy reversed its policy, but by then it was too late, for the Union blockade had become much more effective.
Blockade running was triangular, with its three main corners at the South, the West Indies, and Europe (or sometimes even the North itself). Because of its proximity to the Confederacy, Nassau, Bahamas, was the headquarters of blockade-running operations. Other common destinations included Bermuda, St. Thomas, Havana, Jamaica, and Nova Scotia. Large ships, mostly British, would travel there, where their cargoes would be offloaded into smaller, faster ships for travel to the South. Major Confederate ports for blockade runners included Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; and, especially in the last year of the war when other ports had been closed, Galveston, Texas.
Blockade duties were tedious and routine-centered. Union ships had to remain on station in tropical summer heat and the gales and cold of winter, and they had to contend with operations in unfamiliar coastal shoal waters. Crews also had to be on constant guard against the possibility of a sudden Confederate attack
Captains of blockade runners routinely sought a dark, moonless night and foul weather to run the blockade. Speed was essential. Runner captains sought to use Pennsylvania anthracite coal, which burned hotter and without the telltale black soot of North Carolina soft bituminous coal. Union blockader captians, meanwhile, kept their ships with banked fires so that they could get underway on a moment's notice. Each side sought to thwart the other. Signal rockets on the Union side might be countered by false Confederate signals to lure off the blockaders in another direction.
Despite the best Union efforts, most blockade runners made it through. Runs out were safer than runs in, simply because captains had the benefit of knowing the location of the Union ships and could plan accordingly. The most dangerous time to attempt to pass through the blockade in was in daylight. If a blockade runner arrived off the coast in daytime and was sighted by Union warships, whether the blockade runner would escape rested solely on speed.
Although few blockade runners returned substantial profits, the financial rewards could be considerable, even if a ship were ultimately lost. The Ella and Annie, capable of carrying up to 1,300 bales of cotton, made eight trips through the blockade. Combined with profit on inbound cargo, it returned a profit of about $200,000 per round trip. Financial reward remained the chief motivation for blockade running, and high returns explain why so many people participated in the activity. Sailors on blockade duty could hope for prize money from any captures, but the sums realized were generally far less than supposed.
Slowly but surely the number of blockaders increased. By January 1865 the Union Navy had 471 ships with 2,245 guns in the effort. During the course of the war these took a total of 1,149 vessels of all types and destroyed another 351. The totals include 210 steamers captured and 85 destroyed, along with 569 schooners taken and 114 destroyed. In 1861, 2,465 steamers and sailing ships made it past the blockade. In 1864, the last full year of war, the total was 619.
With Confederate domestic production never reaching 50 percent of military needs, goods brought in by blockade runners were essential to the Southern war effort. Historian Stephen Wise has estimated that the South brought in through blockade running at least 400,000 rifles (more than 60 percent of the Confederacy's modern arms), 2,250,000 pounds of saltpeter (two-thirds of that needed) and 3 million pounds of lead (one third of army requirements). The runners also carried clothing, chemicals, and medicine. Without these supplies, the Confederacy could not have survived as long as it did.
The effectiveness of the blockade remains a hot topic of debate. Its critics note that the vast majority of blockade runners were successful. They point out that the economic collapse of the Confederacy was not because of the blockade but the deterioration of the Southern railroad system. Critics of the blockade argue that even a more effective blockade would not have prevented the South from continuing the war. Confederate defeat did not result from lack of war materials; rather, the South simply ran out of manpower.
Defenders of the blockade acknowledge its shortcomings. They admit to its incomplete nature and the fact that the South never lacked the essential weapons with which to fight and win battles, they note that the Confederacy was hard pressed in such essential items as artillery, clothing, shoes, harnesses, medicines, and even blankets. The blockade also affected the entire Southern economy. The loss of rolled iron rail was particularly harmful, leading to the collapse of the Confederate transportation system, bringing with it serious distribution problems, even of food, that affected soldier and civilian alike. The blockade also disrupted patterns of intra-regional trade by water, sharply increasing the burden on then already inadequate Southern railroad net.
The blockade was certainly the chief cause, directly or indirectly, of Southern economic distress. The figures given of successful passages through the blockade are also misleading, as they include vessels exiting, as well as entering, Southern ports. Each stop by an individual coastal packet at a different port is counted a "successful attempt." Two coastal steamers making up to 10 stops per trip made almost 800 of the runs in 1861.
Historian David G. Surdam notes the role played by cotton, by far the most important pre-war Southern export, in the blockade equation. He believes that the effectiveness of the blockade should be measured not in goods smuggled through it or the success rate of the ships. Rather, the total volume of trade was sharply reduced and the cost of shipment dramatically increased.
The under-industrialized Confederacy had to import manufactured goods to win the war, yet the higher shipping costs consumed much of its purchasing power and sharply eroded its ability to make purchases overseas. The increased cost in transporting cotton to Europe accounted for almost all of the increase in its price in Europe and the North. Although European goods could always reach the South, this increasingly occurred through less convenient ports, such as via the Mexican port of Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas. Also increasing shortages of consumer goods impacted civilian morale.
The Federal government spent $567 million on the navy during the war (1879 calculation). This was roughly one-twelfth of the expenses of the entire war ($6.8 billion). Yet the entire cost of the navy was equal to or exceeded by the loss in revenue to the South from the export of raw cotton. Given the fact that the North was far richer than the South, it was far easier for it to bear the expense of the blockade than it was for the South to sustain the loss in export revenue.
Critical in the success of the blockade was the decision taken by Washington early in the war to secure bases from which the blockading squadrons could operate. The Union side demonstrated great ability in setting up and maintaining repair and supply facilities as well as the logistics network that went with this. The effort here was a vast one, and it is largely unsung in histories of the war. It certainly appears to have been an effective use of Northern resources. Kenneth J. Blume
From ABC-CLIO's Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors
Bradlee, Francis B. C. Blockade Running During the Civil War and the Effect of Land and Water Transportation on the Confederacy. Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1925; Silverstone, Paul H.Warships of the Civil War Navies. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989; Soley, James Russell. The Blockade and the Cruisers. New York: Scribner, 1983; Wise, Stephen R. Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running during the Civil War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Kenneth J. Blume