American Civil War

Edited by: Robert Guisepi

2002

 

Warren W. Hassler, Jr.: Emeritus Professor of American History, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Author of Commanders of the Army of the Potomac and others.

The naval war


While the Federal armies actually stamped out Confederate land resistance, the increasingly effective Federal naval effort must not be overlooked. If Union sea power did not win the war, it enabled the war to be won. When hostilities opened, the U.S. Navy numbered 90 warships, of which only 42 were in commission, and many of these were on foreign station. Fortunately for the Federals, Lincoln had, in the person of Gideon Welles, a wise secretary of the navy and one of his most competent Cabinet members. Welles was ably seconded by his assistant, Gustavus Vasa Fox.

By the time of Lee's surrender, Lincoln's navy numbered 626 warships, of which 65 were ironclads. From a tiny force of nearly 9,000 seamen in 1861, the Union navy increased by war's end to about 59,000 sailors, whereas naval appropriations per year leaped from approximately $12,000,000 to perhaps $123,000,000. The blockade of about 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline was a factor of incalculable value in the final defeat of the Davis government, although the blockade did not become truly effective before the end of 1863.

The Confederates, on the other hand, had to start from almost nothing in building a navy. That they did so well was largely because of untiring efforts by the capable secretary of the navy, Stephen Mallory. He dispatched agents to Europe to purchase warships, sought to refurbish captured or scuttled Federal vessels, and made every effort to arm and employ Southern-owned ships then in Confederate ports. Mallory's only major omission was his delay in seeing the advantage of Confederate government control of blockade runners bringing in strategic supplies; not until later in the war did the government begin closer supervision of blockade-running vessels. Eventually, the government commandeered space on all privately owned blockade runners and even built and operated some of its own late in the war.

The naval side of the Civil War was a revolutionary one. In addition to their increasing use of steam power, the screw propeller, shell guns, and rifled ordnance, both sides built and employed ironclad warships. The notable clash on March 9, 1862, between the North's Monitor and the South's Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) was the first battle ever waged between ironclads. Also, the first sinking of a warship by a submarine occurred on February 17, 1864, when the Confederate submersible Hunley sank the blockader USS Housatonic.

Daring Confederate sea raiders preyed upon Union commerce. Especially successful were the Sumter, commanded by Raphael Semmes, which captured 18 Northern merchantmen early in the war; the Florida, captained by John Maffit, which, in 1863, seized 37 Federal prizes in the North and South Atlantic; and the Shenandoah, with James Waddell as skipper, which took 38 Union merchant ships, mostly in the Pacific. But the most famous of all the Confederate cruisers was the Alabama, commanded by Semmes, which captured 69 Federal ships in two years; not until June 19, 1864, was the Alabama intercepted and sunk off Cherbourg by the Federal warship Kearsarge, captained by John Winslow. A great many other Federal ships were captured, and marine insurance rates were driven to a prohibitive high by these Southern depredations. This led to a serious deterioration of the American merchant marine, the effects of which have lasted into the 20th century.

Besides fighting efficaciously with ironclads on the inland rivers, Lincoln's navy also played an important role in a series of coastal and amphibious operations, some in conjunction with the Federal army. As early as Nov. 7, 1861, a Federal flotilla under Samuel Francis du Pont seized Port Royal, S.C., and another squadron under Louis M. Goldsborough assisted Burnside's army in capturing Roanoke Island and New Bern on the North Carolina littoral in February-March 1862. One month later, Savannah was closed to Confederate blockade runners when the Federal navy reduced Fort Pulaski guarding the city; and on April 25 David Glasgow Farragut, running the forts near the mouth of the Mississippi, took New Orleans, which was subsequently occupied by Benjamin F. Butler's army.

But in April 1863, and again in July and August, Federal warships were repelled at Fort Sumter when they descended upon Charleston, and a Federal army under Quincy A. Gillmore fared little better when it tried to assist. Farragut had better luck, however, when he rendered Mobile, Ala., useless by reducing Fort Morgan and destroying several defending Confederate ships on Aug. 5, 1864, in the hardest-fought naval action of the war. The Confederacy's last open Atlantic port, Wilmington, N.C., successfully withstood a Federal naval attack by Porter on defending Fort Fisher when Butler's army failed to coordinate its attack properly in December 1864, but it fell one month later to Porter and an ably conducted army assault led by Alfred H. Terry. Only Galveston remained open to the Confederates in the last months of the war. In short, "Uncle Sam's web feet," as Lincoln termed the Union navy, played a decisive role in helping crush the Confederacy.

Foreign affairs
Davis and many Confederates expected recognition of their independence and direct intervention in the war on their behalf by Great Britain and possibly France. But they were cruelly disappointed, in part through the skillful diplomacy of Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and the Union ambassador to England, Charles Francis Adams, and in part through Confederate military failure at a crucial stage of the war.

The Union's first trouble with Britain came when Captain Charles Wilkes halted the British steamer Trent on Nov. 8, 1861, and forcibly removed two Confederate envoys, James M. Mason and John Slidell, bound for Europe. Only the eventual release of the two men prevented a diplomatic rupture with Lord Palmerston's government in London. Another crisis erupted between the Union and England when the Alabama, built in the British Isles, was permitted upon completion to sail and join the Confederate navy, despite Adams' protestations. And when word reached the Lincoln government that two powerful ironclad rams were being constructed in Britain for the Confederacy, Adams sent his famous "this is war" note to Palmerston, and the rams were seized by the British government at the last moment.

The diplomatic crisis of the Civil War came after Lee's striking victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August 1862 and subsequent invasion of Maryland. The British government was set to offer mediation of the war and, if this were refused by the Lincoln administration (as it would have been), forceful intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. Only a victory by Lee on Northern soil was needed, but he was stopped by McClellan in September at Antietam, the Union's most needed success. The Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg the following summer ensured the continuing neutrality of Britain and France, especially when Russia seemed inclined to favour the Northern cause. Even the growing British shortage of cotton from the Southern states did not force Palmerston's government into Davis' camp, particularly when British consuls in the Confederacy were more closely restricted toward the close of the war. In the final act, even the Confederate offer to abolish slavery in early 1865 in return for British recognition fell on deaf ears.

The cost and significance of the Civil War
On the positive side, the triumph of the North, above and beyond its superior naval forces, numbers, and industrial and financial resources, was due in part to the statesmanship of Lincoln, who by 1864 had become a masterful war leader; to the pervading valour of Federal soldiers; and to the increasing skill of their officers. On the negative side, the victory can be attributed in part to failures of Confederate transportation, matériel, and political leadership. Only praise can be extended to the continuing bravery of Confederate soldiers and to the strategic and tactical dexterity of such generals as Lee, Jackson, and Joseph E. Johnston.

While there were some desertions on both sides, the personal valour and the enormous casualties--both in absolute numbers and in percentage of numbers engaged--have not yet ceased to astound scholars and military historians everywhere.Based on the three-year standard of enlistment, about 1,556,000 soldiers served in the Federal armies, which suffered a total of 634,703 casualties (359,528 dead and 275,175 wounded). There were probably about 800,000 men serving in the Confederate forces, which sustained approximately 483,000 casualties (about 258,000 deaths and perhaps 225,000 wounded).

The cost in treasure was, of course, staggering for the embattled sections. Both governments, after strenuous attempts to finance the prosecution of the war by increasing taxes and floating loans, were obliged to resort to the printing press to make fiat money. While separate Confederate figures are lacking, the war finally cost the United States more than $15,000,000,000. The South, especially, where most of the war was fought and which lost its labour system, was physically and economically devastated. In sum, although the Union was preserved and restored, the cost in physical and moral suffering was incalculable, and some spiritual wounds caused by the holocaust still have not been healed.

The American Civil War has been called by some the last of the old-fashioned wars; others have termed it the first of the modern wars of history. Actually it was a transitional war, and it had a profound impact, technologically, on the development of modern weapons and techniques. There were many innovations. It was the first war in history in which ironclad warships clashed; the first in which the telegraph and railroad played significant roles; the first to use, extensively, rifled ordnance and shell guns and to introduce a machine gun; the first to have widespread newspaper coverage, voting by servicemen in national elections, and photographic recordings; the first to organize medical care of troops systematically; and the first to use land and water mines and to employ a submarine that could sink a warship. It was also the first war in which armies widely employed aerial reconnaissance (by means of balloons).

The Civil War has been written about as have few other wars in history. More than 60,000 books and articles give eloquent testimony to the accuracy of Walt Whitman's prediction that "a great literature will . . . arise out of the era of those four years." The events of the war left a rich heritage for future generations, and that legacy was summed up by the martyred Lincoln as showing that the reunited sections of the United States constituted "the last best hope of earth." 

Warren W. Hassler, Jr.: Emeritus Professor of American History, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Author of Commanders of the Army of the Potomac and others.
 

Main Civil War Page

page 1   page 2   page 3   page 4   page 5

Home Page

World History Project