The Unique Aspects of the Union Blockade
The first and one of the most significant decisions of the Lincoln Administration was the imposition of the blockade of the southern coast. Historically, blockades have been used as an economic tactic for centuries. It was most common in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when England held supremacy over the seas. But the interesting aspect was that the technique was used to bottle up the enemy’s fleet in port to assure safe passage of British commerce. This tactic was used to limit the effectiveness of American privateers during the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
But in the Civil War the reverse was intended. Since the Confederacy had no blue water fleet to speak of the objective was to keep the export of cotton primarily to a minimum and to cut off importation of supplies from outside, primarily England and France.
This required a much larger naval presence as the entire coastline, some 3,500 miles from Hampton Roads, Virginia to Brownsville, Texas, had to be closed to be effective. There were initially 189 harbors, inlets and navigable river entrances that had to be controlled. No navy in history had ever attempted such an endeavor!! And considering the severely limited number of ships available at the beginning it is truly remarkable. Both the Union and the Confederacy had to start from very limited naval assets to effect their strategies.
The Union had to post warships at each port to maintain the legality of the blockade. The legality was a stretch because Lincoln did not want to provide any legitimacy to the Confederate States as a sovereign nation. Initially the legal justification was to collect the fair duties that were being avoided by the rebellous states. This ploy did not sit well with the Europeans but they also had to consider their best customer relationship with the United States. Money always trumps sentiment!!
The Union began with a very small of contingent of ships available and had to call back those that were scattered all around the globe. The first ship on station was the USS Niagara off Charleston arriving 10 May 1861 and marking the beginning of the blockade. Eventually about 500 ships and 100,000 sailors would be involved. The total exceeded the number of men and ships employed in all the previous US wars.
I am amazed at how fast the Federal Navy reacted to build up the fleet. In around ninety days twenty three gunboats were delivered from the keel up. Additional ships were armed and converted from commercial uses to blockaders. The recall of the regular ships of the line deployed overseas brought the total to over one hundred. Enough to get started. Wow!! Talk about rapid mobilization! Impressive.