Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Confederate Naval Strategy

[caption id="attachment_2851" align="alignleft" width="319" caption="CSS Alabama"][/caption]


Greetings Cosmic Americans!

We have talked a little about relative advantages and disadvantages for the United States and the Confederate States at the beginning of the war. One of the most striking advantages for the United States was their Navy. In short, they had one and the Confederacy did not. True, the US Navy was small and dispersed, but in April 1861 they could at least muster a few ships into service against the Rebels. Further, the US had an established officer corps and a vast capacity to build a great fleet (which they did in short order). The Confederates did not and could never match the naval strength of the United States. They had no ships (at first), only a  handful of officers from the prewar Navy, and no merchant marine. So how does a nation prepare a naval strategy with such limited assets?

The Confederates used innovation, privateers, and commerce raiding - and put forth a pretty decent effort at that. The Rebel navy employed torpedoes (mines) to guard the entrances to their harbors, developed and utilized ironclad, ram, and submarine technology, and privateers and commerce raiders on the high seas pulled US ship off of blockade duty to deal with the Confederate nuisance.

[caption id="attachment_2856" align="alignright" width="220" caption="CSS Hunley"][/caption]

And while all of these things took their toll on the US Navy, in the end the Confederate strategy inflicted minimal damage on the overall United States war effort. The torpedoes (in at least one case) were "damned," ironclads and rams were underpowered (the Rebs had no capacity to build the big steam engines needed to power these heavier vessels) and not effective on the high seas, their one and only submarine, the CSS Hunley, inexplicably sank after sending its first victim to the bottom, privateers had nowhere really to sell their captured prizes, and commerce raiders like the CSS Alabama, while crippling to the US merchant marine, could not engage vessels from other countries - and the US had shifted much of its shipping to foreign bottoms.

There are a number of "might haves" in the story of the CS Naval strategy - ironclads under construction in Britain and Denmark that either never made it into Confederate hands or arrived too late to be of service makes for a good example. I guess we'll never know what would have happened if the Rebs had gotten their ships. Could they have broken the Union blockade? I tend not to speculate about such things.




  1. Anthony W. McPhersonJune 14, 2012 at 6:51 AM

    This is the only article written by someone who is obviously not simpathetic to the Confederacy that I have ever read that actully gives the south some credit for even having a posibility of success with their navy.

    Good going.

  2. Thanks for the comment Anthony - I always try to give credit where it is due.

  3. I think one or two operable ironclads on the Mississippi could have stymied some of the Union's early successes along the Mississippi. Farragaut's running of the forts south of New Orleans probably wouldn't have succeeded if the CSS Louisiana had been fully operational. I think he would have had to take his wooden ships back out to sea. This would have kept New Orleans in the war a bit longer.

    That said, I'm not sure one or two ironclads could have kept the Mississippi free forever and probably the larger ironclad forces the Union had coming down from the Ohio would have neutralized whatever ironclads the Confederacy could get to work.

    So fast moving on Lincoln and Farragaut's part eliminated what little possibility the Confederate navy had of defending New Orleans and likely the entirety of the river itself.