April 20, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln’s Federal naval blockade on all ports in Confederate states took effect.
Lincoln issued a proclamation on April 19 blockading the ports of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. This aimed to stop the flow of war equipment, supplies, or foodstuffs of any kind from foreign nations to the Confederacy.
Blockading the Confederate states contradicted Lincoln’s militia proclamation of April 15 because international law considered a blockade an act of war against a foreign nation. Lincoln had refused to acknowledge the Confederates had formed a foreign nation when he called out the militia, even though blockading their ports could be considered recognition of Confederate independence. Conversely, if this truly was a rebellion as Lincoln had asserted, then the Federal government would be violating states’ rights by unconstitutionally blockading a sovereign state.
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, after conferring with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee), had urged Lincoln to issue an executive order simply closing the ports in rebellious states. Influential Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens backed Welles. They contended that not only would a blockade play into Confederate hands by indirectly acknowledging their nationhood, but it would make the Confederacy eligible for international rights to buy arms, receive loans, and operate against Federal shipping.
On the other hand, Secretary of State William H. Seward had been advised by Lord Richard Lyons, the British minister in Washington, that Great Britain had no obligation to honor an executive order because it had no foreign merit. The British would only support the Federal war effort if the administration imposed a blockade. Britain needed southern cotton, and international law would allow British vessels to run the blockade at their own risk to get it.
Lincoln knew his administration needed British support. He also worried that simply closing the ports would invite foreign vessels to violate the closures, which could lead not only to foreign recognition of the Confederacy, but even to foreign navies protecting Confederate ports against the U.S. Seward argued that a blockade would better enable Federal naval vessels under international law to stop neutral ships on the high seas and confiscate cargo going to Confederate ports. With his cabinet divided, Lincoln sided with Seward.
The Navy Department had only 42 vessels totaling 555 guns and 7,600 sailors to patrol the enormous length of the Confederate shoreline. Many required modern refitting, and others were scattered throughout the world. Nevertheless, Welles quickly began buying and chartering merchant ships and authorizing construction of new vessels to enforce Lincoln’s decree. Within three months, the Navy Department had commissioned 82 ships; this number grew to 264 by year’s end.
Lincoln’s proclamation also stipulated that “if any person, who, under the pretended authority of said (Confederate) States, or under any other pretense, should molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board of her, such person shall be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy,” and, if convicted by the courts, hanged for piracy.
This countered Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s proclamation of April 17 authorizing private shipowners to apply for letters of marque and reprisal to engage in privateering against Federal commercial shipping. Lincoln reasoned that the Confederacy, not being a legitimate nation, had no right to license privateers.
The proclamation legally contradicted itself by recognizing Confederate legitimacy by imposing a naval blockade on one hand while refusing to acknowledge that legitimacy by treating their privateers as pirates on the other. The notion of a blockade meant a state of war existed between two nations, but hanging those who harassed Federal shipping meant the conflict was merely a domestic uprising. The Lincoln administration tried having it both ways.
The Davis administration responded to the blockade by withholding cotton from the nations in need of it, hoping those nations would be starved into offering diplomatic recognition. Meanwhile, Confederate seamen quickly became experts at evading the small but growing Federal blockading fleet. Davis also declared that for every Confederate hanged for piracy, the Confederacy would hang a Federal in retaliation. This would become a highly sensitive issue once Federals began seizing Confederate privateers.
On the 24th, four days after Lincoln’s naval blockade took effect, U.S.S. Cumberland under Flag Officer Pendergrast captured the Confederate tug Young America and the schooner George M. Smith off Hampton Roads, Virginia. Both ships contained large amounts of military supplies and ammunition. Two days later, U.S.S. Commerce under Lieutenant G.W. Rodgers captured Confederate blockade-runner Lancaster at the top of Chesapeake Bay off Havre de Grace, Maryland. Rodgers also pursued a steam tug but could not catch it.
Lincoln modified his blockade proclamation on the 27th to include Virginia and North Carolina. Both states had taken steps to secede, but since neither had yet officially done so, Lincoln essentially ordered the unconstitutional blockade of two sovereign states. Lincoln also directed Navy Secretary Welles to issue letters of marque for private Federal vessels to retaliate against Confederate privateering by seizing Confederate shipping on the high seas.
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