How important were the blockade runners?

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georgew

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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.
It seems to me that the north had its own resources in supplying long arms and most manufactured goods including ships, artillery and iron works. The British and the French were apparently willing to apply "neutral" to selling ships & other products to both Denmark and Prussia when they went to war. Both countries aspired to Empire and their commercial interests (big banks, industrial concerns) had their beginnings in the mercantile system where other nations and possessions were the basic source for supplying raw materials which the parent country turned into finished products for resale to the source nations. The movers and shakers in Britain were well aware that the south had very long odds in "winning". Imagine yourself in the diplomatic corps in London reading reports from your Consuls. They were doing business with a "country" that should have been able to easily feed its own population, but lacked the infrastructure to distribute the goods. As pointed out on this board, late in the war Wilmington became a hub for distribution of imported food for Lee's army. Take the city or cut the rail line out of the city and the deterioration of Confederate forces holding Richmond accelerated. From the Confederate viewpoint, the function of the runners changed based upon the needs of the Army. And availability of cotton to entice the private runners into taking the growing risks of the blockade began to disappear. In turn the need for Confederate government runners increased in terms of supplying military and medical goods. At some point the wealthy class capable of purchasing civilian goods at huge prices would begin to be tapped out unless they had banked funds in Britain or France to draw upon. Also production of their basic goods began to dry up as labor forces deteriorated and the means for transporting cotton to the declining number of runner ports either disappeared or were monopolized by military necessity.
 

leftyhunter

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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.
You forgot the Laird Ram Affair. Yes the British did sell weapons to both sides that does not however equal support for one side or the other. Nations often sell weapons to Rebels during a Civil War. I can give many examples in a PM thread. Nations will take advantage of a Civil War if they believe it is in their interest to do so.
Has mentioned the British were an early but very critical support of weapons and parts to the Union. The British allowed the Union Army to recruit on British soil.
The British were in no one's side but their own.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

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It seems to me that the north had its own resources in supplying long arms and most manufactured goods including ships, artillery and iron works. The British and the French were apparently willing to apply "neutral" to selling ships & other products to both Denmark and Prussia when they went to war. Both countries aspired to Empire and their commercial interests (big banks, industrial concerns) had their beginnings in the mercantile system where other nations and possessions were the basic source for supplying raw materials which the parent country turned into finished products for resale to the source nations. The movers and shakers in Britain were well aware that the south had very long odds in "winning". Imagine yourself in the diplomatic corps in London reading reports from your Consuls. They were doing business with a "country" that should have been able to easily feed its own population, but lacked the infrastructure to distribute the goods. As pointed out on this board, late in the war Wilmington became a hub for distribution of imported food for Lee's army. Take the city or cut the rail line out of the city and the deterioration of Confederate forces holding Richmond accelerated. From the Confederate viewpoint, the function of the runners changed based upon the needs of the Army. And availability of cotton to entice the private runners into taking the growing risks of the blockade began to disappear. In turn the need for Confederate government runners increased in terms of supplying military and medical goods. At some point the wealthy class capable of purchasing civilian goods at huge prices would begin to be tapped out unless they had banked funds in Britain or France to draw upon. Also production of their basic goods began to dry up as labor forces deteriorated and the means for transporting cotton to the declining number of runner ports either disappeared or were monopolized by military necessity.
Has @Saphroneth pointed out the US was simply incapable of supplying it's own small arms from domestic steel until late in 1862.
If the British would of imposed an arms embargo on the Union in the critical first year of the ACW the Union Army would of been crippled.
Leftyhunter
 
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Saphroneth

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Has @Saphroneth pointed out the US was simply incapable of supplying it's own small arms from domestic steel until late in 1862.
Until 1863 at least, and then only by means of industrial espionage.


The British and the French were apparently willing to apply "neutral" to selling ships & other products to both Denmark and Prussia when they went to war.
And the British were neutral in the ACW; if anything they were slightly pro-Union in terms of what they allowed. Remember that the British exerted no serious control over their merchants, but also didn't protect them; the whole idea of a blockade is that it's supposed to give you authority to stop ships, and it only counts if it's "effective" (that is, it can actually stop the ships).




To be clear on this - the blockade runners were totally vital to the Confederate war effort (they supplied pretty much all the powder the CSA used in the entire war) while the merchant ships to the Union were equally vital to the Union war effort and supplied thousands of tons of powder and saltpetre to the Union every year.

A British powder embargo means pretty much just no serious fighting in the ACW period, which means the South wins more or less by default.
 

georgew

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Has @Saphroneth pointed out the US was simply incapable of supplying it's own small arms from domestic steel until late in 1862.
If the British would of imposed an arms embargo on the Union in the critical first year of the ACW the Union Army would of been crippled.
Leftyhunter
Is it possible that the British didn't care if the north and south bled each other as it weakened both sides and made them less likely to intervene in British areas of interest?
 

Saphroneth

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Is it possible that the British didn't care if the north and south bled each other as it weakened both sides and made them less likely to intervene in British areas of interest?
The strongest argument for intervention, historically, was the bloodshed going on which was seen as excessive; however this wasn't very strong because the UK tended not to intervene full stop in a civil conflict in this time period. Basically the decision on whether or not to trade was made at the level of the individual merchant; there was more danger but also more profit in blockade running so there was a natural free-market reaction.

Given the general belief in free trade as a positive virtue in Britain in this period, it's hard to see an embargo being enacted under just about any circumstances short of actual war with one side or the other; the impacts of such a war would be so devastating that the side which got into it would lose the ACW almost no matter what time period we're talking about, unless the war was very short and led to a quick peace or it happened in the very late war.
 
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Saphroneth

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The British neutrality acts prevented certain things, like warships; this was adhered to, and the British did their best to stop warships (see: the Laird Rams). The ones which slipped through the net were the ones where the CS purchasers got lucky enough to successfully conceal the purpose of the ships.
The neutrality acts were something the British imposed on themselves and affected both sides. The British could have enacted stricter rules but it would likely have hurt the Union more than the CSA in most cases.
 
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Saphroneth

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The idea the British would like the US weakened so they didn't intervene is a tricky one - one has to ask what areas the US was likely to intervene in without a war that they would be unlikely to intervene in once weakened. The US at the time was very insular and had very little force projection capability, after all...
 

Joshism

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That most blockade runners were importing luxury goods purely for profit rather than war goods is a strike against the supposed mass patriotism of the South.
 
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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.
Good Day Sir:
Was Rhett Butler a privateer or a Government Blockade Runner?
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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Aside from Joshism's pertinent answer, Rhett Butler was most likely supposed to be a private citizen involved in blockade-running. Some writers have pointed to George Trenholm as the prototype for Butler, but it's far more likely he simply represented an archetypical character (the dashing rogue), with blockade running as the most-likely business that sort of character would be caught up in.
 

Carronade

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the blockade runners were totally vital to the Confederate war effort (they supplied pretty much all the powder the CSA used in the entire war)
From the NPS site on the Confederate powder works at Augusta, Georgia https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/Augusta/sibleymill.html:

"The Confederate Powder Works, the only permanent edifice constructed by the Confederate States of America, was in operation until April 1865. During its lifetime, the facility produced approximately 7,000 pounds of gunpowder per day for a final total of 2,750,000 pounds. The Augusta Powder Works produced enough gunpowder to fully meet the needs of the Confederate armies and still retained a surplus of 70,000 pounds at the end of the war."
 
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leftyhunter

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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.
There is a good online article on the blockade . Try googling "American Heritage " the failed blockade" Daniel Flaretty 1955.
Flaretty argues the blockade failed to stem the blockade runners.
Leftyhunter
 

Saphroneth

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From the NPS site on the Confederate powder works at Augusta, Georgia https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/Augusta/sibleymill.html:

"The Confederate Powder Works, the only permanent edifice constructed by the Confederate States of America, was in operation until April 1865. During its lifetime, the facility produced approximately 7,000 pounds of gunpowder per day for a final total of 2,750,000 pounds. The Augusta Powder Works produced enough gunpowder to fully meet the needs of the Confederate armies and still retained a surplus of 70,000 pounds at the end of the war."
It would be very impressive if they were supplying powder by means of niter beds before the middle of the war, because basic chemistry would militate against it.
Since the history of the Confederate powder works states this:


"The caves of Arkansas were rich in nitrous earth, and those of Texas still more so, and these supplied the armies west of the Mississippi river with material for gunpowder. As early as practicable I sent out instructed powder-makers to both those States, who under the directions of the military authorities, assisted to put up the necessary powder mills for the Trans-Mississippi department, which after the fall of Nashville was left necessarily to its own resources.

In the early part of November my time had become so much occupied that it was no longer practicable to attend to the production of saltpetre, and Mr. F. H. Smith was sent from Richmond by the Chief of Ordnance to relive me from its duties. At a later day a separate department was established, called the Nitre and Mining Bureau, which then had the entire charge of its production.

In the latter part of November, by the desire of General Lovell the able officer in command at New Orleans I proceeded to that city and examined the temporary arrangements for making gun powder, and also conferred with him relative to procuring a supply of saltpetre from abroad. He suggested the chartering of the steam ship Tennessee, then lying idle in the river near the city, to proceed at once to Liverpool and take in a cargo of saltpetre and return to New Orleans, or, in case of necessity, to put in at Charleston or Wilmington. The suggestion met my views, and was approved by Mr. Benjamin, then Secretary of War, but was not carried out on account of the effective blockade of the mouth of the Mississippi.

The Confederate Government, however, by its agents in Europe, purchased saltpetre which was shipped on swift blockade runners which arrived from time to time at Charleston and Wilmington. This proved to be adequate to our wants, and about two millions, seven hundred thousand pounds were thus received during the war and sent to the Confederate Powder Works. The amount obtained from the caves amounted to about three hundred thousand pounds for the same period. Thus the total amount received at the works amounted to about 1,500 tons."

- General George Rains, History of the Confederate Powder Works


What it looks like was going on is that the Confederates imported saltpetre from Europe by blockade runner and turned it into powder at the Confederate Powder Works. I've seen a reference to suggest the amount of domestically produced niter in the CSA was on the order of a couple of hundred tons from niter beds and (as per above) about 150 tons from the caves; thus about 80% or more of all CS powder was made with British niter.


I apologize for having conflated the import of powder with the import of the main constituent of powder; indeed most imports were of nitre and the powder was manufactured in America. But the effect would be much the same - almost-total shutdown of warmaking for want of powder.
 
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USS ALASKA

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Was Rhett Butler a privateer or a Government Blockade Runner?
Rhett Butler was fiction.
Aside from Joshism's pertinent answer, Rhett Butler was most likely supposed to be a private citizen involved in blockade-running. Some writers have pointed to George Trenholm as the prototype for Butler, but it's far more likely he simply represented an archetypical character (the dashing rogue), with blockade running as the most-likely business that sort of character would be caught up in.
...as Jimmy from 'South Park' would say "I mean...Come on!"...an 11 page article about Rhett by...wait for it... John Paul Jones ....

University of Richmond
UR Scholarship Repository
Law Faculty Publications School of Law
2000

Into the Wind: Rhett Butler and the Law of War at Sea
by John Paul Jones

This Article is brought to you for free and open access by the School of Law at UR Scholarship Repository. It has been accepted for inclusion in Law Faculty Publications by an authorized administrator of UR Scholarship Repository. For more information, please contact
[email protected].

As hard as Butler is to figure out-a true scoundrel or simply a great pretender?-so is it hard to morally or historically pigeonhole the blockade running captains of the Confederacy. They certainly dared a great deal in attempting to break in or out of the cordons patrolled by the U.S. Navy. While force of arms apparently took few lives, they could draw hostile fire or face armed boarders with hostile intent. They ventured out in weather and darkness that kept ordinary mariners otherwise snugly ashore. They regularly risked impoverishment, imprisonment, or both. They operated a makeshift and desperate pipeline between the Confederacy and her trading partners, through which King Cotton flowed out and the tools for making war flowed in. In this endeavor, they were absolutely vital to the rebellion, as its leaders appreciated and made clear. On the other hand, they made for themselves an enormously profitable market from the war and its deprivations, catering to human weakness at the expense of the cause they ostensibly aided. Indeed, Butler and the special merchant class he exemplifies both epitomize and indict the ideology we have come to embrace as capitalism. Mitchell's theme in Gone With the Wind-of war between old and new virtues-is personified in Rhett Butler, her blockade runner.

https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1141&context=law-faculty-publications
300

All in good fun...
USS ALASKA
 

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georgew

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The idea the British would like the US weakened so they didn't intervene is a tricky one - one has to ask what areas the US was likely to intervene in without a war that they would be unlikely to intervene in once weakened. The US at the time was very insular and had very little force projection capability, after all...
A strengthened semi-blockade of Bermuda and Nassau. The Union navy kept cruisers in the area to make intercepts just out of territorial waters. I think they took it to heart in regard to the Spanish reaction to the Blanche incident. Certainly Havana appears to have been a welcome home port for the runners with a floating dockyard for major repairs. The British did keep some serious firepower in the area and near Halifax in case another US Commander decided to show initiative against a runner in port. The fact that most of the runners had British registry didn't help. Its a bit surprising that at the end of the war the US wasn't more aggressive in trying to scoop up more of the idled runners as enemy property. They certainly went after at least one of the CS government runners which was essentially hijacked at sea on its way back to Britain.
 
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