Civil War Navy and Naval
of the American Civil War Navy
American Civil War Navy
US Naval Warfare History
It was an unorthodox and
often wild naval war, that of the rebellion. The Civil War was waged at sea with more massed violence and with more diversity
of ships and weaponry than any previous, sustained naval action. It was pressed with at least the same vigor and passion as
on land, and with considerably more improvisation.
Ferryboats were turned by edict into men-o'-war. China
and upholstered furniture were trundled off ocean liners as they were converted into warships. To compensate for a lack of
naval guns, army field pieces were snatched from forts and wheeled onto tarred deckings, then lashed down.
Iron or tin plating was nailed onto wooden steamships to make them "ironclads"
or "tinclads." Still, they took their knocks from Confederate shore batteries and from ingenious mines (or "torpedoes"), since
they were not armored below water line. A revolutionary little gunboat flush with the water and sporting but one turret would
prove a nemesis for the ponderous Confederate ironclads, whose very avoirdupois damned their maneuverability. At the same
time, the noble wooden frigate with multiple banks of cannon met extinction.
The Confederates, not to be outdone, went into battle with "cottonclads"
in addition to ironclads, but the former proved as susceptible to fire as dry tinder. The South pioneered in "torpedoes,"
including some sophisticated models detonated electrically.
With few exceptions, the Civil War's naval actions were fought within sight of the coasts, in bays, or upon the wide
rivers, especially the Mississippi. Although fleet or squadron
operations continued an historic role, the daring of the individual still possessed the potential to destroy a Goliath. Stealth,
deception, and hoax were employed alongside conventional military confrontation.
On occasion, the army's prerogatives became interchangeable with the navy's.
Soldiers attacked ships. Sailors raided shore targets. Army officers even had the impertinence to command vessels. And in
one coastal city--Portland, Maine--the
citizenry mobilized with muskets to repel a one-man invasion from the sea. Although, in retrospect, certain operations might
appear to have been curious kinds of games, the participants, to paraphrase an old proverb, "died in earnest."
These shadings, as well as the bold
strokes in the War of the Rebellion, the War Between the States, or whatever the Civil War is to be called, make up the canvas
of this book. Too often, the naval role has been overshadowed by the scope and casualties of the land battles from Bull Run
(or First Manassas) to Cold Harbor and the fall of Richmond.
Yet the struggle was carried forth with undiminished ferocity at sea and upon the waterways, and with equal effectiveness.
North and South alike exerted immense efforts to control the paths of trade and communication. The outcome would materially
effect the conflict's final curtain.
Confrontation on the seas was heralded on April 15, 1861, when President
Lincoln declared a blockade of the ports from South Carolina to the Gulf
of Mexico. The blockade was soon extended northward to include all of Virginia.
"For this purpose," Lincoln stated, "a competent force will
be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels" under pain of capture. Further, any attempt to interfere would be
"held amenable to the laws of the United States
for the prevention and punishment of piracy." In so doing, the president was invoking one of history's oldest stratagems of
warfare: starving the enemy into submission.
"A paper blockade!" howled the secessionists, and at the time it truly was.
Foreign nations joined the chorus, especially Great Britain,
which was experiencing nightmares about feeding her cotton mills. She needed to keep cargo ships-sail or steam-running to
Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston,
South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia;
Pensacola, Florida; New Orleans,
Louisiana- Galveston, Texas;
and even Matamoros, Mexico.
The United States Navy was manifestly unprepared. Easily half of the ninety
vessels listed in the 1861 Naval Register either were unfit for sea or were languishing in shipyards while awaiting decommission.
Also, some twenty-eight of the so-called active showed the flag off foreign shores. Half a dozen of these lazed at anchor
on the popular China station, their crews
ashore on historic personal quests. Left were a meager fourteen, at most, to defend the East Coast and to blockade Dixie.
"After the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln as President," wrote Rear Admiral
Daniel Ammen, "a painfull lethargy seemed to pervade every, branch of the Administration, while the South was arming and organizing
with extraordinary activity for the avowed purpose of destroying the Government, which apparently supinely awaited that event."
An "instant navy" was needed, first to seal off the more than three thousand
miles of bays, inlets, river mouths, and deltas that stretched from Virginia through the
Gulf of Mexico. Such a goal would become known as the Anaconda Plan, aimed at strangling
There appeared but one approach. It entailed the arming of almost anything
afloat of reasonable size, including ocean steamers, ferryboats, fishing smacks, river sidewheelers, private yachts, harbor
tugs, and barnacled old schooners. If the craft happened to be steam-propelled, that was a plus. Otherwise, if the vessel
did not leak too badly, she was expected to slosh off to war. Barges were in demand, since they could carry mortars and all
manner of materiel.
The shallow-draft "double-enders" were unique newcomers to the fleet. They
were called "ninety-day gunboats" because of their rapid construction from green wood. Their engines were geared to enable
them to reverse quickly and thus avoid turning in narrow rivers or channels. They were big, many of them, like the Sbamrock
and Otsego, rated at almost 1,000 tons. And they were fast, capable of 12 or 13 knots. The Confederates possessed virtually
nothing to match either their speed or agility. Uniquely tailored for a specific role in an unusual conflict, they were forerunners
(except for their rapid production) of no future naval vessels. But they exemplified the imagination of their designers.
Even as the United States Navy sought out fast ships to lend meaning to the
executive proclamation, a swashbuckling fleet composed largely of British blockade-runners was hauling to sea, manned by river
pilots, tugboat captains, grizzled ferryboat masters, and officers from the Royal Navy operating under assumed names.
Great Britain was pragmatic
in recognizing Washington's lack of an adequate watchdog
fleet. She made no effort to discourage the growing squadrons of merchantmen that were materializing overnight to ply from
Liverpool, Southampton, the Thames, and Belfast via the Bahamas,
Bermuda, and Havana to the seceded states.
If this was not bold enough, English shipyards heated up their spar-steaming
kettles to build warships for the Confederacy. Business was business, even though Richmond's
currency was backed by little more than cotton bales, tobacco, and turpentine.
By 1862, although the United States Navy was increasing in size, blockade-running
was approximating the frequency, if not the regularity, of the transatlantic steamship lines.
Linked by a brotherhood of peril, the captains were a varied and daring lot.
A few names stand out among the hundreds: Louis M. Coxetter, a tough one-time privateer with a price on his head; John Wilkinson,
suave, rotund, formerly of the United States Navy, once imprisoned in Fort Warren in Boston Harbor; John Newland Maffitt,
also resigned from the United States Navy, among the most innovative; and Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden, surely the most
colorful of the lot, late of Her Majesty's navy and holder of the Victoria Cross. "Lads, sharpen your swords!" was a quote
attributed to Hobart-Hampden, who used several names to spare the navy embarrassment-Hewett, Ridge, Gulick, Roberts, and even
Hobart-Pasha, during a subsequent stint with the Turkish navy.
Improvisation was a sine qua non. The captains marshaled every ruse known,
plus some hitherto unknown. They flashed false signals with lanterns, flew the Stars and Stripes or other national flags,
changed nameplates, and even dipped colors to passing Federal men-o'-war. The latter often returned the honor. It is not surprising
that the hunted proved more able to capture the world's imagination than did the hunters.
Consider Coxetter's method of keeping crewmen at their posts in times of
peril. Wrote James Morris Morgan, a fifteen-year-old midshipman aboard the 562-ton steamer-turned-blockade-runner Herald:
"[Coxetter] was convinced that the great danger in running the blockade was in his own engine room, so he seated himself on
the ladder leading down to it and politely informed the engineer-that if the engine stopped before he was clear of the [blockading]
fleet, he, the engineer, would be a dead man.
|Naval Battle of Hampton Roads, VA
|Battle of Monitor and Virginia (aka Merrimack; Merrimac.)
"As Coxetter held in his hand a Coles revolver, this sounded like no idle threat.... We safely bumped our
way across the shallows, and plunging and tossing in the gale, this little cockleshell, whose rail was scarcely five feet
above the sea level, bucked her way toward Bermuda."
Or consider Wilkinson, commander of the iron-hulled former Glasgow-Belfast
packet steamer Giraffe, renamed the R. E. Lee. To set an example of stealth, the bearded Wilkinson wore slippers on the bridge.
In describing one of his twenty-one successful voyages hauling bales of cotton valued at more than $2 million in gold, he
wrote: "The breeze was still blowing fresh as in the morning, but we were now running directly away from it, and the cruiser
[USS Iroquois] was going literally as fast as the wind, causing the sails to be rather a hindrance than a help.... Sending
for the chief engineer, I said ... let us try cotton, saturated with spirits of turpentine. There were on board, as part of
our deck load, 30 or 40 barrels of 'spirits.' In a very few moments, a bale of cotton was ripped open, a barrel tapped, and
buckets full of the saturated material passed down into the fireroom....
'We now began to hold our own, and even to gain a little upon the chaser....
I saw the big'bone in the mouth' of our pertinacious friend, for she was near enough to us at one time for us to see distinctly
the white curl of foam under her bows."
Unfortunately, the burned cotton choked the flues. The Iroquois appeared
to be gaining. Wilkinson ordered kegs of gold brought up to be distributed among the crew. A female passenger, Miss Lucy Gwin,
offered to fill a purse and keep it on her person until the danger had passed. Twilight turned into darkness as the officer
atop the paddle-wheel housings at last called out: 'We have lost sight of her!"
"I remained on deck an hour," Wilkinson continued, "and then retired to my
stateroom with a comfortable sense of security. We had fired so hard that the very planks on the bridge were almost scorching
hot, and my feet were nearly blistered.
"I put them out of the window to cool, after taking off slippers and socks.
While in this position, Miss Lucy came on the bridge in company with her father. Tapping my foot with her hand, she said,
'ah, captain, I see we are all safe, and I congratulate you!"
The experiences of Coxetter and Wilkinson were familiar ones to blockade-runners.
Theirs was a defensive role, often frustrating. For the "hounds," the chasers, it was a different "game" entirely, even though
they knew blockade-runners could never fight back, lest their captains be tried as privateers.
Among the blockading fleet, only the methodical, competent Commander John
J. Almuzi of the fast, 2,000-ton steamer USS Connecticut is much remembered, perhaps because he alone wrote memoirs of any
consequence. The Connecticut set a record of four runners
destroyed and four captured. As Almuzi recalled: "The blockade runners would always select dark nights to nm in and out, and
certain stages of the moon; generally between the last and first quarters ... when it set early and rose late.... A tolerably
high tide also entered into the calculation.
"These blockade runners were all English steamers, and were painted lead
color ... to prevent their being discovered at night, when running close in along the land. The fire and steam arrangements
were for burning soft English coal, which always made black smoke, by which they could be discovered a long distance in the
"On board the Connecticut,
when the lookout at the masthead sang out, 'black smoke!' all was commotion. A chase once lasted 15 hours ... when the blockade
runner was lost sight of. She had to throw overboard nearly all her cargo, which comprised English goods, as she was bound
in. We passed through and by innumerable boxes during the day, some of which we perceived contained shoes."
In foggy weather, Almuzi and his fellow pursuers often picked up the trail
by such jetsam as cotton bales, which bobbed like buoys, boxes containing almost anything, half-empty barrels of turpentine,
wine casks, and larger deck cargo such as wagon wheels or even entire wagons.
The blockade-runners bought time for the South and prolonged the Union's effort to crush the rebellion. The battle of Shiloh, for example, would have been more one-sided
had not nine hundred barrels of gunpowder been rushed into Wilmington, North
Carolina, earmarked for that bloody contest in Tennessee.
The effort-a transfusion-fell far short of a cure. The Anaconda Plan was
choking the South.
The course of the war and, indeed, the suicidal path of the Confederacy may
have been embodied in a single incident from the blockade that took place on the last day of September 1864. Augustus Charles
Hobart-Hampden, this time operating under the name of Ridge, was guiding his blockade-runner Condor toward Wilmington through stormy seas. He carried a most important passenger-Rose O'Neal Greenhow.
In the North, she was considered notorious, and in the South, a heroine.
With her entree to Washington society and
officialdom, the well-to-do widow Greenhow had been able to learn about early Union strategies, most notably those preliminary
to Bull Run. Mrs. Greenhow had passed advance details of troop movements to General Pierre
Beauregard, one of President Davis's workhorse commanders. Apparently, the information contributed materially to the Union
debacle in northeastern Virginia.
Even terrible-tempered Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton could not bring
himself to do more than incarcerate the widow, first in her own house-"Fort Greenhow," her neighbors quipped-where she blithely
continued to convey military information, and then in Old Capitol Prison. Finally, she was deported south. She tarried long
enough only to pack her bags for London, where she traveled
both to conduct Confederate business and to finish her memoirs. Her flirtation with belles-lettres reached print under the
title My Imprisonment and the First Year of abolition Rule in Washington.
Neither succinct nor objective, the book was largely a diatribe against the Union and an
exhortation for the continuance of slavery. Like the ascetic, withdrawn Jefferson Davis, the widow Greenhow could not fathom
why Washington was less than pleased with the South.
Returning to Richmond
aboard Hobart-Hampden's Condor, she bore undisclosed messages for President Davis and, around her neck, a small drawstring
bag containing gold sovereigns. It was speculated that the bag contained some three hundred of the British coins, worth at
least two thousand dollars. The sum may have come from either her publisher or some benefactor of the nearly depleted Confederate
Condor had almost reached the New Inlet channel to the Cape
Fear River when she was picked up by a Federal cruiser. In his desire to avoid a nearby wreck, Captain "Ridge" steered hard onto a shoal, cracking the keel. The normally cool and calculating Rose
Greenhow panicked. She implored the commander to send her ashore in a small boat, shrilly asserting that she must not be captured.
The daring Hobart-Hampden allowed emotion to prevail over common sense. He
ordered a skiff made ready and gallantly assisted Mrs. Greenhow into it, along with the pilot and two strong rowers. Hobart-Hampden
had grown up near the wild North Sea, and he should have known better. The sea lanes to Wilmington were lashed by the worst storms that the Gulf Stream, in its collision with Cape Hatteras, could conjure.
The gale did not abate as the little craft bobbed off into the blackness.
Half way to safety, it capsized in the huge combers. The men struggled to the beach, which was not many yards distant. Rose
Greenhow, weighted by her gold coins, her flowing skirts, and her coat, sank.
Her body washed ashore with other flotsam. A number of persons would take
credit for the somber discovery. Something was wrong, though-the sovereigns and Mrs. Greenhow's dispatch case were missing.
A soldier professing deep remorse did return some gold sovereigns, claiming
to have stumbled across the body while on patrol and confessing that he could not resist pilfering the bag of gold. But many
questions were left unanswered. Exactly how much money was returned? What became of it? Where was the dispatch case? Had a
Federal agent reached the body first and rifled the case's contents? Why didn't the crew of the little boat make more of an
effort to save their passenger? And what, if anything, was done with the soldier who stole and returned the coins?
On October 1, Rose Greenhow's funeral was held in Wilmington. She was buried with full military honors in Oakdale Cemetery, her casket draped with the
Stars and Bars, the emblem of the cause she so passionately served to her death. Somehow, the sacrificial act of the widow
Greenhow, carried out during a brief moment toward the end of the long blockade, seems an epitaph for a Confederacy that was
The Union had recovered rapidly from its
early lethargy. Within eight months of mobilization, morning colors were being sounded on 264 United States Navy vessels,
ragtag or otherwise. A year later, the count was 427.
By the last December of the war, that of 1864, 671 ships were on the Navy
Department register. A virtual screen of vessels of all sizes, shapes, and types sealed off those Southern ports that had
not already fallen to pressure from the sea or to the artillery of conquering armies, especially the forces of General Sherman.
By then, the navy boasted the radical class of turreted flush-deckers spawned by the sunken Monitor, as well as heavy ironclads
and swift gunboats. Big "steam sloops," mounting masts, became the last salute to ships of wood. To compensate for their fragility,
most of these draped heavy chain armor over their sides. Nonetheless, their masts were like vestigial tails in the evolution
of mammals. All of the new ships could overtake the blockade-runners, and usually did.
The effects were severe. As a case in point, exports of cotton to England shrank from 816 million pounds to 6 million pounds
in the first two years of the rebellion. The late author Robert Carse wrote in Blockade, published in 1958 by Rinehart &
Co.: "There were in England more than
2 million people brought to starvation by the cotton shortage. The mills were closed tight. The millworkers had months ago
spent the last of their savings. Then, the pictures had gone from the walls of the workers' homes, and the family trinkets
were sold, and clothing, the chests of drawers, the rest of the furniture, the beds, the mattresses, the kitchen utensils.
The families slept numb, wretched, on piles of straw. Girls of 14 and 15 went out on the streets.... Younger children died
The people of the South suffered greatly because of the disruption of the
grain trade to Australia. Richmond experienced "bread riots" on Easter 1863.
What was the toll on the runners? No one will ever know exactly. The South
kept no records. Britain did not care
to discuss her major role in the operations. The United States Navy, manifestly exaggerating, claimed that some 1,000 vessels
were captured, destroyed, or disabled in attempting to pass the blockade. The navy said that 295 of these were steamers, the
others "coasters," such as sailing vessels.
Significant, nonetheless, was the fact that not one captain or officer lost
his life on these ships, and very few passengers or crew.
Prize courts placed a $24.5 million price tag on captured ships and their cargoes. Those destroyed were valued at approximately
The grave markers of a valiant attempt to break through to a hungry and beleaguered
South are yet strewn along the Southeast coast and into the Gulf of Mexico-the rusted, barnacled fittings of such as the Condor,
Little Lila, Will o' the Wisp, Sopbia, Georgiana, Nigbt Hawk, Stonewall Jackson, Ruby, Venus, Vesta, Ranger, Fanny and jenny,
Mary Bowen, Lynx, Stormy Petrel ... Scores,
The war at sea was demanding, real, and frightening, even though casualties
were dwarfed by those in the great land battles. This backward look at a fiery period of our nation's history focuses upon
the people of North and South and their many acts of daring and valor as they fought upon the seas and lesser waters. It is
their story, told largely in their own words, always against the backdrop of the blockade.
Source: Damn The Torpedoes! by A. A. Hoehling
Civil War Navies, 1855-1883 (The U.S.
Navy Warship Series) (Hardcover). Description: Civil War Warships, 1855-1883 is the second in the five-volume US Navy Warships
encyclopedia set. This valuable reference lists the ships of the U.S. Navy and Confederate Navy during the Civil War and the
years immediately following - a significant period in the evolution of warships, the use of steam propulsion, and the development
of ordnance. Civil War Warships provides a wealth and variety of material not found in other books on the subject and will
save the reader the effort needed to track down information in multiple sources. Continued below…
size and time and place of construction are listed along with particulars of naval service. The author provides historical
details that include actions fought, damage sustained, prizes taken, ships sunk, and dates in and out of commission as well
as information about when the ship left the Navy, names used in other services, and its ultimate fate. 140 photographs, including
one of the Confederate cruiser Alabama recently uncovered by the author further contribute to this
indispensable volume. This definitive record of Civil War ships updates the author's previous work and will find a lasting
place among naval reference works.
Reading: A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood. Description: This
landmark book documents the dramatic history of Civil War ironclads and reveals how ironclad warships revolutionized naval
warfare. Author John V. Quarstein explores in depth the impact of ironclads during the Civil War and their colossal effect
on naval history. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of history's greatest naval engagements. Over the course of two days
in March 1862, this Civil War conflict decided the fate of all the world's navies. It was the first battle between ironclad
warships, and the 25,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians who witnessed the battle vividly understood what history would soon
confirm: wars waged on the seas would never be the same. Continued below…
About the Author: John V. Quarstein is an award-winning author and historian. He is director
of the Virginia
War Museum in Newport News and chief historical advisor for The Mariners' Museum's new USS Monitor Center
(opened March 2007). Quarstein has authored eleven books and dozens of articles on American, military and Civil War history,
and has appeared in documentaries for PBS, BBC, The History Channel and Discovery Channel.
Reading: Rebels and Yankees: Naval Battles of the Civil War (Hardcover). Description: Naval Battles of the Civil War, written by acclaimed Civil War historian Chester G. Hearn,
focuses on the maritime battles fought between the Confederate Rebels and the Union forces in waters off the eastern seaboard
and the great rivers of the United States
during the Civil War. Since very few books have been written on this subject, this volume provides a fascinating and vital
portrayal of the one of the most important conflicts in United States
history. Naval Battles of the Civil War is lavishly illustrated with rare contemporary photographs, detailed artworks, and
explanatory maps, and the text is a wonderful blend of technical information, fast-flowing narrative, and informed commentary.
Reading: Naval Strategies of the Civil War: Confederate Innovations and Federal Opportunism. Description: One of the most overlooked aspects of the American Civil War is the
naval strategy played out by the U.S. Navy and the fledgling Confederate Navy, which may make this the first book to compare
and contrast the strategic concepts of the Southern Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory against his Northern counterpart,
Gideon Welles. Both men had to accomplish much and were given great latitude in achieving their goals. Mallory's vision of
seapower emphasized technological innovation and individual competence as he sought to match quality against the Union Navy's
(quantity) numerical superiority. Welles had to deal with more bureaucratic structure and to some degree a national strategy
dictated by the White House. Continued below...
The naval blockade
of the South was one of his first tasks - for which he had but few ships available - and although he followed the national
strategy, he did not limit himself to it when opportunities arose. Mallory's dedication to ironclads is well known, but he
also defined the roles of commerce raiders, submarines, and naval mines. Welles's contributions to the Union effort were rooted
in his organizational skills and his willingness to cooperate with the other military departments of his government. This
led to successes through combined army and naval units in several campaigns on and around the Mississippi River.
Reading: Naval Campaigns
of the Civil War. Description: This analysis
of naval engagements during the War Between the States presents the action from the efforts at Fort Sumter during the secession
of South Carolina in 1860, through the battles in the Gulf of Mexico, on the Mississippi River, and along the eastern seaboard,
to the final attack at Fort Fisher on the coast of North Carolina in January 1865. This work provides an understanding of
the maritime problems facing both sides at the beginning of the war, their efforts to overcome these problems, and their attempts,
both triumphant and tragic, to control the waterways of the South. The Union blockade, Confederate privateers and commerce
raiders are discussed, as is the famous battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack.
of the events in the early months preceding the outbreak of the war is presented. The chronological arrangement of the campaigns
allows for ready reference regarding a single event or an entire series of campaigns. Maps and an index are also included.
About the Author: Paul Calore, a graduate of Johnson and Wales University,
was the Operations Branch Chief with the Defense Logistics Agency of the Department of Defense before retiring. He is a supporting
member of the U.S. Civil War Center and the Civil War Preservation Trust and has also written Land Campaigns of the Civil
War (2000). He lives in Seekonk, Massachusetts.
Reading: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S.
Navy. From Publishers Weekly: Starred
Review. Toll, a former financial analyst and political speechwriter, makes an auspicious debut with this rousing, exhaustively
researched history of the founding of the U.S. Navy. The author chronicles the late 18th- and early 19th-century process of
building a fleet that could project American power beyond her shores. The ragtag Continental Navy created during the Revolution
was promptly dismantled after the war, and it wasn't until 1794—in the face of threats to U.S.
shipping from England, France
and the Barbary states of North Africa—that Congress
authorized the construction of six frigates and laid the foundation for a permanent navy. Continued below…
Department of the Navy followed in 1798. The fledgling navy quickly proved its worth in the Quasi War against France
in the Caribbean, the Tripolitan War with Tripoli and the
War of 1812 against the English. In holding its own against the British, the U.S.
fleet broke the British navy's "sacred spell of invincibility," sparked a "new enthusiasm for naval power" in the U.S. and marked the maturation of the American navy. Toll
provides perspective by seamlessly incorporating the era's political and diplomatic history into his superlative single-volume
narrative—a must-read for fans of naval history and the early American