Local News

April 28, 2013

Civil War anniversary:The Union’s naval blockade: Source of Southern scarcity?

In an earlier article in this series, Elizabeth McArthur vividly described food shortages experienced by the civilian population of the Confederacy, including those living in Dalton and Northwest Georgia as well as in centers such as Richmond, Raleigh and Atlanta.

Some of these scarcities resulted from the urgency of the military’s needs, and of course in areas that saw combat or other direct action, conditions were likely to be especially severe. “Our little town and its vicinity were the theatre of military operations and were swept by both armies,” wrote a group of Dalton citizens two years after the fighting had ended. “War and the torch have left us very poor.”

Many such difficulties, however, arose for other reasons. Economic arrogance and faulty understanding of international commerce by Southern economic elites and political leaders prompted a variety of shortsighted practices, notably an ongoing emphasis on the traditional money crops of cotton and tobacco at the expense of such staples as wheat, corn and livestock. There were also the inadequacies of the South’s internal transportation system, which hampered efficient distribution of foodstuffs and other goods even when supplies were relatively abundant. As the war progressed and Union control extended over more and more of the South’s water transportation routes, the intensified demands placed on an already ramshackle railroad system only led to its further deterioration.

However important these and other factors may have been in handicapping the Southern war effort, all were affected in some way by the Union’s naval blockade, which officially began on April 19, 1861, when President Lincoln declared it in force along the entire Southern coast from South Carolina to Texas. Eight days later it was extended to North Carolina and Virginia, thus embracing a coastline of some 3,500 miles, with 189 harbors, inlets, river mouths and coves where cargoes might be loaded or landed.

Only a dozen of these places had rail service to the interior, but closing even those would require far more ships than the U.S. Navy had on hand. Not surprisingly, informed Southern opinion scoffed at this “humbug of a blockade,” and even Lincoln’s own Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles of Connecticut, saw the idea as impulsive, as well as legally and diplomatically dangerous. More than almost anyone, Welles was aware of the Navy’s unpreparedness — of its 90 ships, only 42 were in commission, only 12 of these were in American waters, and only seven of those were steamers fully capable of blockade work.

Furthermore, the blockade instated by Lincoln was untraditional and even unprecedented. Rather than being directed primarily at containment of enemy warships or privateers, as earlier blockades by the British against the Americans or the French at various times had been, in 1861 the Federal navy was charged with suppression of all trade into or out of all ports in the seceded states — a far more difficult task, demanding enormous naval resources.

Nevertheless, by the end of 1861, Welles and his assistant secretary, Gustavus Fox, had armed a host of purchased or chartered merchant craft, enabling them to deploy 264 ships.   Another 100 vessels were being built in Northern shipyards. By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy comprised over 700 ships, of which the largest number were used to sustain the blockade, and it was possible to have as many as 20 or 30 on patrol outside a major port.     

Steamships were far superior to sailing vessels for blockade duty, but they required coaling stations and repair bases, and in mid-1861 the Union controlled none of these between Hampton Roads, Va., and Key West, Fla.

To avoid blockade ships’ exhausting their fuel and supplies by simply getting onto station, the Navy’s Blockade Board, formed in the summer of 1861 under the leadership of Capt. Samuel Francis Du Pont, devised a plan to seize suitable locations by seaborne attacks on their protective fortifications and amphibious landings to secure them permanently. Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast, was occupied in July 1861, but the first major assault, led by Du Pont himself against Port Royal, S.C., in November 1861, gained the Union fleet a base halfway between Charleston and Savannah that became second only to Hampton Roads as a center of Union naval strength.

In March 1862, Federal forces gained control of Fernandina, Jacksonville and St. Augustine in Florida, followed within days by the occupation of Brunswick, Ga., and the reduction of Fort Pulaski below Savannah. New Orleans, the Confederacy’s largest city, fell in late April.  Galveston, though briefly lost in early 1863, was regained by the Confederates, but Texas was essentially cut off from the rest of the South after the Union achieved control of the entire Mississippi Valley by capturing Vicksburg, Miss., and Port Hudson, La., in July 1863. Mobile remained open until Adm. David Farragut’s victory in Mobile Bay in August 1864, and Charleston and Wilmington held out until early 1865, but all were under an increasingly tight blockade.

Despite the North’s impressive naval mobilization, for most of the war the blockade was far from impenetrable. Sleek, high-speed blockade runners slipped through the Union patrols at a startling rate, becoming the “lifeline of the Confederacy.” Five out of every six runners got through, and although most were eventually captured or destroyed, they nevertheless completed about 1,000 out of 1,300 attempts at foreign imports or exports, along with several thousand voyages along the coast from one Southern port to another. An estimated 60 percent of the South’s modern rifles, one-third of its army’s requirement of lead, two-thirds of its supply of saltpeter (the main ingredient of gunpowder) and a million pairs of shoes came in on blockade runners.

Blockade-running was adventuresome and even romantic, but those who engaged in it were often unpopular. For most of the war it was carried on privately, with little or no government supervision, and enterprising ship owners consequently tended to import more desirables than necessities — luxury commodities of all kinds, affordable only by the wealthier ranks of Southern society where they remained in high demand, though increasingly viewed as unpatriotic by nearly everyone else. Blockade runners were built for speed, and their relatively low cargo capacity meant that importers wanted to make the most profitable use of their space.   

For the same reason, they could carry only limited amounts of cotton, and many times crews threw some or all of an outbound cargo overboard to gain enough speed to escape Federal pursuers.

Ultimately the blockade’s effectiveness should be seen in more terms of what did not happen rather than what did. In this sense, its curtailment of Southern cotton exports is crucial. Estimates of overseas cotton shipments during the war range from 350,000 to a million bales, but in any event the wartime volume was far short of the nearly 10 million bales exported in the last three years before the war. Cotton prices soared 200 percent during the war, but even higher increases in shipping and insurance costs consumed any profits Southern planters might have enjoyed — a direct result of the blockade and one source of the South’s fiscal woes. Without adequate credit abroad, the Confederacy could not acquire the railroad equipment, marine machinery and other highly engineered goods it needed, even though it might have been able to get many of them through the blockade.  

The Union blockade, then, should be seen less as an immediate cause of hardship for Southern civilians than as a vital component of the North’s “Anaconda” strategy, aimed at squeezing the life out of the Southern economy both by military constriction and by cutting it off from the outside world. It may or may not have won the war for the Union, but it almost certainly made the conflict shorter.  

This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton Civil War 150th Commission. To find out more about the commission, go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or robert.jenkins@robertdjenkins.com.

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