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Chapter 3: closing of Southern ports.--increase of the Navy.--list of vessels and their stations.--purchased vessels.--vessels constructing, etc.

  • Closing of the Southern ports.
  • -- operations against the Federal commerce by privateers. -- triple task of the Navy Department. -- increase of the Navy. -- purchases unwisely made. -- British vessels and the blockade. -- sufferers by the blockade. -- Flag officers appointed to commands. -- difficulties of the blockading forces. -- energy and watchfulness of naval officers. -- remarkable activity of the Confederates. -- inadequate appropriations by Congress. -- condition of the Navy. -- list of vessels and their stations -- available vessels. -- the home squadron. -- old Navy. -- purchased vessels. -- vessels constructing. -- reorganization of the service -- promotions. -- three grades added. -- schools of gunnery and naval training established. -- patriotic volunteer officers. -- the commercial marine. -- high tribute to the Secretary of the Navy.

The Navy Department, with its lim. ited resources, had a weighty task imposed upon it from the very outbreak of the civil war. In a very brief period the rebellion assumed such formidable proportions, and naval operations had to be maintained on such an extensive scale to include over three thousand miles of coast line, that the energy and ability of the naval authorities were put to the severest tests.

First. There was the closing of all the ports along our Southern coast under the most exacting regulations of an international blockade, including the occupation of the Potomac River from its mouth to the Federal Capitol.

Had the Potomac been blocked by the enemy's guns at any time during the war, it would have rendered the position of our armies in Virginia and around the Capitol very embarrassing.

Second. The necessity of establishing an effective organization of combined naval and military expeditions against various points on our Southern coast, including also all needful naval aid to the Army in cutting off communication with the rebels. Besides this it was seen at an early date that a large naval force would be required on the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Third. There had to be provided a suitable number of swift vessels for the active pursuit of the Confederate cruisers, which might elude the vigilance of our blockading forces and proceed to prey upon our commerce in every part of the world. Immediately on the breaking out of the rebellion the Confederates prepared to operate against Federal commerce, and after the escape of their first privateer the destruction of our vessels became very common.

This was the triple task the Navy Department was called upon to perform, and it is but fair to say that, considering the disadvantages under which the Department labored, never were duties better performed.

When the proclamation was issued declaring all the Southern ports under blockade, it found the Navy Department totally unprepared for such a contingency. Congress had adjourned without providing for it, and it devolved on the Secretary of the Navy to meet the difficulties of the situation in the best way he could.

There were but few vessels in the Navy which could be relied on for blockading service, and none suitable for the pursuit of Confederate cruisers, which would naturally be very swift steamers. The only thing to be done was to put into commission every vessel in the Navy that was fit to go to sea, and to purchase from the mercantile marine such as would answer for temporary service: but so few vessels in the merchant service were fit even for blockade duty, [34] much less for ships of war, that it was with difficulty that a sufficient number could be obtained to make such a blockade as was called for by the law of nations.

Purchases were unwisely made, and some unfit vessels were thus added to the Navy — through that spirit of grasping cupidity which is sure to come to the surface in time of war.

Some men who had always been considered honest and patriotic, did not hesitate to take advantage of the necessities of their country, and deplete the Federal treasury without adding to the efficiency of the Navy, thus hampering the naval authorities at the very outset of hostilities.

Purchases and contracts were made to meet the exigencies of the times. Orders were issued to equip vessels that under. ordinary circumstances would not have been considered safe to go to sea in.

The force thus hastily gathered and stationed along our coast would scarcely have been considered an “efficient blockade” if a European power had thought fit to institute close inquiries into our proceedings. Now and then a British vessel of war made her appearance for the purpose of observing that the blockade was effectual, but as far as the writer's observations are concerned, this duty was always performed in the most delicate manner, and the British commanders were satisfied with the appearance of a blockade that was far from satisfying to the Federal Governmont.

A great deal has been said by Boynton, the naval historian, about the exacting character of the British Government in relation to the blockade of our coasts, but we rather think his style of writing was adapted to the public sentiment of the time, which was prepared to find fault with any nation that did not sympathize with the Union cause.

The English people were the great sufferers in our war by the loss of a commerce that was absolutely necessary for them to keep their manufactories going, and they exercised no greater surveillance than the Federal Government would have done had there been a blockade of the Irish coast established.

Flag Officers were appointed to the command of the different stations, and vessels were sent to each according to the necessity of the case as fast as they could be purchased and fitted out. Under the supervision of these flag officers the coasts and harbors of the Confederates were subjected to as close a blockade as the limited force of vessels would admit.

The difficulties of the blockading forces were much increased owing to the number of great bays, sounds and rivers of the South, but in spite of all drawbacks the duties of the blockade were remarkably well performed.

What was lacking in vessels was more than compensated for by the energy and watchfulness of the naval officers on the different stations.

The expectation of prize-money was doubtless a stimulus to both officers and men, yet there was a higher motive governing their conduct, a determination to do all in their power to put down the rebellion by cutting off foreign supplies, without which they felt the Confederate resistance would soon terminate.

One of the most remarkable features of the war was the manner in which at an early date the Confederates had seized upon and fortified so many important points on the Southern coast, actually cutting Federal vessels off from any port of shelter in stormy weather, and compelling supply vessels of the different squadrons to keep out to sea. Our ships were compelled oftentimes to anchor in heavy gales on the open coast, where in case of accident to machinery or cables a steamer would be liable to drift on shore into the heavy breakers which lined the coast, and where a sailing vessel under like circumstances would have great difficulty in clawing off a lee shore.

The Confederates doubtless considered all these circumstances when they undertook the task of freeing themselves from what they were pleased to consider the thraldom of the North. With all ports of shelter closed against the Federal Navy, and storms continually raging along the coast, they laughed at the idea of a blockade.

They did not know the energy which animated the Federal Navy when circumstances should arise to call it forth. The officers themselves did not know until called upon to act what zeal and energy they could evince, and the present generation can hardly realize the hardships and dangers of the work then performed.

To many of the survivors of those scenes it may seem like the dreams of early childhood, shadows of which flit through the mind, dim and shapeless as reflected images from misty waterfalls.

The necessity of seizing some of the Southern ports soon became apparent; for though our officers had shown great ability in taking care of their ships on the blockade in the most tempestuous weather, and at the same time had rendered it difficult for blockade runners to enter Southern ports, yet it was found that harbors of refuge were indispensable to properly carry on such extensive operations.

Great demands were made upon the Navy, notwithstanding Congress had adjourned in 1861 without making adequate appropriations, considering the condition of affairs. [35]

Home Squadron of the Union Navy.


It is true that the measures adopted by Mr. Secretary Welles in advance of the session, and which had been rendered necessary in consequence of events that had been precipitated upon the country, had been approved by Congress, but that, after all, only provided for a comparatively small force of vessels and men, not even enough for ordinary police operations along the Atlantic coast, much less a strict blockade.

In order that the condition of the Navy may be understood, the list of vessels and their stations is herewith inserted. In the eyes of one not familiar with naval affairs it appears like a large show of available vessels, but not half of them were really fit for the service required of them.

The Home Squadron consisted of twelve vessels,and of these only four were in Northern ports and available for service, viz.:

Name. Class. No. of Guns. Where Stationed.
Pawnee Screw Sloop 8 Washington.
Crusader Steamer 8 New York.
Mohawk Steamer 5 New York.
Supply Storeship 4 New York.
4 vessels   25  

The remaining vessels of the Squadron were stationed as follows:

Name. Class. No. of Guns. Where Stationed.
Sabine Frigate 50 Pensacola.
St. Louis Sloop 20 Pensacola.
Brooklyn Steamer 25 Pensacola.
Wyandotte Steamer 5 Pensacola.
Macedonian Sloop 22 Vera Cruz.
Cumberland Sloop 24 Returning from Vera Cruz.
Pocahontas Steamer 5
Powhatan Steamer 11
8 vessels   162  

The Powhatan arrived at New York March 12, 1861, and sailed early in April for Fort Pickens.

The Pocahontas reached Hampton Roads on the 12th of March, and the Cumberland on the 23d of the same month.

Of vessels on foreign stations the following had returned in obedience to orders from the Department.

From Mediterranean:

Name. Class. No. of Guns. Date of Arrival.
Richmond Steam Sloop 16 July 3.
Susquehanna Steam Sloop 15 June 6.
Iroquois Steam Sloop 6 June 15.

From coast of Africa:

Name. Class. No. of Guns. Date of Arrival.
Constellation Sloop 22 Sept. 28.
Portsmouth Sloop 22 Sept. 23.
Mohican Steam Sloop 6 Sept. 27.
Mystic Steamer 5 Oct. 7.
Sumter Steamer 5 Sept. 15.
San Jacinto Steam Sloop 13 Nov. 15.
Relief Storeship. 2 Oct. 12.

From coast of Brazil:

Name. Class. No. of Guns. Date of Arrival.
Congress Frigate 50 August 12.
Seminole Steam Sloop 5 July 6.

The following had not arrived, Dec., 1861.

From East Indies:

Name. Class. No. of Guns.  
John Adams Sloop 20  
Hartford Steam Sloop 16  
Dacotah Steam Sloop 6  

The following were to remain abroad:

Name. Class. No. of Guns. Where Stationed.
Saratoga Sloop 18 Coast of Africa.
Pulaski Steamer 1 Coast of Brazil.
Saginaw Steamer 3 East Indies.

Add to these the vessels on the Pacific coast, the steam frigate Niagara, returning from Japan, and four tenders and storeships, and there was a total of 42 vessels, carrying 555 guns and about 7,600 men, in commission on the 4th of March, 1861.

Without awaiting the arrival of vessels from our foreign squadrons, the department early directed such as were dismantled and in ordinary at the different yards, and which could be made available, to be repaired and put in commission. They are exclusive of those lost at Norfolk Navy Yard, embraced in the following table:

Names. Where. Ordered to be prepared for sea service with dispatch. Put in commission, or ready for officers and crew. Sailed.
Frigates--   1861. 1861. 1861.
  Potomac New York April 27 July 30 Sept. 10
  St. Lawrence Philadelphia April 20 Late in May. June 29
  Santee Portsmouth, N. H April 17 May 27 June 20
  Savannah New York April 1 June 1 July 10
  Jamestown Philadelphia April 9 May 18 June 8
  Vincennes Boston April 9 June 24 July 12
  Marion Portsmouth April 20 June 30 July 14
  Dale Portsmouth April 20 June 30 July 17
  Preble Boston April 20 June 22 July 11
  Bainbridge Boston April 20 May 1 May 21
  Perry New York April 20 May 1 May 14
  Roanoke New York April 20 June 20 June 25
  Colorado Boston April 20 June 3 June 18
  Minnesota Boston April 3 May 2 May 8
  Wabash New York April 9 April 29 May 30
  Pensacola Washington      
  Mississippi Boston April 6 May 18 May 23
  Water Witch Philadelphia Feb. 14 April 10 April 17

When the vessels then building and purchased of every class, were armed, equipped, and ready for service, the condition of the Navy would be as follows:

Old Navy.

Number of vessels. Guns. Tonnage.
6 Ships of the Line (useless) 504 16,094
7 Frigates (useless) 350 12,104
17 Sloops (useless) 342 16,031
2 Brigs (useless) 12 539
3 Storeships 7 342
6 Receiving Ships, &c. 106 6,340
6 Screw Frigates 222 21,460
6 First-class Screw Sloops 109 11,958
4 First-class Side wheel Steam Sloops 46 8,008
8 Second-class Screw Sloops 45 7,593
5 Third-class Screw Sloops 28 2,405
4 Third-class Sidewheel Steamers 8 1,808
2 Steam Tenders 4 599
76   1,783 105,271


Purchased vessels.

    Guns. Tons.
36 Sidewheel Steamers. 160 26,680
43 Screw Steamers 175 20,403
13 Ships 52 9,998
24 Schooners 49 5,324
18 Barks 78 8,432
2 Brigs 4 460
136   518 71,297

Vessels constructing.

    Guns. Tons.
14 Screw Sloops 98 16,787
23 Gunboats 92 11,661
12 Sidewheel Steamers 48 8,400
3 Ironclad Steamers 18 4,600
52   256 41,448

Making a total of 264 vessels, 2,557 guns, and 218,016 tons. The aggregate number of seamen in the service on the 4th of March, 1861, was 7,600. The number in December, 1861, was not less than 22,000.

This was a very good exhibit for the Navy in less than a year after the commencement of the war, but it must be remembered that of these vessels 6 were ships-of-the-line, on the stocks, 7 sailing frigates, 17 sailing sloops-of-war, 2 brigs, 3 storeships, 6 receiving ships, 13 sailing merchant ships, 24 schooners, 18 barks and 2 brigs. All these may be said to have been of little use as blockading vessels, as a swift blockade runner would have little difficulty in eluding them.

Yet our vessels were the best the Federal government could procure, and they were used to the best advantage.

Just before the breaking out of the rebellion the Navy was in a stagnant condition for want of those inducements which infuse life into a military service.

There was little hope of promotion, and the navy list was encumbered with the names of a lot of elderly gentlemen who had long since bade farewell to any hope of advancement. Some of the younger officers had sought temporary service in the mercantile marine, many had outlived their usefulness, and lieutenants on the verge of fifty years of age, with large families of children, had to employ all their faculties to feed them.

One of the acts of the new Secretary of the Navy was to recommend a reorganization of the service to increase its efficiency.

In December, 1861, Mr. Secretary Welles recommended that the permanent organization of the line officers of the Navy should be as follows, adding three grades to the number then in existence:

Flag Officers to command Squadrons,
Commodores, to command single vessels.

Lieutenants, Masters, Passed Midshipmen, Midshipmen, Cadets.

At the same time were established the sensible rules for promotion for gallant conduct in time of war, which did so much to elevate the service, and also to retire those who from age or other disability were no longer fit for active duty.

For all this the Navy was indebted to Mr. G. V. Fox, the Assistant Secretary, whose ideas were promptly adopted by Mr. Secretary Welles. It was the first gleam of sunshine that had illuminated the Navy for half a century, and the first time that the sanction of Congress had been given to the President to appoint to the highest grades, officers on the list of Commanders who had shown themselves gallant or efficient in the performance of their duties.

The efficiency of the service was further promoted by a provision which enacted that officers should be retired from service on three-fourths of their sea pay after being forty-five years in the Navy, or on attaining the age of sixty-two years.

Towards the close of the year 1861, many important measures were recommended by the Secretary of the Navy for the improvement of the personnel of the service, which showed that he appreciated the claims of officers upon the country to which they were devoting their lives and energies.

Many officers of ability had left the Navy to cast their fortunes with the seceding States, and the result was a scarcity of officers for the vessels in service or about to go into commission. A law, therefore, passed Congress, authorizing the Secretary of the Navy to appoint from the mercantile marine for service during the war, persons who could pass satisfactory examinations and show that they possessed necessary qualifications.

In order to prepare the different classes of officers introduced into the Navy for “temporary service,” schools of gunnery and naval-training were established at the different Navy Yards, where the appointees were kept busily employed under competent naval instructors learning the duties peculiar to the service.

It is with the greatest pleasure we state that the volunteer officers were, with very few exceptions, capable and patriotic; they offered their lives as freely for the preservation of the Union as did their comrades who had been brought up in the service. Composed as they were of the best material of the finest commercial marine in the world, the spirit and zeal with which they surrendered peaceful pursuits to undergo the severe discipline of the Navy, was honorable alike to themselves and to their country.

Should it ever be our good fortune once [38] more to build up a commercial marine such as we possessed at the outbreak of the Civil War, its officers will be our dependence in time of need to fill up the complement required by the addition of ships, that will then have to be made, to the Navy, and if they exhibit the same qualities evinced by the volunteer officers of the late war, the honor of our country will be safe in their hands.

The trained officers who are at present in the Navy would be a mere handful in case of a foreign war. They would serve as a nucleus and as instructors to those taken from the commercial marine. The cry of demagogues that the Navy is overburdened with officers, is as shallow as it is false, and should be treated with the contempt such misrepresentations deserve.

There was comparatively little opportunity during the year 1861, except at Hatteras and Port Royal, for the Navy to exhibit the zeal, courage and ability which it manifested at a later period. Yet in his report for that year, Mr. Secretary Welles pays the highest tribute of praise to the officers and men of the service.

The Honorable Secretary says:--“To the patriotic officers of the Navy and the brave men who in various scenes of naval action have served under them, the Department and the Government justly owe an acknowledgement even more earnest and emphatic. Courage, ability, unfaltering fidelity and devotion to the cause of their country, have been the general and noble characteristics of their conduct in the arduous and important service with which they have been intrusted. We state in all confidence, that in their hands the historic renown of the American Navy has been elevated and augmented.”

This is not too much to say about the Navy, which even in the beginning of the civil war showed its determination to wrench from the grasp of the insurgents the property seized by them from the Government, and it is but just to the Secretary of the Navy, who paid its officers and men so high a tribute, to assert that he showed a spirit of loyalty and devotion to duty which was worthy of his high position, and that he met the very heavy responsibilities with which he was burdened with entire honesty of purpose, laboring faithfully to the end.

Mr. Welles made mistakes during the war, as any man in such a perplexing condition of affairs must have done, and was sometimes unjust, owing to intriguers who made representations against certain officers, by which the Secretary allowed himself to be influenced; but when left unbiased to the exercise of his own judgment he was as impartial as any man who would likely have been selected for his position.

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