Naval Operations During The Civil War Essay

, Research Paper


At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, there was little reason to suspect that the United States Navy would play a very big role in the war. The Confederate Navy had absolutely no navy, nor did they have the ability to create one. The south did not contain a single plant that could create a marine engine. (Carrison, page #17) The government of the Confederate States got underway in the spring of 1861, totally unprepared from a naval standpoint to uphold the independence it had declared. (Confederate Forces Afloat, page #1)

The Confederacy lacked the adequate means to conduct an offensive of defensive war. ( page 1a) They needed ships to defend its long coastline and inland waterways, to carry war to its northern shores, or to conduct the foreign trade, vital to its existence. To this bleak outlook was added but limited hope to acquiring or constructing a navy. Nevertheless, inspired determination and ingenuity evinced particularly by the more than 300 able officers who resigned from the United States Navy to support the southern cause. These men culminated in the rapid appearance of many varied types of forces afloat under the Confederate flag. ( page 2a)

The States Navy provided the foundation for the events to follow. The seceding states confiscated small United States ships, such as revenue cutters, coast survey ships, and lighthouse tenders. They also purchased others from northern owners as well as southern owners. They quickly started building additional vessels better suited for warfare. ( page #2a) Also, the states that seceded automatically took with them the naval forces they had already accumulated. As the war went on, the confederacy created a better defense for their major ports, inland waterways, and the south?s vast coastline. The better defense included the ironclads and the submarines. (Reader?s Digest, page #144)

Lincoln and his Secretary of Navy, Gideon Welles, resolved early to weaken the south by blockading its major ports. The union, however, did not have the size to pull off an operation of this magnitude. Many months passed before the United States Navy was large enough to enforce this blockade. (Nevins, page #410) As the war waged on the union forces pecked away at southern Confederate ports. Through this campaign the Federal forces took many key places such as Fort Hatteras, N.C. and Port Royal, S.C. Over the next year New Orleans, Roanoke Island, New Bern, N.C., Fort Mason, N.C., Fort Pulaski, GA, and Pensacola, FL all fell into the hands of the Union. The Confederates rallied briefly in 1863 and managed t hold their remaining coastal works, notably Charleston, S.C. The Confederate Navy could never match the growth of the United States navy. (

Northern fleets continued to apply pressure to the southern shores. Two engagements marked the effectiveness of the coastal attacks. On August 15, 1864 Admiral David Farragut led a squadron into a mine-infested Mobile Bay with the battle cry: ?Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!? Five months later, on January 15,1865, Federal forces stormed and captured Fort Fisher, N.C., the last great southern defense on the Atlantic Coast. (

The Southern States being born without a navy and never able to develop a fleet that could compete with the growing navy of the United States had a hard time defeating the United States at sea. Their lack of funds and ship building materials were no help either. The union effectively blocked the building of Confederate Warships in Great Britain through their diplomacy. The Confederates, with odds against them, never stopped trying. Eventhough their naval efforts were constricted for the most part to operations by privateers, blockade runners, and undertakings by individual ship owners. (Boatner page #126)

Most of twenty Confederate raiders that were commissioned achieved considerable fame before they were destroyed. For example, the C.S.S. Florida, under Captain John Newland Maffit, captured thirty-four34 ships before she herself was seized in Brazil in 1864. The English-built Alabama, commanded by Ralph Semmes, took sixty-two prizes in two years on the high seas. On June19, 1864, was sunk off the coast of France in a historic battle with the U.S.S. Kearsage. (Boatner page #127)

The Confederates made several notable innovations during the naval warfare. One was an Ironclad Ram, named the Arkansas, and hastily built in the summer of 1862 to combat Federal ships on the Mississippi River. The Arkansas was constructed of wood, railroad rails, wire, and pieces of iron collected from all over the south. The monster-like vessel created momentary havoc among the Federal gunboats. However, its captain was forced to scuttle the ship near

Baton Rouge Louisiana after its engine failed. (Http://

The Confederacy also boasted the first submarine of modern design. The thirty-five foot H.L. Hunley sank four times with its crews during trial runs. Nevertheless, on the night of Feburay 17, 1864, the little vessel torpedoed and sank the U.S.S. Housatonic in Charleston Harbor. The Hunley and its fifth crew of seven perished in the explosion. In addition to the submarine the, Confederates also developed the water mine and the torpedo boat. The latter was a small vessel propelled by a steam engine. It drifted along the surface with a torpedo suspended to the end of a long spar. The first of these torpedo boats, the David, appeared in Charleston Harbor in October 1863 and seriously damaged the blockading warship New Ironsides. (

The Confederacy had to come up with new innovations such as these. They were the only hope to prevent the Union forces from capturing their port cities. Or heading into the inland water ways. The Mississippi River for example would have been a great prize for the Union. If they had the Mississippi River then they would have cut the Confederacy into smaller portions. ?He who controls the Great Mississippi controls Arkansas and Texas and the South!? (

Some ships served under direct army control. The Mississippi River Defense fleet, composed of Fourteen ships manned by the army under the overall command of Captain J.E. Montgomery, C.S.N., was one such organization; which operated in 1862. A second army group the Texas Marine Department, established in 1861, was charged with defense of coastal waters and rivers, especially in the vicinity of Galveston. The department employed more than twenty-five ships, including gunboats, transports, repair ships, and coal barges. Elsewhere, the army carried men and materials over the river highways that they controlled, manned, and sometimes even captained. (http://sunsite.unc edu/usa/civil_war_pub/)

While defending their inland waterways and many coastal ports; the Confederacy tried weakening the Union forces by interupting trade with other counties. Trade was vital to both the southern and the northern economies. The south also defended itself by drawing ships out of the blockades into traps they would have setup in waters surrounding the harbors of their port towns

or on the inland riverways. The Confederacy would set debris or ships, at strategic points up in the inland waterways, like behind a bend in the river an iron warship would be waiting to attack.

The Union and the Confederacy both tried to invent new seagoing vessels to out maneuver the opposition. Both came up with the idea of an ?ironclad? ship. The Union used these vessels more readily because of the materials and factories that were established in the north. The Union?s first ?ironclads? were not completely covered with iron. They were partially covered to help defend against attackers. These ships were also very useful in the blockade around the entire southern coastline. The south had a hard enough time trying get up it?s own navy to defend the strategic ports. The Union just did not develop these ships to the full extent they should have to completely overrun the southern navy.

The most famous thing about the civil war navies would most likely be the battles between the Monitor and the Merrimac. The Merrimac was a impregnable Confederate ship of iron. It was sent out against the whole wooden fleet of the Union in Hampton Roads. Great parties of observers watched the iron monster from the shores. It?s two big smoke stakes, bulky looking body, and the mass of gunports turn it into a grimacing looking creature from the deep as she easily defeated the Cumberland and the Congress. It was not long however before the Union had their own ironclad vessel. (Carrison page #20) She was called the Monitor, she had a three hundred and sixty degree revolving gun and sat low in water. The Merrimac sat at least seven feet above water. The Monitor however sat at deck level with only her nineteen-foot-diameter turret to be seen. (Braynard page #82) The Monitor was raced down from the Brooklyn Naval Yard to Hampton Roads just in time to save the day. On March 9, 1862, the Virginia (Merrimac) came out for more sport only to see two eleven inch guns and eight layers of one inch armor. The battle between the worlds first two ironclads was indecisive because neither was a victor. The Monitor may however be judged the victor because the Virginia had to never challenged a fight again. Both sides however claimed victories. The echoes from that day were said to be heard around the world. (Braynard page#83) The Monitor and the Merrimac played extreme roles in the civil war because without the Monitor ?who knows the south might have won.? They were also the basis for our ships of iron and steel today.

The Confederacy eventhough being great underdogs, trough very intelligent ingenuity, almost pulled off an incredible upset and in my opinion they would have had it not been for the Monitor.

It?s sad to because the most significant and innovative advancements in the war were alowed to advance after the war the great confederate ships were sold scraped or allowed to rot in their ship graveyards. People went back to sails and stopped using steam engines on ships. It was a loss of technology. (Carrison page #20)


Source Author

The United States Navy Daniel J. Carrison

The Story of Ships Frank Osborn Braynard

Internet Http://

Internet Http://

Civil War Dictionary Mark Boatner

The War of the Union Allan Nevins

The Story of America The Reader?s Digest

Internet Confederate Forces afloat



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