The Civil War at Sea

The American Civil War at Sea was a tremendously varied and wide-ranging endeavor. The four years of war would see a massive blockade by the U.S. Navy. It would see the use of combined operations against land targets. There would be amphibious assaults, blockade running and commerce raiding.

The U.S. Navy would engage in a variety of tasks:

  • Conduct a massive coastal blockade;
  • Carry out combined operations with the army against coastal and inland targets;
  • Patrol the commerce sea lanes;
  • Pursue enemy commerce raiders.

The Confederate naval forces would have a much smaller set of tasks:

  • Protect the Southern ports from closure by attacking the blockade squadrons;
  • Conduct commerce raiding against Northern shipping;
  • Attempt to break the blockade with specially equipped steam blockade runners.

The U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia-The Civil War at SeaAt the beginning of the war the small United States Navy was scattered all over the globe. It had a total of 42 warships. Many of them were engaged in intercepting slavers from Africa. The U.S. Navy had another 48 that were partially completed or unmanned. They would become available when crews were recruited to man them. Most of these were sailing ships and were not appropriate for the task at hand. Many of the ships that the U.S. Navy had in the fleet were converted merchantmen that were used primarily for blockade duty.

The variety of combat roles that the U.S. Navy would engage in required an increase in the size of their fleet and diversity of ship types. For example, naval operations on rivers would require ships with shallow drafts. The United States Navy would eventually number some 500 ships with about 84,000 men.

The Confederate States Navy was a much smaller force that began the war with 30 ships, only 14 of which were seaworthy. Eventually, the C.S. NavyC.S.S. Alabama-The Civil War at Sea would include about 101 ships. Over the course of the war the Confederate States Navy used technical innovations in order to maintain some equality with the Union Navy. These included ironclads, submarines, torpedo boats and naval mines.

The Union Navy had at least five shipyards at Portsmouth, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston. All of the Union yards were fully equipped with drydocks and extensive shipbuilding equipment.

The Confederates had one shipyard at Pensacola and had the good fortune to capture the Norfolk Naval Shipyard nearly intact. The shipyard yielded ships, including the soon-to-be C.S.S. Virginia, 1,000 naval guns, much-needed drydocks and a storehouse of equipment. The Confederates also had short-term shipyards to build ships for specific locations.

The Confederate States Navy used a number of commerce raiders to attack Northern merchant vessels. The best known were the C.S.S. Alabama, the C.S.S. Florida, the C.S.S Sumter and the C.S.S. Shenandoah. Most of the Confederate commerce raiders were built in Great Britain but armed at sea because of their neutrality status. Over the course of a two-year career the Alabama took 65 prizes. After the war the United States filed a claim against the government of Great Britain and won millions in compensation because they violated their neutrality by building a number of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama-The Civil War at Searaiders.

The U.S. Navy countered the commerce raiding with roving squadrons of hunters. The most prominent of these was the U.S.S. Kearsarge, a sloop-of-war. The Kearsarge forced the abandonment of the Sumter after a blockade at Gibraltar. On June 19, 1864 the Kearsarge sank the C.S.S. Alabama after a one hour sea battle.

The Confederate States Navy’s other primary task was breaking the Union blockade. Blockade runners were lightly armed steam powered merchant ships that brought high quality military and consumer items through the Union cordon on a regular basis. They ran a gauntlet from Bermuda, the Bahamas or Havana past the Union warships and into ports like Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington and Galveston. Despite having a a high success rate many of them were captured, sunk or run aground.

Both sides used their navies to support land warfare operations although the Union Navy used it to their benefit both on the coast and up the rivers. At New Orleans, Vicksburg and other battles naval support was a key part of the Union’s success. Most of the Confederate fleet was built for coastal defense of their ports and forts along key rivers.

Over the course of this series of posts we will elaborate on the Civil War at sea and its impact on the final outcome of the war.