History 269 The Civil War and Reconstruction
Navies of the Union and Confederacy

The Confederacy hardly had any navy at all when the Civil War began, since the vast majority of navy officers, their crews and vessels stayed with the Union.  Jefferson Davis, who dismissed the importance of sea power, did not expect the war to last long enough to bother with shipbuilding.  Instead, on April 17, 1961, Davis issued letters of marque to privateers.  Privateers were essentially government-authorized pirates who could capture enemy ships and take take the cargo to maritime court in a friendly or neutral port.  Generally permitted under international law until 1856, privateering was banned by the Declaration of Paris, and British and French ports were officially closed to privateers.  This did not stop privateers from taking their captures to European ports for profit; it just made the practice illegal.

Two days later, April 19, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of Confederate ports, justifying it partly on Davisís authorization of privateers.  President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward wanted to avoid doing anything that might lead to European recognition of the Confederacy, thereby acknowledging Southern independence, or provoke foreign intervention.  This made a blockade preferable to declaring Southern ports closed.

        Proclaiming a blockade was one thing, implementing it was another.  With more than 3,500 nautical miles of Southern coastline and 189 harbors, it was impossible to cover all the possible locations where cargo could be landed or offloaded.  When the war began, the United States navy consisted of ninety ships, only forty-two of which were in commission.  Less than a dozen ships were available for immediate service along the Atlantic coast (the rest were off at sea somewhere).  Nonetheless, all major Southern ports were patrolled by Union ships by the end of May, and by the end of 1864 there were 471 ships on blockade duty.  Altogether, the number of vessels in the U.S. navy grew to over 600 by 1865, and the number of naval officers and seamen grew from under 9,000 in 1861 to 118,000 in 1865. 

The Confederacy badly needed European arms and material, and Europe badly wanted Southern cotton, so blockade running was a big business throughout the war.  (Unfortunately for the Confederacy, consumer goods such as silks and liquor were more profitable than weapons or shoes for soldiers; and the Confederate Congress imposed a voluntary embargo on cotton exports in 1861, hoping to entice European intervention.)  Less than one in ten blockade runners was stopped in 1861, but as more ships were put into service by the U.S. navy, the ratio rose to one out of two by 1865.  The Confederacy imported 600,000 rifles, but perhaps more importantly, the amount of cotton exports was greatly reduced (from ten million bales in the three years prior to the war to just 500,000 during the war), contributing to the collapse of the Southern economy. 



© 2003 D. Hanson, Virginia Western Community College