While the title may seem pretentious, all assertions are well-referenced.
Now you can know the truth about the US Navy's contribution to Union victory.
The previous posting of this article was lost in "the great crash." Posted with permission of the author.
How the U.S. Navy Won the Civil War
Challenging Received Wisdom
© 2004, Chuck Veit
President, Navy & Marine Living History Association
Lieutenant, U.S. Naval Landing Party
Received wisdom suggests that the American Civil War was an almost all-army affair, with the navies reduced to something of a sideshow—occasionally spectacular but ultimately moot. Certainly the vast majority of participants North and South fought their battles on land: about 3.6 million men served in the armies as compared to a mere 137,500 sailors. Soldiers’ experiences comprised the bulk of diaries, letters, and official correspondence, as well as being the basis for later research. But does this sea of ink hide an historical truth—one that was recognized at the time but later forgotten?
What relegated the Union Navy to a seemingly secondary role was the absence of an opponent on a scale with itself. This is not to say that the Confederate Navy did not fight, but that its role and structure differed greatly from that of the USN. This was dictated in part by circumstance: the South did not have the manufacturing capacity to create and maintain a high seas fleet. But the decision not to attempt construction of a large navy was a conscious one made by Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. To win the Civil War, the South need only defend what it had, demonstrating that it could survive until recognized by foreign powers. The CSN focused on the defense of harbors and rivers, undertaking local attacks as a means to this end rather than as part of any grand offensive strategy.
Because the operations of the Confederate Navy did not much impact those of the Union Army it is easy to overlook the roles played by the Union Navy. These included blockading the ports of the South, pursuing Confederate commerce raiders, patrolling the rivers behind the front, and directly engaging the Confederate Army—usually in conjunction with the Federal army, but often independently. Of these roles two are relevant to this thesis: the blockade and direct combat (with tactical as well as strategic consequences).
“Great scarcity of even the necessaries of life”
In simplest terms, the American Civil War was a race between the North’s will to win and the South’s capacity to wage war. The Confederacy’s weakness was neither lack of ability nor, initially, manpower, but material resources. In 1860, the South produced barely one-tenth of the manufactured goods in the nation; there was more factory capability in New York City than in all the South. To remedy this, Richmond turned to Europe for its weapons. Interdicting this supply line was the job of the U.S. Navy.
Starting with 7,000 men and forty functioning ships, the Navy expanded to 51,500 men and 670 ships by 1865--fully 500 of which were on blockade duty. Such a force would seem sufficient to bottle up the limited number of Southern deep-water harbors, but only the capture of a port ensured its closure. The steamers of the Confederate Ordnance Department managed to deliver 80% of the $12¼ million worth of equipment purchased in Europe , while $200 million is the accepted figure for the value of private shipments. Through the blockade came 60% of the Confederacy’s arms, 33% of its bullet lead, 75% of its gunpowder, and most of the army’s leather and uniforms. A single ship could make a difference: In November 1861 the runner Fingal brought in enough arms and ammunition to enable the Confederates to fight the battle of Shiloh the following spring. As supplies came in, cotton went out: Of 10,412 bales shipped by the Confederate Treasury Department before November 1864, only 1037 were captured—less than 10%. Bales that went for 8¢ or 9¢ a pound on the dock at Charleston sold for 80¢-90¢ a pound in Europe , providing hard currency for the South.
And yet, the Federal blockade was a success—not in the number of ships intercepted or contraband taken, but in its effect on the Southern economy. Although the odds of evading Union warships were never lower than 50-50, the possibility of capture made the enterprise a risky one. This fact alone would have raised prices, but the situation was worsened by the Southern elite’s insistence upon maintaining its pre-war lifestyle. Navy reports routinely listed cognac, wine, rugs, furniture, jewelry, silk, and corset stays among captured cargoes. The greatest profits for officers aboard runners came not from salaries but from private shipment of such luxury goods. The Confederate government sought to limit this merchandise, but their efforts were largely ignored. Profits from luxuries were too alluring, and hull space that could have been devoted to foodstuffs, medicines, clothing, and weapons was not.
The effect on the Confederate economy was felt as early as May 1861 and became catastrophic, as illustrated by the rise in the cost of salt—an important commodity in a pre-refrigeration age. A 200 pound sack that went for 50¢ in pre-war New Orleans doubled to $1 by summer 1861 and then rose to $6 ( Richmond ); in 1862 it jumped to $25 ( Savannah ) and peaked at $100 ( Richmond ); from 1863, the price “settled” to between $50 and $75. Other foodstuffs were similarly affected: between May 1863 and the end of the war, bacon rose from $1 to $4 a pound and a bushel of beans from $4 to $30. Families of soldiers being paid $14 monthly were in dire straits. The clamor for food began in autumn 1862 and grew into riots the following spring. Union Admiral DuPont reported on 23 April 1862, “ I had abundant evidence of the stringency of the blockade in the great scarcity of even the necessaries of life, and the very high price demanded for both food and clothing, further shown by the prices current as given in the Southern papers, the most essential articles being continually on the rise.” Demoralization at home, communicated in letters to the front, contributed to the increasing rate of desertion in the Confederate armies, which suffered heavily after 1863.
The lack of a reliable infrastructure for distributing the resources of the South is often cited as the root cause of its shortages. But the problem began on the docks, not at the railheads, and affected exports, too. While stopping only a relatively small percentage of shipped cotton, in absolute terms the blockade cut that export by two-thirds: The three years prior to 1861 saw an average of a million bales of cotton a year ship from Southern ports; the last three years of the war together saw only a million bales shipped. This alone would have led to inflation as the Confederacy used up its supply of hard currency, but the situation was made worse by the trade in luxury goods demanded by the Southern aristocracy. Inflation devastated the lower and middle classes and undermined Southern credit overseas. General William T. Sherman is often credited with instituting total war by targeting the enemy home front, but his was only a more dramatic version of a battle the Navy had begun three years earlier.
The Battlefield: Shiloh
“Gunboats, which alone saved him from complete disaster”
In addition to waging this economic war, the U.S. Navy directly engaged Confederate armies. Twice in 1862 Union gunboats saved major Northern armies from destruction and denied the South victories that would have ended the war.
The first of these took place on 6 April at Shiloh , Tennessee . Confederate forces under Albert Johnston surprised the Union army of U.S. Grant, pushing it back against the Tennessee River . The crisis of the battle took place at dusk as the rebels rallied for what many believed would be the final charge. Although present for much of the day, the gunboats Tyler and Lexington had been unable to take part in the day’s fighting due to the broken and overgrown nature of the ground. But, as Grant recorded, “about sundown, when the National troops were back in their last position, the right of the enemy was near the river and exposed to the fire of the two gunboats, which was delivered with vigor and effect.” Confederate General Beauregard reported “It was after 6 p.m. . . . when the enemy's last position was carried, and his forces finally broke and sought refuge behind a commanding eminence covering Pittsburg Landing, not more than half a mile distant, and under the guns of the gunboats, which opened on our eager columns a fierce and annoying fire with shot and shell of the heaviest description.” The rebel attack was stopped. In his address to his troops following the battle, Beauregard commended his men for driving the enemy “from his camps to the shelter of his iron-clad gunboats, which alone saved him from complete disaster.” Even Northern General Halleck, “in spite of his contempt for the Navy, concluded that only the Union gunboats had kept Grant’s army from being destroyed.” Nor did the Navy’s contribution end with the repulse of the Southern army:
[Grant] After nightfall, when firing had entirely ceased on land, the commander of the fleet informed himself, approximately, of the position of our troops and suggested the idea of dropping a shell within the lines of the enemy every fifteen minutes during the night. This was done with effect, as is proved by the Confederate reports.
[Beauregard] During the night the rain fell in torrents, adding to the discomforts and harassed condition of the men. The enemy, moreover, had broken their rest by a discharge at measured intervals of heavy shells thrown from the gunboats; therefore on the following morning the troops under my command were not in condition to cope with an equal force of fresh troops, armed and equipped like our adversary, in the immediate possession of his depots and sheltered by such an auxiliary as the enemy's gunboats.
Following the battle, Leonard Swett, friend and intimate of Abraham Lincoln, spent three days riding the field. His letter to the president stated:
From all I could learn I believe the gunboats Lexington and Tyler , commanded by Lieutenants Gwin and Shirk, saved our army from defeat. At least it is within bounds to say they rendered us invaluable services.
The vital contribution of the gunboats was well recognized in the South. On 18 April 1862 the New Orleans Daily Delta hit upon the key to Union victory—and wrote what may pass for the epitaph of the entire Southern war effort:
“[The battle at Shiloh] has taught us that we have nothing to fear from a land invasion of the enemy if he is unsupported by his naval armaments. It has taught us that the right arm of his power in this war is in his gunboats on our seacoast; and that our only assurance of saving the Mississippi from his grasp is to paralyze that arm upon its waters.”
The Battlefield: Malvern Hill
“The great obstacle to operations is the presence of the enemy’s gunboats”
Almost three months later, in Virginia, another Union Army stood on the brink of defeat. Union General George McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign to capture Richmond had turned sour when Robert E. Lee took command of opposing Confederate forces. In a week-long series of battles, Lee succeeded in pushing the invaders away from the capital, harrying them as they retreated along the James. At the end of June, the victorious Rebels were poised to push the Yankees into the river. Sensing disaster, McClellan sought refuge under the guns of the Navy at its station near Malvern Hill, sending to Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough the following:
I would most earnestly request that every gunboat or other armed vessel suitable for action in the James River be sent at once to this vicinity . . . for the purpose of covering the camps and communications of this army. May I urge that not an hour be lost and that you telegraph to the Navy Department reporting the request I make.
The local naval commander, Commodore John Rodgers of U.S.S. Galena, echoed McClellan’s plea:
The enemy presses the army; it rests upon the James River and needs all the support which gunboats can give. Please send all of them which you can spare. Please also send up ammunition immediately . . . No tiring at the present moment.
A private communication from Rodgers described the situation in grimmer terms:
The army is in a bad way; the gunboats may save them, but the points to be guarded are too many for the force at my disposal. To save the army . . . demands immediately all our disposable force. The use for more gunboats is pressing and immediate. Now, if ever, is a chance for the Navy to render most signal service, but it must not delay.
The majority of histories credit Northern General Porter (McClellan being absent the field) with laying a “trap” for the over-eager Lee, using the Union artillery “mounted hub-to-hub atop the hill” to decimate the oncoming rebels. While the Union artillery did inflict heavy losses among the Confederates, it was naval gunfire that overwhelmed the attackers. The Washington Intelligencer reported:
The previous roar of field artillery seemed as faint as the rattle of musketry in comparison with these monsters of ordnance that literally shook the water and strained the air. . . . They fired about three times a minute, frequently a broadside at a time, and the immense hull of the Galena careened as she delivered her complement of iron and flame. The fire went on . . . making music to the ears of our tired men. . . . Confederate ranks seemed slow to close up when the naval thunder had torn them apart. . .
Neither side had previously seen the effects of 8-, 9- or 10-inch shells on massed infantry. While the Navy rounds may have been “music to the ears” of Northerners, for the Southerners they were totally unnerving. The rebels could not respond to the ships and often could not even see them: range and target information were communicated by flag by men of the Signal Corps ashore and afloat—making this one of the first instances of indirect fire on shore targets. Brigade after brigade rushed from the woods across the half-mile field toward the Union lines, only to be mown down en masse by the terrible fire. By the end of the battle, over 5,000 Confederates lay dead or wounded; Union losses had been barely half that number.
The attacks were uncoordinated between divisions, such that all of the Union guns could bear upon each column in turn; despite this, the Southerners managed to reach the Yankee lines and capture a number of batteries. Without the naval support, they could certainly have gone further—an opinion evidenced in eyewitness accounts. Marine Corporal John Mackie, aboard Galena , recorded “It is universally admitted by all those who participated in those terrible battles that the energetic action of the Navy saved the Army.” A captain aboard one of the army transports said, “McClellan’s army would have been annihilated but for the gunboats.” From the Confederate side, British observer Colonel Garnet Wolseley reported “Everyone in the South will tell you that McClellan's army was saved, first by General Lee's orders not being accurately executed, and, secondly, by his gunboats. . ." In his report to President Davis, Lee himself pinned the Union victory on the Navy ships: “The great obstacle to operations here is the presence of the enemy’s gunboats which protect our approaches to him and should we even force him from his positions on his land front, would prevent us from reaping any fruits of victory and expose our men to great destruction.”
The Turning Point: New Orleans
“ New Orleans is gone, and with it the Confederacy!”
The July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg is the accepted turning point of the Civil War. Yet the capture of New Orleans in April 1862 had a greater impact upon Southern fortunes than did the engagement in Pennsylvania more than a year later.
New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy, its population of 160,000 dwarfing the 6,850 of the capital, Richmond . It was home to a host of machine shops refitted to produce war materiel—including the Leeds Foundry, one of only two modern foundries in the South. As the transshipment point for the produce of the southwest and prairie states , as well as being a major clearinghouse for imports, New Orleans was the wealthiest city in Dixie . Despite its obvious importance, the government in Richmond did little to defend the city—even going so far as to strip it of resources for the sake of the rebel army in far-off Tennessee .
This blindness to the vulnerability of the city may be explained by the land-oriented thinking common at the time. It was a malady that affected the governments on both sides as well as most people in the military. As Northern Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded of the November 1861 meeting with Lincoln in which the plan to take the city from the sea was discussed:
The President was astonished. He had always thought in terms of moving south down the Mississippi . His military advisers and the politically potent governors of the Western states had reinforced this strategic notion.”
Jefferson Davis similarly misidentified the Union armies in Tennessee as the main threat to distant New Orleans :
In the early part of 1862, so general an opinion prevailed that the greatest danger to New Orleans was by an attack from above, that General Lovell sent to General Beauregard a large part of the troops in that city.
Neither chief executive realized the possibility or likelihood of an attack upon New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico . The difference is that, while Lincoln listened to Welles, Davis ignored the requests of Mansfield Lovell, department commander for southern Louisiana . Contrary to the claims made in his memoirs, Davis had, in fact, repeatedly refused Lovell critical supplies and directed him to send veteran troops, artillery, and powder to Southern armies operating far to the north—which he did only after repeated protests.
On the night of 24 April 1862 , Admiral Farragut led his squadron upstream, blasting his way past the forts at the Head of Passes. The following day found New Orleans under the guns of the Federal fleet. On 1 May Admiral Farragut presented the city to General Ben Butler and the Union Army. Although it would be a year before the ramifications of this victory would be fully realized in the North, people in the South immediately understood the implications of “the night the war was lost.” In far-off Richmond , Mary Boykin Chesnut recorded prophetically:
New Orleans is gone, and with it the Confederacy! Are we not cut in two? The Mississippi ruins us if it is lost.
This same realization spread through the rebel Army of Tennessee, which included many Louisianans. General St. John Liddell wrote,
The effect was disheartening to everyone. A growing impression of doubt as to our final success seemed to enter the mind of every reflecting man. It was perceptible that nothing short of superhuman efforts could save us the Mississippi River .
The loss of New Orleans was very damaging to Southern morale, while its capture gave an incredible boost to feeling in the North—and also weakened the peace party. Of even more import was the effect on England and France , which looked to be on the verge of recognizing the breakaway Confederacy. Only the week before news of the capture reached Europe , the Illustrated London News wrote:
The position of the Southern Confederacy has been much improved by the events of the last month, and it will seem that it will not be very long before there is an attempt made to terminate this fratricidal war by a mediation that will imply recognition.
In France , Confederate Commissioner John Slidell recorded in February that: “ France is prepared . . . to recognize our government provided that Great Britain will consent to act simultaneously with her.” In mid-April he warned Richmond that:
. . . much if not everything will depend upon the character of the intelligence we may receive within the next three or four weeks . . . Decided success of our arms would ensure early recognition . . .
Good news was not forthcoming, and Slidell reported of a meeting with French Minister of Foreign Affairs Thouvenal following the news of the fall of the city:
Although he did not directly say so, it left me fairly to infer that if New Orleans had not been taken and we suffered no serious reverses in Virginia and Tennessee , our recognition would very soon have been declared.
Charles Lee Lewis, biographer of Farragut, believes
There is good evidence that the failure of Napoleon III to recognize the Confederacy and take some positive step towards bringing the war to a close even without English cooperation was due to Farragut’s capture of New Orleans . If Farragut had failed, it is not unlikely that, a few months later after McClellan’s army suffered such a crushing defeat in Virginia, England, too, would have taken steps towards bringing about peace with the establishment of the Confederate States of America as an independent nation.
The loss of New Orleans provided tangible and immediate benefit to the North. Its capture gave the Navy a base from which to operate up the Mississippi and complete the job, a year later, of splitting the Confederacy in two; conversely, it denied the Confederacy the use of the port as a haven for blockade runners and the import of valuable war materiel. The seizure of the city and the reestablishment of Federal authority along the Mississippi cut off much-needed supplies of Texas beef and Louisiana salt to the eastern Confederacy, while making these available to the occupying forces. The loss of the Leeds Foundry reduced the modern manufacturing capacity of the Confederacy by fifty percent, while the destruction of the nearly-completed ironclads Louisiana and Mississippi removed a major threat to both the blockading fleet and the Union ships coming down the river. Commander David Dixon Porter summed up Navy’s incredible victory in a letter to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox:
New Orleans ’ falling seems to have made a stampede in ‘Secessia.’ You may put the rebellion down as ‘spavined,’ ‘broken-backed,’ and ‘wind-galled.
Less than a year after the beginning of the war, the Navy had captured the largest and most important city in the South. Popular attention, however, was focused on Virginia ; throughout the war, the primacy of the eastern campaigns in the popular imagination minimized the importance of the western theater. The magnitude of the victory only slowly became apparent.
The dedication, heroism, and sacrifice of the men in the armies is beyond question, but the above data and testimony of participants indicates that the U.S. Navy played a more critical role in winning the war for the Union than is generally acknowledged. The blockade severely impacted the South’s ability to supply its armies and feed its people, contributing to lost opportuities on the battlefield, dissatisfaction at home, and massive desertion. The fact that this was a bloodless campaign does not mean it was irrelevant. At Shiloh and Malvern Hill small numbers of Navy gunboats played a crucial part in saving important Union armies from annihilation; such episodes of naval support were replayed dozens of times on a lesser scale throughout the war. The independent Navy victory at New Orleans marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy; much hard fighting remained, but the tide was turned by Farragut’s squadron. How did these contributions—recognized at the time by soldiers and civilians alike—fall from our history books and public awareness? The answer may lie in the fact that there were so many more participants ashore than afloat.
With a ratio of 26 soldiers to every sailor, the volume of diaries, letters, articles, and unit histories was weighted in favor of the armies from the start. After the war the number of eyewitness accounts exploded, followed by more than a century of secondary works. The horrific land battles that affected so many lives (soldier and civilian) were the experience of the vast majority of the population, and eclipsed the naval aspect of the war. In the engagements at Shiloh and Malvern Hill, the Navy’s contribution was out of all proportion to the number of actual USN combatants: the crews of Tyler and Lexington at Shiloh comprised roughly 100 men as opposed to 103,000 soldiers (1030:1 ratio) while those of Galena, Jacob Bell, Mahaska, and Aroostook at Malvern Hill were similarly outnumbered by the 175,000 soldiers involved. Post-war publishers, with an eye towards profits and not necessarily preservation, naturally sought to print accounts that would sell well; the majority of readers either having been in the armies or related to someone who was, such stories made more money than could the narrower experiences of sailors and marines.
As later generations focused on the massive base of soldiers’ writings, the idea that the Navy had played a minor role became “received wisdom.”
No conflict in our history arouses passions among modern Americans as can the Civil War. And yet many of the perceptions we hold as truths developed after the fact and would appear foreign to the people of the time. Salient among these is the idea that the U.S. Navy played a secondary role in deciding the issue. The testimony of history is at odds with this perception. While the Navy alone could not have won the war, the Union Army alone would almost surely have lost it.
 Public awareness of the Navy’s role is usually limited to Monitor & Virginia and, perhaps, the blockade.
 Accurate numbers are impossible to agree upon. These come from Livermore ’s “Numbers & Losses in the Civil War” (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1957). What is important is the massive imbalance between land and sea forces.
 The commissioning of cruisers to raid Northern shipping might be construed as an offensive campaign in that it drew Union warships away from the blockade in pursuit, but this was not conducted in conjunction with efforts on land.
 Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War, D. Musicant, Harper Collins, New York , 1995, p. 55.
 Confederate Purchasing Operations Abroad, S. B. Thompson, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1935, pp. 44-47.
 Divided Waters, p .369.
 Ibid., p. 104.
 Confederate Purchasing Operations, pp. 97-98.
 Salt as a Factor in the Confederacy, Dr E. Lonn, Walter Neal Publishers, NYC, 1933, p. 43.
 Confederate Coinage: A Short-lived Dream, by V. Samant at www.pcgs.com/articles/article3187.chtml, August 2003.
 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1894 – 1922, vol. 12, pp. 772.
 While some native Southerners surely indulged in profiteering, many of the runners were owned by English firms and officered by British navy officers on “leave.” Their stake in the war was purely monetary.
 General Grant's Description of the Battle of Shiloh, From his Memoirs, at www.swcivilwar.com/GrantMemoirsShiloh.html, August 2003.
 P.G.T. Beauregard's Report of the Battle of Shiloh, at http://www.swcivilwar.com/BeauregardShiloh.html, August 2003.
 Combined Operations in the Civil War, R. Reed (United States Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1978), p. 206.
 Grant's Description.
 P.G.T. Beauregard's Report.
 Swett knew Lincoln from their days on the Illinois circuit court in the 1850s. Alexander McClure observed, "Of all living men, Leonard Swett was the one most trusted by Abraham Lincoln" (in Lincoln's Lost Speech: The Pivot of His Career, Elwell Crissey, Hawthorn Books, New York, 1967, p. 296.)
 Official Records--Navies, vol. 22, pp. 766.
 Ships vs Shore, D. Page, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville , 1994, p. 282.
 Official Records - Navies, vol. 7, pp. 532-533.
 Ibid., p. 533.
 Ibid., pp. 533-534.
 Eye of the Storm, R. Snedan, The Free Press, New York , 2000, pp96-97: “He was off with Commodore Rodgers selecting a new and safer position for the army for the morrow! When the enemy attacked us yesterday he was safe aboard the Galena ! Today he is safe enough where there is no enemy, thus depriving all his corps and division commanders of his abilities and counsel . . . The army was saved in spite of General McClellan’s ignorance of the situation in front of the battle.”
 Sinews of War, B. W. Bacon, Presidio Press, Novato , 1997, p. 62.
 Civil War Naval History, July 1862 at http://www.navyhistory.com/cwnavalhistory/July1862.html, August 2003.
 From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War, R. M. Browning, Jr., Univ. of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2003, p.56.
 The James River and Naval Warfare below Richmond : 1862--The Fight for the James, at http://www.geocities.com/virginiasre...thejames2.html, August 2003.
 USMC in the Civil War—The Second Year, D. M. Sullivan, White Mane Publishing, Shippensburg, 1997, p. 45.
 Ships vs. Shore, p.40.
 G. Wolseley: A Month's Visit to the Confederate Headquarters, Blackwood's Magazine, 1863, p12.
 Combined Operations, p. 181.
 The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond being the other.
 Sinews of War, p. 37.
 Gideon Welles, John Niven, Louisiana State Univ. Press, Baton Rouge , 1973, pp381-2.
 The Night the War Was Lost, Charles Dufour, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln , 1990, p. 350.
 Davis went to great lengths in his memoirs to shift the blame for the loss of New Orleans onto General Lovell, who had been vilified throughout the South. Yet every claim made by Davis was refuted by documents that the general had saved and presented at his inquest—a proceeding which he requested to clear his name, and which the government in Richmond long delayed.
 The Night the War Was Lost, p. 331.
 Ibid., p. 333.
 Ibid., p. 334.
 Ibid., p. 335.
 Sinews of War, p. 46.
 My own ancestor was a private in Company “B” of the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, who served throughout the war, being wounded several times.