The Impact of the Union Navy in the Civil War
With their Ordinance of Secession, South Carolina severed its bonds with the United States, a move soon to be followed by the rest of the future constituents of the short lived Confederate States of America. This drastic undertaking would bring about the bloodiest war in American history, pitting a desperate South against a determined and often better equipped North. While it is true that the war on land between the Union and Confederate armies played the largest role in determining the outcome of the conflict, an often overlooked aspect is the enormous influence the Union’s navy played in securing victory. Through combat effectiveness, naval innovation, and its influence on the U.S stature in international relations, the Union Navy would rise to the occasion, and have a significant impact in determining the outcome of the war.
At the onset of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott wrote a letter1 to General George B. McClellan proposing an overall strategy that would effectively choke the entire South by means of a naval blockade of Confederate ports, and the establishment of control over the Mississippi. In the correspondence, Scott expressed his belief that this would be much more prudent than a campaign for the direct invasion of the South, but also feared that the public sentiment and impatience would demand more action than what he had proposed. Scott’s idea would soon be called the Anaconda Plan, and while the Union did begin an invasion of the South, the Anaconda Plan would largely define the mission of the Union Navy. The Union ships began to blockade Confederate ports, and would soon attempt to regain control of the Mississippi in an effort to separate the Confederacy. This would also force the Confederates to adopt a naval mission largely dedicated to running the Union blockades and disrupting enemy trade in the Atlantic.
The South depended largely on its cotton trade for economic success. With most of the industry in the North, the South needed some financial power to purchase war supplies, and cotton could provide such power. Even building ships for a Confederate naval force needed blockade runners to secure adequate funds through trade. The Confederate government was able to purchase a pound of cotton for as low as 8¢, and sell it in Europe for as much as 54¢, which was often above 300% profit when one considered the costs of transport.2
Naturally, the Union had every intention of halting such a profitable trade. The Union Navy soon established the blockades, which consisted of squadrons of ships that were split up and stationed at the most important Confederate ports. The Union declared its intention to sufficiently warn, and if necessary, seize all violating ships.3 Through the duration of the war, as the size of the Union Navy grew, so too did the strength and expanse of the blockade.
As this Union blockade formed, it became increasingly difficult for the Confederates to trade with Europe. The degree of success of the blockade may be best illustrated in the fact that less than one in ten blockade runners that successfully passed through a Union blockade would actually attempt this voyage a second time, despite the astonishing amount of profit to be found in cotton smuggling.4 The formation of the blockade certainly came as no surprise to the South, and Jefferson Davis had issued his Letters of Marque to request the aid of privateers in attacking and disrupting Union trade at sea.5 A benefit to being a privateer would be the fact that the privateer could harass Union shipping without itself ever having to cross a blockade.
Meanwhile, the Union Navy would find itself having created a political crisis during its patrol in the Atlantic. On November 8, 1861, the U.S.S San Jacinto halted a British vessel and captured Confederate diplomats traveling on it to Europe. While this capture was extremely popular in the North, there was a British outcry over the fact that the San Jacinto let the vessel continue instead of formally bringing it to port for an adjudication. The British demanded an apology and the release of the diplomats. Succumbing to the pressure, and not wanting to hand the Confederates an ally, the diplomats were released, but not without a calculative note that the United States was glad that the British agreed with it on maritime neutral rights, a move that preserved some American pride, and won the respect of the British for American diplomacy.6
The first actual threat to the Union blockade, which was becoming all but impermeable, came ironically in the form of a formerly gutted ship. As the Norfolk shipyards were being abandoned at the onset of the Civil War, Union officers set the remaining ships ablaze to prevent them from falling into Confederate hands. One such ship was the U.S.S Merrimack, whose hull was somewhat preserved despite the fire. The Confederates dry-docked this wreck, and rebuilt its superstructure using metal and attaching an iron ram to its bow, creating what they believed was an ironclad ram. The thick metal armor and angular design made the vessel largely immune to cannon fire. Renamed the C.S.S Virginia, the Union Navy’s first engagement with the vessel would be costly. On March 8, 1862, the U.S.S Cumberland, and U.S.S Congress, stationed at Hampton Roads as part of the Union blockade, observed the curious but closing vessel, and opened fire. The fire would have no effect on the Virginia, and shortly after, the Cumberland was rammed and sinking, and the Congress had run aground trying to flee. The Virginia turned its attention to the disabled Congress, and forced its surrender by inflicting heavy casualties and destroying many of its guns.7
The dominant blockade seemed to be in peril, as the Virginia soon retired for the day having destroyed two significant ships of war, planning to return the next morning to finish off the remaining Union vessels. What the Confederates hadn’t expected was that the Union Navy had rushed their own ironclad, the U.S.S Monitor, to the blockade, and that this ship was waiting for the Virginia. Like the Virginia, the Monitor had thick armor plating that made it similarly immune to cannon fire. Unlike the Virginia however, the Monitor’s design focused on a lower profile turret as a superstructure as opposed to the large and angular construction that spread across the entire hull. They did meet as expected, and while they made history by participating in the first naval battle between ironclads, the result could best be described as a stalemate after both sides withdrew from battle having inflicted little damage on each other.8 If the North was to use its naval strength to continue its blockade of the South, it would need to employ more of these ironclad warships. If the South was to have any hope of breaking through these blockades, it too would need to employ more ironclads. The age of the ironclad had arrived, and its importance was never more pronounced. Dealing with such a menace, it would be clear that the leadership of the Union Navy was to be an important factor in the successful outcome as well, particularly in light of the fact that the Confederate Navy was resorting to unconventional means to fight a superior enemy. Two of the greatest minds that the North utilized for precisely this task were John A. Dahlgren, and David G. Farragut.
When news of the Virginia’s deeds reached Washington, Dahlgren observed in a cabinet meeting that many feared that this superior weapon would allow the South to turn the tables on the blockade, and that “Stanton feared the Virginia would wreak a whirlwind of destruction on the Union, sinking every U.S. warship and putting every northern port under tribute.”9 Dahlgren theorized that despite its capabilities, the Virginia would not be able to cross the shallow waters needed to exit into the ocean or threaten Washington. Regardless, Lincoln became paranoid and began to look for the Virginia every time he glanced at the Potomac, and asked McClellan to block the river as a precaution.10 When word reached Washington that the Monitor had rather successfully engaged the Virginia, and that the result was a stalemate, a day after the Union had suffered the horrific losses of both the Cumberland and the Congress, one would expect most people to be greatly relieved that an equal had been found.
Dahlgren on the other hand was disgusted to hear that the Monitor had merely withdrawn, and not destroyed its ironclad counterpart. His smooth bore cast iron 11-inch guns that carried much of his reputation, and were considered some of the finest weapons of naval warfare, had been termed “useless” against the armor plating of the Virginia. Dahlgren quipped that “a state of war is a most unfavorable period for experiments.”11 Nevertheless, Dahlgren would indeed experiment with ideas, many of which were abandoned when the war started. Concerned that the paranoia regarding the ironclads was the driving force behind too many implausible ideas, he set about to develop the 15-inch guns that the Navy had asked him to, and further planned to test and improve the quality of the 11-inch guns to enable crews to place larger charges per shot. Test firings against targets proved largely successful, and the Union was sure to equip its ships, particularly the future “monitors”, as they came to be called, with these more effective Dahlgren guns.
Soon, the Union Navy was busy implementing the idea to capture the Mississippi and employ the river to split the states in rebellion. The Mississippi and its many tributaries were extremely important supply lines for Confederate operations. The South had fortified and placed many batteries by many of its coastal cities, and ports along the Mississippi were no exception. The task fell on Farragut to conquer this challenge, with the final objective being the city of Vicksburg. In what would become almost routine practice, Farragut would take his squadron in daring rushes past heavy batteries at night, and then assist Union ground forces from a safe distance. The first such rush was the successful run past Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip on April 24,1862. The ships were camouflaged with mud and branches, and were able to come to close proximity before exchanging fire with the forts, and overwhelming the defending Confederate fleet. Meanwhile, a bulk of the fleet had sped up the river to a safer distance, and landed troops who quickly captured the forts.12 New Orleans had fallen to the Union, a stunning blow to Confederate morale. The newly designed ironclads and the improved and very powerful guns that the Union was employing were proving indispensable.
With the mouth of the Mississippi firmly in control, Farragut next ran past the defenses of Port Hudson, and stationed several ships for the successful blockade of the Red River by March of 1863. The same tactic was repeatedly used by the Union Navy on the Mississippi, as it methodically eliminated Confederate threats and established dominance. On July 4, 1863, Farragut would write to a fellow commander “I hope you celebrated the day by dressing the ships and firing a national salute.” The next day, he would correspond “…it is reported that Vicksburg will surrender to-day. They had pride in not surrendering until after the Fourth of July.”13 The Union Army and Navy’s frustrating campaign to capture Vicksburg had finally concluded with the fall of that city to their hands. The Union had captured the Mississippi.
While the naval war along the Atlantic coast and Mississippi raged on, a historic duel would take place in the French port of Cherbourg on June 11, 1864. The C.S.S Alabama was a steam sloop built as a merchant vessel in England, but outfitted by supply ships to be a warship. After enjoying distinguished success against Union merchant vessels around the world, the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg for badly needed repairs. The U.S.S Kearsage, another stem sloop, passed by the port without anchoring, a sign many of the French interpreted as a challenge.14 The commander of the Alabama, Raphael Semmes, was very aware of the level of interest this had generated in Europe, particularly given the week or so given for word to spread regarding the impending naval duel. Europe had a distinct interest in the future of the United States, and now had a chance to see the conflict in person. In his speech before engagement, he instructed to his crew the following: “Remember that you are in the English Channel, the theatre of so much of the naval glory of our race, and that the eyes of all Europe are at this moment upon you.”15 On the 19th, the Alabama left port to meet its foe. The superior guns of the Kearsage, and its superior capacity to outpace the Alabama, gave way to a decisive Union victory. Many of the Alabama’s crewmen were rescued by neutral ships, something the Union objected to, considering them escaped prisoners of war. Regardless, the Union had accomplished an impressive feat under the watchful and curious eyes of Europe, further reducing any remote chance the Confederacy may have had in securing foreign recognition, sympathy, and alliances.
Having captured the Mississippi, built up a significant fleet of ironclads, and subdued most ships attempting to run blockades, the Union Navy could now focus on assaulting the last remaining coastal fortifications of the Confederacy. A fleet of ironclads repeatedly shelled the fortifications around Charleston, while others engaged Savannah. One of the most successful engagements was during August of 1864, when Farragut took his fleet through the torpedoes (minefields) around Mobile Bay and assaulted the three forts, and a Confederate squadron defending the position, with his fleet. The ironclad U.S.S Tecumseh hit a torpedo, and the Tecumseh’s subsequent sinking caused panic and disorder, bringing the fleet to standstill in front of Fort Morgan’s cannons. It is here that Farragut is said to have uttered the infamous “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The vessels rushed forward, and by the end of August, after numerous engagements, the last of the fortifications had surrendered.
As the months went by, Union Army victories would soon bring about the surrender of the Confederacy. The Union Navy had many more engagements after the Battle of Mobile Bay, but most of these were limited to relatively smaller scale assaults on coastal fortifications, and the assisting of the Union Army. The grim reality of the South’s losing effort in the conflict made European speculators increasingly unwilling to give loans or value the currency of the Confederacy, and the Confederate Navy would become increasingly marginalized for the duration of the conflict. In hindsight, the impact the Union Navy had in the result of the Civil War is immeasurable, but its legacy did not end there. Decades after the Monitor and Virginia last exchanged fire, nations still found themselves trying to supplement their maritime strength by building vast fleets of heavily armored ships with large guns. Furthermore, the many lessons learned in the Civil War would be implemented by the U.S Navy in future conflicts. For the immediate time however, the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Courthouse put the United States at the start of a long path towards healing.
Bibliography In order of first usage.
1. Union Correspondence, Orders, And Returns Relating To Operations In Maryland, Eastern North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia (Except Southwestern), And West Virginia, From January 1, 1861, To June 30, 1865 --#3 O.R. Series I Vol. LI/1
2. Lebergott, Stanley. “Through the Blockade: The Profitability and Extent of Cotton Smuggling, 1861-1865.” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 41, No. 4. (Dec., 1981), pp. 867-888.
3. Anderson, Stuart. “1861: Blockade vs. Closing The Confederate Ports” Military Affairs Vol. 41, No. 4. (Dec., 1977), pp. 190-194.
4. No author or date. U.S State Department website on Trent Affair:
Accessed April 20, 2006.
5. Roberts, William H. Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization. JHU Press, Baltimore, MD. 2002.
6. Schneller, Robert J. “John Dahlgren and US Naval Ordinance Innovation During the American Civil War.” International Journal of Naval History Vol.2 No. 3
7. Knox, Dudley W. “River Navies in the Civil War.” Military Affairs, Vol.18, No.1. (Spring, 1954), pp. 29-32.
8. Letter from David Glasgow Farragut to William Helmsley Emory, July 5, 1863 in The Life of David Glasgow Farragut: First Admiral of the United States Navy, Embodying his Journal and Letters. Farragut, Loyall. New York, NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1879, pp. 586
9. Semmes, Raphael. Memoir of Raphael Semmes, in The Cruise of the Alabama and the Sumter, Vol. 2. New York, NY: Carleton, McCarthy and Co., 1864, pp. 436.