How important were the blockade runners?

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#1
Even a cursory look at the "trade" indicates that it served two main purposes: generation of funding in currencies holding their value better than Confederate notes or greenbacks; acquisition of munitions and ordnance, medicines and dry goods for wealthier parts of the civilian population. A very useful discussion of where most of the "trade" was transacted is found in a book called "Trading with the Enemy". Significant amounts of cotton were traded across the lines and this trade was critical in terms of food stuffs like hams. Although the south was largely agricultural, it lacked the ability to transport much of the product. As more and more of the workforce, both white and colored, disappeared into the Army or Union supervision, production rates in many goods declined. I recommend the book, especially the first chapter with a very useful description of just how the cotton trade worked. In particular it covers the basis of why some of the more affluent classes thought that "King Cotton" would swing Europeans into siding with the south. Although the blockade was successfully run throughout the war, there were not enough ships, investors or Confederate funds to cover more than just basic military needs. The issue of a preference for stable foreign currencies generated by the trade is also critical. British pounds and British banks appear to have been the most popular. One interesting
point is that the trade with Texas also included imported dried vegetables, coming through Matamoros. These were apparently destined to be used as storable military rations. Its difficult to put a dollar number on the cross-the-lines shipments. Many were flat out "trades", goods for goods. The level of corruption in the Union military and civil service was staggering. This leads to a question of what weakened southern military resistance the most? It doesn't appear to have been the blockade - but Grant's refusal to carry on mass prisoner exchanges was a heavy blow. The Confederate Navy may have been more successful in getting their people traded.
 

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Mark F. Jenkins

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#3
As a whole, the government-owned blockade runners were of much more assistance to the Confederacy than the privately-owned runners. The private runners were in it for the profit and were most interested in bringing in small-bulk luxury goods rather than war materiel-- it wasn't until the CS government began regulating the trade that they had any control over that. For a government runner, not dependent on a profit, they could devote their entire capacity to war needs.

I have not seen hard data on tons of war materiel brought in by private vs. government runners, but it would be extremely surprising to me if the 'war cargo efficiency' rating of the private runners was anywhere near the government-owned (or -chartered) bottoms.
 

DaveBrt

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#4
The South was self-sufficient in almost nothing needed for war. Without the blockade runners, the South would have run out of arms -- well, it never had enough arms, niter, powder, lead, blankets, shoes, ammunition, etc and etc. The South was also critically short of iron, leather, food and MEN.

The South was self-sufficient in cotton (but not cotton goods), corn, valor and hot air.

No blockade runners -- no more war by spring of 1863 (or sooner).
 

USS ALASKA

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#6
Sir, to mostly pile-on the above posts...

1. As @DaveBrt wrote, without them, the war ends sooner. With them, the war is sustainable for a longer period. This allows the 'war weariness' and 'foreign intervention' options time and opportunity to take effect.

2. As @Mark F. Jenkins wrote, the utility of the blockade runners to support the war effort was not always maximized. I have often wondered if it would change any outcomes if it was. The flip side of that coin is if there were strictly enforced regulations on what items and %s of cargo could be imported, would as many runners be attempting to circumvent the blockade? If we lower the potential 'reward' variable of the 'risk vs reward' equation - do as many private investors gamble on a successful outcome? Stiffer regulations might drive this to be an almost completely financed and controlled CSG endeavor. And relying on their own fiscal wherewithal will limit even further the size of the runner fleet.

3. And the great lack of raw material to the CSG, manpower, is there anyway that blockade runners could alleviate that?

At best it would appear that the efforts of the runners prolonged the struggle but would not have been able to provide a self-sustaining, war-winning strategy.

Sir, reading over your initial post a few times, was this the direction you wanted the thread to go or were you more interested in the trade between sides and it's associated shenanigans?
77

Cheers,
USS ALASKA
 
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#7
Sir, to mostly pile-on the above posts...

1. As @DaveBrt wrote, without them, the war ends sooner. With them, the war is sustainable for a longer period. This allows the 'war weariness' and 'foreign intervention' options time and opportunity to take effect.

2. As @Mark F. Jenkins wrote, the utility of the blockade runners to support the war effort was not always maximized. I have often wondered if it would change any outcomes if it was. The flip side of that coin is if there were strictly enforced regulations on what items and %s of cargo could be imported, would as many runners be attempting to circumvent the blockade? If we lower the potential 'reward' variable of the 'risk vs reward' equation - do as many private investors gamble on a successful outcome? Stiffer regulations might drive this to be an almost completely financed and controlled CSG endeavor. And relying on their own fiscal wherewithal will limit even further the size of the runner fleet.

3. And the great lack of raw material to the CSG, manpower, is there anyway that blockade runners could alleviate that?

At best it would appear that the efforts of the runners prolonged the struggle but would not have been able to provide a self-sustaining, war-winning strategy.

Sir, reading over your initial post a few times, was this the direction you wanted the thread to go or were you more interested in the trade between sides and it's associated shenanigans?
77

Cheers,
USS ALASKA
In regard to your point No. 2, there were attempts regulate the trade, i.e. the 50% government cargo gambit. Some of the runner companies just began coming in empty and departing with cotton. Another incentive program was the sale of cotton-secured bonds in Europe. The trick was that you had to come into a Confederate port to get the cotton. As for my intention with the original post, my point is that the largest "trade" was actually across the lines. I suspect that the US government could have cracked down much harder, but from a political point of view, if your goal was to reunite the country and reconcile the south, starving the population was probably not a good choice. The length of the conflict and extent of the damage and human losses on both sides undercut such efforts at appeasement. At the end of the war some wanted revenge, some were just baldfaced carpet baggers. Some were unreconciled and adherents to "the lost cause". One thing that tends to be brushed under the rug was the fact that some of the southern leaders during the war entertained unrealistic dreams of adding territory in the west all the way to the Pacific and possibly northern portions of Mexico to the southern republic. There were all shades during that conflict. At one point a number of the merchants in New York City proposed to turn it into an open trading port. New England politicians with pressure from the mill owners were early believers in cutting a deal with the south to assure raw materials. Workmen in Scottish yards on the Clyde had no support for slavery but were delighted to have the work of building the runners. The British government was not a supporter of slavery, but had no problem with the idea of two weaker states in North America. They were very concerned about the possibility of the conflict spilling over into Canada and their island possessions over the issue of Confederate operations including blockade runners on those territories.
 
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#9
Even a cursory look at the "trade" indicates that it served two main purposes: generation of funding in currencies holding their value better than Confederate notes or greenbacks; acquisition of munitions and ordnance, medicines and dry goods for wealthier parts of the civilian population. A very useful discussion of where most of the "trade" was transacted is found in a book called "Trading with the Enemy". Significant amounts of cotton were traded across the lines and this trade was critical in terms of food stuffs like hams. Although the south was largely agricultural, it lacked the ability to transport much of the product. As more and more of the workforce, both white and colored, disappeared into the Army or Union supervision, production rates in many goods declined. I recommend the book, especially the first chapter with a very useful description of just how the cotton trade worked. In particular it covers the basis of why some of the more affluent classes thought that "King Cotton" would swing Europeans into siding with the south. Although the blockade was successfully run throughout the war, there were not enough ships, investors or Confederate funds to cover more than just basic military needs. The issue of a preference for stable foreign currencies generated by the trade is also critical. British pounds and British banks appear to have been the most popular. One interesting
point is that the trade with Texas also included imported dried vegetables, coming through Matamoros. These were apparently destined to be used as storable military rations. Its difficult to put a dollar number on the cross-the-lines shipments. Many were flat out "trades", goods for goods. The level of corruption in the Union military and civil service was staggering. This leads to a question of what weakened southern military resistance the most? It doesn't appear to have been the blockade - but Grant's refusal to carry on mass prisoner exchanges was a heavy blow. The Confederate Navy may have been more successful in getting their people traded.
BTW-Does the book mention Richard King of the famous King Ranch and Ford F-150 namesake? A former post of mine: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/ki...cy-helped-by-sally-skull.149244/#post-1880715
 
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#10
The 50% cargo rule didn’t come into effect until early 1864, by which time it was a case of too little, too late. Right to the end of the war, private runners (which were the vast majority of them) continued carrying small-bulk, high-value civilian goods into the ports that remained open. I’m not sure it ever would’ve been otherwise, though, because it was the high profit return on those sorts of cargoes that provided the incentive for private runners to make the attempt at all.

If the 50% rule had (say) been in place from the beginning, it would have made the whole thing much less profitable, and probably resulted in many fewer attempts to run the blockade at all. Whether the increase in government cargoes (per run) in that case would have made up for that overall decrease in trips, I’m not sure.
 

jackt62

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#11
I'll just add my agreement to all the posts that acknowledge the importance of the blockade runners. Even though the most important port, New Orleans, was closed to the Confederacy early on, imports managed to get through the Union blockade to in particular, Wilmington and Mobile. Once those two ports were closed in the late stage of the war, the game was over.
 

jackt62

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#12
Private merchants and shipping companies, some with links to or branches in the UK, saw the profitability of blockade running and financed and built the ships and arranged for cargo. As long as private enterprise saw a way to make money, the blockade would continue to be breached. It was not the blockade that ultimately doomed that critical trade, but Union military action to close off the ports of entry.
 
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#14
The 50% cargo rule didn’t come into effect until early 1864, by which time it was a case of too little, too late. Right to the end of the war, private runners (which were the vast majority of them) continued carrying small-bulk, high-value civilian goods into the ports that remained open. I’m not sure it ever would’ve been otherwise, though, because it was the high profit return on those sorts of cargoes that provided the incentive for private runners to make the attempt at all.

If the 50% rule had (say) been in place from the beginning, it would have made the whole thing much less profitable, and probably resulted in many fewer attempts to run the blockade at all. Whether the increase in government cargoes (per run) in that case would have made up for that overall decrease in trips, I’m not sure.
Tend to agree with you. Because of their excellent record for running the blockade, the CS Govt should have invested more in their own runners. The govt could have spent their money from such runs in a planned and coordinated manner. NC had a state ship running which helped them keep their state troops better equipped and supplied. One thing we haven't mentioned was the problem of getting the cotton to the runner ports and the importance steam cotton presses. Pressed cotton doubled the density of the bale, raised the weight and was more valuable per unit volume. In 1860 it was estimated that western pressed bales weighed an average of 264 pounds. This is why some of the gulf's smaller fast sailing runners got into the trade with small cargoes from smaller ports but still made money because of the smaller crews and lower overheads. They were also cheaper to buy back from the Union prize courts (providing that the blockader skipper hadn't just burned to scuttled them after removing the cotton because they didn't want to lose the men in the prize crew).
 
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#16
But...but...but...the British were neutral!:smile:
Define neutral. The British had enough trouble with a number of small wars and rebellions in their empire. Their diplomats drew the line at the risk of big wars. If there was to be a war with Britain, then they would have to initiate operations. The Federal government hadn't the slightest interest in dealing with a first class naval foe and the British hadn't the slightest interest in risking Canada and their West Indies possessions. It looked to both governments as a lose/lose proposition. Its also interesting to consider what percentage of trade to the US/Confederacy came through northern ports. In particular manufactured goods and clothing, blankets, etc. British insurance companies had to smile at the number of US merchant ships adopting British registry in case they crossed paths with a Confederate cruiser.
 
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#17
But...but...but...the British were neutral!:smile:
How were the British not neutral. They sold weapons and what ever else they had to both sides and imported what ever they could with both sides. The British even allowed the Union Army to recruit on their soil . My thread " Did the Union Army recruit overseas" covers that topic.
Leftyhunter
 
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#18
Define neutral. The British had enough trouble with a number of small wars and rebellions in their empire. Their diplomats drew the line at the risk of big wars. If there was to be a war with Britain, then they would have to initiate operations. The Federal government hadn't the slightest interest in dealing with a first class naval foe and the British hadn't the slightest interest in risking Canada and their West Indies possessions. It looked to both governments as a lose/lose proposition. Its also interesting to consider what percentage of trade to the US/Confederacy came through northern ports. In particular manufactured goods and clothing, blankets, etc. British insurance companies had to smile at the number of US merchant ships adopting British registry in case they crossed paths with a Confederate cruiser.
I was being sarcastic. If you don't believe the British were neutral, ask @leftyhunter.

I'm pretty sure Abraham Lincoln said, "one war at a time." He meant he wasn't interested in fighting the South and the British at the same time.

The British sold nearly a million arms (guns) to the South and built the Confederacy's ships. It was not a lose/lose proposition to them, but a win/win situation.

A divided America would mean access to markets (the North) and access to raw materials (the South).

Britain's vital interest was with the South winning the War. Abolitionists, British and American, be danged.
 
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#19
I was being sarcastic. If you don't believe the British were neutral, ask @leftyhunter.

I'm pretty sure Abraham Lincoln said, "one war at a time." He meant he wasn't interested in fighting the South and the British at the same time.

The British sold nearly a million arms (guns) to the South and built the Confederacy's ships. It was not a lose/lose proposition to them, but a win/win situation.

A divided America would mean access to markets (the North) and access to raw materials (the South).

Britain's vital interest was with the South winning the War. Abolitionists, British and American, be danged.
That doesn't make sense. The British sold weapons to both sides.
Leftyhunter
 
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#20
That doesn't make sense. The British sold weapons to both sides.
Leftyhunter
Right, they were neutral. :smile:

The truth is, they sold way more arms to the South than they ever did to the North.

As we have seen before, a cotton bale was a lot more exciting than principle.
 

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