How the U.S. Navy Won the American Civil War
©Chuck Veit, 2004
wisdom suggests that the American Civil War was an almost all-army affair, with
the navies reduced to something of a sideshow—occasionally spectacular but
Certainly the vast majority of participants North and South fought their battles
on land: about 3.6 million men served in the armies as compared to a mere
Soldiers’ experiences comprised the bulk of diaries, letters, and official
correspondence, as well as being the basis for later research. But does this sea
of ink hide an historical truth—one that was recognized at the time but later
relegated the Union Navy to a seemingly secondary role was the absence of an
opponent on a scale with itself. This is not to say that the Confederate Navy
did not fight, but that its role and structure differed greatly from that of the
USN. This was dictated in part by circumstance: the South did not have the
manufacturing capacity to create and maintain a high seas fleet. But the
decision not to attempt construction of a large navy was a conscious one made by
Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. To win the Civil War, the South need only
defend what it had, demonstrating that it could survive until recognized by
foreign powers. The CSN focused on the defense of harbors and rivers,
undertaking local attacks as a means to this end rather than as part of any
grand offensive strategy.
the operations of the Confederate Navy did not much impact those of the Union
Army it is easy to overlook the roles played by the Union Navy. These included
blockading the ports of the South, pursuing Confederate commerce raiders,
patrolling the rivers behind the front, and directly engaging the Confederate
Army—usually in conjunction with the Federal army, but often independently. Of
these roles two are relevant to this thesis: the blockade and direct combat
(with tactical as well as strategic consequences).
“Great scarcity of even the necessaries of life”
simplest terms, the American Civil War was a race between the North’s will to
win and the South’s capacity to wage war. The Confederacy’s weakness was
neither lack of ability nor, initially, manpower, but material resources. In
1860, the South produced barely one-tenth of the manufactured goods in the
nation; there was more factory capability in
with 7,000 men and forty functioning ships, the Navy expanded to 51,500 men and
670 ships by 1865--fully 500 of which were on blockade duty.
Such a force would seem sufficient to bottle up the limited number of Southern
deep-water harbors, but only the capture of a port ensured its closure. The
steamers of the Confederate Ordnance Department managed to deliver 80% of the
$12¼ million worth of equipment purchased in
the Federal blockade was a success—not in the number of ships intercepted or
contraband taken, but in its effect on the Southern economy. Although the odds
of evading Union warships were never lower than 50-50, the possibility of capture made the enterprise a risky one. This fact
alone would have raised prices, but the situation was worsened by the Southern
elite’s insistence upon maintaining its pre-war lifestyle. Navy reports
routinely listed cognac, wine, rugs, furniture, jewelry, silk, and corset stays
among captured cargoes. The greatest profits for officers aboard runners came
not from salaries but from private shipment of such luxury goods. The
Confederate government sought to limit this merchandise, but their efforts were
largely ignored. Profits from luxuries were too alluring, and hull space that
could have been devoted to foodstuffs, medicines, clothing, and weapons was not.
on the Confederate economy was felt as early as May 1861 and became
catastrophic, as illustrated by the rise in the cost of salt—an important
commodity in a pre-refrigeration age. A 200 pound sack that went for 50¢ in
of a reliable infrastructure for distributing the resources of the South is
often cited as the root cause of its shortages. But the problem began on the
docks, not at the railheads, and affected exports, too. While stopping only a relatively
small percentage of shipped cotton, in absolute terms the blockade cut
that export by two-thirds: The three years prior to 1861 saw an average of a
million bales of cotton a year ship from Southern ports; the last three years of
the war together saw only a million bales shipped. This alone would have led to
inflation as the Confederacy used up its supply of hard currency, but the
situation was made worse by the trade in luxury goods demanded by the Southern
Inflation devastated the lower and middle classes and undermined Southern credit
overseas. General William T. Sherman is often credited with instituting total
war by targeting the enemy home front, but his was only a more dramatic version
of a battle the Navy had begun three years earlier.
“Gunboats, which alone saved him from complete disaster”
addition to waging this economic war, the U.S. Navy directly engaged Confederate
armies. Twice in 1862
of these took place on 6 April at
After nightfall, when firing had entirely ceased on land, the commander of the
fleet informed himself, approximately, of the position of our troops and
suggested the idea of dropping a shell within the lines of the enemy every
fifteen minutes during the night. This was done with effect, as is proved by the
During the night the rain fell in torrents, adding to the discomforts and
harassed condition of the men. The enemy, moreover, had broken their rest by a
discharge at measured intervals of heavy shells thrown from the gunboats;
therefore on the following morning the troops under my command were not in
condition to cope with an equal force of fresh troops, armed and equipped like
our adversary, in the immediate possession of his depots and sheltered by such
an auxiliary as the enemy's gunboats.
the battle, Leonard Swett, friend and intimate
of Abraham Lincoln, spent three days riding the field. His letter to the
From all I could learn I believe the gunboats
vital contribution of the gunboats was well recognized in the South. On
“[The battle at Shiloh] has taught us
that we have nothing to fear from a land invasion of the enemy if he is
unsupported by his naval armaments. It has taught us that the right arm of his
power in this war is in his gunboats on our seacoast; and that our only
assurance of saving the Mississippi from his grasp is to paralyze that arm upon
The Battlefield: Malvern Hill
“The great obstacle to operations is the presence of the enemy’s gunboats”
Almost three months later, in Virginia, another Union Army
stood on the brink of defeat. Union General George McClellan’s Peninsular
Campaign to capture Richmond had turned sour when Robert E. Lee took command of
opposing Confederate forces. In a week-long series of battles, Lee succeeded in
pushing the invaders away from the capital, harrying them as they retreated
along the James. At the end of June, the victorious Rebels were poised to push
the Yankees into the river. Sensing disaster, McClellan sought refuge under the
guns of the Navy at its station near Malvern Hill, sending to Flag Officer Louis
Goldsborough the following:
would most earnestly request that every gunboat or other armed vessel suitable
for action in the
local naval commander, Commodore John Rodgers of U.S.S. Galena, echoed McClellan’s plea:
enemy presses the army; it rests upon the
private communication from Rodgers described the situation in grimmer terms:
army is in a bad way; the gunboats may save them, but the points to be guarded
are too many for the force at my disposal. To save the army . . . demands
immediately all our disposable force. The use for more gunboats is pressing and
immediate. Now, if ever, is a chance for the Navy to render most signal service,
but it must not delay.
majority of histories credit Northern General Porter (McClellan being absent the
with laying a “trap” for the over-eager Lee, using the Union artillery
“mounted hub-to-hub atop the hill” to decimate the oncoming rebels.
While the Union artillery did inflict heavy losses among the Confederates, it
was naval gunfire that overwhelmed the attackers. The Washington Intelligencer
previous roar of field artillery seemed as faint as the rattle of musketry in
comparison with these monsters of ordnance that literally shook the water and
strained the air. . . . They fired about three times a minute, frequently a
broadside at a time, and the immense hull of the
side had previously seen the effects of 8-, 9- or 10-inch shells on massed
infantry. While the Navy rounds may have been “music to the ears” of
Northerners, for the Southerners they were totally unnerving. The rebels could
not respond to the ships 
and often could not even see them: range and target information were
communicated by flag by men of the Signal Corps ashore and afloat—making this
one of the first instances of indirect fire on shore targets.
Brigade after brigade rushed from the woods across the half-mile field toward
the Union lines, only to be mown down en masse by the terrible fire. By the end
of the battle, over 5,000 Confederates lay dead or wounded; Union losses had
been barely half that number.
attacks were uncoordinated between divisions, such that all of the Union guns
could bear upon each column in turn; despite this, the Southerners managed to
reach the Yankee lines and capture a number of batteries. Without the naval
support, they could certainly have gone further—an opinion evidenced in
eyewitness accounts. Marine Corporal John Mackie, aboard
The Turning Point:
blindness to the vulnerability of the city may be explained by the land-oriented
thinking common at the time. It was a malady that affected the governments on
both sides as well as most people in the military. As Northern Secretary of the
Navy Gideon Welles recorded of the November 1861 meeting with
The President was astonished. He had always thought in terms of moving
south down the
Jefferson Davis similarly misidentified the Union armies in
In the early part of 1862, so general an opinion prevailed that the
greatest danger to New Orleans was by an attack from above, that General Lovell
sent to General Beauregard a large part of the troops in that city.
Neither chief executive realized the possibility or
likelihood of an attack upon
the night of
This same realization spread through the rebel Army of
Tennessee, which included many Louisianans. General St. John Liddell wrote,
The effect was disheartening to everyone. A growing impression of doubt as
to our final success seemed to enter the mind of every reflecting man. It was
perceptible that nothing short of superhuman efforts could save us the
The position of the Southern Confederacy has been much improved by the
events of the last month, and it will seem that it will not be very long before
there is an attempt made to terminate this fratricidal war by a mediation that
will imply recognition.
. . . much if not
everything will depend upon the character of the intelligence we may receive
within the next three or four weeks . . . Decided success of our arms would
ensure early recognition . . .
Good news was not forthcoming, and
Although he did not directly say so, it left me fairly to infer that if
Charles Lee Lewis, biographer of Farragut, believes
There is good evidence that the failure of Napoleon III to recognize
the Confederacy and take some positive step towards bringing the war to a close
even without English cooperation was due to Farragut’s capture of
than a year after the beginning of the war, the Navy had captured the largest
and most important city in the South. Popular attention, however, was focused on
The dedication, heroism, and sacrifice of the men in the
armies is beyond question, 
but the above data and testimony of participants indicates that the U.S. Navy
played a more critical role in winning the war for the Union than is generally
acknowledged. The blockade severely impacted the South’s ability to supply its
armies and feed its people, contributing to lost opportunities on the
battlefield, dissatisfaction at home, and massive desertion. The fact that this
was a bloodless campaign does not mean it was irrelevant. At Shiloh and Malvern
Hill small numbers of Navy gunboats played a crucial part in saving important
Union armies from annihilation; such episodes of naval support were replayed
dozens of times on a lesser scale throughout the war. The independent Navy
victory at New Orleans marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy; much
hard fighting remained, but the tide was turned by Farragut’s squadron. How
did these contributions—recognized at the time by soldiers and civilians
alike—fall from our history books and public awareness? The answer may lie in
the fact that there were so many more participants ashore than afloat.
With a ratio of 26 soldiers to every sailor, the volume of
diaries, letters, articles, and unit histories was weighted in favor of the
armies from the start. After the war the number of eyewitness accounts exploded,
followed by more than a century of secondary works. The horrific land battles
that affected so many lives (soldier and civilian) were the experience of the
vast majority of the population, and eclipsed the naval aspect of the war. In
the engagements at Shiloh and Malvern Hill, the Navy’s contribution was out of
all proportion to the number of actual USN combatants: the crews of Tyler
and Lexington at Shiloh comprised roughly 100 men as opposed to 103,000
soldiers (1030:1 ratio) while those of Galena,
Jacob Bell, Mahaska, and Aroostook at
Malvern Hill were similarly outnumbered by the 175,000 soldiers involved.
Post-war publishers, with an eye towards profits and not necessarily
preservation, naturally sought to print accounts that would sell well; the
majority of readers either having been in the armies or related to someone who
was, such stories made more money than could the narrower experiences of sailors
As later generations focused on the massive base of
soldiers’ writings, the idea that the Navy had played a minor role became
No conflict in our history arouses passions among modern
Americans as can the Civil War. And yet many of the perceptions we hold as
truths developed after the fact and would appear foreign to the people of the
time. Salient among these is the idea that the U.S. Navy played a secondary role
in deciding the issue. The testimony of history is at odds with this perception.
While the Navy alone could not have won the war, the Union Army alone would
almost surely have lost it.
The Navy's problem in a nutshell: numbers.
GAR photo from North Attleboro, Massachusetts (courtesy G. Cunningham).
Public awareness of the Navy’s role is usually limited to Monitor
& Virginia and, perhaps, the
Accurate numbers are impossible to agree upon. These come from
The commissioning of cruisers to raid Northern shipping might be construed
as an offensive campaign in that it drew Union warships away from the
blockade in pursuit, but this was not conducted in conjunction with efforts
Divided Waters: The Naval
History of the Civil War, D. Musicant, Harper Collins,
Confederate Purchasing Operations Abroad, S. B. Thompson, The University of
North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1935, pp. 44-47.
Divided Waters, p .369.
Ibid., p. 104.
Confederate Purchasing Operations, pp. 97-98.
Salt as a Factor in the Confederacy, Dr E. Lonn, Walter Neal Publishers,
NYC, 1933, p. 43.
Confederate Coinage: A Short-lived Dream, by V. Samant at www.pcgs.com/articles/article3187.chtml,
 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1894 – 1922, vol. 12, pp. 772.
While some native Southerners surely indulged in profiteering, many of the
runners were owned by English firms and officered by British navy officers
on “leave.” Their stake in the war was purely monetary.
General Grant's Description of the Battle of Shiloh, From his Memoirs, at
www.swcivilwar.com/GrantMemoirsShiloh.html, August 2003.
P.G.T. Beauregard's Report of the Battle of Shiloh,
Combined Operations in the Civil War, R. Reed (United States Naval Institute
Press, Annapolis, 1978), p. 206.
P.G.T. Beauregard's Report.
Official Records--Navies, vol. 22, pp. 766.
Ships vs Shore, D. Page, Rutledge Hill Press,
Official Records - Navies, vol. 7, pp. 532-533.
Ibid., p. 533.
Ibid., pp. 533-534.
Eye of the Storm, R. Snedan, The Free Press,
Sinews of War, B. W. Bacon, Presidio Press,
Civil War Naval History, July 1862 at http://www.navyhistory.com/cwnavalhistory/July1862.html,
From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron
During the Civil War, R. M. Browning, Jr., Univ. of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa,
USMC in the Civil War—The Second Year, D. M. Sullivan, White Mane
Publishing, Shippensburg, 1997, p. 45.
Ships vs. Shore, p.40.
G. Wolseley: A Month's Visit to the Confederate Headquarters, Blackwood's
Magazine, 1863, p12.
Combined Operations, p. 181.
The Tredegar Iron Works in
Gideon Welles, John Niven,
Louisiana State Univ. Press,
The Night the War Was Lost, Charles
 The Night the War Was Lost, p. 331.
 Ibid., p. 334.
Ibid., p. 335.
 Sinews of War, p. 46.
My own ancestor was a private in Company “B” of the 4th
Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, who served throughout the war, being wounded