The Blockade Board of 1861 and Union Naval Strategy

By Weddle, Kevin J. | Civil War History, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Blockade Board of 1861 and Union Naval Strategy


Weddle, Kevin J., Civil War History


Only days after the first rebel shells crashed into Fort Sumter to begin the bloodiest war in American history, President Abraham Lincoln issued a document that would establish the basis for the first element of Union naval strategy--the Proclamation of Blockade. Essentially a de facto declaration of war against the Confederacy, the proclamation declared that "a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels" from the ports of the states in rebellion. (1) During these early days of the war, it seemed clear to many that the president's first major war measure could reap great dividends. Capt. Samuel F. Du Pont, then commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, declared, "I am anxious for the blockade to get established; that will squeeze the South more than anything." (2) The magnitude of the Union navy's challenge, however, was enormous. The start of the war saw the navy, like the army, totally unprepared for the task at hand. Of the navy's forty-two ships in service in April 1861, Secretary Gideon Welles had but twelve to call upon to enforce the blockade of a coastline stretching 3,500 miles; the remaining ships were either in ordinary (maintenance or overhaul) or in overseas squadrons. In addition, many of these ships were steam frigates: a class of ship too large, too slow and with too deep a draft for effective blockade duty. It was obvious to everyone in Washington that the existing navy was unequal to the task of effective blockade. Welles faced not only inadequate resources and the task of rapidly building a large, modern navy, but also the need to develop an organizational structure to effectively command and control the blockade. (3)

To solve these and other problems related to the blockade, the navy established a Blockade Board. (4) Naval historians and historians of the Civil War have ascribed varying degrees of significance to the board and its work. Most believe the board was important but largely have ignored the strategic aspects of the naval war. As Gary Gallagher has observed: "Beyond perfunctory considerations of Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan, most discussions of northern strategy virtually ignore its naval component," and because there is no comprehensive, modern naval history of the war, "no historian has written a specialized study about Union strategists and the navy." (5) While several historians recognize that the board played an important role in the conduct of the blockade and its related military and naval operations, few have carefully examined the significance of the board's origins and membership to discover the individual agendas of the participants. This study remedies that omission by evaluating the origins of the board and context of its formation, its composition and operations, and its strategic legacy. (6)

The Blockade Board's importance was not as a joint staff or as a group that planned only naval operations, but rather as an early and largely successful attempt by the U.S. Navy to produce a military (naval) strategy that was coordinated fully with national strategy and government policies. Although some might argue that Gen. Winfield Scott's planning for the Vera Cruz and Mexico City campaigns predated the work of the Blockade Board in formal strategic planning, the board's work was much more comprehensive and lasting. While its early promise was never realized fully, the board created a roadmap for the Union navy to conduct a major portion of its early strategic responsibilities and stood as the role model for later naval boards and commissions. (7)

The effectiveness of the blockade was a sore topic for both the Navy Department and the State Department. By international law, the nation initiating a blockade had to proclaim and enforce it. At a minimum, the blockading nation had to sustain a permanent force for constant patrol of the enemy coastline and ports. The Confederacy vigorously argued that the blockade was not effective and that Lincoln's proclamation violated neutral rights of their primary trading partners, but it failed to persuade Great Britain, which officially recognized the blockade in February 1862. …

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