MANY NORTHERN MILITARY OPERATIONS RELIED ON THE SUPPORT OF THE UNITED STATES NAVY AND THE CONFEDERATE FLEET, THOUGH SMALL, WAS ACTIVE AND INNOVATIVE.
“It was the most terrible storm of iron and lead that I have ever seen.”
—A Confederate eyewitness to a Federal naval bombardment, 1865
Sailors aboard the ironclad warship USS Lehigh. This monitor-class ship was armed with a Dahlgren field piece, the most common cannon used during the Civil War.
The North Builds a World-Class Navy
IN JUST FOUR YEARS, THE FEDERAL ARMADA GREW FROM ABOUT 50 SEAWORTHY SHIPS TO MORE THAN 600.
Northern sailors aboard the USS Wissahickon. The 691-ton Federal gunboat served on the Mississippi, the Gulf Coast, and in the U.S. Navy’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
In 1861, the United States Navy consisted of approximately 1,400 officers, 7,700 enlisted men, and 96 ships—only about half of which were seaworthy. Lincoln immediately put the fleet into action, orderingit to blockade all Southern seaports, support joint army-navy operations, and protect the North’s commercial shipping.
Four years later, the Federal armada would boast more than 51,000 men in uniform and 641 ships, including 60 ironclad warships.
As the war progressed, the U.S. Navy proved indispensable to Northern success. Equipped with newly built, state-of-the-art ironclad warships, the navy supported army operations in important victories such as Forts Henry and Donelson, Island No. 10, Vicksburg, and Fort Fisher, and took the lead in capturing key Southern ports such as New Orleans, Memphis, and Mobile. Naval forces resupplied General William T. Sherman’s army at Savannah after his March to the Sea, and over the course of the war, effectively blockaded more than three thousand miles of Confederate coastline.
The Northern naval blockade closed, bottled up, or helped capture every major seaport in the South—from Virginia to Texas—and effectively strangled the Confederacy. Naval warships also battled Confederate ironclads, and pursued Confederate raiders on the high seas. The North’s eventual victory was due in great measure to the actions of the United States Navy.
“In all the watery margins, they have been present,” said Lincoln. “Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have made their tracks.”
The USS Cairo waiting to dock in the Mississippi River. The ship would be the first ironclad to be sunk by a Confederate torpedo in December of 1862.
Federal sailors awaited orders aboard one of the U.S. Navy’s mortar schooners. A 13-inch naval mortar could fire a 227-pound projectile over two miles.
Civil War Naval Operations
The Northern naval blockade closed, bottled up, or helped capture every major seaport in the South, from Virginia to Texas.
April 19, 1861 President Lincoln ordered the U.S. Navy to blockade Southern seaports.
March 9, 1862 CSS Virginia and USS Monitor engaged in the first battle between ironclad warships at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
April 7, 1862 Island No. 10, a key Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River, surrendered to Northern naval forces.
April 25, 1862 New Orleans, the South’s largest city, surrendered to Northern naval forces.
June 6, 1862 Memphis surrendered to the North, virtually ending Confederate naval presence on the Mississippi River.
April 7, 1863 The Union suspended a naval attack on Charleston Harbor after just two hours.
July 4, 1863 Vicksburg was captured, giving Federal forces control of the Mississippi.
February 17, 1864 Warship USS Housatonic, attacked by the South’s H.L. Hunley, became the first ship sunk by a submarine.
August 5, 1864 Northern naval forces captured the Gulf seaport of Mobile, Alabama.
January 15, 1865 Federal army-navy operation captured Fort Fisher, closing the Confederacy’s last major seaport.
November 6, 1865 The Confederate cruiser CSS Shenandoah lowered its colors in Liverpool, England—the last Confederate surrender.
The South Revolutionizes Naval Warfare
THE CONFEDERACY OVERCAME LIMITED INDUSTRIAL RESOURCES TO BUILD OUT ITS FLEET.
An ironclad Confederate warship attacked Union vessels off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina in this period illustration.
When established in 1861, the Confederate States Navy existed more on paper than on water. Over the next four years, the Confederacy would buy, build, commission, capture, and otherwise float approximately 100 vessels of various types.
Although the C.S. Navy was tiny compared to its Union counterpart, at times it posed a serious threat to Federal maritime operations and to Northern commercial shipping. The fleet was led by more than 1,500 former U.S. naval officers who sided with the South and who were determined to defend Southern waters.
The C.S. fleet also had the advantage of a commander, Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, who was focused on innovation. Under Mallory’s leadership, the C.S. Navy constructed semisubmersible torpedo boats and launched the first submarine to sink a ship in combat. It also improved the technology for underwater sea mines—then known as torpedoes—and unleashed a bold offensive against the North’s shipping interests with a handful of high-seas commerce raiders.
Daring Attacks, But Failed Missions
The shoestring navy’s effort was valiant and creative but achieved only mixed success. It launched powerful ironclads such as the Virginia, the Albemarle, the Arkansas, and the Tennessee. The CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah conducted daring attacks that harmed and alarmed Northern shipping. And the Confederate navy’s technological innovations above and below water helped revolutionize modern naval warfare.
But at the same time, a third of its ironclads never saw action, and most of the others were sunk or scuttled. The commerce raids failed to cripple Northern shipping, and in the end, the Confederate States Navy was unable to break the Union’s blockade of Southern ports or successfully defend the Southern coast.
Forced to create a navy from scratch, the Confederacy became an innovator in maritime warfare, including the development of sea mine technology.
The Confederate Torpedo Bureau led the way in developing technology for underwater sea mines—commonly called “torpedoes” during the war—and experimented with a variety of designs.
Period artwork reflected the interest in semisubmersible torpedo boats that were developed by the Confederate navy.
U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
AN UNLIKELY LEADER BUILT THE NORTH’S FORMIDABLE MARITIME FORCES.
Gideon Welles was a strong supporter of the Republican party and held ardent antislavery views. He joined Lincoln’s cabinet in 1860, before becoming Secretary of the navy.
Before he became a New England industrialist, U.S. Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox was a junior naval officer. As assistant navy secretary, he directed Federal naval operations for Secretary Welles.
When Lincoln appointed Gideon Welles secretary of the U.S. Navy in 1861, he may have seemed an odd choice to some. A well-educated New Englander who wore a wig and nurtured bushy white whiskers, Welles was a former newspaper publisher and political operative. Formerly a Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party and helped Lincoln secure the party’s presidential nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention. Welles had no military experience—his civil service was limited to positions as a postmaster and state comptroller in Connecticut—but hedid have a background in naval operations. During the Mexican-American War, he had competently headed the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Provisions and Clothing. He would eventually prove to be one of Lincoln’s best cabinet selections.
A Well-Paired Team Leads the Way
As a leader of the U.S. Navy, Welles found a deft right hand in Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox.
They made a strong team. Welles was wise and experienced, and an admiring Abraham Lincoln jokingly referred to him as “Father Neptune.” For his part, Fox was innovative and energetic. Together they oversaw the construction of state-of-the-art ironclad warships and upgraded the U.S. Naval Academy.
Welles and Fox were key in assisting the Union capture of one Southern seaport after another—a strategy that eventually strangled the Southern economy. They provided a strategy for an effective naval blockade, for critical support for army activities on inland waters, for aggressively pursuing Confederate commerce raiders, and for overwhelming the technologically advanced Confederate navy.
By war’s end, the two men had not only led the U.S. Navy to victory, they had also modernized and expanded it to world-class stature.
In addition to constructing new warships, like the ironclad USS St. Louis pictured above, center, the U.S. Navy also repurposed commercial ships like the USS Tyler, resting behind the St. Louis above, for warfare.
The USS Essex was originally a ferryboat called New Era. It was purchased by the U.S. Army in 1861 and fitted with iron armor before transfering to the U.S. Navy in 1862.
Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter and his staff posed aboard the USS Malvern. A former Confederate blockade-runner, the steamer was captured by Union forces and became part of the blockade.
The USS Galena, one of the first Union ironclads, was considered a failure when it was pierced by Confederate gunfire at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff.
Arrest on the Trent
In 1861, the Northern warship USS San Jacinto stopped the British mail steamer Trent on the open seas and arrested two of its passengers, James Mason and John Slidell, both Confederate diplomats to Great Britain. When Britain threatened war with the U.S., the Lincoln administration freed the two men.
C.S. Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory
A NAVAL VISIONARY TRANSFORMED THE SOUTHERN FLEET.
As a U.S. senator for Florida, Stephen R. Mallory originally opposed secession, but nevertheless joined the Confederacy when his state left the Union.
The strongest ship in the naval defense of Mobile Bay, the CSS Tennessee was captured by Union forces in August 1864.
The South’s most important naval resource was Stephen Mallory.
Born on the island of Trinidad and raised in Key West, Florida, Mallory grew up surrounded by water. Despite limited means, his widowed mother managed to put Mallory in a Northern boarding school for three years. The experience served as an ample educational foundation for Mallory, who did the rest on his own: By the time he was 38, he taught himself law under the direction of a local judge, became an attorney and specialized in maritime cases, was appointed collector of customs at Key West, and was elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida.
In the Senate, Mallory served as the influential chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs and was befriended by Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis. He opposed secession, but resigned from the U.S. Senate when Florida seceded.
Fighting Wood with Iron
The day after the Confederate congress created the C.S. Navy, President Jefferson Davis named Stephen R. Mallory as its head.
Approximately 6,000 men served in the Confederate States Navy compared to more than 50,000 Union sailors.
Despite the South’s lack of industry, Mallory believed the fledgling C.S. Navy should “fight wood with iron,” and embarked on an aggressive upgrade campaign. He built a succession of ironclad warships like the CSS Virginia that rendered wooden warships obsolete. He improved sea mines and submarines and oversaw significant advances in naval artillery. He employed speedy vessels built in Europe to attack Northern shipping lanes.
Mallory’s efforts rattled Union war planners and often sent the North scrambling to recover. But they were not enough to save the South. When the Confederacy collapsed, Mallory was arrested by Federal authorities and imprisoned without trial for almost a year. Upon his release, Mallory returned to his Florida law practice, but his health had deteriorated, and he died in 1873.
The ironclad CSS Virginia was used not only for naval combat but to interfere with Northern shipping traffic.
Built in France and commissioned by the Confederate navy in 1865, the CSS Stonewall did not reach American waters until war’s end. Abandoned by its Confederate crew, it was confiscated by the U.S. Navy.
Black Sailors Take up Arms for the Union
AS NORTHERN SHIPS PROBED SOUTHERN COASTLINES AND RIVERS, SLAVES ESCAPED INTO U.S. NAVY CUSTODY AND JOINED THE SERVICE BY THE THOUSANDS.
More than 17,000 African-Americans served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, and composed an estimated 20 percent of U.S. Navy personnel.
It was Christmas Day of 1863, when the USS Marblehead came under attack near the mouth of South Carolina’s Stono River. A Confederate shore battery raked the Federal warship with more than 20 rounds of scathing fire and killed the ship’s powder boy.
Ignoring the deadly fire, seaman Robert Blake took over the dead boy’s duties. He raced back and forth between the ship’s magazine and its guns, carrying ammunition, and enabled the Marblehead to keep up a steady fire until the Confederate battery was silenced. For his valor, Blake was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. What made the award especially distinctive was his background: Robert Blake was an escaped slave.
Unlike the U.S. Army, the navy began accepting black crewmen as soon as the war began. As Northern ships probed Southern coastlines and rivers, slaves by the thousands escaped into U.S. Navy custody to join the service.
U.S. Navy secretary Gideon Welles approved the incoming flood of former slaves. He did not separate them into segregated units as the army would do later, but did require that the 17,000 black sailors be classified as ship’s boys at the navy’s lowest pay grade. By war’s end more than 20 percent of the U.S. Navy’s personnel was composed of black men in blue uniforms.
Officers and crew members of a Northern warship posed for a visiting photographer. At war’s end, more than 51,000 men were serving in the Federal navy.
In 1863, the USS Marblehead was attached to the U.S. Navy’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and patrolled the coast of South Carolina.
Males as young as 12 served in the wartime U.S. Navy, often as the sailors responsible for keeping ships’ guns supplied with powder charges during battle.
Black Smoke and Moon Nights
RUNNING NAVAL BLOCKADES WAS A DANGEROUS BUSINESS, BUT IT OFFERED SHIPPING COMPANIES POTENTIALLY HUGE PROFITS.
Federal warships patrolled the Southern coastline in search of blockade runners smuggling cargo in and out of the Confederate harbors.
Immediately after the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of Southern seaports.
The move served two purposes. It prevented the agricultural South, which did not possess the industry to wage war, from importing materials from abroad, especially from Great Britain. It also hampered the South’s efforts to export cotton and other profitable crops that would finance a military build up.
Yet cordoning off the Confederacy’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts was a herculean task. At the outset, the U.S. Navy struggled to patrol the 3,500 miles of Southern coastline with its nine major seaports and 189 harbors and inlets.
An Opporunity for Huge Profits
Despite its risks, running the naval blockade offered Southern and British shipping companies huge profits, and a specialized type of vessel was developed to evade capture by U.S. warships. A typical blockade-runner was a long, low, steamer that was camouflaged with lead-gray paint to blend in with the Atlantic seas. Collapsible masts and smokestacks reduced the ship’s silhouette, canvas covers masked the noise of paddlewheels, and smokeless anthracite coal was used to eliminate the telltale plumes that could be spotted on the ocean horizon. Blockade-runners were designed to be fast, and to add speed during a chase, turpentine-soaked cotton bales or sides of bacon were shoved into the ship’s furnace.
Officers and crew of a darkened naval blockader prepared to pursue a distant Southern blockade-runner in this period illustration.
The blockade runner Colt ran aground near Charleston. The wreckage is pictured above. When capture seemed certain, captains sometimes beached their ship so its cargo could be salvaged.
Textile industries abroad that relied on cotton from the South suffered when the U.S. Navy set up blockades in all Southern ports. Nevertheless countries like Britain and France officially remained neutral.
Some British ships, like the steamship Dee shown here, ran the Union blockade to move goods in and out of the South. These ships were operated by Confederate sympathizers and men looking to make a profit off cotton.
Civil War Naval blockades
Amount of Southern coastline
Number of major Southern seaports
Number of Southern harbors and inlets
Estimated Northern blockaders during the war
Estimated Southern blockade-runners
Approximate number of attempts to run the blockade
Successful number of blockade runs
A Federal soldier keeping watch for Confederate blockade runners.
Sea captains who ran the blockade also developed specialized tactics. They would wait for a dark, moonless night, build up a full head of steam in the ship’s boiler—then make a fast dash into the open sea, hoping to speed away from any patrolling Federal warships.
Outbound blockade-runners sailing from Southern seaports such as Wilmington, Savannah, or Mobile would carry cargoes of Southern cotton, tobacco, peanuts, or turpentine to ports in Great Britain via Nassau, Nova Scotia, or Bermuda. On the return voyage, they would bring back cargoes of English Enfield rifles, bayonets, percussion caps, bars of bullet lead, and uniforms. They also carried high-profit civilian goods that were scarce in the South. A profit of $150,000 earned from a single voyage was not unusual.
Fighting for the Lifeline of the Confederacy
The officers and crews of the Northern blockaders patrolling the Southern coastline could also earn sizeable profits—that is, if they captured a blockade-runner. The United States government auctioned off the cargoes confiscated from blockade-runners, and—as an incentive—split the profits with the officers and crews of the ship that made the capture. In 1864, for example, when the USS Eolus captured a blockade-runner, the captain earned $13,000, each sailor took home $1,000, and the ship’s cabin boy received $500.
To the Confederacy, profits were almost secondary: The arms and equipment imported into the South by blockade-runners kept Southern armies in the field. By early 1865, blockade-runners had brought more than two hundred million dollars in war materiel and civilian goods into Southern ports, and exported more than 1.4 million bales of cotton to Britain. Blockade-running was the lifeline of the Confederacy.
The blockade runner Robert E. Lee, a 642-ton side-wheel steamer, made at least 20 successful voyages through the Northern naval blockade until captured by Federal warships in late 1863.
The specialized vessels that ran the Northern naval blockade were typically designed as fast, shallow-draught ships that could hug the shoreline. Many were camouflaged with slate-gray paint and fitted with collapsible smokestacks to reduce their silhouette on the ocean horizon.
Perhaps the most famous blockade-runner of all is a fictional one: Rhett Butler, hero of Margaret Mitchell’s sprawling Civil War epic Gone With the Wind. Played by Clark Gable in the film version, Butler is a dashing, dangerous character who makes his living subverting the U.S. Navy. He only joins the Confederate army after the burning of Atlanta, when it is clear the South is doomed.
The USS Monitor Versus the CSS Virginia
NAVAL WARFARE WAS REVOLUTIONIZEDIN A SINGLE DAY.
An 1862 illustration showed the USS Cumberland being raked by artillery fire from the ironclad CSS Virginia. The Federal warship sank after being rammed by the Virginia.
On Saturday, March 8, 1862, just off the Virginia coast, a lookout for the USS Cumberland spotted an odd-looking vessel steadily approaching through the calm waters of Chesapeake Bay.
The Cumberland was part of a 20-boat Union fleet that boasted a total of 200 heavy guns—firepower that had convinced naval commanders they were safe from attack by anything the young Confederate States Navy might float. Yet, the strange-looking craft steaming toward the fleet was clearly flying Confederate colors; at 8:45 am on Sunday morning, the Cumberland and the nearby USS Congress promptly opened fire.
Unknown to the Northern sailors, their target was the CSS Virginia, the Confederacy’s first ironclad warship. The world’s first battle between ironclad ships had begun.
Built on the Hull of the Merrimack
The Virginia had been constructed on the hull of the scuttled USS Merrimack, which Confederate troops had discovered in the abandoned ruins of the former U.S. Navy yard at Norfolk, Virginia. The 263-foot-long warship was armed with ten pieces of heavy artillery and was covered with cast-iron plating to protect it from artillery fire. A 1,500-pound iron ram protruded from its bow beneath the water. The ship was commanded by 61-year-old Captain Franklin Buchanan, a former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Before joining the Confederate navy, Captain Franklin Buchannan, commander of the CSS Virginia, had run both the Washington D.C. Navy Yard and the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Ironclad Takes the Day
The Virginia returned fire and tore a hole in the Cumberland’s hull with its ram, sinking the ship and taking more than a hundred sailors with it. The Virginia then turned on the USS Congress, forced it aground in the shallows and set it ablaze. It wasn’t until twilight approached that the Virginiafinally steamed away. The ironclad’s only serious loss was its commander: Captain Buchanan was wounded by Northern small-arms fire when he came topside to oversee the rescue of Southern sailors.
In contrast, Federal losses were shocking: two top-of-the-line warships were destroyed, three more had been driven aground, and almost 400 sailors and officers were dead, wounded, or missing. It was the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Navy at the time. In Washington, D.C., news of the disaster sparked fear that the Virginia might steam up the Potomac River and bombard the capital.
The First Battle between Ironclad Warships
When the Virginia returned on Sunday, March 9, it expected to easily finish off the Federal fleet. Instead, as the ironclad moved through the Bay, it encountered a surprise: the USS Monitor, a Northern ironclad dispatched for its first mission.
Hurriedly constructed on orders of the U.S. Navy secretary Gideon Wells, the Monitor was described as a “cheesebox on a raft.” It had a low, flat deck and like the Virginia was covered in thick, cast-iron plating. What distinguished the Monitor from theVirginia was its revolving, nine-foot turret, which was armed and could fire every two minutes.
The two ironclads circled each other at a range of about 50 yards, steadily trading fire and attempting to ram each other for hours, but to little effect. Artillery bounced off the hulls of both vessels. The course did not change until the Virginia struck theMonitor’s pilot house, scattering debris that temporarily blinded its commander, 27-year-old Lieutenant John L. Worden. While Worden was being treated, the Monitor retreated and silenced its guns.
The first battle between ironclad warships thus ended in a tactical draw—but wooden warships were now obsolete, and naval warfare had changed forever.
This 19th-century illustration showed the CSS Virginia in drydock at Norfolk, Virginia’s Gosport Navy Yard.
Lieutenant John L. Worden, the commander of the ironclad USS Monitor, was a seasoned naval officer who had once served aboard the USS Cumberland.
The crew of the USS Monitor relaxed on deck beside the ironclad’s turret. On December 30, 1862, the ship sank at sea in a storm.
The End of the Monitor
Following its famous battle with the USS Monitor, the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia was trapped by advancing Northern forces and was destroyed by its crew. Six months later, the Monitor sank in a storm off the coast of North Carolina.
Witness to War: Aboard the CSS Virginia
LT. WOOD’S ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE OF THE IRONCLADS
At Hampton Roads, Virginia, the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor engaged in history’s first battle between ironclad warships on March 9, 1862.
Lieutenant John Taylor Wood, a junior officer aboard the CSS Virginia during its duel with the USS Monitor, bore witness to the first battle between ironclads from inside the Virginia. An excerpt of his account:
After an early breakfast, we got under way and steamed out toward the enemy, opening fire from our bow pivot, and closing in to deliver our starboard broadside at short range, which was returned promptly from her 11-inch guns. Both vessels then turned and passed again still closer. The Monitor was firing every seven or eight minutes, and nearly every shot struck. . . .
Orders were given to concentrate our fire on the pilot-house, and with good result, as we afterward learned. More than two hours had passed, and we had made no impression on the enemy so far as we could discover, while our wounds were slight. Several times the Monitor ceased firing, and we were in hopes she was disabled, but the revolution again of her turret and the heavy blows of her 11-inch shot on our sides soon undeceived us. . . .
Lieutenant Jones now determined to run her down or board her. For nearly an hour we maneuvered for a position. . . . At last an opportunity offered. “Go ahead, full speed!” But before the ship gathered headway, the Monitor turned, and our disabled ram only gave a glancing blow, effecting nothing. Again she came up on our quarter, her bow against our side, and at this distance fired twice. Both shots struck about half-way up the shield, abreast of the after pivot, and the impact forced the side in bodily two or three inches.
All the crews of the aft guns were knocked over by the concussion, and bled from the nose or ears. Another shot at the same place would have penetrated. . . . At length, the Monitor withdrew over the middle ground where we could not follow . . . We awaited her return for an hour; and at 2 o’clock p.m. steamed to Sewell’s Point, and thence to the dockyard at Norfolk, our crew thoroughly worn out from the two days’ fight.
Civil War Commando
Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing
If Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing had been born a century later, he might have been a U.S. Navy SEAL.
A New York native, Cushing entered the U.S. Naval Academy at age 14, was appointed executive officer of a naval warship by age 19, and was the most famous junior officer in the U.S. Navy by age 20. He gained newspaper headlines by steaming into New York City’s harbor with a captured blockade-runner, led numerous nighttime raids behind enemy lines, narrowly missed kidnapping a Confederate general from his headquarters, and helped lead a navy ground assault at the Battle of Fort Fisher.
Cushing’s greatest feat occurred in 1864, when he led a behind-the-lines raid that sank the mighty Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle. At war’s end, he earned praise from President Lincoln and the official thanks of the U.S. Congress. But his exploits took their toll. Cushing lived his final years hospitalized with debilitating pain, where he died in 1874 at the age of 32.
The CSS Alabama
The most famous and most successful of the Confederate cruisers, the CSS Alabama was a 1,050-ton, 220-foot, triple-masted sloop that was built under Confederate contract by a British shipyard.
Captained by Commander Raphael Semmes, the eight-gunned Alabama pursued Northern commercial shipping from Newfoundland to South Africa. From 1862 to 1864, the CSS Alabama captured more than 60 Northern merchant ships, burning almost all of them, causing a loss of more than six million dollars. It also fought and sank the USS Hatteras off the coast of Texas in 1863.
In June of 1864, the Alabama was sunk in a battle with the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France. Semmes escaped capture and returned to the South, where he ended the war as a Confederate brigadier general.
Submarine Warfare in the Civil War
THE H.L. HUNLEY BECAME THE FIRST SUBMARINE TO SINK A SHIP IN COMBAT.
The H.L. Hunley rested on a dock in Charleston, S.C., awaiting its fate as the first submarine to sink a ship in combat.
Was it a porpoise? Or a log carried along by the tide? The watch officer aboard the USS Housatonic was unsure. It was the night of February 17, 1864, and the Housatonic, a 1,240-ton, 11-gun Northern warship, lay at anchor about five miles off the shore of Charleston, South Carolina.
As the unidentified shape closed in on the warship’s starboard side, the deck officer realized the object was man-made and sounded the alarm. Guards on the Housatonic opened fire, but the strange craft rammed the warship’s hull, causing a muffled explosion and a geyser of seawater on the starboard side. The Housatonic began listing, and within five minutes, had sunk in 28 feet of water, leaving most of its crew hanging on to its exposed masts and rigging.
Made from a Cylinder Boiler
The strange craft that sank the Housatonic was the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine. Designed by Horace Lawson Hunley, the 40-foot vessel had been made from a cylinder boiler and could submerge fully thanks to diving planes and a hand-operated propeller shaft. A torpedo mounted on a spar that protruded from the Hunley’s bow was designed to explode on impact. The Hunley carried a volunteer crew of eight sailors and a commander.
Despite its innovative design, the Hunley had a troubled history. In 1863, it had been shipped by rail to Charleston, where it was to be deployed to break the Northern naval blockade. On a test run, however, the submarine accidentally swamped, drowning five of its crew.
To boost confidence in his invention, Horace Hunley personally took it on another practice dive, but the sub failed to surface, and he was killed along with everyone else on board. It wasn’t until early 1864 that the Confederate authorities agreed to try theHunley again and find new volunteers to take the submarine into battle. This time, the crew under Lieutenant George E. Dixon kept the boat underwater for more than two and a half hours.
Soon afterward, the Hunley torpedoed the Housatonic. But for Dixon and his crew, it was a short-lived victory: The Hunley sunk outside Charleston Harbor, drowning all aboard. The boat remained lost until 1995, when it was discovered on the sea floor and raised five years later. The remains of its crew were ceremoniously buried in Charleston, and the craft was preserved in a special museum—as the historic forerunner of modern submarine warfare.
On February 17, 1864, the USS Housatonic was attacked and sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley.
Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!
As the North’s naval blockade reduced the flow of imported weapons and equipment into the Confederacy, Federal forces progressively attacked the Southern seaports that could not be effectively closed.
One of the last ports to fall was Mobile, Alabama, which was captured in August of 1864, when Admiral David G. Farragut forced his fleet of Federal warships past Mobile’s formidable defenses.
Cautioned that Confederate water mines—torpedoes—lay in the path of his flagship, Farragut reportedly exclaimed, “Damn the Torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” The Northern victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay further isolated and weakened the Confederacy.
Tale of Two Beauforts
Two small port cities with the same name—Beaufort, South Carolina and Beaufort, North Carolina—were captured in Federal joint army-navy operations early in the war and became refueling stations for the U.S. Navy’s blockading squadrons.
The Battle for Fort Fisher—the Confederate Goliath
IT TOOK TWO MASSIVE ASSAULTS, BUT IN JANUARY 1865, THE UNION OVERCAME THE COASTAL DEFENSE SYSTEM PROTECTING THE LAST SOUTHERN SEAPORT OF WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA.
Fort Fisher, the largest earthen fortification in the Confederacy, protected the Atlantic entrance to Wilmington, North Carolina, which, by late 1864, was the South’s only remaining major seaport.
By late 1864, Federal forces had captured or effectively blockaded every major Southern seaport, except Wilmington, North Carolina. For Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, it was critical to defend Wilmington so the South could receive military supplies.
Located 20 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington was protected by a massive defense system that was anchored by Fort Fisher—the largest coastal fortification in the Confederacy. The mighty fort stretched a mile and a half across and down a peninsula that overlooked the mouth of the Cape Fear River. It had been constructed under the command of Major General W.H.C. Whiting—one of the prewar U.S. Army’s best military engineers—and was designed by his bright young protégé, Colonel William Lamb.
“I determined at once,” Lamb would later recall, “to build a work of such magnitude that it could withstand the heaviest fire of any guns in the American navy.” Fort Fisher bristled with heavy artillery—48 guns—and its defenses included a field of land mines that could be detonated by an electrical system.
In December of 1864, a joint Federal army-navy operation attempted to capture Fort Fisher and close the port of Wilmington. The assault started strongly, with Rear Admiral David D. Porter bombarding the Confederate behemoth, but army commander General Benjamin F. Butler recalled Northern troops from the Army of the James when they were just yards from striking due to the arrival of Confederate reinforcements. “Curses enough have been heaped on Butler’s head,” wrote a disgusted Northern soldier, “to sink him in the deepest hole of the bottomless pit.” Without land troops for support, Admiral Porter suspended his naval maneuver and redirected his fleet back to the North.
Four Confederate soldiers stood in the battery at Fort Fisher. The unique fortress was built from earth instead of brick, and this enabled it to better withstand the shock of explosions.
Two massive U.S. Navy bombardments destroyed much of Fort Fisher’s artillery in preparation for an assault by Northern infantry.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, unleashed the greatest naval bombardment of the war against Fort Fisher.
Major General Alfred H. Terry took command of Federal army operations against Fort Fisher after an unsuccessful attack on the fort in December of 1864.
The Lifeline of the Confederacy Is Severed
Dismayed by the army’s retreat, President Lincoln removed General Butler from his post. In his place he installed General Alfred H. Terry, an experienced commander who had experience successfully assaulting seacoast fortifications.
In January of 1865, a larger joint army-navy force under General Terry and Admiral Porter returned to Fort Fisher with a fleet of 59 warships and approximately 9,000 troops from the Army of the James. For three days, the fleet’s 627 guns pounded Fort Fisher, the largest naval assault of the Civil War. On January 15, General Terry sent in the infantry, supported by a group of volunteer sailors. Though the naval brigade quickly sustained casualties and turned back, the Federal infantry was able to scale the fort’s high earthen walls and engage in fierce hand-to-hand combat.
The 1,900-man Confederate garrison defending the fortress was outnumbered and fought valiantly. Both Colonel Lamb and General Whiting were seriously wounded. But the effort could not keep Federal troops at bay. After six hours, Fort Fisher fell and Wilmington, North Carolina, the South’s sole surviving seaport, was finally closed. After four years of unrelenting vigilance, the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the Southern coastline had the Confederacy in a chokehold.
Fort Fisher was a giant, sprawling fortification that commanded the mouth of the Cape Fear River, shown here in a 19th-century map. Federal infantry assaulted it from the north.
On January 15, 1865, Northern infantry assaulted Fort Fisher, supported by a volunteer brigade of seamen. After hours of bloody hand-to-hand fighting, the fort’s outnumbered garrison finally surrendered.
In a joint amphibious operation, thousands of Northern troops assaulted Fort Fisher, while the U.S. Navy pounded the giant fort with a sustained naval bombardment.
The Confederate cruiser CSS Shenandoah, captained by Commander James I. Waddell, was the only Confederate cruiser to sail around the world. Built in Britain, it raided Northern whaling fleets in the Pacific as far north as Alaska, and in December of 1865 became the last Confederate command to surrender.