Proclaiming a Blockade (vs. closing the ports)

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Mark F. Jenkins

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This is a thread that's been attempted before, but unfortunately collapsed in a pile of ad hominem arguments and other questionable logic.

Here's the basic contention:

Given that the Lincoln administration wanted to close off the seceding states from exterior resources and assistance, there were two known methods of doing so:

1) Port closure. The simpler and less-expensive of the options; the country simply declares one or more ports to be closed to entry. This is administered under municipal/domestic law and litigated in the usual court system of the country. It does not require military presence to be enforceable, but to be practicable it requires a civil/enforcement presence in the ports in question.

2) Blockade. The more elaborate and expensive of the options. Under certain conditions accepted in international law and diplomacy, a country stations warships off the coast of another country to prevent ingress and egress. This is a creature of international law and the law of war and is by definition a military action; related legal challenges are mounted in special-purpose courts ("prize courts") and among the diplomatic representatives of the countries affected.

Because blockade presupposes an armed conflict, and a war presupposes an enemy, the way the treaties were written presumed another country, generally called a "belligerent" or similar term. Under the mid-19th century understanding of international law and the law of war, belligerency conferred a certain set of accepted rights and standards upon the belligerent, as well as a sort of de facto legitimacy. This conferred legitimacy was what Lincoln's cabinet would have vastly preferred to avoid, because it was logically inconsistent with the stance that the seceding states had not left the Union to form a separate country. Significantly, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles argued strongly for port closure and against blockade, based on this very conviction that the 'states in revolt' were not a separate country and therefore international law was inapplicable. (It also would have been considerably easier on the Navy to not have to mount a massive blockade of a 3,500-mile coastline.) (Much of what's said in many places about the closure/blockade debate is derived from Welles' recollections, and is filtered through his opinions.)

The Catch-22 here is that, since port closure is domestic and does not apply internationally, it doesn't apply to any other nations. In order to conform to a port closure, those other nations would have to voluntarily comply. In Britain and France's case, they saw this as a naked attempt to enlist their assistance against the rebellion, and therefore a violation of their own declared neutrality. (Seward tried to do this as well with offering to sign the 1856 Treaty of Paris outlawing privateering, which would have required France and Britain to help catch Confederate privateers. They didn't want to get involved at all in that, either.)

Blockade was the sole acceptable option from Britain's and France's standpoints. There was an established body of law to define and support it and well-understood customs and procedures. This was not a decision the U.S. could make unilaterally without significantly harming its relations with the other powers; as such, Seward was a strong proponent of blockade as opposed to port closure (and came in for a good deal of pen-lashing in Welles' writings as a result).

Essentially, it was the pragmatic reality of the situation that swung the decision toward blockade from port closure. The Lincoln administration had to face up to the fact that to maintain ideological purity in the stance of 'no separate country' that they would incur the wrath and opposition of other nations, and thereby make that 'separate country' all the more likely to exist.

It was not a decision taken lightly at all, nor an uninformed one. Even still, Lincoln tried to have it both ways by the wording of his blockade proclamation, justifying it in terms of collection of customs duties, but that was ignored by Britain and France.
 

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Jefferson Davis' call on April 17 for privateers to act on behalf of the Confederacy in attacking U.S. shipping must have been seen as a godsend to the Lincoln administration. Authorizing privateers was an explicit war act (and tantamount to piracy under the 1856 Treaty of Paris), and effectively gave Lincoln a free hand to declare a blockade on April 19.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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There was some interesting byplay between the U.S. and Britain regarding the Treaty of Paris when Seward offered to sign it 'with no reservations.' Prior to the war, the U.S. had stated it would only sign it with a provision that they would not be bound by the no-privateers rule, to which Britain basically said, "thanks, but no thanks." After the war started, Seward offered to sign it without the provision, to which Britain hastily said, "thanks, but no thanks; but you can sign it WITH the provision," realizing they'd have to hunt Confederate privateers for the U.S. if they accepted.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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(Seward was in a spot concerning the Confederacy. He had to deal with what in cold reality was a separate government with its own ministers, armed forces, etc., without acknowledging the fact. His solution in many cases was a tactic that has been named "the averted glance," in that he would "officially" refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Confederacy in international relations, but "unofficially" deal with them pragmatically.)
 

John Winn

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The blockade issue was another case of playing both sides of the coin legally. Lincoln didn't want to recognize the Confederacy as a belligerent but at the same time acted as if they were. As to privateers, they were legally recognized as pirates by the Supremes in 1861 but it was found impolitic to actually pursue that legal path just as Confederates were not prosecuted as traitors. I think it akin to saying that those living in the Confederacy were still citizens of the United States while also treating them differently when that was legally inconvenient. War or insurrection ? Why, both they said !

They did what was expedient. It's all part of the debate about Lincoln's actions being constitutional and his tarring as a dictator (albeit a benevolent one). Legally, it all got rationalized in an ends justify the means sort of way. It was do what they had to do or lose the country (as they saw it). A blockade was the easiest thing they could do at the start of the war/rebellion/insurrection. So they did.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Expediency is an excellent term.

Lincoln & Co. were faced with an unusual, possibly unique, set of circumstances, to which existing laws and customs didn't apply so well.


Another aspect here relates to a bit of diplomatic judo vs. Britain. The British were the world's foremost practitioners of blockade, before and after, and precedents set in the war would be applied to their own conduct later. It was not in their national interest to be too rigid about what the blockade could or could not do, lest it come back to hamper their own operations in the future...
 
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BillO

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Thanks and a question. On the differences between declaring a Port Closure versus a Blockade aren't they both actually voluntary on the part of the neutral countries? If England had sent a fleet into a closed port or a blockaded port wouldn't the results have been the same?
 

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Thanks and a question. On the differences between declaring a Port Closure versus a Blockade aren't they both actually voluntary on the part of the neutral countries? If England had sent a fleet into a closed port or a blockaded port wouldn't the results have been the same?
I was just getting ready to post something similar. Is a nation not allowed to close some - or for that matter all - of its ports to commerce if it chooses? Suppose Britain for some reason decided to close the port of Plymouth - do foreign ships have a right go in anyway, in defiance of the British government? Was there some international law that precluded a government from saying "this area of our country is in rebellion and commerce thereto is prohibited until the situation is resolved"?
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Yes, those would both be an active act of war on Britain's part.

But British merchant vessels were not required to follow American laws, only British and international law. A port closure would have been administered under American law, so a hypothetical British merchant vessel would have been arrested and prosecuted in an American municipal court, which the British were not prepared to accept, being a slight to British sovereignty; the alternative forced on the British in that case would have been to order their own vessels to obey an American law, which was not considered to be neutral behavior-- the British would be in effect obeying an American "blockade" of their own accord, with no American vessels needing to be present. It would be, in short, a "paper blockade."

There's also the matter of how the U.S. was going to have any enforcement personnel in the closed harbor.

Blockade, on the other hand, safeguarded the rights of neutrals in a way that was internationally accepted. U.S. vessels had the internationally-recognized right to stop and search vessels under neutral flags, provided they followed the legal procedures in doing so. (The actual technical fault of Wilkes stopping the Trent was not that he stopped and searched the vessel, which he had a legal right to do, but that he forcibly removed Mason and Slidell without submitting to due process in a legal proceeding. The bluster between Britain and the U.S. was actually about more than just that, but that was the formal legal principle involved. Stopping and searching other vessels had been a sore point between the U.S. and Britain for decades, of course.)

In the larger sense of "what does it matter," it was what Britain insisted upon (if you're going to blockade, really blockade, and put your ships out there and don't try to make us do it for you); and in the interests of keeping the war contained and winnable, Lincoln had little choice.
 
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BillO

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So the bellerigent status of the south was a sop to the Brits? Yes, I'm kinda slow and no, I'm not a lawyer.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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An unwillingly-extracted sop, but essentially, yes.

(Gideon Welles would doubtless have greatly preferred not to have to put a squadron off every potential port on the Confederate coastline, but if it meant avoiding war with Britain, it was what had to be done.)
 

Carronade

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""But British merchant vessels were not required to follow American laws, only British and international law.""

Not even with regard to entering American ports? They certainly had to comply with American law with regard to customs, quarantine, pilotage, and the like. Are you actually saying that if the American (or French, or Spanish, or....) government prohibits ships from entering one of its ports, a British merchant ship can just go in anyway?

""(Gideon Welles would doubtless have greatly preferred not to have to put a squadron off every potential port on the Confederate coastline, but if it meant avoiding war with Britain, it was what had to be done.)""

Seems to me they'd have to do this either way; neither neutrals nor rebels are going to respect a proclamation without enforcement. Unless you want the rebels to have free access to the world market - not to mention sending their own warships out - you need the navy on station.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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For their part, Britain did not look too closely at the ships the Union had out there on the blockade... which was probably fortunate for the U.S., as the value of a number of them as "warships" was certainly open to question, at least towards the beginning of the war.

Expired Image Removed

(By the way, I interjected this image as a bit of levity. It's a bit unfair to the Cambridge and Gemsbok, which were actually highly effective blockaders...)
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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""But British merchant vessels were not required to follow American laws, only British and international law.""

Not even with regard to entering American ports? They certainly had to comply with American law with regard to customs, quarantine, pilotage, and the like. Are you actually saying that if the American (or French, or Spanish, or....) government prohibits ships from entering one of its ports, a British merchant ship can just go in anyway?
I probably didn't phrase it as well as I might have. What I'm trying to drive at is, given an infraction, where the legal proceeding would take place and under what rules: purely American domestic law, British law, or international law, and what procedures would be followed in case of a conflict among the laws.

""(Gideon Welles would doubtless have greatly preferred not to have to put a squadron off every potential port on the Confederate coastline, but if it meant avoiding war with Britain, it was what had to be done.)""

Seems to me they'd have to do this either way; neither neutrals nor rebels are going to respect a proclamation without enforcement. Unless you want the rebels to have free access to the world market - not to mention sending their own warships out - you need the navy on station.
In reality, yes. That goes back to the problem of a U.S. government representative in the "closed" port-- an obvious impossibility, so you need to put him on a ship off the coast. At that point, it's starting to look like a blockade without going through the legal requirements to actually mount a blockade.

Britain felt free to apply the screws a little bit here, as there had been a long history of American resistance to British blockade attempts-- without a good reason, they weren't going to let the U.S. get away with anything that the Yanks hadn't let the British get away with.
 

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For their part, Britain did not look too closely at the ships the Union had out there on the blockade... which was probably fortunate for the U.S., as the value of a number of them as "warships" was certainly open to question, at least towards the beginning of the war.

Expired Image Removed
Kind of like the armed merchant cruisers, armed boarding steamers, ocean boarding vessels, etc. that the RN used to enforce its blockades in both World Wars?
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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Pretty much. The RN would have had a tougher time if the USN was hostile to those blockades.

Basically, the blockade has to be mounted in such a way that everyone (other than the country being blockaded) can agree to live with.
 

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The status of the "Station ships" in CS ports is interesting. At least three nations had station or visiting warships in Southern ports, Britain, France, and Austria- Hungary, with a Prussian occasionally for good measure.
The officers and crews of the British ships were not supposed to "fraternise" (modern term) with their CSN counterparts. These vessels could and did pass in and out of the blockade freely.
 
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I know this is an old thread but I thought this information might be interesting.

The blockade of Beaufort, North Carolina, Port Royal, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana was ended on May 12, 1862, with Proclamation 89; of Alexandria, Virginia on September 24, 1863 by Proclamation 105; of Brownsville, Texas on Feb. 18, 1864 with Proclamation 110; and of Norfolk, Virginia, Fernandina and Pensacola, Florida with Proclamation 120 issued November 19, 1864.

On April 11, 1865 Lincoln issued as one of his final official acts, Proclamation 126, closing many of the ports in the Southern states to all trade.
 
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USS ALASKA

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... and of Norfolk, Virginia, Fernandina and Pensacola, Florida with Proclamation 120 issued November 19, 1864.
Why was the blockade of Norfolk continued until Nov 1864 when the city was re-occupied by the North in May of 1862?

Was it because Norfolk was held under Martial Law? Was New Orleans kept under Martial Law after it was occupied by the North?

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USS ALASKA
 
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Why was the blockade of Norfolk continued until Nov 1864 when the city was re-occupied by the North in May of 1862?

Was it because Norfolk was held under Martial Law? Was New Orleans kept under Martial Law after it was occupied by the North?

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USS ALASKA
Excellent questions. I have no idea why the blockade was ended in New Orleans on May 12, 1862 when the city was under martial law for the duration of the war yet continued in Norfolk when it was also under martial law until the war's end. Maybe @Mark F. Jenkins or @AndyHall can weigh in on this.
 
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