in 1860, the United States of America lay on the brink of Civil War as North and South were drawn apart on issues of slave 17 and state rights. To all but the most hot-headed secessionist, war between the predominantly agrarian South and the largely industrialized North would lead to the overwhelming of the rebelling Southern states by sheer weight of manpower and material. The only chance for the Confederacy was a rapid military victory, ending the conflict before Northern industrial might could be brought to bear. On 20 December 1860, South Carolina elected to secede from the Union, and within weeks six other states followed her lead. On 4 February 1861, representatives of these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and agreed to form a Confederacy. Four days later a provisional constitution was ratified, and this group of secessionist states officially became the Confederate States of America. Conflict with the North seemed inevitable, but. for the next eight weeks America's fate hung in the balance. Next, the Confederate Congress elected a new President, Jefferson F. Davis of Mississippi, who was inaugurated on 18 February. Two days later, President Davis created the Confederacy's own Navy Department, naming Florida senator Stephen R. Mallory as its first chief.
Mallory faced a daunting challenge. The Confederate coastline would eventually stretch from the Potomac River to the Rio Grande, and while many Southern ports were protected by relatively modern brick-
built fortifications, Mallory had no navy to help defend this long coastline. The situation improved during March and early April, as hundreds of Southern naval officers resigned their commissions and returned home. Ships were commandeered and converted to form the nucleus of State navies, and Mallory worked on plans to create a dedicated naval force capable of protecting the Confederate coastline, although throughout the war he was plagued by shortages of men and resources. On 12 April 1861, Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter, the bastion that protected the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina. President Lincoln called for volunteers to defend the Union, and proclaimed the institution of a blockade of the Confederate coastline. The war had begun.
To Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Union naval strategy was deceptively simple. General Winfield Scott developed the "Anaconda Plan", whereby a tight naval blockade would cut off the Confederacy from the outside world. A major thrust down the Mississippi River would cut the country in two, allowing Union forces to squeeze the remaining parts of the Confederacy by land and naval attacks. Deprived of supplies and faced with the industrial might of the North, defeat would be inevitable. When the war began the US Navy was desperately short of ships capable of blockading Southern ports. Although the fleet consisted of over 90 ships, in April 1861, most were either being refitted and repaired in port, or were on deployment overseas. While the Navy launched a major shipbuilding program, Welles ordered the purchase and conversion of dozens of merchant vessels to help maintain the blockade until purpose-built warships became available. During the remainder of 1861, token Union naval squadrons appeared at the moulh of major Southern ports, such as Charleston, New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola, Savannah, and Wilmington.
Minor naval clashes on the Potomac River ended when a blockading squadron appeared in Hampton Roads, effectively sealing oft tidewater Virginia, including links between Richmond and Norfolk. The squadron was based off Fort Monroe, whose formidable defenses remained in
The lighthouse on Old Point Comfort, with Fort Monroe behind it, viewed from the south. The jetty in the foreground was a hive of activity on 8 March, when the ironclad Virginia made her sortie into Hampton Roads, and the small vessels there fled behind the Point. (Casemate)
Union hands, and which served as a secure base in Virginia, across the bay from Norfolk. Combined naval and amphibious attacks secured the use of Ilatteras Inlet in North Carolina's outer banks, and led to the capture of Port Royal, South Carolina. Both provided vital anchorages, as the only other secure Union anchorage south of Hampton Roads was Key West, off the southern tip of Florida. The Confederate capture of Norfolk ensured a sort of naval stalemate in Virginia's tidewater for another year. Although Union naval forces off Hampton Roads grew stronger during the winter and spring of 1862, and the strength of the Union garrison at Fort Monroe increased, neither side felt itself powerful enough to take offensive action. All that was to change with the conversion of the Merrimac into a powerful ironclad.
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