On April 19, 1861, just six days after the fall of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln announced the establishment of a naval blockade of the secessionist states. Historians have argued the legality of this declaration ever since. In the realm of international law, the use of the word blockade implied a tacit recognition that the Confederate States of America constituted a foreign power, rather than a section of an existing country which was in a state of rebellion. Whatever the legalities of Lincoln's blockade, it helped define Union naval strategy throughout the war. In late April, the Union's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, defined the role of the Navy as follows:
"The closing of all the insurgent ports along the coast of nearly 3000 miles, in the form and under the exacting regulations of an international blockade ... the Organization of combined naval and military expeditions to operate in force against various points of the southern coast ... on the Mississippi and its tributaries, and the active pursuit of the piratical cruisers which might escape the vigilance of the blockading force."
The blockade formed a major part of the so-called "Anaconda plan" developed by General Winfield Scott, which envisaged an economic stranglehold of the Confederacy by a blockading fleet, and the physical dismemberment of the Southern States by the seizure of the Mississippi River. When the war began, the US Navy was in no position to do anything more than institute a token blockade. Over the coming months Gideon Welles ordered the purchase and conversion of hundreds of steam-powered vessels, creating an extemporized fleet which was large and powerful enough to turn Lincoln's token blockade into an effective one. Welles also instituted an ambitious ship-building program, creating purpose-built warships which were fast enough to intercept enemy blockade runners and high-seas raiders.
In early May only three Union warships were available to blockade Norfolk, Charleston, and Pensacola, but by the end of the year Welles had some 160 blockading warships at his disposal. This number increased steadily throughout the war, as newly built warships joined the fleet, and captured Confederate vessels, including blockade runners, were pressed into service against their former owners. By the end of 1864 over 470 Union blockading warships were in service, a force large enough to make blockade running an extremely dangerous pursuit. One by one the ports used by blockade runners fell into Northern hands until, by the start of 1865, only Wilmington and Galveston remained under Confederate
John Newland Maffitt (1819-86) from Wilmington, North Carolina, was both an acclaimed Confederate naval officer and then a highly successful blockade runner, commanding the Lillian and Owl, based in Wilmington. (North Carolina Maritime Museum, Beaufort, NC)
The Confederate commerce raider CSS Sumter was decommissioned in Gibraltar in 1862, and in December she was purchased for use as a blockade runner, being renamed the Gibraltar. Her ultimate fate is unknown. (Clyde Hensley Collection, Fernandina, FL)
The blockade runner Hansa, running under the protection of the guns of Fort Fisher, near Wilmington. Close cooperation between blockade runners and the fort's garrison was responsible for many successful operations during the war. From Harper's Weekly. (Stratford Archive, London)
control. The fall of Wilmington on February 25, 1865, (five weeks after the fall of Fort Fisher) effectively cut the last lifeline to the outside world, and ended the blockade-running operations which had played such a significant role in the survival of the Confederacy.
On June 23, 1865, the blockade officially ended. During its four years of operation approximately 1,300 attempts had been made to run it, by around 350 blockade runners. Of these, all but 300 of the attempts were successful. The Union blockading fleet succeeded in capturing some 136 blockade runners, and ensured the destruction of 85 more. These blockade runners managed to smuggle some 400,000 bales of cotton out of Confederate ports during the war. Although this was less than 20 percent of the annual pre-war cotton exports from Southern ports it nevertheless represented a significant revenue source for the Confederacy, allowing its agents to purchase vital war materials abroad.
Although no detailed study of Confederate military purchases has been published, they had a significant effect on the Confederate war effort. During the last six months of 1864 alone, blockade runners entering Carolinian ports succeeded in bringing in some 50,000 rifles, 43 pieces of artillery, enough lead and saltpeter to make 10 million rounds of small-arms ammunition, and enough shoes, uniforms and blankets to clothe the entire Army of Northern Virginia. In addition some 1.5 million pounds of meat were imported, ensuring that Robert
Captured blockade runners at anchor off New York in 1862. The vessel in the foreground is the British sidewheel steamer Elizabeth, while the remainder of the prizes appear to be sailing ships. From Harper's Weekly. (Clyde Hensley Collection, Fernandina, FL)
E. Lee's men would not starve in their trenches around Petersburg. In effect, the blockade runners kept the Confederate armies in the field.
Critics have described the Union blockade as a sieve, and while the numbers above support this view, it is important to remember that the blockade's effectiveness increased dramatically as the war progressed, though the number of blockade runners increased too. For example, in 1862, only six vessels ran through the blockade into Wilmington (and other smaller North Carolina ports). During 1863 this total increased to 125 vessels, and in 1864 some 180 blockade runners arrived in Wilmington. While a handful of blockade runners made several successful runs, most were wrecked or captured after no more than four runs, or two round trips. Blockade running was a risky business, and the vigilance of the Union fleet ensured that the risks increased as the war progressed. Statistically, the naval blockade was highly successful. When combined with the strategy of the systematic reduction and capture of Confederate ports, it ensured ultimate victory for the Union.
The Union blockade off Wilmington in 1864, viewed from Fort Fisher. The mouth of the Cape Fear River was difficult to block due to shifting sandbars, local tidal conditions and the protection of shore batteries. (North Carolina Maritime Museum, Beaufort, NC)
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