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The Blockade That Failed

June 2024
12min read

Not until the Civil War was about over did the U.S. Navy manage to put a halt to the South’s imports

The two outstanding facts concerning the blockade of the southern states by the United States Navy during the Civil War are, one, that it was, lor the first three and a half years, almost totally ineffective, insofar as preventing supplies from reaching the rebels was concerned, and, two, that by the end of 1864, when it did become effective, the war was already over, for all practical purposes.

The Confederate armies had been beaten in the field by a preponderance of manpower and equipment on the part of the North. The popular notion of the South as a nation-in-arms strangled slowly in a sea blockade, a notion which lias been accepted at face value by many historians, is an historical fallacy. The misconception arises out of the ghastly shortages suffered in the South, which were due to the failure of the land transportation system of the Confederacy and military action of the Federals, rather than to any failure of supplies to get through the blockade.

The supplies, in fact, were coming through, from first to last. (The port of Wilmington, Lee’s chief source of food and ammunition, did 66 million dollars worth of business in gold in the last year of the war and exported 65 million dollars worth of cotton.) The Confederate soldier fought the war with arms imported from abroad—the finest that European markets could afford—and he could not have got them anywhere else. The U.S. arsenals seized by the state governments in the South in 1861 could not begin to supply the needs of the armies in the field, and that the South had a minimum of heavy industry with which to manufacture weapons is a fact too well-known to require restatement.

The shotgun and the squirrel rille of the embattled southern farmer, picturesque though they might be, could not have stemmed the tide at Kredericksburg or won the Battle of the Wilderness. Nor could the southern soldier supply himself with arms captured on the battlefield. The war was on too vast a scale for that. In the hemispheric struggle in which the Confederacy was engaged, English Enfields, Austrian and Brunswick rifles, Napoleon howitzers, heavy Whitworth siege guns, the new modern rifled cannon, and an astronomical quantity of gunpowder were needed. These were purchased abroad by Confederate agents, paid for by cotton shipped on government account, and run through the blockade in the dark of the moon from the entrepôts of Bermuda, Nassau and Havana.

Six hundred thousand stands of small arms alone reached the Confederacy via the blockade, 330,000 of them into the Gulf ports.

Not only guns, with bullets to fit them, but practically everything else the Confederacy needed came through the blockade. An insatiable war machine called for food, boots, buttons, cloth for uniforms, thread, stockings, civilian clothes, medicines, drugs, salt, boiler iron, shoes, steel, copper, zinc and chemicals in an endless flow—to cite the inventory of just one blockade runner. Such items as si’lks, brandies, laces, perfumes, linens and wines also went through despite the Richmond government’s ban on luxuries.

As low as was the standard of living in some parts of the South during the war, it would have been far lower but for the inefficiency of the blockade. The Confederacy lived by its trade with Europe and Mexico, and if the blockade could have been enforced at any time, the Rebellion would have been ended in short order. (|ust before the defenses of Wilmington were battered down in a great combined sea-and-land attack on January 12, 1865, General Lee wired Colonel Lamb, the Confederate commander at Fort Fisher: “If Fort Fisher falls, I shall have to evacuate Richmond.”)

Much has been made historically of the fact that the Confederacy had no navy, but it is seldom remembered that un April 19, i8(ii, when Lincoln proclaimed the blockade, the Union had none cither worthy of the name. The country had not IeIt much need loi a navy since the War of 1812, and most Americans would have agreed with the sentiments of Lincoln, expressed in an early political speech, that not in a thousand years could a European conqueror such as Napoleon invade the continental United States or water his horses in the muddy channels of the Mississippi.

As a result of this dependence upon the splendid isolation of the United States, the Navy was at a low ebb in 1861. There were only 42 vessels commissioned for active service, and of this number only 24 were steamers. Furthermore, the best part of the fleet, was in foreign waters, eighteen of the ships being scattered around the globe from the East Indies to Brazil. In all the ports of the North there were only three steamers actually at the disposal of the Navy Department: the Mohawk and the Crusader in New York, and the Pawneee at Potomac dock in Washington. The Mohawk and the Crusader were screw steamers, third class, and the Pawnee was a screw sloop. The Navy’s only steam warship of the first class in commission, the screw frigate Niagra , was 10,000 miles from home on the return voyage from Japan. The other two warships were the sailing frigates Sabine , of the Home Squadron at Pensacola, and the Congress , stationed in Brazil.

Thus handicapped at the start with an inadequate navy and having a 3,600-mile coast line to patrol, the Navy Department can hardly he hlamed lor not having established an efficient blockade ol the Gull and Atlantic ports ol the Confederacy in less than three and a hall years. That it was able to build or charter 250 armed vessels by the end of 1862, and 600 by the end of the war, is a remarkable achievement in some respects but one which fell far short of accomplishing its object, which was to ellect an airtight blockade.

During 1861, as might be expected, the blockade cast hardly a shadow on Confederate waters. In July, a British vessel steaming i’rom Hampton Roads to Wilmington reported that it did not encounter a single blockader en route. There was one, the Daylight , which entered Wilmington waters on July 20, but its commander and lhe British skipper managed to pass each other unseen. In December ol the same year, a British warship, the Desperate , commanded by Captain John Ross, Stood close in to the harbor of Galveston to test the presence of blockaders.

The Desperate made her presence known by smoke from her funnels, and withdrew. Nothing happened, and Captain Ross wrote in his journal: “Having seen no United States man-of-war there, I concluded that the port was not effectively blockaded, and it will be my duty to report the same to my superior ofRcer.” (Great Britain had just recently, in 185!), joined with the other major European nations in the Declaration of Paris, which enunciated the principle of international law that blockades, to be legal, must be effective.)

That was the situation, east and west, during the Jirst twelve months of the war, and on April 7, 1862, the British consul at Charleston, describing a situation which was general in the Atlantic ports ol the Confederacy, wrote: “The blockade runners are doing a great business. Everything is brought in, in abundance. Not a day passes without an arrival or a departure. Passengers come and go freely, and no one seems to think there is the slightest risk, as indeed there is not.”


On the day on which the British consul wrote, the Federal Navy had 226 ships with which to blockade 3,549 statute miles of coast, or one ship to every seventeen miles of sea from the Potomac to the Gulf—an impossible task. In addition, although the age of steam was under way, many of the blockaders were sailing vessels which were useless unless the blockade runners they sighted were sailing vessels also.

Even as early as 1862, few of them were. Blockade running had become big business and the majority of the contraband was carried in swift iron steamers designed and built in England especially lor the purpose. Some of them, like the celebrated Banshee , were built of steel, and still others could attain the incredible speed, even when loaded, of seventeen knots. (The Banshee was the first steel commercial ship to cross the ocean and the second one ever to be built.) Burning smokeless anthracite coal and painted the color of a Hatteras fog, the custom-built blockade runner on a dark night—knife-prowed and about 200 feet long—was “absolutely indiscernible at a cable’s length,” and most of them made the trip through the Federal blockading cordon with no more hindrance than a passenger threading his way briskly through the crowds in a railway station.

From the beginning of 1863 until the spring of 1864, when the efforts of the Federal shipbuilding program began to show results in the form of a fleet of ironclads constructed, five out of six of the runners were getting through on the East Coast. No record is available for the Gulf Coast after the fall of New Orleans, but in the vaster expanses of the Gulf of Mexico blockade runners were even harder to catch, and the traffic to the Gulf, judged by the amount of goods taken in and the amount of cotton taken out, undoubtedly equaled that of the East Coast. In all, it is estimated that about 8,000 round trips, at least, were made through the blockade by a fleet of 1,650 vessels.

Not only were the Federal ships outclassed in speed and maneuverability by the professional blockade runners, but the nature of the Atlantic seaboard was such that a fleet of several thousand armed, shallow draft vessels would have been needed to make even a pretense of patrolling it. The whole region seemingly had been designed by nature as a smuggler’s paradise. From the Virginia Capes to Wilmington, North Carolina, the seaboard is a narrow, bow-shaped belt of sand, broken only by shallow inlets and spearheaded by the headlands of Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout and Cape Fear.

The manifest impossibility of guarding every inlet on the East Coast caused the Navy Department, from the beginning, to adopt a policy of concentrating its ships around the major ports of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah (Norfolk having been occupied early in the war) in an effort to halt the South’s trade with Europe and prevent the exportation of cotton, which was financing the Confederacy’s war effort. But the approaches to these ports were heavily fortified and well-defended, their guns often commanding a good five miles of sea (as at Wilmington) so that the blockaders had for a long time to keep their distance. It was not until the end of 1864, when the number of vessels in the blockading squadrons had risen to 600, that the blockade became truly effective.

Professor Frank L. Owsley, in his admirable study of the foreign relations of the Confederacy, King Cotton Diplomacy , estimates that the record of the Navy’s four-year battle with the blockade runners stands thus: in 1861, one runner in ten destroyed or captured; in 1862, one in eight; in 1863, one in four; and by the late spring of 1864, one in three. (Two-thirds of the blockade runners were still getting through while Lee was falling back to Petersburg from Cold Harbor!) That the record rose to two out of three blockade runners bagged by January, 1865, when Wilmington fell, is scarcely of any importance. Appomattox, then, was less than three months away, and no amount of supplies brought through the blockade in 1865 could have affected the outcome of the war.

To most of the blockaders, the fall of Wilmington on January 12 meant merely that they would shift their activities to the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. consul at Tampico reporting on January 27 that his port was becoming “a second Nassau.” Blockade running by a fleet of 150 steamers continued for more than a month after Appomattox, and as late as May 10, 1865, a cargo of cotton ran the blockade from Galveston to Nassau aboard the steamer Imogene . The Confederacy, though mortally wounded, still breathed, and the blockade runners were humanly reluctant to believe that the era of fabulous profits was over. So great was their faith in the indestructibility of the South that even on May 30, 1865, a customer could be found who was willing to accept Confederate currency at the rate of a thousand to one for gold—the last transaction of its kind of which we have any record.

Although the blockade failed in its purpose, which was to prevent matériel of war from reaching the southern Confederates, the Confederate government, from the very first, had reason to be agitated by it—for both the French and British recognized the “legality” of Lincoln’s blockade in October, 1861. Here the French and British were governed by expediency rather than by international law: they did not want any trouble with the United States. Their recognition of the legality of the blockade did not prevent them from encouraging and assisting their nationals to run it, but the slap in the face—to the Richmond government—of recognizing the blockade caused Jefferson Davis and his government to take action, in the first year of the war, which almost strangled the infant Confederacy in its swaddling clothes as effectively as any blockade could have done.

Irked by the hypocrisy of the British and French in recognizing a nonexistent blockade, the Confederates tried to bludgeon Her Majesty’s Government into a quick recognition of the South by withholding cotton from the world market. Cotton was the cornerstone of the Confederacy, but it was also one of the keystones of Britain’s economy. Britain’s need for the South’s cotton was great, and without it the mills of Lancashire would close down—they did, eventually—and the children of tens of thousands of British workingmen would go hungry.

The cotton embargo, however, proved to be a mistake, for the British had on hand a surplus of many hundreds of thousands of pounds of cotton as a result of the bumper crop of 1859. The Board of Trade reported a stock of 1,105,780 bales on hand in June, 1861, or 450,000 bales above normal. Under these circumstances the British could afford to wait and see, and they did. The chief fear of the cotton brokers of Liverpool was not that the blockade would be enforced, but that the South would win the war quickly and dump four million pounds of raw cotton on the market thereby causing the bottom to drop out. Nothing was done by Her Majesty’s Government to aid the southern states except to recognize the patent fact of their belligerency.

The apprehensions on both sides of the Atlantic in 1861 proved unfounded. The war rolled along, the South girded for a long struggle, and the British found that they could buy cotton by sending the ships to bring it home. Since a profit of a quarter of a million dollars each way was a not uncommon return (cotton could be bought for three cents a pound in gold in the Confederacy and sold at fifty cents in England), the owners could afford to lose a vessel after two successful trips. If this seems rough on the captain and crew, an examination of the paybook of a blockade runner gives the answer.


Captains got a thousand pounds for a voyage which often did not consume more than a week; chief officers got 250; second and third officers, 150 each; chief engineer, 500; crew and firemen, 50 to 75; and the pilot, 750. Such was the demand for pilots that, if captured, they were never released. Besides drawing fabulous pay, officers were able to indulge in little private speculations of their own, each trip, stowing away a bale or two for themselves or a friend. The risk was not too great, for as naval historian Soley says: “Little apprehension was felt about running through the fleet. Calcium lights were burned, and shot and shell flew thickly round the entering vessel, but they did not often hit the mark.”

They needed to hit the mark only once, of course, and no amount of statistics can alter the fact that blockade running was dangerous, as well as big, business. Though the runner could show his heels to the blockader, given sufficient notice, bad timing could result in his ship’s being riddled with shot at close range. Since his cargo most frequently included gunpowder, it will be seen that blockade running was not an occupation for anyone whose nerves were bad.

The rewards being as great as they were, however, the traffic soon attracted a host of that inevitable company of adventurous souls who are always willing to risk their skins for a thousand per cent profit. Besides the southerners engaged in the business, most of the contraband captains.and crews were British, canny Scots among them, naturally, and officers of the Royal Navy who had resigned their commissions to seek a fortune overnight. In Liverpool, in Bermuda, in Nassau, the descendants of Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins heard the siren song; the gold rush was on. Major J. F. Bell, in his Bahamas; Isles of June, describes it thus:

“In the Bahamas the erstwhile seemingly contented civil servant sniffed powder in 1860 and 1861 and hied himself to the quayside, bent on following the ways of his forefathers on the seas. The urge was gain, but the call was the clear call of the wind in the rigging and the pipe of the boatswain’s whistles. There was, it was said, a new swagger in the walk of the young bloods of the town who ‘ran the blockade; they were salted men, they had dared done, and there were golden sovereigns in their belts. They had met the fair charmers of Wilmington and Charleston. ... It was a great day indeed; a day of seagoing glory for men under aliases who were properly captains of British gunboats and so had the quarterdeck manner, for old quarter masters who had a Navy forelock to pull, and for great gentlemen from Liverpool and Bristol who dealt in ‘barrels of money’.”


As to the rest, they were a sprinkling of Danes, Spaniards, Portuguese, Mexicans, Italians, Greeks, Canadians and now and then, if the truth were told, a New England Yankee or two; and there was at least one Prussian baron, Charles Henry Von Schwanz, whose son succeeded him in comand of a blockade runner. In all, they were as swashbuckling a crew of sailors of fortune as ever sailed the Golden Seas.

The charred skeletons of some of their ships still stand today against the battering of the waves, caught fast in the shoals of the Carolina coast-etched forever against the sky in that graveyard of the Atlantic, beyond all salvage except by the historian or the spinner of sea yarns. The wreck of his ship, however, seldom discouraged the blockade runner, if he survived uncaptured; next week or next month or next year found him outward bound again.

Such were the men that ran the blockade, and they sailed, appropriately enough, from the ports of the Spanish Main: from Nassau, from Bermuda, from Havana with its moated castle, from steaming Belize in British Honduras, from Tampico on the coastal plain of Mexico, and from Belem and Bahia in Brazil. They ran their overloaded craft through the gauntlet of Federal fire into the seaports of Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Galveston, Corpus Christi and Mobile; they braved hurricanes and Hatteras storms; they were shipwrecked and shot at; they disported themselves in dives and were entertained in the mansions of the rich, according to their tastes and their backgrounds. Their story is yet to be told, in its fullest, but the operation they conducted was, as Frank Vandiver, author of Confederate Blockade Running through Bermuda , says, “the most successful large-scale campaign attempted by the South.”

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