Quick Facts About the Navy During the Civil War

Four months after the South surrendered, Confederate ship “Shenandoah” heard the news.
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Bull Run. Antietam. Gettysburg. Chancellorsville. Shiloh. Union and Confederate troops fought many land battles during the Civil War. Both sides also had navies that played significant roles during the long conflict. At the start of the war, the North had only 40 ships, but the South had no navy whatsoever. Plans were quickly made, and both military defense systems began working on a functional navy, with mixed results.

1 First Goal: Blockade

At the start of the war, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward suggested creating a blockade of southern ports to stop the export of cotton and the import of supplies. The blockade had to control a coastline of 2,500 miles. New warships were manufactured, and merchant ships were purchased and armed. The Union navy attacked and captured many Confederate port cities, including Hatteras, North Carolina, and Port Royal, South Carolina. Within three months, the major ports of the Confederacy were blocked. Holes existed in the blockade, but southern trade was significantly stifled.

2 A Naval Affair

The Union just barely avoided an international incident when a navy officer removed two Confederate messengers and their secretaries from a British mail ship, the “Trent.” The southerners had been sent to obtain recognition and support for the Confederate cause from France and Great Britain. In what became known as the “Trent Affair,” the British government condemned the act of boarding and removing passengers, since the country had declared itself neutral in the American war. In a compromise, the U.S. Secretary of State reiterated the administration’s support for the actions but allowed the Confederate prisoners to be released.

3 Fighting in Iron

The South didn't have the resources or money to develop as large a navy as the North. Therefore, the Confederacy needed fearsome warships. They met this challenge early on by following the new European design of armored ships. At that point, the northern ships were all wood. The Confederate navy converted a captured Union ship, the “Merrimack,” into an ironclad vessel, which they christened “Virginia.” The North soon followed suit with the “Monitor,” a mostly submerged ship with a unique rotating gun turret. When the two met in battle in 1862, it was a draw. However, the Union was motivated to replace its outmoded wooden vessels.

4 Mississippi Menace

Union naval ships covered the Mississippi River. Some traveled south from Illinois with Ulysses S. Grant’s army; others sailed north after taking New Orleans. The forces combined in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and laid siege to the port from December 1862 to July 4, 1863. The fort was both attacked and blocked from receiving supplies. After months of defense, the Confederates surrendered the fort. At this point, the Confederacy was cut into two parts, and it would stay divided east and west of the Mississippi River.

5 Southern Offensive

One of the major naval acts of the Confederacy was attacking northern merchant ships around the globe. At the start of the war, the South commissioned private ships to capture or assault Union trade ships. These attacking ships, or privateers, accounted for almost half of the Confederate fleet. Northern merchants were incensed and terrified by the practice. Some of the raiders were very successful. One, the “Alabama,” singlehandedly wiped out 60 vessels in less than two years. Ultimately, the practice was not terribly profitable for the Confederacy. The raiders found it difficult to get back and forth through the Union blockade of southern ports. Eventually, the practice was halted, and ships took on other naval responsibilities.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.