Exclusive online content

Uncle Sam's Web-Feet

By: Patrick J. Garrity
March 26, 2013

Damn the torpedoes! full speed ahead!" A good many, students of strategy included, might wrack our brains if suddenly challenged to name the American naval commander who uttered this immortal command. John Paul Jones? Oliver Hazard Perry? George Dewey? Bull Halsey? Many of us would take the lazy way out and Google the answer—oh, that's right, how stupid of me, Admiral David Farragut, Civil War, Battle of Mobile Bay, 1864. (Torpedo, we remind ourselves, or are reminded by Google, was the term then commonly given to naval mines.) We also learn the Farragut may not actually have used this precise expression, or said anything memorable at all, other than to order the Union fleet forward after witnessing some of his ships begin to withdraw from the attack after one of them struck a mine and sank.

The story of Farragut, naval mines, and Mobile Bay reminds us that there was much more to the Civil War than the march of Union and Confederate armies across the continent. Thus we note with pleasure the release of James M. McPherson's latest contribution to Civil War scholarship, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton University, is the undisputed dean of Civil War historians (we would now certainly include Allen Guelzo in his class), always worth reading upon whatever aspect of that conflict he chooses to write. In this instance, he offers a concise account of the maritime dimension of the great conflict, mixing details that will delight the expert with tales of derring-do for those who aren't particularly interested in the dimensions and armament of, say, Pook's Turtles. (For the curious, that was a class of Union ironclad gunboats, designed by Samuel M. Pook, which served on the Mississippi and its tributaries.)

For narrative purposes, McPherson divides the four years of the Civil War into five overlapping parts: (1) a period in which naval clashes paralleled and in part produced a first wave of Union victories in 1861-62; (2) successful Confederate resistance in 1862-63; (3) a revival of Northern momentum in the latter half of 1863; (4) Confederate resuscitation in early 1864; and (5) final Union triumph from the second half of 1864 through the end of the war. McPherson is relatively spare in his conclusions about the larger strategic implications of the war on the waters, which gives a little sea room for the student of strategy to pick and choose among specific topics of interest. We will focus on two: the effectiveness of the Union naval blockade of the Confederacy, and the South's innovative attempts to overcome its inferior maritime position.

* * *

McPherson focuses primarily on the Union navy, which was much larger in size and in relative importance compared to the sea and river-borne forces of the Confederacy. He believes that the navy deserves more credit for the Union's victory than it has traditionally received and that Farragut should be ranked equally with U.S. Grant and William Sherman as one of the Great Captains in American history. In his memoirs, Grant praised the role of the navy's Mississippi River Squadron in the capture of Vicksburg in July 1863. "Without the navy's assistance," wrote Grant, "the campaign could not have been made." Abraham Lincoln praised the role of the navy in opening the Mississippi so that "the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." The president offered this general assessment: "Nor must Uncle Sam's Web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks."

First, a few key facts about the Union navy cited by McPherson. The total military expenditures of the U.S. government in the Civil War were $6.8 billion, of which the navy cost $587 million, roughly one-twelfth the total. For the war as a whole, some 671 warships of all types carrying 4,610 guns fought in the Union navy. All but 112 of these were steamers, and 71 of them were ironclads. The Navy Department purchased 418 ships during the war and contracted for the construction of 208 more. This buildup of what was by 1865 the world's largest navy was an extraordinary achievement, for which Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and his assistant, Gustavus Fox, deserve much of the credit. Welles was much criticized at the time by merchants whose ships fell victim of Confederate commerce raiders and by the Northern press for the alleged failure of the Union blockade against the Confederacy, but he retained Lincoln's full confidence.

* * *

Incidentally, the greatest of the Northern naval commanders, Farragut, was something of an anti-Robert E. Lee. Farragut became a midshipman at age 9 and had served 50 years in the U.S. Navy when the state he called home, Virginia, voted to secede. Farragut had been born in Tennessee and was married to a Virginian. After his first wife died, he married another Virginia woman. He had a brother in New Orleans and a sister in Mississippi. "God forbid I should ever have to raise my hand against the South," he told friends in Virginia in the run-up to the war. But unlike Lee, when the balloon went up, he could not turn his back on the flag he had served since the War of 1812.

Union naval forces played three key roles in the campaigns of the Civil War: (1) maintaining a blockade of the Southern coastline and closing off the trans-Mississippi sources of supply, thus isolating the Confederacy economically and logistically; (2) seizing strategic locations through amphibious operations (for example, Hatteras Inlet, Port Royal, New Orleans, and Memphis); and (3) serving as an essential partner in combined operations with the army (notably Fort Donelson, New Bern, Island No. 10, Vicksburg, Fort Hudson, Mobile Bay, and Fort Fisher). All of these tasks included the so-called brown water navy, which operated on inland waterways such as the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Red Rivers. Old salts like Farragut always breathed a sigh of relief when they could get themselves back to open water but the Union navy developed specialized vessels, such as Pook's Turtles and Ellet's Rams, which were commanded by officers comfortable with riverine operations.

* * *

The Union navy, like the army, served as an instrument of emancipation, rather accidentally at first but then as a matter of policy. As McPherson notes, the navy penetrated earlier and more deeply than did the army into those part of Confederate territory where slavery was especially prevalent—the tidewater regions of the South Atlantic coast and the valleys of the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries. For instance, Flag Officer Samuel Du Pont's capture of Port Royal, South Carolina, and the adjacent sea islands freed nearly 10,000 slaves in November 1861. Thousands of other "contrabands" fled to Union ships and gunboats. Officers frantically asked the Navy Department what to do. In July 1861 Welles responded with preliminary instructions to allow them to "remain on board and employ them as usefully as possible." Shortly thereafter Welles announced the department's official policy: they could not be returned to slavery nor could they be subsisted indefinitely by the government. "You are therefore authorized, when their services can be made useful, to enlist them for the naval service, under the same forms and regulations as apply to other enlistments." In April 1862 Welles changed the word "authorized" to "required."

According to McPherson, the navy was a year ahead of the army in recruiting contrabands. This was made easier by the fact that since the Revolution, the U.S. merchant fleet had been manned in part by free blacks and the U.S. Navy traditionally had enrolled African- American sailors, thus paving the way for their proportionally greater role in the Civil War navy. For the war as a whole, according to McPherson, the Union navy enlisted twice the percentage of its personnel (about 17%) from this manpower pool than did the Union army.

The navy played an especially critical role in the western theater of operations, where most of the Union successes in the first half of the war were achieved through the ability to control and operate on the major rivers. The brown water navy, initially under the authority of the War Department though the ships themselves were commanded by naval officers, transported troops and supplies, bombarded Confederate fortifications, fought off Confederate ships that sought to impede Union movements, and dealt with the land-based guerrilla threats to shipping.

Inter-service relations were not always smooth, especially when Congress put the Navy Department in direct charge of the ships. Their respective commanders sometimes disagreed on strategy and tactics. On the whole, however, the main players, particularly General Grant and Flag Officers Andrew Foote and David Porter, saw eye to eye. "By tradition and law, neither commander could give orders to the other's branch of the service," McPherson writes. "But both Grant and Foote were free from the overweening egotism that seemed to infect so many other officers, and they were therefore able to work well together. They also agreed on the right strategy for their campaigns on land and water." Grant and Porter in particular shared an aggressive attitude, in contrast with some of their eastern counterparts. Personalities and common outlook overrode service interests and often confusing lines of responsibility and authority.

* * *

The effectiveness of the Union naval blockade has always been one of the most controversial subjects of Civil War scholarship. It is worth exploring as a case study of the effect of "indirect" strategic operations on the war-making potential of an adversary (and/or on the morale of its civilian population). One might compare this to the Royal Navy's blockades of the European continent in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany in World War II, and various embargoes of more recent times.

In May 1861, U.S. General in Chief Winfield Scott outlined his "Anaconda Plan" to strangle the Confederacy, in part by closing it off from the world with a blockade of the coast and through control of the Mississippi River. The potential for a blockade to constrict the Confederate war effort was, in principle, much greater than the ability of Confederate commerce raiders to damage the more mature and varied Northern economy. The Confederacy, as McPherson points out, was heavily dependent on imports of war matériel and export of cotton to pay for it. An effective blockade would do serious damage to this exchange.

But could the Union blockade be made effective? To patrol a coastline of 3,500 miles from Virginia to Texas, with hundreds of locations where cargo could be landed, seemed a monumental task. Major ports like Charleston, Wilmington, and Mobile were difficult to blockade because of the multiple navigation channels separated by shoals and protected by Confederate forts that could keep blockading ships at a distance. At Charleston, for instance, the Union navy was confronted with difficult currents and bars at the entrance to the channels, which forced the blockaders to anchor or to patrol at a considerable distance from each other.

In April 1861 the navy had 12 warships in American waters. Five of them were sailing vessels suitable for catching their own class of ship, under the right circumstances, but they were essentially useless against steamers. Twenty-six other warships, including the navy's six new steam frigates and eleven of the 13 new steam sloops constructed since 1855, were scattered from the Mediterranean Sea to the coasts of Africa and China. These took time to call home and outfit properly. As noted above, the navy expanded nearly twenty-fold during the war (not all of those ships were assigned to the blockade), but the squadron commanders complained constantly to Welles that their ships were too few, too slow, and frequently under repair due to the stress of blockade duty. Because of maintenance problems, the number of ships in each blockade squadron listed on paper bore little relationship to the actual number available on station at any given time.

* * *

One of the keys to the success of the blockade was the capture of ports along the coast, not only to choke off points of access for the blockade runners but also to provide safe harbor to resupply and repair the Union ships. The major Southern ports, such as Mobile and Charleston, did not fall until relatively late in the war, however. By mid-1862 the North Atlantic and West Gulf squadrons had shortened the down time for resupply by establishing bases at Beaufort, North Carolina, and Pensacola, Florida (which the Confederates had abandoned). Ships still had to leave their stations periodically to refill their coal bunkers, and those suffering major mechanical breakdowns were forced to steam to Northern ports that had major repair facilities. Sailing ships did not have these problems, of course, but they were almost useless for blockading large ports like Charleston, because the fast steamers and even schooners that chose their time carefully could nearly always outrun them. The Union navy responded by stationing most of their sailing vessels on an "inside blockade" in the numerous small bays and inlets that marked the coast from South Carolina to Florida, and along Florida's Gulf Coast. Blockade runners rarely tried to get in or out of these small inlets after 1861, so the inside blockade, however necessary, registered few captures.

Given all of these daunting challenges, it is not surprising that the blockade apparently leaked like a sieve. McPherson reports that five out of six blockade runners got through: some 8,000 successful trips compared with about 1,500 ships captured or destroyed. The total cargo carried by blockade runners included at least 400,000 rifles, 3 million pounds of lead, more than 2 million pounds of saltpeter (the main component of gunpowder), a million pairs of shoes, and thousands of tons of other military supplies and consumer goods. The media in the North hammered Welles whenever there was a prominent evasion of the blockade, while the press in the Confederacy exulted as Uncle Sam's nose was tweaked. On the face of it, would not the manpower and resources have been spent better elsewhere, perhaps organizing convoys of Northern merchants ships against Southern commerce raiders? Or applied directly for the benefit of the Union army?

* * *

McPherson points out that first appearances can be deceiving. The performance of the Union squadrons improved considerably over time, despite the appearance of sleeker and faster blockade runners. More and better Union blockade ships came on line and their commanders gained experience and devised appropriate tactics. The most important statistic was not how many blockade runners got through, but how many ships and how much cargo would have come in and gone out of Confederate ports absent organized efforts to impede them. Most of the successful runners were actually intra-coastal vessels traveling from one Confederate port to another. The ratio of success for steamers shipping cotton out or bringing in goods from abroad was lower: of some 1,300 attempts, about 1,000 got through.

In the four years before the war, 20,000 vessels entered and cleared Southern ports, most of them with greater cargo capacity than the 8,000 successful runners of the war years. From 1857-1860, the South exported almost 10 million bales of cotton; whereas between 1862 and the end of the war, only half a million to a million bales of cotton were exported. The price of cotton in Liverpool did increase several times above its pre-war level but the South derived little benefit because the potential profits were almost completely absorbed by escalating transport and insurance costs.

Shortages of everything that had to be imported through the blockade weakened the manufacturing-poor Confederate economy and contributed to a ruinous inflation. The lack of iron, for instance, meant that worn-out rails could not be replaced and ironclad ships could not be completed. The blockade raised domestic transportation costs in the South to the point where it was impossible to ship many bulky products, such as heavy machinery. The blockade's constriction of intra-coastal trade placed such burdens on the Confederate railroad system that it virtually broke down during the latter stage of the war. McPherson agrees with the conclusion expressed by the earliest historian of the Confederate navy, J. Thomas Scharf, who had himself served as a midshipman in that navy. The blockade, Scharf wrote, "shut the Confederacy out from the world, deprived it of supplies, weakened its military and naval strength, and compelled exhaustion, by requiring the consumption of everything grown or raised in the country." Without a blockade the Confederacy might well have prevailed, in McPherson's judgment.

* * *

Next to munitions and shoes, one of the most important products that the Confederacy tried to import through the blockade was salt, which was necessary to cure and preserve meat and to preserve hides during leather manufacture. Some of the largest potential salt deposits in the Upper South were occupied by Union troops early in the war, and many of the blockade runners, especially sailing ships, carried salt, which were subject to interdiction by the Union navy. In later years the navy played an even more direct role in stifling Southern access to this vital commodity. The Confederacy established salt-making works to boil and evaporate seawater along the coast from North Carolina to Texas, especially on Florida's Gulf coast. Northern sailors and marines carried out raids up these rivers in cutters and launches armed with boat howitzers. They drove away workers and guards and blew holes in the boilers and pans employed to evaporate the briny water. McPherson concludes that the blockade and these raids massively drove up the price of salt in the Confederacy and thus contributed to the inflation that plagued the Confederate economy.

Union naval operations of all sorts, but particularly the blockade, took place in the shadow of international relations and international law. The Confederate cause depended in large part on the attitudes of foreign governments, particularly those of Britain and France. If one or both of these nations had decided to intervene to preserve access to the supply of cotton or had otherwise sympathized strongly with the Confederacy, the Union might well have been lost. The Lincoln Administration was therefore at great pains to avoid giving them any legitimate cause of grievance. In 1861, when Union navy Captain Charles Wilkes seized two Confederate diplomats from a British-flagged vessel, the RMS Trent, Britain threatened war if the Union did not disavow the action and release the diplomats. Lincoln did so, although he and Secretary of State William Seward issued a carefully worded justification that based their concessions on the traditional American understanding of neutral rights.

The blockade created similar potential landmines—or sea mines—for the Union should the European powers decide to take offense at the restrictions placed on neutral commerce. Under international law, codified in the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 1856 (which grew out of the Treaty of Paris talks that settled the Crimean War), for a blockade to be binding on neutral powers, it had to be deemed "effective" by those powers—that is, actively enforced by the belligerent power in question. The mere declaration by a belligerent that a particular coastline and its ports were closed to commerce—a so-called "paper blockade"—was not considered binding (a position that the United States itself had long championed). It would be up to the Union fleets at Charleston and elsewhere to demonstrate that they met this standard of effectiveness, particularly in the eyes of the British, who unquestionably had the naval power to ensure that supplies reached the Confederacy if they so chose.

* * *

The Union's functional definition of military effectiveness, as we have seen, depended not on how many ships got through or were captured, but on how many never even tried to run the blockade. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell, essentially agreed with this position on behalf of his government. In a statement issued in February 1862, he announced in effect what was a corollary to the Declaration of Paris: "Assuming...that a number of ships is stationed and remains at the entrance of a port, sufficient really to prevent access to it or to create an evident danger of entering or leaving it...the fact that various ships may have successfully escaped through it...will not of itself prevent the blockade from being an effective one by international law." According to McPherson, the Russell corollary drove a stake into the heart of the Confederate effort to convince European governments of the blockade's illegitimacy.

In short, when judging the effects of the "economic" or "logistical" component of warfare, we must take into account various indirect and second-order effects, and not merely rely on a static accounting process. By this standard the Union blockade must be judged a success, despite its evident imperfections. At the same time, strategic interdiction campaigns will rarely offer a self-sufficient panacea; they must be integrated with other types of political and military operations. The Union could not have won the war through a blockade alone, relying on a strategy of starving out the Confederacy.

* * *

That brings us to the question of Confederate naval strategy and its reliance on technological and tactical innovations to overcome the Union's advantage in manpower and economic resources. The Confederacy was initially in no position to contest the Union for control of North American waters. It had almost no ships or enlisted men and only a tiny number of merchant mariners on which to draw experienced sailors. It did however have a substantial cadre of high-quality veteran officers who resigned from the U.S. Navy, much like their army counterparts had, and a first-rate secretary of the navy, Stephen R. Mallory. Mallory was a Floridian who initially opposed secession but who went with his state when it left the Union. Mallory recognized that his fledgling navy could never match the Union in quantity or in the firepower of traditional warships. A strong proponent of technological progress who was well informed about new developments in the British and French navies, Mallory focused on quality and innovation to challenge the Union blockade and to defend the Confederate coast.

Over the next four years, Mallory and his associates built a technologically advanced naval force almost from scratch. According to McPherson, the Confederacy constructed or purchased some 121 warships carrying about 400 guns, including 20 ironclads, eight torpedo boats, and two submarines. In conjunction with the Confederate Submarine Battery Service, the navy scattered thousands of naval mines—"torpedoes"—in waters that they wished to deny to Union forces. Confederate commerce raiders destroyed or captured 252 American-flagged merchant ships and whalers. Jefferson Davis originally hoped that privateers would do the job under letters of marque issued by the Confederacy, but foreign governments refused to admit prizes to their ports and the Union blockade made it too difficult to bring the prizes into Southern ports. Most of the damage to Union commerce was done instead by fast and well-armed steamers commanded by Confederate officers. They typically burned their captures rather than seizing them as prizes. Most of these cruisers were built or bought abroad—the most notorious of them being the CSS Alabama and Florida. Their existence alone weakened the blockade by forcing the Union navy to divert its ship into generally fruitless hunts for the raiders. They also crippled the U.S. merchant marine less by destroying ships than by forcing 700 American-flagged vessels into foreign registry.

The Confederacy's most famous technological innovation, of course, was the ironclad CSS Virginia, which utilized the hull and engines of the USS Merrimack, a Union steam frigate sunk to avoid capture when the Confederates seized the Norfolk Navy Yard. If successful, the Virginia and its future counterparts would have shattered the Union blockade and created an opening for foreign commerce and military intervention. Mallory put one of the Confederacy's most talented naval officers, Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, in charge of this conversion. "There is but one way of successfully combating the North," wrote Brooke, and "that is to avail ourselves of the means we possess and build proper vessels superior to those of the enemy."

Fortuitously, and completely by coincidence, the North had an answer, an ironclad based on a different design by the Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson, which arrived barely in time. The ensuing battle between the Merrimack (Virginia) and the USS Monitor is well known to history. Which ironclad won this particular showdown was less important, perhaps, than the symbolism of the battle. As McPherson notes:

The graceful frigates and powerful line-of-battle ships with their towering masts and sturdy oak timbers would gradually fade into history and legend. March 9, 1862, witnessed a giant step in the revolution in naval warfare begun a generation earlier by the application of steam power to warships.... So dramatic was the impact of this event that both sides embarked on large-scale programs to build ironclads, most of them on the models of the Virginia andMonitor.


* * *  

That is to get a bit ahead of ourselves, of course. These particular classes of vessels turned out to have significant shortcomings. They were underpowered, slow, difficult for the crew to live in, and unseaworthy. (The Monitor later foundered in a gale off Cape Hatteras.) The Confederate ironclads' engines proved unreliable while the rate of fire onMonitor-class vessels was very slow.

As for the question of who "won" that famous battle, McPherson awards the palm of tactical victory to the Monitorbecause it achieved its mission of protecting the Union's wooden warships at Hampton Roads, but points out that theVirginia won a strategic victory by infecting many Union naval officers with "ram fever." Henceforth they were inclined to be cautious whenever Confederate ironclads were rumored to be in their vicinity, especially during the critical time when naval support was needed for General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. Caution piled on caution, and a major strategic opportunity for the Union was quite possibly lost.

The Confederates also designed submarines intended to put a hole, literally and figuratively, in the Union blockading fleet. The H.L. Hunley, built in Mobile and shipped by rail to Charleston, was powered by a propeller turned with hand cranks and equipped with diving fins and water tanks for ballast. It carried a torpedo on a bow spar. On February 17, 1864, theHunley slipped outside the bar of Charleston harbor and sank the ten-gun wooden screw sloop USS Housatonic. TheHunley never returned from this mission. The Union fleet thereafter took defensive precautions, such as the use of netting and row-boat patrols. The submarine threat, McPherson observes, may have contributed to the Union navy's decision against any more major efforts to capture Charleston.

* * *

The other significant Confederate effort to defeat the blockade involved the use of ironclad rams based on cutting-edge technologies. A Confederate agent, Commander James D. Bulloch, signed a contract, ostensibly as a private citizen, with a British firm, William Laird & Son, for the construction of two such formidable warships. The original design called for the rams to displace 1,800 tons, to carry six 9-inch guns in three turrets, and to be fitted with a seven-foot iron spike on the prow for ramming enemy ships below the waterline. Under the terms of the British Foreign Enlistment Act, it was illegal for the warships of a belligerent power to be built in the British Isles. Bulloch attempted to evade the Act by having the ships armed and equipped outside Britain—the same subterfuge that he had used previously to have the commerce raidersAlabama and Florida outfitted. The British government got wind of the project and put an end to it. The American embassy, under Ambassador Charles Francis Adams, made it clear that such activities would be regarded as a breach of British neutrality and an act of hostility towards the United States.

Bulloch then shifted his efforts to France, which had shown a sympathetic attitude toward the Confederacy. In 1863 Bulloch contracted with French shipbuilders for the construction of four "corvettes" as commerce raiders, and for two ironclad rams. U.S. diplomatic pressure again held sway, at least indirectly, because Napoleon III was increasingly anxious not to antagonize Washington as he continued his plans to impose a monarchical government in Mexico. Napoleon ordered the corvettes seized and sold to "bona fide" purchasers. The Confederate envoy in Paris, John Slidell, informed Secretary of State Judah Benjamin that "no further attempts to fit out ships of war in Europe should be made at present.... This is a most lame and impotent conclusion to all our efforts to create a Navy."

As in the case of the Union blockade, we see the many indirect effects that Confederate naval innovations had on the enemy's strategy and capacity for war. The latter proved to be insufficient, however, to help bring about military victory. The Union too proved to be highly innovative. It possessed and mobilized an abundance of economic and manufacturing resources that proved sufficient to offset the Confederacy's asymmetric strategy. The Union's astute diplomacy and the economic and geographic leverage it possessed (e.g., over Britain in Canada and over France in Mexico) eventually closed off the Confederacy's hope of tapping in to foreign manufacturing technology.

In the end, the dynamic of the Civil War at sea and on the rivers of North America pointed unmistakably in the direction of naval conflicts in the coming century and beyond. The re-United States began to participate fully in that revolution several decades later.