The Blockade: Waste or War-Winner?

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Mark F. Jenkins

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Sparked by a comment in http://civilwartalk.com/threads/why-the-south-lost.74029/ ...

I think it's fair to say that the effectiveness of the Union blockade has been debated since its very inception (and in fact, even earlier than that), so there are plenty of contrasting viewpoints.

To begin with, there was nothing particularly new nor revolutionary about a blockade. It was what navies did during a major land war, and the British were blockade's foremost practitioners. The US Navy had practical experience with blockades, both by being the blockadee (in the Revolution and War of 1812) and the blockader (in the Mexican War). Steamers both increased the effectiveness of the blockade (in terms of mobility) and added to its logistical complexity (in terms of coal supply).

Blockade had several different (although not necessarily mutually exclusive) forms according to the goals being supported. First and most importantly, they served to contain enemy naval activity, preventing warships from leaving port, preventing others from gaining access to ports and repair/replenishment, and generally hampering the enemy fleet. This sort of blockade could be close or distant; in a close blockade, the blockading vessels are right off the coast or harbor, while in a distant blockade (think of the Royal Navy containing the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea in World War I), the blockaders are based in a convenient location to intercept inbound or outbound enemy ships.

Second, they served to interdict enemy supply and commerce. This was not an automatic principal feature of a blockade; it served relatively little purpose in Europe, for example, but could be very effective when the coast being blockaded had no good source of internal or overland supply and communications.

Third, they served a diplomatic and international legal function. A formally-declared blockade gave certain rights and responsibilities to the blockading power, including a recognized right to stop and search neutral shipping on the high seas, and the right (and responsibility) to detain/impound suspect vessels and cargoes and submit them to a court's jurisdiction for determination of whether the ship and cargo should be released to their owner or seized in the name of the government.

So, when interpreting the effectiveness of the Union blockade, these goals and functions must be kept in mind. In the first case, there is no question of the blockade's effectiveness. Confederate naval forces were sharply restricted in their movements, privateering was virtually exterminated, and Confederate high seas cruisers were usually unable to access Southern harbors for repair and resupply (a notable exception being the CSS Florida at Mobile).

Likewise, in the third particular, the blockade was of undoubted effectiveness. Union warships demanded and received their right of search and seizure very frequently, and (despite some infractions and chafing all around), it was performed without sparking a foreign war. (This right of search was the ultimate reason for declaring a blockade rather than a closure of ports, as port closure was not internationally recognized as allowing the search of neutrals.)

Most of the debate about the blockade's effectiveness centers around the second element, the interdiction of supply and commerce. This is very tricky to determine and there is no clearly accepted answer. Craig L. Symonds highlighted the difficulty very succinctly when he stated, "Eighty percent of attempts to run the blockade were successful. Eighty percent of blockade runners were caught. Both of these figures are true statements." The apparent contradiction comes from the fact that a single runner could make multiple attempts before being caught (or not), and in the definition of what constituted a "successful attempt;" if a coastal schooner made it from Bull's Bay, South Carolina to Brunswick, Georgia, with a cargo of fish and salt, it was a successful attempt. Simple statistics of successful runs and runners caught tell only a fraction of the story.

The general consensus of historians appears to be this: The Confederacy had a relatively inadequate internal communications system (roads and railroads) and was relatively more dependent on waterborne communications along the coasts and rivers than were the Northern states. This was a weakness that could be multiplied and exploited by restricting coastal and riverine transportation. It is unquestioned that the Confederacy's rail network was in a shambles by the end of the war, and a lot of the damage was not from raiding and military action, but from simple overuse and lack of effective upkeep. The blockade was part of the reason. The Confederacy also had difficulty securing credit and financing overseas, and while this did not cause an immediate cessation of hostilities, it was increasingly hampering as the war continued. The constriction of cotton exports was a big part of the reason.

It is often cited that the Confederacy lost no major battle through lack of military supplies, and this does appear to be true on the face of it. In this sense, it could be said that the blockade was not successful in preventing munitions (principally small arms) from entering the Confederacy. But when looking at the big picture, it is difficult to conclude that the Union blockade as a whole was ineffective. The Union could have won the war without the blockade, but it would likely have been a longer, more protracted struggle, with consequently increased chances of foreign recognition and war weariness in the North; and again, it was what navies did in wartime, so I find it hard to believe that anyone, North or South, believed there wouldn't be a blockade.
 

donna

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An excellent post. In Mr Andrew Smith's book, "Starving The South". He has chapter on the Union Blockade. At end of chapter he writes: "The blockade may not have stopped all goods from entering the Confederacy, but it greatly reduced the amount of large bulky items, such as foodstuffs, railroad equipment, and raw materials, and jacked up the cost of all imported goods. Over time, the blockade contributed to the South's demoralization and its ultimate defeat. No one can seriously believe that the North could have won the war without the blockade."
 
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5fish

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Silliness, The Blockade put fear into the insurance companies so they would not insure any big freighters going to southern ports, even before the union was able to enforce the blockade. With no big freighters, the South infrastructures began to fail because the south could not make things like Locomotives, Box cars and similar large items once they broke down they could not be replace or repaired only used for spare parts. What industry they had began to collapse due to lack of spare parts or greatly reduced their productivity....Only the small ships could run the blockade so only small items could be delivered like ammunition, canon parts, pig iron, and so forth.

The blockade was more them useful. It also added to the south war weariness because of the lack of consumer goods and luxury items...
 

cash

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The blockade was certainly a factor, but I maintain it wasn't decisive. As I said previously, no confederate army lost a battle due to lack of supplies, and the confederacy was defeated on the battlefield. Would the Federals have won without a blockade? We'll never know for sure, since it didn't happen.
 

rhp6033

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One of the items which the south did not receive in adequate supply was medicine. Almost as much as small-arms or bullets, this had an effect on decreasing the fighting capability of the South.
 
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AndyHall

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A war-winner, with some caveats -- the most important of which is that, like all such questions, you cannot disentangle the blockade from all the rest, to accurately measure how things would have played out otherwise.

While the Confederacy may not have lost a specific battle due to last of supplies, as Cash suggests, there's no question that hardships and shortages caused by the blockade shaped Confederate strategy, and put some serious limitations on their own operational options. While one cannot say the blockade sank the Confederacy directly, it absolutely was a weight that helped pull it under.

It should also be said that Gideon Welles & Co. had one great ally in making the blockade effective, and that was the Confederacy itself.* The Confederacy initially gambled on profit and patriotism to induce blockade runners, but found that merchants were more interested in bringing in high-value civilian, "luxury" items than essentials needed for the war. Even by the end of the conflict, the Confederacy only required that half of incoming cargoes be on government manifests, and all manner of civilian goods were still coming in on nearly every runner that made a Confederate port. (See this listing of a wholesale auction of civilian goods brought into Galveston on the runner Banshee (II), from February 1865.) The Confederacy recognized this near the end and commissioned several big, government-owned runners commanded by naval officers, like Maffitt, but that was too little, too late to make much of a difference.

* Edited to add: an element in this is that the Confederacy had relatively little of a merchant marine of its own, the big operators on Southern routes (Morgan, Vanderbilt, etc.) being based in the North, along with most of the shipbuilding capability. As a result, blockade running was overwhelmingly a foreign enterprise, largely on British bottoms, on British investments, and with British officers and crews. So for the large majority of those involved in one way or another in running the blockade, what was actually good for the Confederate cause came a distant second in importance.

____________

For those near Galveston, this Sunday at 2 p.m., I’ll be giving a talk, “For-Profit Patriots: Blockade Runners of the Texas Coast.” There will be particular emphasis on two vessels wrecked here in 1865, Will o’ the Wisp and Denbigh. The official blurb:

In the closing months of the Civil War, long, low blockade runners slipped in and out of Texas ports, racing both to keep the Confederacy supplied, and to generate dramatic profits for their owners. It was a risky, high-stakes gamble that was the foundation for many fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost 150 years later, archaeologists and historians have begun to uncover the stories of these remarkable vessels. The discovery of the paddle steamer Denbigh in 1997, and of a wreck believed to be the famous Will o’ the Wisp in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, open the door to a long-overlooked story of patriotism, avarice and daring during those last desperate months of the conflict.

Tickets are $10 for Galveston Historical Foundation members and $12 for non-members. The presentation will be at Menard Hall, 33rd Street and Avenue O in Galveston. Reservations may be made with Jami Durham at GHF at 409-765-3409.

[/shameless self-promotion]
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Silliness, The Blockade put fear into the insurance companies so they would not insure any big freighters going to southern ports, even before the union was able to enforce the blockade.
Actually, I'd tend to think that Queen Victoria's proclamation of neutrality and direction to her subjects not to violate a legally-constituted blockade had more direct effect than fear... but yes, there was undoubtedly a Lloyd's of London effect.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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The Confederacy recognized this near the end and commissioned several big, government-owned runners commanded by naval officers, like Maffitt, but that was too little, to late to make much of a difference.
Several states got into the act also, notably North Carolina, which owned a number of successful runners, the most famous probably being the A.D. Vance (or Advance). ( http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/h53000/h53958.jpg ) (The photo, taken in the Bahamas in 1863, shows her unusually high in the water; so she's probably between unloading outbound and loading inbound cargoes.)

I've cited it many times, but it bears repeating: the book to have on steam blockade runners is Dr. Stephen R. Wise's Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (University of South Carolina, 1991). :thumbsup:
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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(Side note: The sketchy treatments of the blockade where it's treated as some creation of Winfield Scott and his "Anaconda Plan" irritate me. Though it's very relevant to note Scott's experiences in the Mexican War: blockade the coast and utilize naval movement to deliver an army to where it has a relatively short distance to march overland to the enemy's center of gravity.)
 

KeyserSoze

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One of the items which the south did not receive in adequate supply was medicine. Almost as much as small-arms or bullets, this had an effect on decreasing the fighting capability of the South.
What kinds of medicines are you talking about?
 

rhp6033

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What kinds of medicines are you talking about?
Sorry, I probably shouldn't have made this post until I had a chance to find the references in my library, which I'm nowhere near. This falls into the general category of "I read about this somewhere, some time ago" category in my brain, which is getting harder and harder to access as the arteries harden. If I have the time, I'll try to locate the source for more detail - but I may not be able to do so.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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For those near Galveston, this Sunday at 2 p.m., I’ll be giving a talk, “For-Profit Patriots: Blockade Runners of the Texas Coast.” There will be particular emphasis on two vessels wrecked here in 1865, Will o’ the Wisp and Denbigh. [/shameless self-promotion]
BTW, saw this mentioned on the Civil War Navies message board as well. Too bad I'm nowhere near Galveston! :thumbsdown:
 

AndyHall

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BTW, saw this mentioned on the Civil War Navies message board as well. Too bad I'm nowhere near Galveston! :thumbsdown:
I suspect you know how the war ends, but I'm not posting spoilers here!

The previous talk in this series was recorded and (I understand) will be online soon, and I'm guessing something similar will happen here. I'll let folks know.
 

rhp6033

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Sorry, I probably shouldn't have made this post until I had a chance to find the references in my library, which I'm nowhere near. This falls into the general category of "I read about this somewhere, some time ago" category in my brain, which is getting harder and harder to access as the arteries harden. If I have the time, I'll try to locate the source for more detail - but I may not be able to do so.
This isn't the source I was thinking of, but it might give us a start:

"Instructions were given that, as there were only two sources of supply, capture and blockade running, importance was to be given to securing first, arms and ammunition; second, clothing, including boots, shoes, and hats; third, drugs and chemicals, such as were most pressingly needed, as quinine, chloroform, ether, opium, morphine, rhubarb, etc. .....​

At the outset of the struggle the question of drugs and medicines was the third in importance, and the druggists of the South had either to manufacture what they could from native barks and leaves and herbs and roots, or purchase at the Southern ports such supplies as the blockade runners brought in that were not intended for the government. In most cases these cargoes were offered at auction. This was a custom at Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, Pensacola, Savannah, and Wilmington....."​

Lots more in the essay:

Drug Conditions in the Civil War: http://www.civilwarhome.com/drugsshsp.htm
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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BTW, I'm trying to find a counterpart to Browning's studies of the North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons, and Buker's Blockaders, Contrabands, and Refugees, only about the West Coast Blockading Squadron along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. I had high hopes for Underwood's Waters of Discord, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for. Any suggestions?
 

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BTW, I'm trying to find a counterpart to Browning's studies of the North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons, and Buker's Blockaders, Contrabands, and Refugees, only about the West Coast Blockading Squadron along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. I had high hopes for Underwood's Waters of Discord, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for. Any suggestions?
I like Underwood's book very much.. It's high on my list.

I had understood that Browning was planning to work his way around to a similar full-bore treatment of the WGBS, but that was several years ago.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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I like Underwood's book very much.. It's high on my list.

I had understood that Browning was planning to work his way around to a similar full-bore treatment of the WGBS, but that was several years ago.
Oh, I can wait for Browning, then.

Underwood was good, but I was looking for more of a squadron operations study like Browning; particularly since so much of the attention on the WGBS gets drawn away by Farragut's adventures up the Mississippi and at Mobile.
 
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I think the key metric would be volume of cargo moving in and out of Confederate ports, but I haven't been able to find much information. Here's one item from http://www.tcr.org/tcr/essays/CB_Blockade.pdf (p. 25):

Over all the war years, the South exported about 1,000,000 bales of cotton, roughly half of its wartime crop. In the year leading up to the war, over three million bales were exported; thus each war year carried about 10 percent of a pre-war year's export.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_blockade makes it a bit worse:

Cotton exports fell 95%, from 10 million bales in the three years prior to the war to just 500,000 bales during the blockade period.

Of course exports were the main source of funding for imports.

The essay titled The Hapless Anaconda: Union Blockade 1861-65 - which may indicate the author's predeliction :wink: - gives more information about numbers of ships getting through the blockade, but does not relate it to numbers serving the nine coastal Confederate states in peacetime, which makes the raw numbers minimally meaningful. We should also note that successful blockade runners tended to be smaller than most transatlantic merchantmen.

There are also dollar figures which IMO are even less meaningful. The blockade drove up prices for goods brought through, and the blockade runners often favored expensive luxury goods over normal bulky cargo. Also pre-war prices were in US dollars, where wartime were presumably Confederate money.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Bumping this thread because I'm reading Charleston Blockade: The Journals of John B. Marchand, U.S. Navy, 1861-1862 (ed. by Craig L. Symonds). A lot of detail about just how tough it was to set up any sort of effective blockade... Marchand relates his USS James Adger being fired on by the USS Susquehanna in the night when the latter thought the Adger was a blockade runner (Marchand drily noted that he had the Adger anchored out of range of the Susquehanna the next evening), and it seems that every likely runner the ship stops turns out to be a Northern supply ship or a runner that's already been captured and is being sailed north with a prize crew on board. All very boring and frustrating, particularly for an officer as ambitious to make a name for himself as Marchand. (He got his chance with the attempt on Secessionville, but the Army ended up letting him down...)
 
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