One of the first steps taken by the North against the Confederacy was establishment of a blockade of all southern seaports, thus cutting off imports of war materiel, medical supplies, and household goods. By preventing the sale of cotton abroad in exchange for war materiel, the Union blockade changed the balance of power in the war. The North conveniently forgot the War of 1812 was fought to defend the principle of freedom of the seas, and seized neutral ships trading with the South. The South, which had very few merchant ships, responded by issuing "Letters of Marque and Reprisal" to privateers.
This effort was short-lived because of the effectiveness of the blockade, the successful capture of privateers by the North, and their subsequent trials for piracy. Confederate privateers captured 40 Yankee ships, but by February 1863 only the schooner Retribution remained. The crew of the Confederate privateer Savannah was put on trial for piracy, but the South's threat to execute a similar number of Union POW's spared them from a death sentence.
Hundreds of vessels, both purchased and chartered, were employed by the Army in the transportation of men and supplies. One New York entrepreneur purchased a used ship for $12,000 and earned $833,000 on his Army charters.
During 1865, the Quartermaster General owned or chartered 719 vessels for use in oceans and lakes, with a total tonnage of 224,984. Rail and River Transportation division owned 91 steamers, 352 barges, 139 boats.
At the outbreak of the war, the U.S. Navy had just a few dozen vessels-- inadequate to enforce a blockade. The Navy drew six hundred vessels from the Merchant Marine, exceeding one million tons, and manned by about 70,000 seamen, for blockades and armed service. Following the defeat of the Confederacy, the Quartermaster General disposed of the major portion of the fleet and increased the use of rail for troop movements.
Confederate Raiders The South commissioned warships to raid Northern shipping-- the most successful of these were the Alabama, Florida, and Shenandoah. These were equipped with both steam and sail and were built in England, for the South had few shipbuilding facilities. Most of the crew were British seamen, eager for high wages and promises of prize money to be paid in Confederate dollars after the War.
Confederate Raider Alabama (shown at right)
About 200 Northern ships were captured by these raiders, with victims scattered across the Atlantic, Caribbean, Cape Horn route to the West Coast, and as far as Australia. Whalers were a favorite prey. Fortunately for the Union, the raiders never caught any ships carrying gold from California. Captured ships were usually stripped of all valuables and burned, the crew taken prisoner.
One daring raider, Tallahassee, sank a schooner off New Jersey, then sailed into New York Harbor. An unsuspecting and unobservant harbor pilot, hustling for a job, came aboard, and was astonished to find the Confederate flag flying. The Tallahassee sank 6 ships in 6 hours outside New York before moving north to attack coastal and transatlantic trading vessels.