United States Civil War (1861-1865) – Naval Warfare I


The United States Civil War, which began in April 1861, was in many ways the first modern industrial war. Its causes included different outlooks and economic development, and the issue of slavery. Resources heavily favored the North, with 22 million people; the South had only 9 million, more than a third of them slaves. The North had 90 percent of nationwide manufacturing output. The South, for example, had only one facility, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, capable of producing the heaviest guns and armor plate. Given such strategic imbalances, it is hardly surprising that the war turned out as it did.

Following the election as president of Abraham Lincoln, in December 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union. The remaining states of the Deep South followed, and in February they formed the Confederate States of America. When Lincoln decided to resupply two isolated U. S. garrisons, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and Fort Pickens, Florida, on 12 April 1861, Southerners opened fire on Sumter. The war had begun.

Southern leaders adopted a defensive strategy, hoping to tire the North into letting the South go, but the North insisted on an end to secession-which meant it would have to invade and conquer the South.

At the outset both sides were militarily weak. The North did have a clear advantage at sea, although its widely scattered force of 80 warships was totally inadequate for what lay ahead. On 19 April Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of the 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles launched a major construction program, which included ironclads. Washington also purchased civilian ships of all types, many of them steamers, for blockade duty.

Apart from Charleston, Port Royal in South Carolina was the Confederacy’s best natural harbor on the Atlantic coast. On 7 November 1861, U. S. Navy Flag Officer Samuel Du Pont, with 75 ships lifting 12,000 soldiers, took Port Royal. This provided a perfect base for the Union South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Gradually, Union pressure tightened, aided by joint naval and military expeditions. By 1865 the U. S. Navy included some 700 vessels of all types, second in the world in number of warships only to that of Great Britain. Penetrating the Union blockade became increasingly difficult, and in the course of the war Union ships took as many as 1,500 blockade-runners. Nonetheless, the quantity of military goods that such craft brought was sufficient to keep the Southern military effort going.

In April 1861, upon the secession of Virginia, the South gained control of the largest prewar U. S. Navy yard at Gosport (Norfolk) along with 1,200 heavy guns, valuable naval stores, and some vessels. Among the latter was the powerful modern steam frigate Merrimack. Set on fire by retreating Union forces, she burned only to the waterline before sinking. The Confederates raised her and rebuilt her as the ironclad Virginia.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory hoped to offset the Northern naval advantage by ironclad warships capable of breaking the blockade, and he advocated commerce raiding, the traditional course of action of a weaker naval power against a nation with a vulnerable merchant marine. Mallory hoped to drive up insurance costs, weaken Northern resolve, and force the U. S. Navy to shift warships from blockade duties.

During the war no fewer than a dozen Confederate commerce raiders attacked Union merchantmen. The Alabama was by far the most successful. Built in Great Britain on secret Confederate order, she took 66 Union merchantmen, nearly equaling the combined total of the two next most successful raiders: the Shenandoah with 38 and the Florida with 33.

During the war Confederate commerce raiders destroyed some 257 Union merchant ships, or about 5 percent of the total, but they hardly disrupted U. S. trade. Their main effect was to force a substantial number of vessels into permanent foreign registry. More than 700 U. S. ships transferred to British registry alone.

Each side also constructed ironclads. The first were actually built by the Union to help secure control of America’s great interior rivers. Thanks to its superior manufacturing resources, the Union got its river fleet built quickly. In August 1861 the army ordered seven ironclad gunboats. Constructed by James B. Eads, they were the first purpose-built ironclad warships in the Western Hemisphere.

Tennessee became a focal point for both sides. At the beginning of February 1862 a joint army-navy operation of troops under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and a gunboat flotilla under Commodore Andrew H. Foote took the offensive, winning victories at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. This opened the way for Union forces to take Nashville, the first Confederate state capital in Union hands.

The now-outflanked Confederates withdrew from Columbus, Kentucky, clearing the way for Union forces to move down the Mississippi. In March the Confederates evacuated New Madrid and a water-land siege of nearby Island No. 10 began. Large 13-inch mortars joined the Union effort.

After taking Island No. 10, Foote’s squadron, the mortar boats in tow, pressed down the Mississippi and laid siege to Fort Pillow. On 10 May Confederate gunboats staged a surprise attack on the Union squadron in the Battle of Plum Point Bend, the war’s first real engagement between naval squadrons. In early June the Confederates abandoned Fort Pillow, and the next day the Union flotilla, now under the command of Commodore Charles Henry Davis and reinforced by rams under Colonel Charles Ellet, moved south to attack Memphis. The 5 June battle there was the most lopsided Union victory of the war and ended Confederate naval power on the Mississippi, which was now open to Vicksburg. Memphis, an important rail and manufacturing center, became a principal Union base.

While the northern Mississippi was being secured, Union forces were moving against New Orleans, the Confederacy’s most important seaport. On 24 April Commodore David G. Farragut and his West Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron ran past Confederate forts guarding the Mississippi’s mouth and forced the city’s surrender. Its loss was a heavy blow to the Confederacy. Vicksburg and Port Hudson were then the only remaining Confederate river strongholds.

In the East the Union objective was to secure the Confederate capital of Richmond. President Lincoln preferred a push directly south, but Union general in chief Major General George McClellan planned to utilize Union naval assets, land a large force on the peninsula between the James and York Rivers, and advance on Richmond from the east. As he closed on the Confederate capital, a corps guarding Washington would push south to help take Richmond and end the war.

The so-called Peninsula Campaign set up history’s first battle between ironclads. On 8 March the Confederate ironclad Virginia sortied from Norfolk and sank two Union warships. That evening the Union ironclad Monitor arrived, and the next day the two fought an inconclusive battle, which nonetheless left Union forces in control of Hampton Roads.

“Monitor fever” now swept the North, which built more than 50 warships of this type. The Confederates countered with casemated vessels along the lines of the Virginia, the best known of these being the Arkansas, Manassas, Atlanta, Nashville, and Tennessee. Also, the Confederacy secretly contracted in Britain for two powerful seagoing ironclad ships. These so-called Laird Rams were turreted vessels superior to any U. S. Navy warship, but when the war shifted decisively in favor of the Union the British government took them over.

General McClellan, meanwhile, failed to press his numerical advantage and was halted before Richmond by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee then invaded the North but was halted at Antietam (Sharpsburg) in September. Union forces again took the offensive but were rebuffed at Fredericksburg in December. Lee also won a brilliant victory against heavy odds at Chancellorsville in May 1863 and then invaded the North for a second time, only to be stopped in July at Gettysburg.

In the West, Union forces were attempting to take Vicksburg and free the remainder of the Mississippi. Farragut ran his fleet north past Vicksburg in June 1862, but without effect. High on bluffs along the east bank at a bend of the river, Vicksburg seemed impervious to naval assault.

On 1 July Farragut linked up with Davis’s squadron off the mouth of the Yazoo River. Two weeks later the powerful Confederate ironclad ram Arkansas sallied from the Yazoo and battered her way through the entire Union fleet to Vicksburg. Farragut then ran south in an unsuccessful effort to destroy the Arkansas before returning to New Orleans. In early August the Arkansas, her engines having given out, was scuttled by her own crew.

In November and December 1862 General Grant made several attempts to take Vicksburg by amphibious assault. He sent 40,000 men south, supported by Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboats. But Grant’s attempt was stymied because of Vicksburg’s defenses. In the West the year ended with the Confederates still in control of a stretch of the river from Vicksburg south to Port Hudson. That situation changed in 1863.

Union probing attacks in January 1863 against Vicksburg’s increasingly formidable defenses produced little. The city was most vulnerable from the south and east, and Grant now decided on a bold step. In late March Union ships carried his troops south from Memphis. They disembarked above Vicksburg and marched by land along the west bank to a point south of the Confederate stronghold. At night Porter ran his gunboats and the transports south past Vicksburg’s batteries, then ferried Grant’s men across the river.

Deep in enemy territory, Grant defied instructions and marched inland with 20,000 men and came in on Vicksburg from the east. After futile assaults, Grant settled down to a siege, and on 4 July Vicksburg surrendered with 30,000 troops. Port Hudson surrendered a few days later and the entire Mississippi River was at last under Union control. With his north-south axis secure, Grant was now free to split the Confederacy from west to east.

At the same time, Union naval commanders worked to tighten the blockade. Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, were the principal points of entry for blockade-runners, and Union strategists believed they could be closed only by occupation. Charleston was a symbol for both sides, and the Union siege there ended up being the longest campaign of the war.

Commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron Rear Admiral Du Pont showed a marked reluctance to attack Charleston, but under repeated prodding from Secretary Welles he agreed to try. On 7 April 1863, Du Pont sent nine of his ironclad monitors against Fort Sumter. The Confederates easily beat back the attack, damaging the monitors and gaining a stunning victory.

Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren now replaced Du Pont, and from July to September he kept up a naval bombardment of the Charleston defenses, this time in cooperation with land attacks. Fort Wagner, the principal Union target, repulsed several attacks with heavy Union losses. Finally, in early September the Confederates abandoned Wagner. Its loss greatly diminished Charleston as a haven for blockade-runners.

In the fighting for Charleston the Confederates used mines, spar torpedoes on small craft known as Davids, and a submarine to attack the Union fleet. On 17 February 1864, the CSS H. L. Hunley sank the 1,934-ton screw sloop Housatonic. When she went down off Charleston from the explosion of the H. L. Hunley’s 90-pound spar torpedo, the Housatonic became the first ship sunk by a submarine in the history of warfare. The unstable H. L. Hunley herself sank shortly thereafter, with the loss of her crew.

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