Confederate Naval Strategy

The first plank of Confederate naval strategy was put in place by Jefferson Davis. Replying to Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers, Davis issued a call for privateers, a traditional response of weaker naval powers. Some answered Davis’s call, but the approach met with immediate problems, not the least of which being that European states had outlawed privateering in April 1856. The British Proclamation of Neutrality of May 13, 1861, effectively granted de facto recognition to the Confederate government but did not establish diplomatic ties. The French later followed suit. To the British, this meant that the Confederates had to abide by the treaty against privateering, while the Union had to construct an effective blockade. Moreover, early on, the British, French, and Spanish forbade privateers from bringing prizes into their respective ports. Meanwhile, the Union had tightened the blockade, leaving no place to sell prizes. Taken together, these factors killed Confederate privateering.

Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen Mallory had his own ideas on naval strategy, ones driven by weakness. He sought the integration of new technologies to overcome the Confederacy’s inferior naval position. The South lacked the North’s industrial capacity and skilled mechanics; they would have to develop these, often from scratch. As Alfred Thayer Mahan pointed out, the South also suffered from having an extensive and accessible coastline, with a population too small to protect it. The Union would take advantage of this.

After the Confederate Congress allocated money for a navy on March 16, 1861, Mallory began trying to buy suitable ships anywhere he could. This netted a few vessels. But Mallory believed that it would eventually be possible to construct ships in Confederate yards, and he knew what he wanted first. “I propose to adopt a class of vessels hitherto unknown to naval services,” he wrote. Mallory craved fast, steam-powered raiders with rifled cannons. “Small propeller ships with great speed, lightly armed with these guns, must soon become, as the light artillery and rifles of the deep, a most destructive element of naval warfare.” He had also already bought two steamships, Sumter and McRae, which he dispatched as raiders.

On May 8, 1861, James D. Bulloch, a former U.S. naval officer, met with Mallory in Montgomery to discuss the role of the Confederate navy. “It was thought to be of prime importance to get cruisers to sea as soon as possible,” Bulloch later said of the conversation, “to harass the enemy’s commerce, and to compel him to send his own ships-of-war in pursuit, which might otherwise be employed in blockading the Southern ports.” Mallory sent Bulloch to Europe to buy or have built six propeller-driven ships, preferring they be powered by both steam and sail, and insisting they have long endurance. He wanted speed above all and armament of only a few guns. Smaller was better because they would be cheaper and allow the South to purchase more, but would still be capable of taking on enough supplies for a six-month voyage when launched. Mallory’s approach foreshadowed the submarine commerce warfare of both world wars. Bulloch soon signed contracts for two such ships, Confederate finances having reduced the number, and despite the fact that his plans were revealed in the Northern press at about the time he arrived in Britain.

Bulloch’s deal produced the deadly Confederate raiders CSS Florida and CSS Alabama. Florida left Liverpool in March 1861 with a British crew, bound for a rendezvous in the Bahamas with a vessel carrying its weapons. Here the Confederates took over the ship and armed it, but an outbreak of yellow fever among the crew forced Captain John A. Maffit to take the Florida into Mobile for more men. They slipped through the blockade in January 1862. An eight-month cruise followed, one in which the Florida took twenty-two Union ships before finding temporary refuge in the French port of Brest for much-needed repairs. Florida sailed again on February 10, 1864, taking another thirteen Union ships on this cruise. The North finally destroyed the raider on October 7, 1864, when Napoleon Collins, the captain of USS Wachusett, rammed Florida at three o’clock in the morning in the neutral Brazilian port of Bahia, then hauled her out to sea.

Fresh from a successful command of the raider CSS Sumter, during which he captured or burned eighteen Union ships, Raphael Semmes, a veteran of thirty years in the U.S. Navy, became Alabama’s commander. After sailing from Liverpool on May 15, 1862, Semmes rendezvoused in the Azores with a Confederate merchantman and took on his weapons. He spent the next two years terrorizing Union shipping, taking sixty-five ships worth $6.5 million. Alabama was sunk off Cherbourg on June 19 by Captain John Winslow’s USS Kearsarge. Winslow and Semmes had shared a cabin as young lieutenants during the Mexican War.

Mallory also wanted another type of ship for something far different from commerce raiding, one inspired by the old ship-of-the-line but possessed of some modern twists: an ironclad, steam-powered warship with rifled guns. He believed technological superiority would allow the South to overcome the disparity in numbers. “Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States,” Mallory insisted, “prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire navy.” They would allow the South to seize the naval initiative from its hidebound opponent. He eventually followed two routes to obtaining ironclads—buying them abroad and building them at home.

The Confederate Congress proved very receptive to Mallory’s ideas, voting $3 million to buy warships, including $2 million for ironclads. Mallory dispatched Lieutenant James North to Europe with instructions to try to buy a ship of the Gloire class, the innovative French ironclad commissioned in 1858. If this proved impossible, he should try to have one built. North, though, proved more interested in sightseeing than in doing his job. Mallory’s agents tried buying ironclads in Europe from May to July 1861, without success. The Confederate navy secretary decided to build them at home and signed deals for a few ships.26 Mallory also decided to build flotillas at various ports for their defense and gunboats for the Mississippi.

Building ironclads consumed most of the South’s naval effort. Mallory began studying the possibility of their construction in Southern yards in early June 1861. The first one arose from the burnt-out hulk of the USS Merrimack at Hampton Roads. The Confederacy had to do it this way because the South lacked the ability to build the ship it wanted from scratch. Mallory planned to use this new vessel, which became CSS Virginia, to clear the Union navy from Hampton Roads and Virginia’s ports. He generally believed that ironclad rams (which Virginia became) would be most useful for coastal defense. By late 1861, the Confederates had five ironclads in the works.

The Confederacy built ironclads to compensate for the enemy’s great numbers of warships. The South could not build oceangoing armored ships like Britain’s Warrior and France’s Gloire, but it could build slower, coastal ones like Virginia. These would, Mallory insisted, “enable us with a small number of vessels comparatively to keep our waters free from the enemy and ultimately to contest with them the possession of his own.” Mallory envisioned great but ultimately unrealistic achievements for Virginia. He believed that with a calm sea it could sail up the coast and attack New York City, causing such a panic that it would end the war. The Virginia’s success at Hampton Roads—ramming and sinking the USS Cumberland, then setting ablaze and driving aground the USS Congress—spurred Mallory to press the building of the CSS Louisiana in New Orleans, remarking that the “ship, if completed, would raise the blockade of every Gulf port in 10 days.”

Mallory also faced pressure to protect the Confederacy’s harbors and rivers. This intensified as the Union began launching landings in the summer of 1861 and coastal defense became a priority. The Confederate army played a key role. Robert E. Lee, a son of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a prominent American cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War, ranked second in the West Point class of 1829. He served in the Mexican War, where he was wounded, and acquired a reputation as a superb officer. Later, he was superintendent of West Point, and commanded the U.S. Marines and militia that suppressed John Brown and his raiders at Harpers Ferry in October 1859.

Lee was offered command of a Union army at the outbreak of the war but declined; he would not raise his hand against his native Virginia. After service in his home state, including an unsuccessful campaign in its western parts, he took command of a new military department covering South Carolina, Georgia, and the Atlantic side of Florida in November 1861. He realized that Confederate coastal fortifications could not stand up to Union naval bombardment, so he evacuated all of them—except those protecting major cities—and built others inland, out of the range of Union shipboard guns. He had certain waterways blocked and concentrated the troops inland so that they could be shifted to threatened areas. Historian Raimondo Luraghi assesses Lee’s system by comparing it with German defenses during World War II: “The strategic rationale upon which this defensive structure was founded was so well conceived that it did not fall until almost three years later, when it was taken from the rear by troops coming overland, whereas the so-called German Atlantic Wall, based on the idea of last-ditch defense on the seashore, fell to the first formidable blow from the sea.” This is true as far as it goes. But the Union never pushed the Confederate defensive system with a heavy hand. If it had, it probably would not have survived.

Mallory again turned to technology to provide an answer to the problem of coastal defense. The Confederacy invested heavily in what were called “torpedoes,” which today are known as mines. Mines pre-dated the Confederacy, but the South would be the first nation to make them a staple of its naval defense. The man first put in charge of mining the South’s waters was Matthew Fontaine Maury, a prickly former naval officer famous internationally for his scientific pursuits, particularly in oceanography and navigation. Others in the Confederacy also began making torpedoes in late 1861 and early 1862. Davis believed them the South’s most effectual form of naval defense. Confederate mine warfare probably sank or damaged more than fifty Union navy ships, perhaps equaling 30,000 tons.

The other technology involved submarine development. The Confederates began studying this in late 1861 and started building an unnamed submarine at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond before the year was out. It was decided to use the final product in Texas. Another such boat may have been built there and still others in Shreveport, Louisiana, though many of the details have been lost in the historical mists.

The most famous Confederate submarine was the H. L. Hunley, the product of New Orleans–based inventors funded by Horace L. Hunley, a marine engineer and former Louisiana legislator. James McClintock, a former riverboat captain, and Baxter Watson supplied the ideas. They built their first boat in the fall of 1861, but it handled so poorly they abandoned it and built a second craft, CSS Pioneer. They successfully tested it just before the North attacked New Orleans, but then scuttled it to keep it out of Union hands. They went back to work, soon producing another vessel that sank during an attempt to attack a Union ship off Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay. Their fourth attempt produced the Hunley, which was 40 feet long, powered by a hand crank, and armed with a spar-mounted torpedo. Constructed in Mobile, it came to Charleston via rail, and killed most of its four crews before being lost after sinking the Housatonic on February 17, 1864, the first such submarine success.

Matthew Maury—former U.S. Navy officer and later called the “father of modern oceanography”—had other ideas as well. In October 1861 he made some proposals that laid the foundation for another plank of Confederate naval strategy. Maury urged Virginia to create its own naval force (many Confederate states did), insisting that the Davis administration did not intend to have a navy. His plan, he said, could be fulfilled for what the Union paid for one large steamer and would create a naval force “sufficient to clear him [the Union] out of the Chesapeake and its waters” and “liberate the people of Maryland.” “Big guns and little ships” were the essence of his strategy, and he sought “to construct a navy for the Chesapeake. In a few words it consists of rifled cannon of the largest caliber, mounted on launches propelled by steam, and floating just high enough to keep the water out.” Rifles would outrange most of the guns on current Union ships, and the cost of a hundred such craft would amount to $10,000 per boat. “The Potomac Fleet of the enemy would find in a fleet of 100 such launches a perfect hornet’s nest,” Maury wrote.

The proposal ended up before the Confederate Congress, and, with the help of the governor of Virginia, Maury got $2 million in December 1861. Though the plan was technically feasible, the weakness of Confederate industry made it a pipe dream. The arrival of the Union’s Monitor and the later loss of the yards also helped kill Maury’s plans.

Maury’s idea had its antecedents. Citing the European example of using gunboats and galleys in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas, Thomas Jefferson had advocated for a “mosquito fleet” of approximately 200 gunboats for the defense of America’s coastline, most held in a reserve status. It was believed that small sail- and oar-powered craft armed with one or two cannon could harass larger enemy vessels, especially becalmed ones, in coastal waters, demoralizing the enemy crews with small arms and light cannon fire, while also preventing coastal descents. Nothing came of Jefferson’s idea, but steam power and better armaments made it more practical.

Maury’s idea was also ahead of its time. The French Jeune École (Young School) of the later part of the nineteenth century pushed for the adoption of small, fast warships armed with self-propelled torpedoes. But the idea remained impractical for the same reason that Maury’s proposal would have failed against Union naval power: before the advent of the steam-powered torpedo, the small ships lacked a weapon that enabled them to destroy larger armored warships. This development made small ships in littoral waters extremely dangerous threats to larger warships. Maury’s plans would never be put to the test, but had the South been able to get these boats to sea, they would have been useless, being unprotected against the Monitor and other ironclad warships of the Union. Maury assumed Confederate innovation would remain unmet.


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