Naval Strategies North and South

Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory was the former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, and he was very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. Navy. Based on his knowledge, Mallory had urged the Confederate Congress to provide funding to build armored warships because a fleet of ironclads could defeat or destroy any Federal ships that could be arrayed against it. Congress complied.

Mallory initially envisioned working with European governments to build the warships in their ports, safe from U.S. scrutiny. But most European powers had declared neutrality, and therefore the Confederates would have to use whatever ships and materiel they had on hand. The U.S.S. Merrimac had been among the ships sunk when the Federals hastily abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard in April. She was salvageable, and it soon became apparent that she would be reconstructed to become the Confederacy’s first ironclad.

In early June, Mallory met with Chief of Ordnance and Hydrography John M. Brooke, Naval Constructor John L. Porter, and Chief Engineer William P. Williamson. Brooke submitted a design to fit the hull of the Merrimac with iron plating. As Brooke explained, “This is our only chance to get a suitable vessel in a short time.” Mallory approved the design, and he announced that work should be completed by November. Construction began on the 23rd.

Confederate naval agent James D. Bulloch arrived at Liverpool with instructions from Mallory to “get cruising ships of suitable type afloat with the quickest possible despatch.” Bulloch had been involved with the U.S. Navy for 14 years and with commercial shipping another eight years. He worked to obtain contracts to construct two vessels for the Confederate Navy, to be funded by the Confederate government. Bulloch would become an important figure in the Confederacy’s effort to garner recognition and financial and military support from Europe.

Meanwhile, Federal officials continued working to strengthen the blockade. British officials asserted that the U.S. could not possibly impose an effective blockade of the entire southern coastline. Captain Samuel F. Du Pont, commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, responded: “I do not like the tone of things in England… Lord Derby and Granville, etc., talk of 2,000 miles of coast to be blockaded! They seem to forget so far as their rights and international interests are concerned we have only to blockade the ports of entry–from Chesapeake to Galveston–any… venture into any other harbors or inlets of any kind is liable to capture as a smuggler…”

By this month, 36 Federal vessels were patrolling the 3,500-mile Confederate coastline. This included 10 major ports and 180 additional inlets, bays, and river mouths accessible to smaller ships. New blockading vessels were being commissioned every week, some of which were old sailing brigs or side-wheeler ferryboats, along with modern steam frigates and sloops of war.

Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy, and the superintendent of the Coast Survey met in a key strategy session at Washington to discuss blockading and amphibious operations along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Led by Captain Du Pont, this was an example of a “joint staff” that became known as the Blockade Strategy Board. This was one of the only key planning bodies to develop overall Federal war strategy.

At this time, the Federals had just two naval bases in Confederate territory: Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Key West, Florida. Blockading vessels spent countless hours traveling to and from these bases for fuel and supplies, which hindered the blockade. The Blockade Strategy Board resolved to capture additional Confederate ports to settle this dilemma, among them Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, Ship Island off Biloxi, Mississippi, and Hatteras Inlet guarding many key ports in North Carolina. Members also discussed how best to conduct joint army-navy operations to seize these points.

U.S. warships captured several Confederate vessels trying to run the blockade this month off Key West and Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles received a report stating that “the rebels in New Orleans are constructing an infernal submarine vessel to destroy the Brooklyn, or any vessel blockading at the mouth of the Mississippi… a projectile with a sharp iron or steel pointed prow to perforate the bottom of the vessel and then explode.”


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