Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was unprepared for any kind of sustained conflict. Despite inadequate technology, naval authorities were resistant to change, and the naval fleet was small and aging. There were approximately fifteen hundred Union naval officers on duty, and many of them were many years in grade because of insufficient retirement procedures. What’s more, an outdated structure of officer grades existed that hindered strong leadership. However, by the end of the Civil War, the Union Navy developed an entirely new infrastructure, added hundreds of boats to its fleet, and recruited enough officers to execute a blockade covering 3600 miles and cut the Confederacy in half by taking control of the Mississippi River, all while helping the Union win the Civil War. In other words, the navy immobilized quickly and effectively enough to alter the course of history. Still, the accomplishments and contributions of the Union Navy are rarely studied and largely forgotten in Civil War memory. This paper will explore the contributions of the Union Navy and the importance of these contributions toward a Union victory. Furthermore, this paper will discuss how the Union Navy is remembered, and why it has largely forgotten.
For decades before the Civil War, the United States was aware that the Navy lagged behind and would be ill prepared against a more modern navy. After recognizing the need for better-trained officers, Fort Severn in Annapolis, Maryland was chosen as the location for instruction, and the U.S. Naval Academy was established in 1850. New training methods were developed and in the eleven years leading up to the Civil War, a new generation of naval leadership passed through the Naval Academy. Furthermore, the growing desire for advancement in international affairs following the War of 1812 led to increased momentum in naval affairs in carrying out expeditions around the globe. And as the demand for steam power replaced sail power, the Navy went to work building new steamers. Most notably, Lieutenant John Adolphus Dahlgren, who later became a rear admiral during the war, led the design and construction of the new steamers from 1845 until the war out of Washington Naval Yard.
Thus, heading into the Civil War, the Union Navy was carrying some momentum, but for the most part, the Union Navy remained inadequate for the task at hand. The Naval Registrar of 1861 shows that there were only 90 ships in total, and “21 were unfit to go to sea at all, 27 were laid up in various navy yards in need of more of less extensive repairs or were on stocks not yet ready to be launched, and 28 were on foreign stations” (Nash, 15). This left only 14 vessels to cover 3600 miles of coastline, 200 bays, inlets, or river mouths, and 10 ports. Furthermore, after 370 naval officers resigned to support the confederacy, the Union navy began the war with only about 1500 naval officers, and these officers lacked an organized system of leadership and an organized retirement procedure.
This was the situation that Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox, and General-and-Chief Winfield Scott were presented with. Before the war started, Lincoln called for 18,000 to serve in the Navy for enlistments of one to three years, but as the war progressed, the supply of sailors failed to meet demand, and the navy was forced into aggressive recruiting techniques and even accepted newly arrived immigrants. Over the next two years, Welles and Fox went about restructuring the navy as they instituted a retirement system and a new structure in officer grades and salaries. And of course, the Navy Department went about purchasing and building new vessels, and by the end of the war, had purchased over 500 steamers and sailing craft.
While this infrastructure was being put in place, President Lincoln was deciding his course of action, and a week after the outbreak of war, Lincoln called for a blockade of the Confederacy as suggested in General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”. The south was heavily reliant on Europe and western states for food and materials, so Scott proposed a plan that called for a blockade encircling the Confederacy along the coastline and a fleet of gunboats that would patrol the Mississippi River. This plan was intended to cut off the Confederacy from outside resources and to split the Confederacy in two by controlling the Mississippi River, which would eventually force the Confederacy to surrender because they ran out of food and supplies. This plan was not well received by the public because it was expected to take too much time and aggressive Northerners demanded “On to Richmond”, but as the Civil War played out, the “Anaconda Plan” was in fact the Union’s naval strategy.
The blockade went into effect immediately, but as expected, it was initially highly ineffective. As the war progressed, however, the blockade became highly effective as organization improved and the number of blockade ships increased. To manage this extensive blockade, the Union Navy was split into two Blockading Squadrons. The Atlantic Blockading Squadron was broken into the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which patrolled Virginia and North Carolina, and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which patrolled from South Carolina to Florida. Similarly, the second squadron, The Gulf Blockading Squadron was split into the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, which patrolled the Gulf side of Florida, and the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, which patrolled from Pensacola to Rio Grande. A few months later, a third squadron, the Mississippi River Flotilla, was added and was responsible for the upper Mississippi River.
The Atlantic Squadron saw action first with the Hatteras Inlet campaign, which also represented the first join-action campaign of the war. General Butler of the army and Flag Officer Stringham of the Atlantic Blockade Squadron combined forces to capture Hatteras Inlet, which ended up being the first Union naval victory of the war and the first significant triumph of any kind for the North, giving a needed boast of morale for people at home. With Hatteras Inlet secured, the Union military turned its attention toward another joint mission at Roanoke Island. The capture of Roanoke would eliminate the waters of North Carolina of its Confederate presence entirely. The Union Navy was instrumental in transporting troops and coordinating the advance of General Burnside’s troops, and soon enough, the Union flag flew over Roanoke Island. Port Royal marked yet another conquest by the U.S. Navy which garnered the Union Navy new respect from many Northerners. Even Robert E. Lee noted the strength of the Union Navy and its superiority over the Confederate Navy as he stated “there are so many points to attack, and so little means to meet them on water, that there is but little rest” (Calore, 109). This remark came after the Union Navy had completed the remarkable achievement of closing and occupying every port on the Atlantic coast with the exception of Wilmington and Charleston by April 1862.
While the Atlantic Blockade Squadron was garnering victories in the East, the Mississippi Flotilla was asserting its presence in the West. The goal of the flotilla was to gain control of the Mississippi River and to sever the ties between the Confederate states in the west and the Confederate states in the east. Captain Andrew Foote was given command of the Mississippi Flotilla to lead this mission. After the flotilla was fully equipped, the first goal was to join forces with General Grant to attach Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Although the Union gunboats suffered some serious damage, the Union Navy successfully captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson over course of two weeks by effectively softening up the Confederate forces before General Grant launched his infantry assaults. With the additional capture of Island No. 10, the Union Navy had asserted its control over the Upper Mississippi River by April 1862 under Foote’s command, and Memphis soon followed suit as the Union military captured Memphis. This southward momentum was soon halted when the Union offensive on Vicksburg was scaled back, and the Mississippi Flotilla was used primarily as an escort to Union vessels in a period of low activity before the joint expedition on Vicksburg.
Meanwhile, the Gulf Blockading Squadron and Captain David Farragut were in charge of the capture of New Orleans, which served as the primary center for Confederate activities in the Gulf. The Gulf Blockading Squadron met resistance at Fort Jackson, and after days of fighting, the Union military forcibly took control of Fort Jackson, because of their unwillingness to surrender, before moving onto New Orleans without resistance as New Orleans was in a state of complete chaos. With the additional surrender of Baton Rouge, the Gulf Squadron had placed the lower Mississippi under Union control. Furthermore, the “army’s success in the western theater owed a great deal to the victories and support of the U.S. Navy” and the “Union forces almost certainly would have had to wage a longer fighter” (Calore, 165) without the support of the Union Navy.
The greatest challenge, however, faced the Mississippi Flotilla and General Ulysses S. Grant as preparations were made for the capture of Vicksburg. Rear Admiral David Porter was chosen to assume command of the newly named Mississippi Squadron, and his presence was felt immediately as he made additions to the fleet, including tinclads. According to Porter’s Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, Porter “sent a messenger to General Grant informing him that [he] had taken command of the naval forces, and should be happy to cooperate with him in any enterprise he might think proper to undertake” (Thompson, 123). In other words, Rear Admiral Porter was especially cooperative and willing to assist the army to the best of his capabilities, and this aid would prove indispensible at Vicksburg. This is especially evident in the case of General Butler who’s “lack of cooperation with the navy not only doomed the Vicksburg expedition but also forced a reconsideration of all future efforts in the lower river valley” (Joiner, 89). In juxtaposing this with the cooperative efforts of Porter and Grant, it is clear that the success of the army at Vicksburg hinged upon cooperation with the Union Navy.
Unfortunately, river conditions postponed an attack on Vicksburg, and the inability of Grant’s troops to mobilize led to the failure of another attack on Vicksburg, but as the Union military regained strength, the Mississippi Squadron maintained continuous shelling of Vicksburg while Grants troops moved from Jackson to Vicksburg, and Grant placed siege on the city of Vicksburg in late May 1863. The inhabitants of Vicksburg were desperate by July and surrendered the city on July 4th. This was a very significant victory in the West for as Porter remarks, “I realized my proudest hopes in beholding the great Father of Waters opened to the sea” (Thompson, 192). The Mississippi River was now under complete command of the Union, and the Union military had worked in perfect harmony to command such a momentous victory that is still considered one of the most important victories of the Civil War.
Furthermore, this allowed the Union Navy to focus its attention on the three remaining Confederate ports, Mobile Bay in the Gulf, and Charleston and Wilmington in the Atlantic. In Mobile Bay, the Gulf Squadron skillfully took down Confederate opponents at sea, and a joint expedition captured Fort Morgan in 1864 and the city of Mobile by 1865. According to Porter, this meant, “the days of blockade-runners are over” (Calore, 193). The city of Charleston, the “cradle of the rebellion”, was also abandoned in February 1865 after the Atlantic Squadron had shut down the port as Sherman’s March to the Sea approached Charleston and severed communications with the rest of the Confederacy.
Thus, the only port remaining in the Confederacy was Wilmington, North Carolina, which was strategically protected by the most formidable fort in the Confederacy, Fort Fisher. Wilmington served as the last lifeline for food and ammunition for the Confederacy, and it was of utmost importance that Fort Fisher protected the port. According to Farragut, the closing of Wilmington, which was the last port open to blockade-runners, would effectively “be like severing the jugular vein in the human system” (Nash, 259). After months of trying warfare, Fort Fisher was eventually overcome as the Union Navy surrounded it at sea and the Union army attacked on land, and Wilmington was occupied on April 22nd, 1865. Thus, the “Anaconda Plan” had been carried out completely, and not surprisingly, the Civil War ended three months later.
So far this paper has gone to great lengths to recount the achievements of the Union Navy during the Civil War, but these incredible accomplishments have been largely forgotten. In the preface of Gary D. Joiner’s work, Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy, Joiner mentions that the “Mississippi Squadron is one of the least studied aspects of the Civil War” but that “without it, however, the war in the West may not have been won.” Although this particular statement speaks only of the Mississippi Squadron, it is demonstrative of the sentiments toward the Union Navy as a whole. Their achievements were great, yet their recognition is small. The remainder of the paper will discuss the significance of their achievements and reasons why their story is not remembered.
The effectiveness of the Union Blockade as part of the Anaconda Plan is often debated. The Confederacy relied almost entirely on blockade running for necessities like arms, ammunition, and medicine, and at first blockade running was very easy. As this paper has explored, the Union Navy was weak at the onset of the Civil War. However, as the blockade improved, blockade running became more difficult and more lucrative. According to Howard Nash, Jr.’s A Naval History of the Civil War, “the most important use the Union made of its overwhelming Naval superiority, and one to which historians have paid too little attention, was the establishment and maintenance of the blockade of the Confederate States” (Nash, 300). Nash asserts that the blockade captured 1149 blockade runners, and burned, sank or drove ashore another 335, in addition to the trade that was discouraged as a result of the blockade, which “to a country as dependant on the outside world for as many things as the Confederacy was these were fatal blows” (Nash, 300). According to Nash, some writers have suggested that the blockade had no effect on the outcome of the war, but this is nonsense considering the fact that the blockade cut of a people from necessary supplies that they were not able to produce themselves. Furthermore, the Confederacy would not have dedicated such efforts to blockade running and to the establishment of impressive forts like Fort Fisher to protect blockade-runners in a time of such limited finances if the blockade did not have an effect on the outcome of the war.
The Navy was also especially important for its joint efforts with the Union army. The Union Navy only won three singlehanded, but their impact on the army was undeniable. For example, General Butler was unable to capture Vicksburg without naval assistance, but General Grant was able to capture Vicksburg with the help of Rear Admiral Porter. Similarly, the Union lost or reached at stalemate for most of the battles fought where the services could not cooperate like at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, or Antietam. However, at battles where the two forces did cooperate, the Union military was more successful than not as is evident everywhere in the west. The ability of the two services to cooperate was invaluable, and the Union Navy’s ability to transport troops and offer assistance in versatile ways has gone unnoticed but was significant and altered the course history nonetheless.
Lastly, the nature of the war required a strong navy, and the Union Navy occupied this role. In seceding from the United States, the Confederacy had a different outlook on the war than did the Union. In other words, victory meant different things for each side. For the Union to win, the southern states had to return back to the Union, whereas the Confederacy was able to wage a defensive war where victory meant that they outlasted the Union. Thus, the only way that the Union could win was by offensive submission or by forcing the Confederate states to need the Union to survive. Since the army was not strong enough to force the Confederacy into submission, the Union Navy was needed to cut the Confederacy off from supplies until they could not survive without the Union. The Union Navy, by executing the “Anaconda Plan,” could do this in ways that the army could not, and for this reason, the Union Navy was vital to the Union Victory in the Civil War.
Thus, it is clear that the Union Navy was essential for the success of the Union in the Civil War, but it still uncertain why the successes of the Union Navy are not remembered. For one, I believe that the Union Navy is not well remembered because its job was not a glamorous one. According to Paul Calore’s Naval Campaign’s of the Civil War, “combat action was not as frequent as it was in the army, nor as severe” (Calore, 48). This is obvious when you compare figures like the estimated 380,000 soldiers that died in the army compared to the naval combat losses of 2,110. Even to the sailors themselves, life was dull and monotonous on the vessels. Furthermore, the ships of the Mississippi Squadron were looked upon as “ungainly monsters…’stinkpots’ and ‘turtles’” (Joiner, 29). In other words, the perception of the Navy was unglamorous, and the achievements of the Navy were probably underemphasized from the very beginning of Civil War memories.
The barely existent nature of the memory of the Union Navy can also probably be contributed to the nature of the work that the Union Navy did. Much of the time, the navy spearheaded what could be considered to be behind the scenes work. The transportation of soldiers is important, but not usually memorable. Furthermore, the nature of naval warfare unfortunately inhibited the capacity of the Union Navy to win battles. In other words, the Union Navy could not win the Civil War by itself, but the Union Army could not have won the war with the Union Navy. On a number of occasions, gunboats would shell a fort for days and army would attack from behind or while the enemy was tired, as was the case at Fort Fisher. This grueling and often unseen work probably contributes to the lack of Civil War memories about the naval accomplishments.
Similarly, the humility exemplified the leadership in the Union Navy probably contributes to these forgotten memories. The Secretary of the Navy Welles “shunned the limelight” (Joiner, 6) and made effort to keep information from leaking out, as he did not particularly like the press. Welles’ secretive nature probably prevented the spread of information about the accomplishments of his Navy. Likewise, Rear Admiral Porter writes how he “always deferred to [Grant’s] wishes in all matters, and went so far as to give orders to those under my command that they should obey the orders of Generals Grant and Sherman the same as if they came from myself” (Porter, 139). Lastly, Winfield Scott who was responsible for the creation of the “Anaconda Plan” was highly controversial in his time and his plan was not well received, even though it ended up winning the war for the Union. These leaders who played a significant role in the success of the Union Navy were either extremely humble or not well liked, and as a result, Civil War memory has pushed them to the side to make way for more ‘interesting’ figures like Ulysses S. Grant, George McClellan, or Robert E. Lee.
Lastly, I believe that the Union Navy is largely forgotten because of what happened to the U.S. Navy following the conclusion of the Civil War. Although a new infrastructure was put in place and the naval technology had advanced in leaps and bounds, the demand for naval growth following the war was non-existent and the government was unable to pay shipbuilders, which meant that those who had built ironclads during the war were not paid in full and ended up leaving the industry. Unfortunately, according to William H. Robert’s Civil War Ironclads, “by the time the ‘New Navy’ of the 1880’s began to appear, however, few traces remained of the massive industrial mobilization of the war years, and the lessons of the war had been largely forgotten” (Roberts, 171).
Calore, Paul. Campaigns of the Civil War. 2002
Joiner, Gary D. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy. 2007.
Nash Jr., Howard P. A Naval History of the Civil War. 1972.
Roberts, William H. Civil War Ironclads. 2002.
Thompson, Brian M. Blue & Grey at Sea. 2003.