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How Successful were Rebel Privateers and Commerce Raiders?

Discussion in 'Civil War History - The Naval War' started by WJC, May 7, 2018.

  1. WJC

    WJC Moderator Moderator

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    Arguably the Confederacy’s maritime efforts rank among its greatest wartime successes. Starting literally from scratch, the Confederacy immediately mustered a small but effective privateer fleet that not only met with some success, but forced the early resolution of the Confederacy’s status as a legitimate belligerent. Following its privateer successes, the Confederacy’s small but formidable commerce raider fleet dealt a crushing blow to the Union merchant marine. Not only did the Confederacy successfully take or destroy hundreds of Union vessels, but it forced the Union to transfer almost 800,000 tons of shipping to foreign carriers to avoid the attacks of the Confederate surface fleet. As the war progressed, the Confederate success on the high seas drove up the cost of maritime insurance premiums making the carriage of goods for Union merchant ships even more costly.​
    <http://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/confederate-commerce-raiders-and-privateers.html>
    Let's discuss this subject.
     

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  3. jgoodguy

    jgoodguy Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Retired Moderator

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    Yet failed to affect the outcome of the war.
     
  4. leftyhunter

    leftyhunter Colonel

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    Paging @Mark F. Jenkins and @AndyHall .
    Leftyhunter
     
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  5. StephenColbert27

    StephenColbert27 First Sergeant

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    From what I know they effectively dealt a death blow to the whaling industry that had been based in Nantucket, Massachusetts. So that's pretty **** successful.
     
  6. leftyhunter

    leftyhunter Colonel

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    Good introductory article. Yes the Union Navy was arguably incompetent in not having a convoy system. I have a thread in the Naval Forum that debates if a convoy system would of worked. The concept of convoys predates the Civil War.
    For some strange reason the Union Navy did not vigorously patrol the principal U.S. Merchant Marine trade routes.
    Nor was the Union Navy bright enough to disguise to covertly arm merchant ships with hidden guns to entrap raiders. The British would do so in WW1 using"Q-ships".
    Leftyhunter
     
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  7. leftyhunter

    leftyhunter Colonel

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    Yes the raiders had some success . On the other hand they had to stand by and watch foreign flaggd vessels bring in litteraly tons of military weaponry from Western Europe. Transferring American ships to a foreign nation with a well equipped navy may be a bit costly but it does eliminate the threat posed by the Confederate Navy.
    Leftyhunter
     
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  8. Mark F. Jenkins

    Mark F. Jenkins Lt. Colonel Member of the Year

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    The privateers were almost uniformly failures. They depended on open ports to bring their captures in, and the blockade put paid to that. While the U.S. Navy did sink and capture several, for the most part they simply ensured that privateering couldn't be made to pay. Shipowners and captains that would otherwise have been privateers realized that the money was in blockade-running instead.

    The government (C.S. Navy) cruisers on commerce-destroying missions were considerably more successful. How effective their success was to the Confederate war effort is very uncertain and arguable; that several of them could be deemed successful (especially Sumter, Florida, Alabama, and Shenandoah) is largely beyond doubt. (That the war was lost doesn't mean their missions were unsuccessful; that's like arguing that Lee and Jackson 'really' lost at Chancellorsville since the war wasn't won.)

    Applying the term "privateer" to the Southern naval cruisers is largely inaccurate. It does reflect the Union position during the war that the Southern government was illegitimate, but, to take the international view, even if the Southern government was not formally recognized by anyone (and it never was), it was at least functioning like a government would. To go strictly by function and mission, they do not fit the "privateer" label, so "commerce-destroyer," "cruiser," or, if you prefer, "raider" are more apt. (Or you could use the more genteel French term of guerre de course.)
     
    Last edited: May 8, 2018
  9. WJC

    WJC Moderator Moderator

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    Thanks for your response.
    From what I understand, the USN was pretty well occupied with the blockade, though they did patrol major trade routes. Not sure how a convoy system would have helped, with diverse commercial ships going to diverse ports of call. Convoys
    had to be assembled at some rendezvous port and travel at the speed of the slowest vessel, which added significant time to their voyage. Even though, as you point out, it was an ancient system, it was not seen as effective during the period of our Civil War, and even as late as the early days of WW1.
     
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  10. Mark F. Jenkins

    Mark F. Jenkins Lt. Colonel Member of the Year

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    The Union failure to effectively combat the Confederate cruisers is one of those big question marks. In broad terms, it's understandable: the Confederacy was deliberately trying to weaken the blockade by drawing force away from it to chase their cruisers (and hurting the Union economy in the bargain); the Union refused to be diverted from its primary mission of blockade and support of forces ashore.

    Looking closer, though, the Union's response to the cruisers does not appear to have been very well thought-out. The practical conclusion, that it wasn't a high priority for the Union Navy, seems to be an unsatisfying one.
     
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  11. leftyhunter

    leftyhunter Colonel

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    True about the Union Navy being reluctant to use convoys. Even the first six months of WW2 were known as " the happy times" by German U boat crews because the U.S. Navy did not institute a convoy system.
    Hindsight being 20/20 an argument can be made that President Lincoln should of authorized Secretary of State Steward to negotiate a treaty with a major naval power that in exchange for a substantial fee all US Merchant Marine would be registered under that nations flag for say three years. If the Confederate Navy molests the above Merchant Marine in any way then the Confederate Navy has,a new enemy to deal with.
    As it was Bruce Canton (who's book I don't have with me right now) gave figures of over 50% of U.S. Merchant Marine being registered under a foreign flag. I will try to get the figures today.
    Leftyhunter
     
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  12. jgoodguy

    jgoodguy Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Retired Moderator

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    Good point. One problem I have is defining success in the context of their mission.
     
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  13. wausaubob

    wausaubob Captain

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    Both belligerents were bound by the rules of neutrality which gave a limited opportunity for armed ships to refit at foreign ports. As mark noted, since raiders could not bring their prizes into foreign ports, commerce raiding did not pay. The usual way for commerce raiders to make money was to capture a ship, bring it to a prize port, collect the ransom and split it up.
    The Confederates could not do that and ended up bonding many of the captures at sea.
    The other problem was that after 1861 the United States economy was primarily self sufficient. On top of that, the United States ports were open to British flagged ships, which transported sufficient cargoes.
    I don't think the raiders made any difference in the length or outcome of the war. There were not enough of them and information about them was not hard to obtain.
    The Confederate ironclads had a huge impact on the war and the US Navy had to plan for them.
     
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  14. leftyhunter

    leftyhunter Colonel

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    One could argue that finding a fast raider was difficult since radios,radar and aircraft were decades away.
    Leftyhunter
     
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  15. AndyHall

    AndyHall Colonel Forum Host

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    @Mark F. Jenkins says what needs saying in No. 7 above. The privateers were a bust, and the quote in the OP overstates the larger, strategic effect of the commerce raiders. They were a major headache, and (from the Confederacy's view) gave a lot of bang for the buck, but they were never going to be war-winners.
     
  16. leftyhunter

    leftyhunter Colonel

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    @Saphroneth posted some figures in another thread where it was pointed out many Union rifles had imported barrels and for the first one or two years the Union was dependent on imports of British black powder. In addition tons of other weaponry was imported from Western Europe. There is a book cited in the Lorenz thread in the firearms forum that has statistics. Approximately 200k Lorenz rifles alone was imported by the Union.
    Also any nation could ship goods to the Union although tariffs did go up.
    Union wheat imports skyrocketed to Western Europe during the Civil War.
    Leftyhunter
     
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  17. wausaubob

    wausaubob Captain

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    Could a Confederate steam powered cruiser overtake a sailing ship outfitted as a whaler, capture it, take off the crew and burn the sailing ship? Yes. Did that have a substantial affect on the United States war effort? Hard to see it, since the United States was sufficient in all war material and exported foodstuffs during the period of the war.
    Were sailing ships gradually being replaced by steamships on the transatlantic route? Were British shipyards able to undercut US shipyards? Yes. Did capital investment in the United States both foreign and domestic move away from the carrying trade as it was called and towards railroads both during and after the war? Yes.
    If the Civil War had occurred in 1787 commerce raiders would have been more of a problem if they would have sustained themselves on the Atlantic Coast. But by 1861 the United States had a railroad economy. The northern railroad network was the either the biggest or second biggest network in the world.
     
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  18. wausaubob

    wausaubob Captain

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    The commerce raiders captured a few US merchant ships. More US ships were sold to British owners and sailed under the British flag. Reads as if it was a big deal.
    Among other accomplishments, the United States navy crossed the bar of the Mississippi delta, passed two forts intended to block navigation of the river, sailed into New Orleans, and captured the largest city, primary financial center, and most important slave trading market, in the Confederacy. The capture of New Orleans was the most audacious operation of the Civil War. But it was by no means the only decisive operation of the United States navy.
    Just keep in mind proportionality.
     
  19. wausaubob

    wausaubob Captain

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    I think the CSS Albemarle created a much more serious problem.
     
  20. CSA Today

    CSA Today Colonel

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    Thanks for sharing.
     
  21. Mark F. Jenkins

    Mark F. Jenkins Lt. Colonel Member of the Year

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    The naval strategy selected by the Confederacy-- and I use "selected" hesitantly, because it seems to have been largely a foregone conclusion that they would follow this course-- was essentially the same pursued by the American Continental Navy in the Revolution and by the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812, and was very much in line with the states-rights limited-federal-establishment approach. A large standing Federal navy is inconsistent with the states-rights approach (and debates over these approaches to naval strategy reverberated throughout the first four score and seven years of the country).

    Basically, it was consistent with the Confederate ideology, and there was also the feeling that, since the U.S. had "won" the Revolution and the War of 1812, it would work again. The problem here is that the U.S. had not really won the War of 1812, particularly not on the water-- individual successes like the career of the USS Constitution notwithstanding (and, really, the successes that did occur were in large part due to the bits of large-centralized-Federal-navy that did exist). And, of course, in the Revolution, the naval war was largely fought by France... so the feeling of pursuing a "winning strategy" was illusory.

    ETA: By contrast, the Union naval approach was very much on the pattern of naval action during the Mexican War (seldom appreciated, but I think significant, since that's where the middle-to-upper management of the Union navy learned their jobs).
     

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