The Union Blockade THE HAPLESS ANACONDA: UNION BLOCKADE 1861-1865 With the fall of Fort Sumter on the 13th of April, 1861, America entered the most costly and grueling war it has ever experienced. The Union’s original military strategy was designed by the aging General Winfield Scott, who recognized that naval strategy could play a crucial role and that instead of being able to strike down the Confederacy with a quick lethal blow, it was more likely to be a long and grinding war. In his Anaconda plan, he proposed a naval blockade of the Confederate ports to isolate the Confederacy and choke its economy and supply lines. This plan was followed when Lincoln proclaimed the naval blockade on April 19, 1861. While some historians claim the blockade was one of the major causes of the collapse of the Confederacy, others contend that it was hopelessly ineffective. Overall, in terms of closing off ports, capturing ships, and stopping supply lines, the blockade was ineffective. The very concept of closing off shipping on a 3,600 mile coast studded with inlets and inner channels with a numerically insignificant navy was a highly unrealistic goal and the Union could not accomplish it.
For the first few years, there was virtually no blockade, and the blockade runners entered and cleared Southern ports with minimal risks. Only very late in the war was it actually more effectively enforced, but by that time the war had basically been decided. Blockade-running was an extremely profitable trade and lured many enterprising businessmen and ship captains. The Confederacy got most of its military supplies through the blockade. The failure of the Confederacy to supply its armies should not be credited to the Union blockade, but to other factors that did not allow the Confederacy to take full advantage of its blockade-runners.
When the blockade was proclaimed, the U.S. Navy was virtually nonexistent. The Navy had a grand total of 90 vessels, 42 of them commissioned for active service, and only 24 of them steamers. By the end of 1861, 79 steamers had been purchased along with 58 sailing boats (which were worthless unless the blockade-runners were also sailing ships). The blockading force, although it had grown quickly, was still grossly inadequate.
Only 160 vessels patrolled the blockade and only a small proportion of them were capable naval vessels. According to Professor Frank Owsley, author of King Cotton Diplomacy, this fleet was so poor that “Had the ‘Merrimac’ got loose among these boats, it could have sunk every one ad libitum [sic].” Northeastern newspapers of the time harshly criticized the blockade: the New York Herald called Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, a moron, the New York Tribune published its view that the blockade was a “laughing stock,” and the Philadelphia Enquirer stated that there was “no blockade at all.” Most Northern papers can be trusted on this subject because they had special correspondents at blockade-running bases. The effectiveness of the blockade was actually more than just a military and economic matter; it had legal and political implications as well. In the Declaration of Paris in 1856, international law stated that a blockade had to be: formally proclaimed, promptly established, enforced, and, most importantly, effective, to be legal and thus be respected abroad. On August 20, 1861, Confederate agents John Slidell and James Mason, after the Trent affair, tried to convince Europe that it was a paper blockade by showing figures that up to then more than 400 vessels had run the blockade. At the end of the year, James Mason tried again, and together with William Lindsay, a prominent British shipbuilder and Member of Parliament, presented figures that in 1861, 500 to 700 vessels had run the blockade. However, Lord John Russell, the British foreign secretary, recognized the blockade as legal in February of 1862, not because Britain believed the blockade was effective, but because she didn’t want to get involved in the war. Britain’s recognition did not imply that she refused to have anything to do with blockade-running.
On the contrary, Britain was glad to profit from the business opportunity, and British companies owned and controlled a large share of the blockade-runners. The British no doubt realized the blockade’s ineffectiveness when, in the words of a U.S. consul at Liverpool, “Members of Parliament, mayors, magistrates, aldermen, merchants, and gentlemen are all daily violating the laws of nations. Nine-tenths of all vessels now engaged in the business were built and fitted out in England by Englishmen and with English capital, and are now (1862) owned by Englishmen.” Fast blockade-runners would travel between Confederate ports and the ports of Nassau, Bermuda, and Havana, and then ships would sail cargoes between these ‘depot’ ports and England. The task on hand for the Union Navy was made nearly impossible by the size and geography of the Southern coast. It spans 3,600 miles and has almost 200 river mouths, inlets, bays and harbors. In addition it is basically a double coastline because it is filled with interior channels.
Small ships did not have to leave directly from a port; instead they could take an inner channel and pop out into the open sea from almost anywhere they wanted. The Navy did not have the ships to guard every inlet, so they had to concentrate on putting a cordon of ships around the major ports, like Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and the big ports in the Gulf of Mexico. Even this was hard because those ports were often protected by forts, and thus blockading ships had to keep their distance. The result was that many hundreds of miles of coast were left unguarded and small or shallow-draft ships could escape through the protected waterways. Since much of this trade was done in secret by small sailing ships of which there are no records, the possibility exists that blockade-running took place on a significantly larger scale than is apparent from the official harbor records of the major ports. Even when ships were guarding ports, their blockades were too lax and easily penetrable.
In December of 1861, the British warship Desperate came to test for blockaders at Galveston by making its presence known with smoke. When nothing happened, its commander wrote, “Having seen no United States man-of-war here, I concluded that the port was not effectively blockaded, and it will be my duty to report the same to my superior officer.” Still disappointed by the blockade of Galveston as late as May 1864, Gideon Welles wrote to Read Admiral Farragut that “It can not but be looked upon as a miserable business when six good steamers, professing to blockade a harbor, suffer four vessels to run out in one night.” This sort of poor enforcement was by no means restricted to Galveston; it was characteristic of most blockade enforcement. In August of 1861, Charles Prioleau of Fraser, Trenholm & Co., of Liverpool (one of the largest blockade-running companies and also the Confederate fiscal agency in England) tested the Savannah blockade by sending a boat through. The boat went through with no interference or encounters with any blockaders and came back with a cargo full of cotton. In addition to proving the blockade ineffective, this was an extremely profitable voyage and prompted the company to buy a fleet of blockade-runners, and it encouraged many other enterprising people to jump into such a lucrative business. Throughout 1861, Consul Mure at New Orleans also reported continuous foreign trade between Mobile and New Orleans and Havana, Cuba. In early 1862, he sent reports of ships like the Vanderbilt having easy rides back and forth, loaded with more than 90,000 pounds of powder, prompting other merchants to charter their own blockade-runners. On August 12, 1861, Allen Fullerton, the British consul at Savannah, wrote that “The blockade of such ports is not effective, being maintained by the United States Government not by vessels of war permanently stationed off the mouth of each harbour.
. . but merely by a few vessels cruising up and down the coast, appearing off a port one day and leaving. . .
the next.” Throughout 1862 and 1863, although Savannah was more frequently guarded well at the main entrance, the side and inner passages were left open. There are also numerous letters from Consuls Bunch and Walker at Charleston saying that its blockade was equally ineffective. Up to 1864 British consuls at Savannah and Charleston continued to report every-increasing numbers of blockade-runners. On August 6, 1861, Bunch wrote: “So far as I believe, not a single ship of war is at present to be found on the entire coast of the state.” Two weeks later, Bunch wrote that vessels came and went without interference and stated that “the blockade is the laughing stock of the Southern Merchant Marine.” Even as late as April 7, 1862, Consul Bunch wrote “The blockade runners are doing a great business. Everything is brought in abundance.
Not a day passes without an arrival or departure. Passengers come and go freely, and no one seems to think there is the slightest risk, and indeed there is not.” These reports continued through 1862 and 1863 as Bunch kept reporting a steady stream of blockade-runners coming in with arms and powder and general supplies and leaving with cotton. The next British consul at Charleston, Walker, wrote on April 22, 1863, that from July 1861 to April 1863 trade was booming at Wilmington and cotton exports and customs receipts were high. It is clear that the blockade was ineffective in the early stages of the war, but it did eventually tighten as more ships were added to the blockading fleet, although not in proportion to the increased fleet of blockade-runners. By April 7, 1862, the Navy had 226 ships at their disposal for blockade duty and by the end of the war Gideon Welles had gathered up a fleet of over 600 vessels. One of the men responsible for the tightening was Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee, who commanded the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from 1862 to 1864, whose most important port to block was Wilmington, North Carolina, a famous haven for blockade-runners. When Lee arrived in September 1862, he had 48 ships and during 1864 his fleet fluctuated from 84 to 119 vessels. With this enlarged fleet he developed a blockading tactic of using two rows: a first row with slow ships would warn the faster outer row of any blockade-runners to chase with rocket signals. This plan increased the number of captures being made; by 1864, Lee reported that the rebels were losing a steamer about every eight days. However, this wasn’t quite a brick wall, since Wilmington alone averaged 1.5 attempts per day to run the blockade. For most of 1861, one in fourteen ships was captured or destroyed, but the final ratio for the year was one in ten.
In 1862, the capture (including destroyed ships) rate rose to one in eight, and the average blockade-runner still had a life expectancy of seven voyages. In 1863, the blockade finally started to tighten as the capture rate rose to one in four. In 1864, the capture rate climbed to one in three and in 1865 (when only several Gulf Ports remained open) the capture rate rose to one in two. The total for the whole war is that one in six attempts to run the blockade failed. Below, these general figures will be broken down by geographic location and type of ship (sail or steam). These odds were good enough to make blockade-running a lucrative opportunity, enticing enough people into the trade.
Cotton prices were high and profits on cotton were phenomenal; it could be bought in the Confederacy for six to eight cents per pound and sold at $.25-$1.00 per pound in England. Other statistics show that it was bought at three cents per pound and sold at fifty, and this made a quarter of a million dollar profit on each voyage (one way) common, and a firm could then easily afford to lose a ship after just two successful voyages. Often just one successful voyage would be sufficient. Although operating costs were very high ($80,000 per runner per month), often two trips would pay $170,000 and any additional trips would be pure profit for the English companies involved. These companies saw profits soar as never before. Throughout the war, companies paid from 500-1,000 percent on their stocks. In the spring of 1864, stock bought at $3,200 was sold six months later at $6,000 and had also paid a $500 dividend. That the financial odds were so favorable for blockade-runners is testimony to the blockade’s ineffectiveness. There were also other factors that lured men into this trade.
Daring and adventurous skippers enjoyed the excitement, and have described it as rollicking good fun. William Watson, a blockade-runner in the Gulf, remarked, On the whole (it is) a rather enjoyable occupation, with something of the zest of yacht-racing– a kind of exciting sport of the highest order. These blockade-runners entered the trade with visions of great These blockade-runners entered the trade with visions of great success, and most often that was the case. In part this was due to the difficulty of blockade duty for the Union sailors. While it may have been rollicking good fun for blockade-runners, it remained perfect hell for blockaders. Blockade duty was boring and monotonous. It was also very hard because blockade-running ships were often superior to the blockaders. The blockaders most often had inadequate speed and poor seagoing qualities and many of them were sailing ships, which were worthless unless the blockade-runners were sailing ships too. While blockaders were mostly poor, sluggish ships, blockade-runners were often some of the best ships ever made.
They had speeds the Union couldn’t match; most sailed at 10 to 14 knots, some could attain speeds of 17 knots fully loaded, which was incredible for the time, and by the end of the war a few had broken 18 knots. Stunned by the superior speeds of blockade-runners, the commander of the blockader USS Dacotah remarked that The speed of these contraband steamers is beyond all precedent of late. I have never experienced anything like it. Blockade-runners also had the advantage of virtual invisibility. After 1862, most had become fast iron steamers without sails, with light drafts, low silhouettes, and they were often painted a foggy gray color. They burned a smokeless anthracite coal and they liked to run on moonless nights. Thus, a custom-built blockade-runner was absolutely indiscernible at a cable’s length on a dark night. An officer of the blockader USS Vandalia stationed at Charleston wrote, We could not see a single vessel going in or out..We have but little doubt that these vessels elude our vigilance at night as the nature of the coast precludes the possibility of our anchoring within at least four miles of the shore-hence a vessel of a few hundred tons..can easily escape by hugging the shore until out of our sight. Since the blockade-runners were so hard to distinguish, blockading vessels often spent hours chasing each other by accident. The blockading fleet was of such poor quality that it was often in shambles. The blockaders frequently suffered breakdowns in machinery and had to leave their statio …