When President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of Confederate ports on April 19, 1861, the U.S. Navy consisted of 42 commissioned ships. Even more dire was the fact that only three of those ships were ready for immediate blockade duty. To the Confederacy and even to many in the Union the idea of the U.S. Navy successfully blockading over 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline and twelve major ports seemed laughable. However, as the Civil War progressed the Navy grew and the blockade tightened. Although never perfect, the blockade did slowly choke off overseas commerce to the Confederacy. When the war came to an end, the Union Navy had grown to 671 ships. Often overlooked compared to the massive land battles waged during the Civil War, the blockade played a vital role in the eventual Union victory.
The Civil War on the Water: The Union Blockade l Photos
U.S. Civil War 150th Anniversary
The crew of the gunboat USS Mendota pose for a photo while at anchor. The Mendota served in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and also patrolled the James River. Life in the blockade squadron was crowded and characterized by long periods of boredom. National Archives photo by Matthew Brady The Union blockade efforts weren't without controversy and were often mocked in the press at the beginning of the war. This newspaper artist ridicules the Union's early efforts to overhaul and augment a somewhat outdated U.S. Navy fleet in order to blockade Confederate ports and effectively defend against Confederate privateers and blockade runners. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles of Connecticut is disparaged and the U.S. Navy is depicted as using bathtubs to confront a sleek Confederate blockade runner. Library of Congress drawing To patrol the long coastline of the Confederacy, the Union converted numerous vessels into warships. The USS Commodore Perry was a side-wheel ferryboat before the war, but became an armed steamer after being purchased by the U.S. Navy in 1861. Library of Congress photo A young “powder monkey” on the USS New Hampshire, one of the many Union warships that patrolled the Atlantic coast, blockading southern ports. Powder monkeys had the crucial job of lugging powder from the ship's magazines to keep the guns firing. Note the easily accessible cutlasses mounted on the ship's superstructure behind him. Library of Congress photo The USS Connecticut on patrol during the Civil War. The Connecticut was a civilian side-wheel steamship that was converted to a warship in 1861. Besides serving as transport to keep the Union blockade supplied, she also participated in the capture or destruction of at least six Confederate blockade runners. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo The Union blockader USS Pensacola in Alexandria, Va., 1861. In Jan. 1862 the Pensacola left Alexandria to join Adm. David Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron. During her time with that squadron she participated in the capture of the Confederate city of New Orleans, La. which was one of the first U.S. Navy triumphs of the Civil War. Library of Congress photo Six Marines with fixed bayonets at the Washington Navy Yard, Washington D.C. The U.S. Marine Corps numbered less than 3,000 men during the Civil War and spent most of the war guarding ships and navy yards. Union Marines did participate in amphibious landings at New Orleans, Charleston, and Fort Fisher, N.C. Library of Congress photo The USS Commodore Barney, a ferryboat, on patrol. Ferryboats were valuable contributors to the blockading squadrons due to their ability to navigate on rivers and streams that larger ships couldn't enter. This allowed them to deny Confederate blockade runners sanctuaries. During the war, the Commodore Barney served in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. National Archives photo by Matthew Brady Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren, center, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, with other officers aboard the USS Pawnee, in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. In addition to Dahlgren, three captains, two lieutenant commanders, a lieutenant and two ensigns are present. National Archives photo by Matthew Brady Union Navy signal men on a blockader. These men were crucial to the operations of a successful blockading squadron. The only way to coordinate ships at sea during the Civil War was the use of signals. Library of Congress photo