The Union Blockade

.. ns for long periods of time while the Navy had no replacements to send. In fact, over the course of the war, repair time kept one-third to two-fifths of the vessels constantly away from their stations.[34] This made statistics of the number of blockaders somewhat inflated, and although 600 ships were in the blockading fleet at the end, probably less than 400 were actually on station. At one time, the Wilmington blockade was missing ten of its vessels due to repair time.[35] The whole fleet was riddled with broken pumps, leaky boilers, and worn-out machinery, and in 1863, an officer remarked, We are all getting into lame condition.[36] Another problem plaguing the blockaders was the shortage of coal. In 1862, the four blockading squadrons required 3,000 tons of coal per week, and the amount kept growing.

The Union supply depots at Beaufort, North Carolina, Port Royal, South Carolina, and Pensacola, Florida frequently ran out of coal and long delays were endured before ships there could return to their stations. The need to conserve coal prompted Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee, the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to write the force commander in Wilmington in September, 1863: You may find it expedient not to keep more than one of the little vessels moving about at a time, even at night.[37] The coal shortages and maintenance problems seriously limited the blockading fleet and were major reasons why the Union couldn’t establish a tighter blockade. In terms of blockade-running, Charleston and Wilmington were the busiest and most famous ports of the war. After the fall of New Orleans on April 25, 1862, they were the best ports left open to the Confederates. Of all Confederate ports, Wilmington had the best geography and was ideally suited for blockade-running (even with big steamers).

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It was located 25 miles up the Cape Fear River and had two main outlet channels, the eastern one, the New Inlet, guarded by Fort Fisher, and the Western Bar Channel, guarded by Fort Caswell. Thus, Wilmington required two separate blockading fleets 50 miles apart and each one needed to keep its distance from the channel because of the forts. In addition, the double coastline opened other outlets such as the Shallotte Inlet and the New Topsail Inlet. The Carolina blockade was more stringent starting in 1863, but of 590 attempts from January 1863 to April 1864, 498 (about five in six) were successful.[38] The Charleston blockade changed drastically in 1863 when Admiral Dahlgren moved ironclads in, and conducted nightly patrols of the harbor.[39] Although some historians have claimed that this practically put a halt to its trade, Charleston still managed to conduct a foreign trade of $21,000,000 that year, over $2,500,000 more than the trade of the entire state of South Carolina in 1858.[40] Even as late as September through December 1864, 20 vessels were able to clear the Charleston blockade. From November to the beginning of December, while Wilmington was under siege, 43 blockade-runners entered its port.[41] An amazing sign of the ineffectiveness of this blockade is that the trade and shipping of these two ports greatly increased over pre-war levels while they were being blockaded.[42] Wilmington’s total foreign commerce in 1863 was four times that of all of North Carolina in 1858.[43] In its last year of trade (mostly 1864), it did $66 million worth of business in gold and exported $65 million worth of cotton.[44] Although it is hard to measure its impact on the war, one thing is certain: blockade-running at Wilmington was General Lee’s chief source of food and ammunition.

On January 12, 1865, Lee wired Colonel Lamb, the Confederate commander at Fort Fisher, that If Fort Fisher falls, I shall have to evacuate Richmond.[45] The most complete records of blockade-running have been compiled by Marcus W. Price. According to his data, 2,054 attempts were made to run the Carolina blockade, a daily average of 1.5 attempts. Of these attempts, 1,735 were successful, an 84 percent success rate. Eighty-seven percent of the 1,093 attempts by steamers were successful and 81 percent of the 961 attempts by sailing vessels were successful.[46] Blockade-running in the Gulf of Mexico was of a different nature than that of the Atlantic Coast. The trade in the Gulf was mostly conducted by small, independent sailing ships, not like the large-scale steamboat operations running between the Atlantic ports and Bermuda and Nassau.[47] The reasons steamers never dominated in the Gulf were mainly geographic, and the early capture of New Orleans also played a role. The Gulf coast was filled with sand bars and narrow, shallow channels through which steamers couldn’t fit.

Overall, blockade-running wasn’t as effective on the Gulf coast as it was on the East coast. Obtaining cotton was harder due to the relative lack of railroads, the ships used were smaller, and the British traders preferred using the British-held ports of Bermuda and the Bahamas over Havana, Cuba, where the bulk of the Gulf trade was centered.[48] The majority of the ships involved in the Gulf were small center-board schooners which, with their high maneuverability and extremely shallow draft, could cross sand bars and shoals impossible for large vessels. However, these ships lacked the speed required to outrun Federal steamers and profits weren’t as good because voyages were long and cargo space was small; a trip between Havana and Galveston, Texas, took up to three weeks because they relied on wind. None of the ten schooners captured off Galveston, from July 4 through July 7, 1861, exceeded 100 tons.[49] The low speed and small cargoes of these blockade-runners made the Gulf blockade more effective than the Carolina blockade. In the first year of the war, the Gulf was bustling with smuggling activity.

The port of New Orleans led the way with 300 violations in the first 10 months of the war.[50] However, the situation changed drastically when New Orleans was captured on April 25, 1862. This was a major loss to the blockade-runners because New Orleans was without a doubt the Confederacy’s most important port. In pre-war years, New Orleans was the largest cotton port in the world, and it had exported 1,738,678 out of the 3,133,200 bales exported by the South from September 1860 to August 1861. New Orleans had also accounted for over half of the South’s total foreign commerce: it had done $128 million out of $217 million of the South’s total foreign commerce from June 1858 to June 1859.[51] After New Orleans was eliminated from the trade, Mobile, Alabama, became the center of rebel traffic. Mobile had also done well in the early stages of the war, and from April to June 1861 entrances and clearances were matters of daily occurrence.[52] With the largest port in the South captured, in 1862 and 1863 the Union blockade in the Gulf was greatly tightened and after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, more blockaders were available to bottle up Mobile.[53] Then the blockade-running switched mainly to the Texas ports, primarily Galveston.

In the summer of 1864, Mobile was put under siege and its trade virtually stopped as the ships moved to Galveston. In January and February of 1865, fleets of fast iron steamers moved from the collapsed Carolina trade (after Wilmington’s capture) to run between Galveston and Havana, proving the inefficiency of the enforcement even at such a late day, since just the steamers there had a 94 percent success rate.[54] On the other hand, the blockade-running wasn’t very beneficial to the South because Texas had poor railroad and road conditions with the East so that cargoes usually ended up staying around Texas and weren’t sent to Virginia’s great armies as Wilmington’s cargoes had been.[55] By the time Galveston was captured on June 5, 1865, thus closing the last Confederate blockade-running port, the war had already been decided. According to Marcus Price’s study, a total of 2,960 attempts were made to run the Gulf blockade and 83 percent were successful. There were 156 steamers and 987 sailing ships involved in the trade and the success rate was 91 percent for steamers and 81 percent for sailing ships.[56] The blockade of Georgia and East Florida, although more effective, was insignificant. Due to their dearth of railroad facilities and major ports, Confederates and speculators never attempted much blockade-running there. Only 225 total vessels ever participated in blockade-running and only 35 of those were steamers.[57] Blockade-running numbers plummeted when the only important port, Savannah, was virtually shut off by capture of nearby Port Royal, South Carolina, by Union forces on April 10, 1862.

They used it as the base for the blockade fleet. Savannah was thus effectively blockaded for the remainder of the war. Adding up all Marcus Price’s figures, a total of 6,316 attempts were made to violate the blockade, and 5,389 or 85 percent succeeded. The steamers succeeded 2,525 times, a 92 percent success rate, and 2,864 or 80 percent of the 3,573 attempts by sailing vessels succeeded. However, these figures are somewhat inflated because they include Price’s figures for Georgia and East Florida, which account for nearly one thousand runs by several small regular packet steamers involved in coastal trade.

Other authorities have argued even higher figures, including estimates of small sailing ships and phantom craft which did their business in secret and were never put on port records. In his book King Cotton Diplomacy, Frank Owsley estimates a total of about 8,250 violations and concludes that the blockade was strictly a paper blockade, and it was a leaky and ramshackle affair.[58] Daniel O’Flaherty, author of the article The Blockade that Failed, estimates about 8,000 round trips by 1,650 vessels.[59] These figures are just guesses, but it is important to note that since Price’s statistics are compilations of records, he did not include in his estimate ships that didn’t officially enter and clear ports. Another historian, Stephen Wise, has estimated that only 1,300 of the attempts by steamers involved foreign trade, and about 1,000 were successful.[60] Although there was obviously much shipping, many people have argued over the value of this trade to the Confederates. The ineffectiveness of the blockade provided a great opportunity for the Confederates to trade their cotton for military supplies, but they didn’t take advantage of it. Their failure to exploit the weaknesses of the blockade started with their cotton embargo, a dismal diplomatic and economic blunder.

The intention of the cotton embargo was to take advantage of England’s dependence on Southern cotton by stopping cotton exports to draw England into the war on the Southern side, but this backfired. Thanks to the South’s overabundant cotton crops of 1859 and 1860, England was left ready and well stocked for some hibernation. At the closing of 1861, despite no new American shipments, Britain still had a surplus stock of 702,840 bales, 200,000 bales over their usual stock at the closing of a year.[61] In the spring of 1862, the failed cotton embargo slowly relaxed until it completely ceased. The Confederacy had lost an opportunity to raise ample money and import enough arms and ammunition to supply its armies. Over all the war years, the South only exported about 1,000,000 bales of cotton, roughly half of its wartime crop.[62] In the year leading up to the war, over three million bales were exported; thus each war year carried about 10 percent of a pre-war year’s export.[63] The flow of blockade-running proves that the Confederates had an opportunity, but they didn’t capitalize on it.

The Confederate government only had eleven of its own blockade-runners, the most famous of which was the Robert E. Lee.[64] The Confederate government started to pass regulations in the fall of 1863 to reserve one-third to one-half of blockade-running cargo space, but it wasn’t until February 1864 that the government passed stricter regulations securing themselves one-half of the cargo space, and outlawing importation of a number of luxury goods.[65] However, this was apparently not sufficiently enforced, because over the war, the Confederate government had only shipped out 50,000 bales of cotton to its own account.[66] Thus, for the most part, blockade-running was almost completely in the hands of private ventures. Unfortunately, it was most often conducted by the Rhett Butlers of this world, who, instead of bringing vital supplies for the Confederate war effort, chose to bring cargoes full of silks, perfumes, and liquors which fetched higher profits. Thomas Taylor, a blockade-runner, commented that since It did not pay merchants to ship heavy goods, the charge for freight per ton at Nassau being 80 to 100 in gold, a great portion of the cargo generally consisted of light goods, such as silks, linens, quinine, etc., on which immense profits were made.[67] Even as late as November 1864, after the ban on luxury goods, an official of a Wilmington blockade-running firm wrote to the agent in Nassau not to send any more chloroform, but to send perfume and Essence of Cognac because it would sell quite high.[68] As a result, Wealthy ladies of the South were provided with dresses and bonnets, while soldiers went without food, clothing, and ammunition.[69] This was not so much the result of the blockade as it was the fault of the Confederate government. The Confederates were, however, able to survive for a long time while dependent on blockade-running for most of their supplies, and this is in itself a proof of the ineffectiveness of the blockade. During the war, 330,000 stands of arms (mostly Enfield rifles, and some Austrian and Brunswick rifles) came in through the Gulf blockade on the Confederate government account.

Together with the arms shipped on state accounts in the East coast and private shipments, about 600,000 arms were imported.[70] This means that over 60 percent of the South’s modern arms were imported through the blockade. The South also imported 3 million pounds of lead (one-third of the army’s needs), 2,500,000 lbs. of saltpeter (two-thirds of the army’s needs), three-fourths of the total powder ingredients, and the great majority of cloth and leather for uniforms through the blockade.[71] The shortages of the Confederate armies were due to the South’s lack of industry, not the strangling effects of the blockade. On the whole, the blockade was under-enforced. After an exceptionally slow start, the blockade was never able to seal off Southern shipping.

Thousands of superior blockade-runners passed through the ramshackle blockade and made incredible profits with relatively low risks. There are many misconceptions that the blockade was responsible for the horrible economic situation and lack of supplies, but this was due more to the Confederate inability to take advantage of the weakness of the blockade. Through their cotton embargo and lack of government-controlled blockade-running, they did not work to give themselves a large portion of the profits and bring in the supplies the Confederacy needed. As it turned out, private enterprises kept the rich Southerners supplied with all the silks and wines they needed, while the Confederate troops were without shoes and the Confederate government without money. History.


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