Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Did the Union Blockade of the South Really Work?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on March 9, 2014


Craig Symonds recently gave an interview with the Walter Edgar’s Journal show on South Carolina ETV, discussing the naval war in 1864. Symonds has a recent book out, The Civil War at Sea, that I’ve not read, but his 2008 work, Lincoln and His Admirals, is very good.

This entire interview is worthwhile, but I liked Symonds’ response to the (seemingly) simple question, “did the blockade really work?” Turns out, ain’t so simple:

SymondsThat’s a great question, “did it work?” And it depends on what you mean by work. Did it affect the Confederacy’s ability to conduct this war, did it affect the attitude of the people who had to sustain that war, and the Davis administration and his war policy, and I think the answer to that is yes.
Most historians who try to grapple with this issue do so by appealing to statistics, to numbers. And, I know you had Steve Wise on this program not too long ago, and Steve has done probably the best accounting of the number of ships that engaged in blockade-running. There were some sailing ships early in the war, but by 1862 it was evident that sailing ships just weren’t going to be able to do it, so steamships had to be the way this got done, if it got done at all.
And Steve counted up and there were three hundred and one steam-powered ships that actively participate in blockade-running in the section of the war we’re interested in, in 1863 to 1864. And of those, they made an average number of runs of four, in other words, two in, two out, and then they either retired on the wealth that they’d accumulated or decided to go into some other business. So, if you add all that up you can calculate that there are about fifteen hundred different attempts to run the blockade, and over a thousand of those were successful. So statistics would suggest that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all attempts be steam-powered ships to violate the blockade successfully did that. So how effective was [the blockade]?
On the other hand, there’s another way to turn that statistical coin over, and look at it from another point of view. Of those three hundred and one ships, two- hundred and eighty-two of them were [eventually] captured or destroyed by running aground and being wrecked on the coast. So it’s also true that roughly three-quarters of all the ships that tried to violate the blockade were [ultimately] captured or destroyed. So both of these statements are true. Three-quarters of all ships that tried to run through it made [on any given attempt], and three-quarters of all the ships that tried to run through were destroyed. Statistics are not always as helpful as you think they might be.
But here’s the statistic that I appeal to most often. And that is, if you take the twelve-month period prior to Fort Sumter, and calculate the total number of ships that came out of southern ports, the ports belonging to the states of the Confederacy, and the tonnage of goods, and compare that with the twelve months after Fort Sumter, and this was when the blockade was in its weakest state, it declined by more than 90%. So a number of ships that tried made it, but lots and lots and lots of ships never tried, because the blockade was there.
So what kind of impact does that have, cumulatively, on the attitude of those running this war? We see it, particularly in 1864, the year we’re really interested in tonight, because by 1864, now the blockade is really becoming pretty restrictive. And affecting not so much the Confederacy’s ability to have shoulder weapons and saltpetre and cannon shells and the fundamental tools of the army, but on all of the other parts of a nineteenth century economy, and this has kind of a wasting effect. It affects inflation, it affects of course, by then inflation was affected by Confederate paper money as well, so this is a double whammy in terms of the domestic economy of the Confederacy.
And the wives and children and families left behind, of all those soldiers fighting at the front, were feeling this rather desperately, and I know the tradition is, “oh, we just toughed it out,” but soldiers who would get letters, and I’ve seen thousands of these saying, “Jake, we can’t eat. We shall die if you don’t come home. Jake, you must dessert and come home, or we shall surely perish.” That’s a rough paraphrase of thousands of letters. So what cumulative effect does that have on the Confederacy’s ability to sustain the war?So it’s not measurable, I think, just by how many ships violate the blockade, or whether indeed the Confederate armies had enough wherewithal to sustain battle – they did. But [the blockade] had a sort of cumulative, wearing effect on the society as a whole, and how you calculate that statistically, I think is impossible. But I believe that it had a significant impact.​
“Shelling of the batteries at Galveston by the United States war steamer South Carolina, on Monday afternoon, August 5th, 1861.”Frank Leslie Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War (New York, NY: Mrs. Frank Leslie, 1896)

5 Responses

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  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on March 9, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Excellent point in the last paragraph: Nothing undermines morale at the front faster than the thought of family suffering and starving back home.

  2. jfepperson said, on March 10, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I think he nailed it.

  3. H. E. Parmer said, on March 17, 2014 at 1:33 am

    Another effect of the blockade was to make the importation of locomotive engines very difficult. Which had pretty dire results for one of the South’s major transportation networks. Things like paper shortages can cripple bureaucracies.

    If nothing else, the immense effort and sums of money expended to maintain and keep tightening the blockade by adding more ships to it show that the Federals believed it was a worthwhile strategy. The Confederates must have felt somewhat the same, considering how hard they tried to evade or break it. When you consider what having even one major port east of the Mississippi with unimpeded access to the sea would have meant to the Confederacy, the Union didn’t have much choice in the matter.

    Still, I wonder how much you could blame those hardship letters on the effects of the blockade. I’d bet a good many of them came from women trying to run a small farm, where one less hand could mean slow starvation instead of being able to scratch a meager but adequate existence. That’s something which seems more related to the war’s demand for manpower, not the withering of the economy.

  4. Foxessa said, on March 24, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    This was really interesting — thanks for posting it. I was thinking about this again as we drove through the Delta these last two weeks, following the course of the Mississippi, from Louisiana, through Mississippi and Tennessee, always being away that Texas was on the ‘other side.’

    Love, C.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      Texas was a long way from the war’s center of gravity, and things didn’t take off here in a big way until after the fall of Mobile in August 1864.

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