How Decisive Was the Naval War to Union Victory?

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
I can't help but thinking that the role of the Union Navy might have been one of the most decisive in attaining victory for the North. To support that position, I maintain that the key to northern victory was the conquest and control of the western riverine system in 1861 to 1863, in which the Union accomplished key objectives of reaching into the Confederate heartland, capturing and controlling important southern transportation and commercial hubs, and splitting apart the trans-Mississippi region. While federal armies and commanders carried out much of the hard work (and received the lion share of credit), it was the Navy that enabled the land forces to do so. The creation of the Western Gunboat Flotilla and the US Ram Fleet (notwithstanding the fact that the army had technical control), were instrumental in opening up the Mississippi from Island No. 10 in the North to Memphis, and in supporting army operations at Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Vicksburg. Concurrently, the blue-water navy was mainly responsible for running Fts. Jackson and St. Philip, thereby achieving the seizure of New Orleans. Beyond the western riverine system and along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, naval operations (sometimes with army cooperation), established beachheads at Hatteras Inlet, Roanoke Island, Port Royal, Fernandina, and Ship Island. Not only did these landings assist the blockading fleet by providing it with necessary coal and supply depots, but inroads (particularly in North Carolina), were effective in pinning down scarce Confederate manpower and threatening further advances inland. While the Navy had renowned commanders (Farragut, Porter, Foote, Walke), it sometimes seems as if the army gets most of the attention. But without the Navy, the outcome of the war might have been very different.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

Colonel
Member of the Year
Joined
Mar 31, 2012
Location
Central Ohio
I think the Union could potentially have won the war without naval support. But it would have been a lot longer and more costly.

Applying naval pressure along with the land war was the equivalent of Lincoln's 'those that aren't skinning can at least hold a leg;' the effects of pressing on multiple fronts are cumulative.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
I think the Union could potentially have won the war without naval support. But it would have been a lot longer and more costly.
Which is exactly what got me thinking about this in more detail. To be sure, the war would have been longer and more costly, but it might not be too far off the mark to say that without the naval role, particularly in the west, the Confederacy might very well have attained its independence by averting a successful Union conquest of the rebellious states. The Union had no option but to "invade" the south and vanquish its armies and infrastructure in order to defeat the rebellion. The naval role seems to be more and more crucial in terms of ensuring that the Union was able to accomplish this goal.
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I can't help but thinking that the role of the Union Navy might have been one of the most decisive in attaining victory for the North. To support that position, I maintain that the key to northern victory was the conquest and control of the western riverine system in 1861 to 1863, in which the Union accomplished key objectives of reaching into the Confederate heartland, capturing and controlling important southern transportation and commercial hubs, and splitting apart the trans-Mississippi region. While federal armies and commanders carried out much of the hard work (and received the lion share of credit), it was the Navy that enabled the land forces to do so. The creation of the Western Gunboat Flotilla and the US Ram Fleet (notwithstanding the fact that the army had technical control), were instrumental in opening up the Mississippi from Island No. 10 in the North to Memphis, and in supporting army operations at Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Vicksburg. Concurrently, the blue-water navy was mainly responsible for running Fts. Jackson and St. Philip, thereby achieving the seizure of New Orleans. Beyond the western riverine system and along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, naval operations (sometimes with army cooperation), established beachheads at Hatteras Inlet, Roanoke Island, Port Royal, Fernandina, and Ship Island. Not only did these landings assist the blockading fleet by providing it with necessary coal and supply depots, but inroads (particularly in North Carolina), were effective in pinning down scarce Confederate manpower and threatening further advances inland. While the Navy had renowned commanders (Farragut, Porter, Foote, Walke), it sometimes seems as if the army gets most of the attention. But without the Navy, the outcome of the war might have been very different.
A lot of good points. The blockade certainly cannot be discounted as an important contribution by the Navy. There were plenty of holes to be sure, especially along the Gulf Coast, but after the first year, including the loss of New Orleans, much of the successful blockade running was by small vessels with limited cargoes away from major ports. It also had an impact on inducing the UK to look elsewhere for cotton.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
Does "without the navy" mean no blockade, the Confederacy free to export cotton and other products and import all the war material, foodstuffs, railroad equipment, etc. they could afford? That would certainly make a difference.

While I was primarily considering the role of the brown water navy in having a decisive role in the war's outcome, the blockade was also an important contributor to northern victory. But the blockade was not particularly effective in the early years, whereas the conquest of the major western waterways was.
 

DaveBrt

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 6, 2010
Location
Charlotte, NC
A lot of good points. The blockade certainly cannot be discounted as an important contribution by the Navy. There were plenty of holes to be sure, especially along the Gulf Coast, but after the first year, including the loss of New Orleans, much of the successful blockade running was by small vessels with limited cargoes away from major ports.
Almost all of the blockade running was into Charleston and Wilmington, both in numbers and amount of cargo. Why run into a Gulf port when it was easier and safer to run into Wilmington? Most of the imports were divided up and sent to various locations in the Confederacy, so location of arrival was of little importance.
 

Biscoitos

Private
Joined
May 14, 2020
Almost all of the blockade running was into Charleston and Wilmington, both in numbers and amount of cargo. Why run into a Gulf port when it was easier and safer to run into Wilmington? Most of the imports were divided up and sent to various locations in the Confederacy, so location of arrival was of little importance.
"Most of the imports were divided up and sent to various locations..."
Are you saying that imported supplies to the Trans Miss. would not have been greater if Mobile, Galveston, and New Orleans had been
more frequent blockade runner ports?
As a RR man do you see that most imported stayed in the east, near Chas and Wilmington partly because of transportation limitations?
And because the war in the east got higher priorities.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

DaveBrt

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 6, 2010
Location
Charlotte, NC
Supplies from England and France to the Confederacy could run in through Bermuda or the Bahamas to Charleston & Wilmington. Why carry those same supplies hundreds of miles farther, past the choke point of the Florida-Cuba straits, past the base at Key West, and into a Gulf port? The Gulf is a small area with predictable routes of travel. The risk was too high and the blockade runners committed few ships to this route until Charleston and Wilmington were taken.

Supplies imported to Galveston were, correctly in my mind, deemed a minor threat to the Union winning the war. Had the threat level gone up, it could have been easily captured a second time with a force strong enough to hold it. New Orleans was easy to blockade. Mobile bay entrance and city were high on the list to capture and would have been taken earlier if Union leadership had felt it was a source of concern.

As long as Charleston and Wilmington were so successful, there was little reason to risk the much longer run to Mobile (I disregard New Orleans and Galveston per the paragraph above).
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Almost all of the blockade running was into Charleston and Wilmington, both in numbers and amount of cargo. Why run into a Gulf port when it was easier and safer to run into Wilmington? Most of the imports were divided up and sent to various locations in the Confederacy, so location of arrival was of little importance.
Well, there were plenty of smaller locales and Mobile that served as havens along the Gulf Coast - which was a tougher proposition for the blockading squadron assigned there.. We can disagree about what was "safer and easier" - especially as the war went on. Some blockade runners apparently didn't get the "safer and easier" message.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The number of places in which ships and boats could be maintained, outfitted for military use, or built new, was very limited in 1860.
1606578195808.png

https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1860/preliminary-report/1860e-06.pdf See page 107.
People on the internal rivers knew that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati/Covington, Louisville/New Albany and St. Louis were the hubs of the steamboat industry.
Big ocean going ships were built in Maine and Massachusetts. The steam engines were often installed in New York/Brooklyn and they were armed and supplied with munitions at Philadelphia and Hampton Roads.
 
Last edited:

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The US ship building industry was in steep decline by 1860. See the page 107.
1606578471440.png

The northern economy had slowed. The railroad across Panama made the demand for long trips around the Horn of South America decline. The railroads were starting to take some of the freight and most of time sensitive passengers away from the rivers and canals.
And by 1860 there was an illuminating gas industry and Nantucket was already in decline.
The infrastructure for building ships and boats still existed. However the manufacturing of advanced steam engines was competing for the same specialized managers and workers as the locomotive industry and the industrial engine industry.
Nonetheless, the US could build whatever it needed to operate on the internal rivers, on the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The Confederates knew what was coming. They tried to build up their static defenses, and they were very successful in doing so at Charleston, Vicksburg, Port Hudson and Fortress Fisher. But they could not protect every place. They did not have the manpower to build the forts and to garrison them.
From November 1861 to June 1862 inclusive, the naval forces broke through at Port Royal. They broke through at Roanoke Island and Fort Henry. The success at Fort Henry also led to the fall of Fort Donelson and the capture of the Confederate garrison. And the Roanoke Island success led to incursion on the coast of North Carolina.
And that was just the start. St. Augustine fell. The US navy was able to steam upriver and capture New Orleans as a city intact.
Then the US also captured Island No. 10 and Pensacola, and finally the city of Memphis. At all four corners the Confederacy had to contend with shrinkage and a threat of further invasion.
 
Last edited:

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
One has to remember that at both Pittsburgh Landing and in the Seven Days battles, the Confederates were frustrated. Normally driving an army back on a river, as the Confederates were able to do at Shiloh would lead to a shocking victory. But the US had both gunboats and transports on the Tennessee River, to the Confederates were advancing towards US reinforcements.
General Lee's attacks on General McClellan drove McClellan to the James River. But the US had re-established naval dominance on the Virginia coast; and the British had not intervened to trap the US Army in Virginia. McClellan was able to resupply and evacuate.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The Confederate raiders were very successful in capturing slower ships used to sail and steam in the southern oceans. But there is not much information that they seriously disturbed the traffic between New York and Liverpool, and not evidence that the traffic was carried by American ships anyway. The faster English and German steamships had probably taken most of this traffic already.
Similarly, regular traffic to and from Panama, on the Atlantic side and the Pacific was disrupted at first by raiders like Semmes. But the slower US military vessels that were not useful in the blockade were probably very useful in conducting escorts to maintain this essential traffic which allowed people and goods to travel to and from California.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The final campaigns of the war involve Grant building one of the busiest ports in the US at City Point. Sherman marched from Atlanta to an coast patrolled by the US navy from a nearby base. David Porter and General Terry conducted a time urgent operation to overcome the tenacious and courageous defense by the Confederates of Fort Fisher, and the war ended less than 3 months later.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
On land as many have noted, the tactics and weapons were nearly symmetrical. But because the US had such an enormous advantage in ship building and the specialized task of building and maintaining steam engines, the naval war could only end one way.
 
Top