Gordon’s Letter

Hey Jeff! Thanks for the question. Get a cup of coffee (hehehe…) and sit back, this might be a long ride. (I do teach a class on the US Navy in the 19th Century, so I may get a bit long winded here…)

To begin with, when the Civil War broke out, obviously the Confederate government had no navy whatsoever. They made a Department of the Navy, but other than having the property of the US Naval Shipyard at Gosport, Virginia (Hampton Roads) and the USS Merimac, which had been burned and scuttled there, they had nothing with which to protect the vital ship-borne commerce they needed to sustain their efforts at independence.

Frankly the US Navy wasn’t in much better condition. There had been a brief interest in funding the US Navy by Congress during the Mexican-American War of 1846-47, but by 1860 the condition of most of the ships was what might be referred to as “deplorable”. There was a ship-building frenzy in the late-1850’s to build ships like the Merimac With Lincoln’s election, and of course the events of Fort Sumpter, Lincoln called for a full blockade of the Southern ports. The trouble was, he really didn’t have sufficient ships to do that with.

Anyway, I was trying to put into the last paragraph that there was in fact a building program starting with USS Merimac of “steam sloops” that were both steam and sail, and the latest, highest-tech ships in the world. But that was all changing with developments in Britain and France developing “ironclads”.

Lincoln called for a blockade against the Southern ports and 3,500 miles of coastline, an impossible chore with what they had at the time. Of the Navy’s ships, only 12 were in home waters when the war broke out, with the rest of the 90 ships either in commission off protecting American interests and shipping in other parts of the world, or 48 of them simply sitting idle, with insufficient funds to keep them in active service. Since they continued to have to do that, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, was forced to build a navy pretty much from scratch, just as his counterpart Stephen Mallory in Richmond had to do.

To begin with, the Confederacy was able to import pretty much whatever they wanted to buy overseas, from wool cloth and shoes to muskets, cannon and gunpowder, all of which European contractors were happy to supply.

Faced with the enormity of the labor ahead of him, Wells went the normal route to attack an enemy’s shipping on the cheap, and that was by issuing “Letters of Marque and Reprisal”. Mallory of course did the same, as did some of the various states, North and South. A Letter of Marque was basically a license to become a pirate, as long as you only attack ships from the enemy of whoever issued you the license. A “Private Man of War” or “Privateer” was the usual name for such endeavours, and they worked for the short time necessary. For the South, as the North bottled up more and more of the ports it became harder and harder to fond prize courts to distribute the wealth taken by them, and for the North, the necessity lessened as the Navy grew. Both sides of course attacked their opponent’s shipping, rather than trying to simply prevent them from making it to port. No money in it from that angle.

Wells also bought a lot of ships for blockade duty that were simply converted merchant ships, including some ferry’s from New York. There are some interesting photo’s of weird looking ships mounting enormous cannon that hardly look seaworthy, and probably weren’t, but they were commissioned nonetheless.
Of note is the fact that, just like with the US Army, a majority of the officers of the pre-war USN resigned their commissions and “went South”. This led to a problem for the South of having a lot of senior officers with nothing to do, while in the US Navy, there were a lot of junior officers who were given the opportunity of a lifetime to rise in rank quickly. Most of the senior officers of the CSN were formerly senior USN officers, while a large number of senior USN officers were formerly USN junior officers. Interesting, and of course young men trying to make a name for themselves tend to do more outrageous things than old men trying to fight a defensive war.

AS the blockade became more of an impediment to Southern supply routes, they looked for a way to break it, and what resulted was dusting off a Mexican-War ere design for an iron-clad ship that eventually manifested itself as CSS Virginia, nee USS Merimac. The Merimac, which had burned to the waterline and then sunk at Gosport, was raised and refloated, her engines repaired as best as could be (she was in for getting those same engines overhauled, which hadn’t been done. Being underwater for 40 days didn’t help matters), and then the Confederates at the Navy Yard put several tons of railroad iron from Treadgar Iron Works in Richmond on her to make her an “ironclad”. I expect that you’ve done your research on her design, so I won’t get into that. Anyway, she was slow, low and menacing, but probably not “seaworthy” should she make it out of Chesapeake Bay. But then, she didn’t have to, she just had to prove a point.

I won’t get into too much about her joyful day destroying the Union Navy’s finest ships at Hampton Roads, but it is of interest that her nemisis, the USS Monitor, was of course on her way at the time. Pitting a “barn on a raft” versus a “cheesebox on a shingle” the next day was a turning point in Naval History, the first contest of ironclad vs ironclad, and it was a draw. Interestingly, the first fight between two ironclads, in 1862, was only two years prior to the LAST fight between two wooden warships, the USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama. Naval technology was moving fast in those days!

The Confederates of course built more of them too, from the CSS Albemarle, which was quite literally built in a cornfield, to the CSS Tennessee, which contested David Farragut’s attack on Mobile, Alabama, the ironclads did their best to thwart the Northern invasion of the South.

There was of course another naval war going on, on the high seas (thus the Alabama vs Kearsarge) in which the Confederacy sought to cripple Union shipping via their commerce raiders. It worked pretty well, since a majority of US-flagged ships changed their registry during the war! I could get into detail about “Guerre de Main” vs “Guerre de Course”, but I won’t bug you with that. Suffice it to say that the captains of the commerce raiders, and the captains of the ships sent out to hunt them were happy with the game, while the admirals who wanted large battles fought with large ships on a large scale weren’t. Oh well, that’s how such things work. We had to wait four more generations for THAT sort of war to occur!

It was, in the end, a naval war fought to cripple the enemy’s commerce, or to prevent that from happening, on both sides. The US Navy went from something like 9,000 officers and men and 90 ships, 48 of them out of service, to 118,000 men and 600 ships in commission. From having only a very few “modern” ships to having the most modern navy in the world in 1865, it was an impossible feat that was accomplished by men who feverishly worked to build the US Navy to what it became. The Confederates were no less able, but suffered from far greater shortcomings in men with a background in sea service, and of course materiel. And sadly, after the war the US Navy went into what they called “The Doldrums” of going from the largest most modern navy in the world to one which, in 1880, couldn’t effectively take on Peru’s navy. But THAT little fiasco did bring the public’s attention to the plight of the Navy, and led to her resurgence and modernization, and in turn this allowed for the incredible expansion into a world empire in 1898.

I hope that this helps a bit! Let me know if I can be of more help. This sort of jazzes me up to do a pod cast about this stuff too! Heck, we could do one together some day…

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