Effect of the Blockade on the South During the Civil War


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By FRENCH E. CHADWICK, Rear-Admiral, United States Navy

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Rebels in Fort SumterWho shall estimate the value to the United States of the services of its navy which thus isolated the Confederacy, cut it off from communication with the outside world, and at the same time compelled it to guard every point against a raid like that which had destroyed the Capitol of the United States in 1814? Had the Confederacy instead of the United States been able to exercise dominion over the sea; had it been able to keep open its means of communication with the countries of the Old World, to send its cotton abroad and to bring back the supplies of which it stood so much in need; had it been able to blockade Portland, Boston, Newport, New York, the mouth of the Delaware, and the entrance of Chesapeake Bay; had it possessed the sea power to prevent the United States from dispatching by water into Virginia its armies and their supplies, it is not too much to say that such a reversal of conditions would have reversed the outcome of the Civil War.*

* Hilary A. Herbert, Colonel 8th Alabama Volunteers, C.S.A., ex-Secretary of the Navy, in an address, "The Sea and Sea Power as a Factor in the History of the United States," delivered at the Naval War College, August 10, 1896.

NOW that time has passed since the Civil War, we have come to a point where we can deal calmly with the philosophy of the great contest without too great disturbance of the feeling which came near to wrecking our nationality. The actualities of the struggle will be dealt with in the photographic history. Meanwhile it is not amiss in these pages to look into the causes of the South's failure to set up a nation and thus justify Gladstone's surety of Southern success in his Newcastle speech in 1862.

Confederates Lacked Adequate Supplies and Equipment

It has been, as a rule, taken for granted that the South was worsted in a fair fight in the field. This is so in a moderate degree only; for the fight was not wholly a fair one. Difference of forces in the field may be set aside, as the fight being on the ground of the weaker, any disproportion in numbers was largely annulled. But the army of the North was lavishly equipped; there was no want of arms, food, raiment, ammunition, or medical care. Everything an army could have the Federal forces had to overflowing. On the other hand the Southern army was starved of all necessaries, not to speak of the luxuries which the abounding North poured forth for its men in the field. The South was in want of many of these necessaries even in the beginning of the war; toward the end it was in want of all. It was because of this want that it had to yield. General Joseph E. Johnston, writing General Beauregard in 1868, said truly: "We, without the means of purchasing supplies of any kind, or procuring or repairing arms, could continue this war only as robbers or guerillas." The Southern army finally melted away and gave up the fight because it had arrived at the limit of human endurance through the suffering which came of the absolute want brought by the blockade.

Some few historians have recognized and made clear this fact, notably General Charles Francis Adams, himself a valiant soldier of the war. Another is Mr. John Christopher Schwab, professor of political economy in Yale University. The former, analyzing six reasons for the South's failure, given by a British sympathizer in Blackwood's Magazine for July, 1866, says: "We are . . . through elimination brought down to one factor, the blockade, as the controlling condition of Union success. In other words that success was made possible by the undisputed naval and maritime superiority of the North. Cut off from the outer world, and all exterior sources of supply, reduced to a state of inanition by the blockade, the Confederacy was pounded to death." The "pounding" was mainly done by the army; the conditions which permitted it to be effectively done were mainly established by the navy. "The blockade," says Mr. Schwab in his " Financial and Industrial History of the South during the Civil War," "constituted the most powerful tool at the command of the Federal Government in its efforts to subdue the South. The relentless and almost uniformly successful operations of the navy have been minimized in importance by the at times more brilliant achievements of the army; but we lean to ascribing to the navy the larger share in undermining the power of resistance on the part of the South. It was the blockade rather than the ravages of the army that sapped the industrial strength of the Confederacy."

The South was thus beaten by want; and not merely by force of arms. A nation of well on to 6,000,000 could never have been conquered on its own ground by even the great forces the North brought against it but for this failure of resources which made it impossible to bring its full fighting strength into the field.

We know that there was a total of 2,841,906 enlistments and reenlistments in the army and navy of the North, representing some 1,600,000 three-year enlistments; we shall, however, never know the actual forces of the South on account of the unfortunate destruction of the Southern records of enlistments and levies. That some 1,100,000 men were available is, of course, patent from the fact that the white population of the seceding states was 5,600,000, and to these were added 125,000 men, who, as sympathizers, joined the Southern army. The South fought as men have rarely fought. Its spirit was the equal of that of any race or time, and if the 325,000 Boers in South Africa could put 80,000 men into the field, the 5,600,000 of the South would have furnished an equal proportion had there been arms, clothing, food, and the rest of the many accessories which, besides men, go to make an army. The situation which prevented an accomplishment of such results as those in South Africa, and it was impossible in the circumstances that they could be, was the result of the blockade of the Southern coast, a force the South was powerless to resist.

What has been said shows how clear was the role of the navy. The strategic situation was of the simplest; to deprive the South of its intercourse with Europe and in addition to cut the Confederacy in twain through the control of the Mississippi. The latter, gained largely by the battles of Farragut, Porter, Foote, and Davis, was but a part of the great scheme of blockade, as it cut off the supply of food from Texas and the shipments of material which entered that State by way of Matamoras. The question of the military control of Texas could be left aside so long as its communications were cut, for in any case the State would finally have to yield with the rest of the Confederacy. The many thousand troops which would have been an invaluable reinforcement to the Southern armies in the East were to remain west of the Mississippi and were to have no influence in the future events.

Defenses around Mobile

Defense of Mobile Alabama at the Start of the Civil War

The determination to attempt by force to reinstate the Federal authority over a vast territory, eight hundred miles from north to south and seventeen hundred from east to west, defended by such forces as mentioned, was truly a gigantic proposition, to be measured somewhat by the effort put forth by Great Britain to subdue the comparatively very small forces of the South African republic. It was as far from Washington to Atlanta (which may be considered as the heart of the Confederacy) as from London to Vienna. The frontier of the Confederacy, along which operations were to begin, was fifteen hundred miles in length. Within the Confederacy were railways which connected Chattanooga with Lynchburg in Virginia, on the east and with Memphis, on the Mississippi, on the west; two north and south lines ran, the one to New Orleans, the other to Mobile; Atlanta connected with Chattanooga; Mobile and Savannah were in touch with Richmond through the coast line which passed through Wilmington and Charleston. No part of the South, east of the Mississippi, was very distant from railway transportation, which for a long period the South carried on excepting in that portion which ran from Lynch-burg to Chattanooga through the eastern part of Tennessee, where the population was in the main sympathetic with the Union.

Thus the South had the great advantage, which it held for several years, of holding and operating on interior lines. Its communications were held intact, whereas those of the Federals, as in the case of Grant's advance by way of the Wilderness, were often in danger. It was not until Sherman made his great march to the sea across Georgia, a march which Colonel Henderson, the noted English writer on strategy, says " would have been impossible had not a Federal fleet been ready to receive him when he reached the Atlantic," that the South felt its communications hopelessly involved.

To say that at the outset there was any broad and well-considered strategic plan at Washington for army action, would be an error. There was no such thing as a general staff, no central organization to do the planning of campaigns, such as now exists. The commanders of Eastern and Western armies often went their own gait without any effective coordination. It was not until Grant practically came to supreme military command that complete coordination was possible.

Four Unionist objectives, however, were clear. The greatly disaffected border states which had not joined the Confederacy must be secured and the loyal parts of Virginia and Tennessee defended; the southern ports blockaded; the great river which divided the Confederacy into an east and west brought under Federal control, and the army which defended Richmond overcome. At the end of two years all but the last of these objectives had been secured, but it was nearly two years more before the gallant Army of Northern Virginia succumbed through the general misery wrought in the Confederacy by the sealing of its ports and the consequent inability of the Southerners to hold their own against the ever increasing, well-fed and well-supplied forces of the North. To quote again the able Englishman just mentioned, " Judicious indeed was the policy which, at the very outset of the war, brought the tremendous pressure of the sea power to bear against the South, and had her statesmen possessed the knowledge of what that pressure meant, they must have realized that Abraham Lincoln was no ordinary foe. In forcing the Confederates to become the aggressors, and to fire on the national ensign, he had created a united North; in establishing a blockade of their coasts he brought into play a force which, like the mills of God, 'grinds slowly, but grinds exceedingly small.' " It was the command of the sea which finally told and made certain the success of the army and the reuniting of the States.

[To the discussion presented above by Admiral Chadwick may be added the following expression of opinion by one of the foremost military students of modern Europe : "The cooperation of the United States navy with their army in producing a decisive effect upon the whole character of the military operations is akin to what happens with us in nearly every war in which we engage. An English general has almost always to make his calculations strictly in accordance with what the navy can do for him. The operations by which the Federal navy, in conjunction with the army, split the Confederacy in two and severed the East from the West, must always, therefore, have for him a profound interest and 'importance. The great strategical results obtained by this concentration of military and naval power, which were as remarkable as the circumstances under which the successes were gained, deserve our closest study."—Field-Marshal, the Right Honorable Viscount Wolseley.—EDITORS.]

Confederate Flag

Confederate Flag Over Fort Sumter

Fort Barrancas

Fort Barrancas

Blockade Runner

Blockade Runner

Rebel Camp

Life in a Rebel Camp


Enlistment at Natchez and Baton Rouge

Defense of Mobile

Defense of Mobile, Alabama

Confederates at Shiloh

Confederate Soldiers at Shiloh

Mississippi Fighting Ninth

Mississippi Fighting Ninth

Bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1863

Bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1863

Bombardment of Fort Sumter

Bombardment of Fort Sumter





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