In the historical study of the Civil War, coverage of the naval campaign is scant compared to the wealth of published information covering the battles and campaigns fought on land. In the few available histories of the naval war between the states, little attention is paid to the blockade runners, as their actions lacked the drama and obvious strategic import of the intermittent clashes between Union and Confederate warships. Most students of Civil War history are aware of the naval battles fought at Hampton Roads, New Orleans, and Mobile Bay, and they might even be aware of the other important engagements fought on the Mississippi River, and on the rivers and in the estuaries of the Confederacy's Atlantic seaboard. Surprisingly few are aware of the importance of the blockade runners, and the contribution they made to the Confederate cause.
The Confederate economy was agrarian, and the South was largely unable to provide its armies with a reliable supply of ordnance, ammunition, uniforms, equipment and even provisions. The survival of the Confederacy therefore depended on importing these vital war materials in order to augment the limited home-based sources of production. From the outset of the war, the Union Navy instituted a blockade of the Confederate coastline, and as the war progressed this blockade tightened. Despite this, many ship-owners on both sides of the Atlantic saw this as an opportunity, as the profits to be made by running the blockade were immense. Ports such as New Orleans, Galveston, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington became vital sources of supply, and during the war blockade runners imported sufficient quantities of war materials that the Confederate Army was able to remain in the field, despite chronic shortages at home. As the war progressed, purpose-built blockade runners began to appear, and for the rest of the war these sleek, fast vessels engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the blockading Union Navy. This study of blockade runners provides both an account of the evolution of these strategically important vessels and a brief summary of their modus operandi. Above all, it describes the vessels themselves, which pushed the contemporary boundaries of ship design and marine engineering to their limits.
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)
Was this article helpful?