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The blockade of the entire Southern coast, the beginning of which has been described in Chapter XV, was in part prompted by the proclamation of President Davis, April 17, 1861, calling for privateers to prey on the commerce of the Northern States. In respect to both the blockade and privateering, the United States, although not a signatory to the Declaration of Paris of 1856, was considerably affected by it. In this compact the great powers of Europe had defined a blockade to be binding only when it had been made effectual (thus refusing to recognize "paper blockades"); and they had agreed not to resort to privateering. To make Europe respect the blockade, therefore, the North was obliged to put forth prodigious efforts to close the Southern ports; and yet, since the United States had not signed the Declaration of Paris, the North was precluded from objecting to the South's resorting to that last hope of a country without a navy — privateering. Furthermore, as a nation does not blockade its own ports, the adoption of this mode of warfare against the South put the Union in an anomalous position. In spite of the efforts of the administration at Washington at the beginning to regard the closure of ports in the nature of an embargo, or "domestic municipal duty," Europe could not so consider it, and hence the proclamation of a blockade left England no alternative except to recognize the South as a belligerent. This England did in a proclamation of neutrality on May 13; but she declined to go beyond this, and refused to recognize p389 the Confederate States as a sovereign power. To make the blockade effective, therefore, so as to avoid European intervention, the small navy of the United States had before it an enormous task; for by "effective," within the meaning of the law of nations, was understood that there must be "evident danger in entering or leaving port." In spite of the greatness of the undertaking, this blockade was legally effective after being in operation six months. Furthermore, by the capture of one Southern port after another, the cordon was drawn so tight that it became gradually a military occupation.
In accordance with President Davis' proclamation, letters of marque were issued to owners of private vessels. As the North had a commerce ranking second in the world at that time, this was a means of striking the Union in its most vulnerable point; on the other hand, the South had no commerce on which the North could retaliate. The later stringency of the blockade, and the nondescript character of the letters of marque, caused the gradual dying out of this mode of war — not, however, before considerable damage had been done on the unsuspecting trading vessels of the North.
The first privateer to be captured, the Savannah, brought up anew the question of the status of the Confederacy. The crew of this vessel were tried for treason, on the ground that they were levying war against their own country. Moreover, the North maintained that an insurgent's man-of‑war was, in the eyes of international law, a pirate. The crew of the Savannah were kept in prison for several months, but no further penalty was applied. The South had threatened to treat a like number of army prisoners in its hands in the same way that the Federal Government dealt with the Savannah's crew. Lincoln had from the first been in favor of a liberal policy, and the insurrection had assumed such proportions that it p390 would have impossible to regard a whole section of the country as guilty of treason. No real justification could be given for imprisoning privateersmen as pirates, and on February 16, 1862, they were put on the same footing as army prisoners.
The blockade began at Hampton Roads, which was nearest to both centres of government. The only serious attempt to break it at this point was made by the Merrimac. The other two lines of blockade were on the Atlantic and the Gulf coasts. In the Gulf the capture of New Orleans, the principal commercial city in that quarter, made the task less difficult than along the Atlantic, and as the plans of operation of the two squadrons were very similar, we can gain sufficient idea of the operations of the blockaders by considering only the work of the Atlantic squadron.
The duties of this squadron proved so difficult that it was divided early in the war between two squadrons: the North Atlantic, under Goldsborough, and later under Porter; and the South Atlantic, successively under DuPont and Dahlgren. The task of these squadrons was arduous for several reasons: the Atlantic seaboard from the Carolinas to Florida, with its numerous inlets and sand bars, has practically a double coast line; several friendly ports not far away, particularly Nassau and the small towns of the Bermudas, gave the blockade-runners a convenient market for the cotton so much needed by British manufacturers; furthermore, specially designed steam blockade-runners, connecting the three important commercial centres, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah with Nassau and Europe, kept the squadron always on the qui vive.
This remarkable type of vessel, the blockade-runner, had no armament to speak of, nor was it intended to make any resistance. It was presumably a merchantman. p391 The South, not being a manufacturing community, had to import munitions, and to pay for military stores it had to send abroad its one great staple, cotton. To effect this exchange and to elude the Federal ships, the blockade-runners early in the war came into being. As the cordon of Northern vessels grew more taut, there was an increasing need in the South for ships whose main points were speed, stowage space, and invisibility. "The typical blockade runner of 1863‑64 was a long, low side-wheel steamer of from 400 to 600 tons, with a slight frame, sharp and narrow, its length perhaps nine times its beam. It had feathering paddles, and one or two raking telescopic funnels, which might be lowered close to the deck. The hull rose only a few feet out of the water, and was painted a dull gray, or lead color. . . . Its spars were two short lower-masts, with no yards, and only a small crow's-nest on the form known as 'turtle-back' to enable the vessel to go through a heavy sea. Anthracite coal, which made no smoke, was burned in the furnaces. . . . When running in, all lights were put out; the binnacle and fire-room hatch were carefully covered, and steam was blown off under water."1
The blockading squadrons had to be eternally vigilant, with steam up night and day, to catch these vessels, which frequently made fifteen knots. Some of the Northern ships cruised in wide circuits in the neighborhood of Nassau and the Bermudas, where they were often more successful than nearer home; the unsuspecting blockade-runner was thus at times caught off his guard. To circumvent the vigilant Northern fleets, the steamers, with their cargoes of "hardware," the innocent name under which they listed the arms and ammunition in their holds, practised p392 every ruse to avoid capture. When the beacon lights on the coast were extinguished, these craft made their dash for port, guided by signal fires, or by the lights on the blockading fleet. If the squadron commander, discovering this, kept a light only on the flagship, or on a different blockader every night, the information was carried with remarkable speed to Nassau, and the next runner was ready for the new order of things. At one time an order was issued that a vessel, discovering a steamer slipping in under cover of darkness, should fire a gun in the direction the pursued was taking, in order to give a clue of the whereabouts of the chase. A few days afterwards blockade-runners were equipped with rockets to be shot off at right angles to the intended course. Wilkinson, in his interesting Narrative of a Blockade-Runner, describes another device frequently used by the pursued vessel. The engineer was ordered to make a black smoke; at the moment when the lookout with his glass gave the word that the pursuer in the gathering twilight was just out of sight, the dampers were closed, and the runner sped away in a different direction, leaving the Union vessel to chase a shadow. The start from Nassau or the ports in the Bermudas was made when there would be a high tide and no moonlight for the run into port. If very hard pressed, the pursued vessel might run ashore, where a nearby battery could cover the landing of the cargo, though the vessel might be sacrificed.
Many of the blockade-runners were owned by companies financed by Southern and British investors. Even the Confederate Government shared in the business. Suitable vessels were bought in England, and were put in command of naval officers of the Southern Government. One of these owned by the Government was the famous R. E. Lee, a Clyde-built side-wheel steamer, which, under the able Captain Wilkinson, ran the blockade successively p393 twenty‑one times within a year. Indeed, this vessel and the Kate made trips as regularly as a packet. The traffic became so profitable that even officers of the British Navy condescended to take command, under assumed names, for ships often paid as high as £1000 to their captains for the round trip from a Southern port to Nassau. With cotton at four pence a pound in Wilmington, and two shillings a pound in Liverpool, these captains could gain sufficient to retire on after six months' service. The companies engaged in this lucrative trade could afford to lose a vessel after two successful trips.
The strictness of the blockade and the occupation of one Southern port after another eventually put an end to this trade. During the war the blockading fleets captured or destroyed 1150 vessels, with their cargoes, aggregating in value $30,000,000.
After the capture of Port Royal, DuPont had directed his energy to making the blockade — especially of Charleston — thoroughly effective. The able Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Fox, who had the greatest faith in monitors, hurried as many of these "marvelous vessels" to DuPont as he could, and ordered the latter to capture Charleston.
This city was well defended by a large army under Beauregard, by numerous forts, by ironclads, and by mines, to say nothing of the natural defenses of sand bars, which kept the blockading fleet well outside and gave the shallow draft blockade-runners an opportunity to make their dashes through the inlets. Moreover, the harbor was a veritable cul de sac, from which there was little chance of escape for vessels of any type once caught inside.
The Confederates made several attempts to break the p394 blockade on the South Atlantic coast, which kept DuPont's attention too much occupied to risk the loss of vessels in premature attempts on Charleston. In January, 1863, the ironclad rams Chicora and Palmetto State emerged early one morning from Charleston harbor and inflicted signal damage on the wooden gunboats Mercedita and Keystone State, before the scattered blockaders could close in on the rams. In this affair there seems, on the Union side, to have been a lack of co‑operation and of rapid communication by signal; for the dispersed ships took the sally of the rams for one of the frequent attempts of blockade-runners, and when they came up the Confederate vessels were retreating to the cover of the forts. As a result of this attack Beauregard, by proclamation, declared that the blockade of Charleston was raised, a statement which was soon proved untrue.
Admiral DuPont determined to test the new monitors before he made his attempt on Charleston. These vessels were still largely an experiment, and the commander of the squadron was by no means so sure of their endurance against powerful forts as was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. With this object in view, DuPont sent, in February, 1863, the Montauk to test her powers against Fort McAllister. At this time the Nashville, a Confederate cruiser, was lying in the Great Ogeechee River behind the fort. With her cargo of cotton, she had been trying some time to slip through the blockade. Captain Worden, of the Montauk, found that he could bear the fire of the earthwork with little damage to his vessel, but he noticed also that he did no harm to the fort. Moreover, as the Nashville had retreated up the river, he could not get within striking distance of her. Worden kept a close watch, however, and on the evening of February 27, after a careful reconnoissance, he discovered that the Nashville was aground. Waiting until daylight, that he p395 might see better, he planted his ironclad under the guns of Fort McAllister, and coolly dropped his 11‑inch and 15‑inch shells with fatal precision upon the Nashville; in a few minutes the cruiser was in flames, and later blew up. The Montauk, under the concentrated fire of the fort, had been hit only five times, and retreated unharmed from her target practice. On her way out, however, she struck a torpedo, which caused a serious leak, necessitating her running on a mud flat for temporary repairs. She was able later to rejoin the fleet.
Shortly afterwards three monitors were sent to make a further test against the same fort. In these attacks the vessels did little damage to the fort, and the admiral wrote to the Department, "Whatever degree of impenetrability they might have, there was no corresponding quality of destructiveness against forts."
Under Department coercion, however, Admiral DuPont, with the New Ironsides2 and his seven monitors, made an attack on Charleston on April 7, 1863. The channel was not deep enough for vessels of the draft of the Ironsides; moreover, there was continual danger from the torpedoes at the entrance to the harbor. After an hour's fighting under these difficulties, DuPont withdrew his ships to ascertain the damage received, with the purpose of renewing the battle next day, if after consultation with his captains he felt the risk was not foolhardy. The ironclad Keokuk, which had been stationed nearest to Fort Sumter, had been struck ninety times, nineteen shot p396 penetrating her below the water line. Both her turrets were pierced in many places. She sank the following morning. The other vessels had been struck in a degree corresponding to their proximity to the forts. The defenses of Charleston, on the other hand, seemed practically intact.
In spite of another proclamation of General Beauregard that the blockade of Charleston was raised as a result of the battle of April 7, Admiral DuPont quickly repaired his vessels and kept the cordon of ships around the harbor. General Gilmore, a Federal engineer of great ability, succeeded in landing troops at Morris Island, and thus enabled the fleet to operate closer in shore and render blockade-running more difficult than before.
At this time information came to the fleet that the powerful ram Atlanta and other Confederate ironclads at Savannah were about to leave Wilmington River for Warsaw Sound to break up the blockade in this vicinity. The Atlanta, formerly the Fingal, a Clyde-built iron steamer, had been transformed into a ram. The usual heavy-timbered casemate covered with •four inches of iron had been superposed on the razed deck. Brooke rifles were so placed in the casemate as to be fired either laterally or fore-and‑aft. Admiral DuPont dispatched two monitors, the Weehawken, Captain John Rodgers, and the Nahant, Captain Downes, to intercept the Atlanta.
Early on the morning of June 17, 1863, Captain Rodgers discovered the ram coming down the river. With the cool deliberation that characterized him, Rodgers let the ram open fire and approach to within 300 yards of the Weehawken. Then he discharged his huge Dahlgren smooth-bores. The first four shot struck with terrific effect. The very first missile, a 15‑inch cored shot, penetrated the armor. Just fifteen minutes after the Weehawken p397 opened, the Atlanta hauled down her colors. The Nahant did not get a chance to take part in the contest.
Captain Rodgers was an excellent disciplinarian, and by much practice had made his men skilled marksmen. On the other hand, the Atlanta had a new crew, and went into battle in great hurry and disorder. Of the eight shot which she fired, none hit. The result showed also that in the contest between armor and guns, some improvement had been made in penetrating power since the day when the first Monitor tried to pierce the Merrimac.
Admiral DuPont decided not to renew the attack on Charleston without the co‑operation of a large land force. The admiral, earlier in his career, had shown no compunction in attacking, even with wooden vessels, Port Royal, but on that occasion he could pass the forts and attack them from the rear. On account of his decision not to make another attempt on Charleston, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy ordered Admiral Dahlgren to the command of the South Atlantic squadron; the latter relieved DuPont on July 6, 1863.
Admiral Dahlgren soon realized that much was expected of him. He was told that Charleston must be taken. Yet his judgment coincided with his predecessor's; and when, goaded by official pressure and newspaper attacks, he called in October a council of war, finding that his officers thought as he did, he decided not to attack Charleston with his present force. The city was finally taken sixteen months later by a powerful army operating from the rear. General Hardee, who had escaped from Savannah before the capture of that city by Sherman, had assumed command of the Confederate forces at Charleston. Hemmed in here by Sherman's army, he was compelled to evacuate on February 18, 1865.
We have seen in a former chapter that the North Atlantic squadron under Goldsborough wrested the control of the North Carolina sounds from the Confederates and destroyed the Albemarle, the greatest menace to the blockade in these waters. After Goldsborough was relieved, Admiral Lee took command and brought the squadron to a still higher degree of efficiency. In October, 1864, Admiral David D. Porter succeeded Lee and began preparations for the capture of Fort Fisher.
David D. Porter
The possession of this earthwork, commanding "the last gateway between the Confederate States and the outside world," was of the utmost importance to the North to end the long-drawn‑out agony of the war. It defended the approach to Wilmington, N. C., on which the starving, ill‑clad, and poorly equipped remnant of Lee's army depended for its supplies of food, clothing, and ammunition, brought by blockade-runners from Nassau. The stores of flour in Virginia were exhausted; bread was three dollars (Confederate currency) a loaf in Richmond, and Lee's army was on half-rations. Meat, too, was very scarce, and the soldiers often eked out their scanty fare with rats, muskrats, etc. Lee had informed Colonel Lamb, the commander of Fort Fisher, that if Wilmington was lost, his troops would have to fall back from Richmond. The importance of Wilmington to the Confederates may be inferred from the fact that "between October 26, 1864, and January, 1865, 8,632,000 lbs. of meat, 1,507,000 lbs. of lead, 1,933,000 lbs. of saltpetre, 546,000 pairs of shoes, 316,000 pairs of blankets, half a million pounds of coffee, 69,000 rifles, and 43 cannon were obtained through this port from the outer world, while cotton sufficient to pay for these purchases was exported."3
p399 On December 20, 1864, the largest fleet hitherto assembled under the Union flag, commanded by Admiral Porter, and accompanied by 6500 troops under General Butler, arrived off Fort Fisher. The armada consisted of nearly sixty vessels, five of which were ironclads; the powerful New Ironsides and the four monitors, Monadnock, Canonicus, Saugus, and Mahopac. In Porter's fleet were also our largest steam-frigates, Minnesota, Colorado, and Wabash.
Fort Fisher was situated at the southern extremity of a narrow tongue of land, called Federal Point. The earthwork was in the shape of a right angle, the vertex of which pointed northeast. One leg of this angle extended westward across the peninsula from the ocean to Cape Fear River, and the other ran southward along the sea‑shore. Hence the fort had a land face and a sea face. It was the best-constructed earthwork known, and had the most recent ideas adopted in its structure. The parapets were •twenty-five feet thick. Heavy traverses had been constructed to protect the gunners against enfilading fire, and there were numerous bomb-proof chambers. On the land face twenty heavy guns were mounted, and on the sea face twenty-four, all in barbette, and among these guns, which ranged •six to ten inches, were columbiads, Brooke, and Blakely rifles, a 150‑pounder Armstrong, and some mortars. Moreover, in front of the land face was a high palisade of logs pierced for musketry, and farther out, a network of subterranean torpedoes was set as a defense against infantry. The defenders of this great work, however, had many difficulties to overcome. The walls of the fort were so massive that soldiers in the gun chambers could not see the approach immediately in front for •a hundred feet. Hence they had to expose themselves on the parapet to make a reconnoissance of an attack at close quarters. To defend the huge work, p400 Colonel Lamb had only 1900 men. His supply of ammunition was also small; he had not over 3600 shot and shell for his forty-four heavy guns and three mortars, and only thirteen shells for his 150‑pounder Armstrong.
On the night of December 23, the Louisiana, an old Union gunboat, loaded with powder, was sent in close to the fort and exploded by means of a clockwork device. This preliminary attempt to destroy the earthwork proved an utter failure. The next day the Federal fleet in four great lines made the attack. The first line bombarded the land face; the ironclads, which constituted a separate unit, anchored farther inshore to concentrate their fire on the bastion at the northeast salient; lines numbers two and three attacked the sea face; and the reserve line was to land troops, cover landings, and carry dispatches. The ships kept up the bombardment all day of the 24th. The next day, Christmas, the troops landed, but General Butler, after a reconnoissance, declared that "the place could not be carried by assault, as it was left substantially unimpaired by the navy fire." To the great dissatisfaction of Porter and Grant, the first attack on Fort Fisher proved an "ignominious failure." The fleet had suffered little damage from the fort's fire, but the bursting of 100‑pounder Parrott rifles on five of the Union vessels had killed sixteen men and wounded many others.
General Grant, at the request of the Secretary of the Navy, immediately sent, in Butler's stead, General Terry, an officer of great decision. On January 13, the fleet, in formation like that of the previous attack, renewed the bombardment of Fort Fisher. Line number one shelled the woods to the north of the land face to clear the way, and by afternoon 6000 troops, with twelve days' provisions, were landed. The fleet's fire continued night and day. The vessels aimed with deliberation, making the guns of the fort their targets. Notwithstanding the p401 slow shooting, the naval fire of the fleet's 600 guns, Colonel Lamb tells us, amounted often to two shots per second, while the gunners in the fort, being compelled to husband their ammunition, were ordered to fire each piece only once every half hour. In the interim of firing, the gunners took refuge in the bomb-proofs, but the bursting of the 11‑ and 15‑inch shells from the New Ironsides and the monitors, to say nothing of the countless shot from the other vessels, was doing terrible execution in the little garrison. Colonel Lamb had appealed in vain to General Bragg for reinforcements.
Second Attack on Fort Fisher, January 13‑15, 1865
General Terry was meanwhile entrenching himself •two miles north of the fort. All day of the 14th and the following night the fleet kept up the relentless fire on the earthwork, especially on the land face, with the purpose of making the attack for the troops as easy as possible. The network of torpedoes had been cut to pieces by the navy gunners. Admiral Porter and General Terry had prearranged the final plan of assault. At a signal from the troops, the fleet was to change the direction of its fire, and a detachment of sailors and marines was to attack the sea face, while the soldiers were to attempt to scale the parapets at the western end of the land face.
On the morning of the 15th, the navy gunners, who had had ample practice to get accurate range, renewed the storm of shot and shell, and by noon there was but one serviceable heavy gun left on the land face. By three in the afternoon the signal came from General Terry, and at the blast of the whistles of fifty vessels, the direction of the navy fire was changed to the higher parts of the earthwork. The detachment of sailors and marines, armed only with cutlasses and revolvers, advanced along a •half‑mile of sand dunes, exposed to the rifles of the defenders, and to the enfilading fire of grape and shells from the guns of the fort. The 2000 sailors, in three divisions, p403 under Lieutenant-Commander Breese, acted as a diversion, and thus helped toward the success of the troops. But, although the blue-jackets showed magnificent courage, yet in their exposed positions, with no means of throwing up entrenchments, they were foredoomed to failure in their attack. The navy lost 300 killed and wounded in this assault.
Meanwhile the troops were taking one traverse after another on the land face. The accurate fire, especially of the Ironsides, prepared the way for the capture by the soldiers of each new traverse to the eastward. Under the cover of night, the disorganized companies of sailors and marines emerged from their shelters behind sand dunes, and crept around the northeast salient to join the soldiers in their attack. The Confederates were compelled to abandon the bastion, and then one traverse after another on the sea face. Colonel Lamb and his handful of men, having fought to the last ditch, surrendered at ten o'clock on the night of the 15th.
The capture of Fort Fisher had cost the Federal army 691 men, and the navy 309, killed, wounded, and missing, but the results were worth while. The fall of Fort Fisher opened the way for General Schofield, who now joined Terry and assumed command, to capture Wilmington a few weeks later. Of this event, Scharf, the Confederate historian, says: "The fall of Wilmington was the severest blow to the Confederate cause which it could receive from the loss of any port. It was far more injurious than the capture of Charleston, and, but for the moral effect, even more hurtful than the evacuation of Richmond. With Wilmington open, the supplies that reached the Confederate armies would have enabled them to maintain an unequal contest for years; but with the fall of Fort Fisher the constant stream of supplies was effectually cut off." In March, Schofield joined Sherman, p404 who was marching up through the Carolinas. In April Lee retreated from Richmond to meet his fate at Appomattox.
The surrender of Lee at Appomattox practically ended the war. After the capture of Mobile, which took place contemporaneously with Grant's victory over Lee, the Confederate troops and ships in Alabama retreated up the Tombigbee River. On May 4, Commander Farrand, in charge of the Confederate naval forces in this State, made a proposal to give up all vessels under him. "On the 10th of May the formal surrender took place, and the insurgent navy ceased to be an organization. . . . On the second of June, Galveston was surrendered, and the supremacy of the Government was once more established on the entire coast, from Maine to and including Texas.
"Immediately after the fall of Fort Fisher and the capture of Wilmington, measures were taken for the gradual reduction of the naval forces employed on the duties of blockade. The recovery of Charleston, Mobile, and Galveston justified a still further diminution, and as these events occurred, measures were promptly taken to reduce the squadrons and economize expenses."4 Finally, by a series of proclamations of President Andrew Johnson, made from May 22 to August 29, 1865, the blockade of Southern ports was gradually ended.
The importance of the control of the sea was strikingly exemplified in the Civil War. For the reason that the Union navy had this control it often exercised a shaping influence in events. Its work consisted of both p405 what it accomplished and what it prevented the Confederate navy from accomplishing.
The great achievements of the navy were the blockade of the Confederate coast and the splitting of the Confederacy into two parts by taking the Mississippi River. Both of these operations were essential for the shutting off of munitions and supplies from Confederate armies fighting in the east. The war was primarily a land fight, and the greatest campaigns were aimed at Richmond. The heart of the Confederacy was in Virginia, and when the navy stopped the flow of the life currents, one by one, the heart was no longer nourished, and the end came.
Further the importance of the control of the sea was shown in what the North, with its organized naval force, prevented the south, with no organization at the beginning, from doing. The South had an ambitious building program, and the Merrimac, Albemarle, Mississippi, Manassas, and Tennessee (which were only part of this program), crude though they were, at various times made the North tremble. If the South could have brought in the necessary materials and ship builders, these and other craft might have changed the character of the blockade. So strong was the Southern army, and so well adapted was their territory for defense, that without the blockade we can only speculate as to how long the war would have lasted and what would have been its outcome.
While it remains true that the Civil War was primarily a military war, still the army received great help from the navy, and vice versa. The Mississippi could probably not have been opened without Farragut's help, and, on the other hand, the navy needed a Sherman to bring about the capture of Charleston.
2 The New Ironsides was a ship-rigged armor-clad, the most powerful vessel in the Northern Navy. Over her heavy oak framework she had •four inches of armor. With her engines of 1800 horsepower and her sails she could make eleven knots. Her armament consisted of sixteen 11‑inch Dahlgren guns and of two 200‑pounder Parrott rifles.
3 Cambridge Modern History, VII, 557. Figures taken from the report of the Confederate Secretary of the Treasury.
4 Report of the Secretary of the Navy, December, 1865, pp. viii, ix.
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