Chapter 1: organization of the Navy Department.--blockade-runners, etc.

  • Organization of the Navy Department.
  • -- the wretched condition of the Navy at the outbreak of the civil war. -- what could have been done. -- blockade runners. -- loss to the Confederacy. -- prizes. -- naval triumphs. -- faithful officers. -- Gideon Wells. -- Gustavus V. Fox. -- lavish praise of the Army. -- unprepared for war. -- Premeditated secession. -- separate government -- the Navy and the happy condition of affairs now existing, &C.

At the outbreak of the great rebellion our Navy was not in a condition to render that assistance which the occasion demanded; the larger portion of it was employed on foreign stations, and the Government had not at its disposal a class of vessels that could enter Southern ports and act offensively.

Had a proper naval force existed at the time the Southern people first proposed to throw off their allegiance to the Union, there would have been less difficulty in suppressing the efforts of the Secessionists, for every Southern harbor could have been taken possession of — our ports would have remained in charge of the Federal officers, and if the South did obtain supplies from Europe, they would have been obliged to land them on the open coast.

If two monitors like the Miantonomoh and the Monadnock could have entered Charleston harbor when Sumter was first threatened, they would have prevented the erection of works for the bombardment of that fort, and would have held it throughout the war, as would have been the case with all the ports on the Southern coast.

The first policy of our Government should have been to get possession of all the ports in the South, and no doubt the Administration would gladly have done so, but for their inability to carry out such designs if entertained, owing to the fact that we had no Navy of any account to commence with. Many of our vessels of war were, as a rule, too large, and drew too much water to enter the shoal Southern harbors, and a majority of them were sailing frigates and sloops of war not at all suited to the work required of them.

Therefore, the Navy Department had to resort to a system of blockade which was called for by all European nations with which the South had held commercial relations. The Southern people once recognized as belligerents, it was necessary to close their ports, and the system of blockade resorted to is unparalleled in the naval records of the world — reaching, as it did, along the entire sweep of our Atlantic and Gulf coasts, from the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rio Grande.

So efficiently was the blockade maintained, and so greatly was it strengthened from time to time, that foreign statesmen, who at the beginning of the war, did not hesitate to pronounce the blockade of nearly three thousand miles of coast a moral impossibility, twelve months after its establishment were forced to admit that the proofs of its efficiency were so comprehensive and conclusive that no objections to it could be made.

It is true they would point to the number of blockade runners that eluded the vigilance of our vessels, but they were fairly startled with the numbers of fast steamers which were constantly falling into our hands, and which the Government often bought and equipped for employment in capturing blockade runners These latter were built in large numbers in England with much profit to the ship-yards of that country, but generally, as fast as they were built, they were picked up by the improvised cruisers under command of some energetic naval officers, and their loss was so greatly [18] felt by the Southern people that they were at times very much hampered, if not crippled.

What the loss to the Confederacy was, and how severely injured they were in their resources from abroad, by the activity and energy of the Navy, will appear from the mention of the fact that during the war 1,119 prizes were brought in, of which number 210 were fast steamers.

“There were also 355 vessels burned, sunk, driven on shore, or otherwise destroyed — a total of 1,504. The value of these vessels and their cargoes, according to a low estimate, was equal to thirty millions of dollars.” They were condemned for an amount equal to twenty-eight millions of dollars.

Many may consider that keeping up a blockade was a pleasant pastime, and that officers were rewarded handsomely with prize money; but that did not obviate the hardships of the duty, nor remove the many obstacles which the officers encountered at every point.

The blockade was a military measure of vital importance, and it depended upon the manner in which it was conducted, whether the Confederacy would be deprived of arms and munitions of war, provisions, clothing, and, in fact, everything that goes toward maintaining a great military establishment.

Without the supplies which the Confederates procured from abroad, they could not have maintained their position for many months, for they were very destitute, as compared with the North, of all the appliances for making weapons of war, or for furnishing clothing and other material necessary to armies.

Hence, it might be well said that without the close blockade which was kept up by the Navy, the war might have been carried on indefinitely, while the battles would have been far more bitter and bloody than they were.

The naval battles that were fought were more exciting to the public than that close, dreary blockade, but we doubt very much if they were of any more value to the Union cause.

As long as the Confederacy could be furnished with provisions, clothing, arms and the munitions of war they could fight on, even in a desperate cause, but when the sinews of war were taken from them they collapsed.

With the capture of the last of the enemy's seaports, from which they had been drawing all their supplies, the rebellion was virtually ended. Taking into consideration the extent of coast that had to be blockaded, and the short time in which it was all accomplished, the work can scarcely be comprehended by the ordinary mind, but it is not yet forgotten by those who managed the industrial necessities in Europe, and whose cupidity led them to embark in what was then considered a wide field for accumulating large profits, supposing at the time that our crippled Navy was incompetent to comply with the obligations imposed upon the Government in completing a bona fide blockade of the whole coast.

Of all the naval triumphs of the war, this was one of the greatest. There were questions raised, it is true, with regard to the competence of the blockade in certain localities, but they were seldom sustained by the courts, and foreign Governments were obliged to admit, notwithstanding the great commercial interests they had at stake, that the blockade was the most complete of any that had ever been undertaken.

At the breaking out of the rebellion, our serviceable Navy consisted of two sailing frigates, eleven sailing sloops, one screw frigate, five screw sloops of the first class, three side-wheel steamers, eight screw sloops of the second class, and five screw sloops of the third class.

Eighteen sailing vessels of various classes,. five screw frigates, one screw sloop and. three or four side-wheel steamers were what is called available, that is, they were laid up at the different yards; but of all these, and those in commission, there were only eight vessels that the Government could use immediately — those of the Home Squadron--and only four were steamers

That was a poor showing for the Navy Department to commence with. Twenty-eight of the vessels in commission were on foreign stations, and by the time the Navy could be assembled the Confederates had ample time to prepare to meet them with offensive weapons, and keep them out of Southern ports.

When Mr. Toucey handed over the Navy Department to Mr. Welles, it was in a rather demoralized condition--Southern officers were resigning right and left, officers of the bureaux, even, were talking of going with their States, and there was a want of confidence in all quarters. When men who had held the highest and most influential positions in the Navy came forward and offered their resignations, there was apparently no one upon whom the Secretary could rely; distrust seemed to pervade every branch of the naval service. No commander could be sure who would be faithful to the flag, and the Secretary of the Navy could not be certain of any Southern officers being true to the Government. It was a bad state of affairs for a Secretary to commence his administration with, but the eventful year, 1861-62, will show that the operations and achievements of the Navy [19] were such, that great credit was reflected not only upon the Secretary but upon the personnel of the service, which so signally aided the Department in carrying out the measures tending so greatly to cripple the Confederate cause.

Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, 1861-69.

It is only intended, in this narrative, to give a comprehensive history of the naval events of the war, so that the general reader can form a rapid idea as to the conduct of naval affairs, and understand how much the Navy had to do with putting down the rebellion — or, to use the language of the present day, in persuading our Southern brethren to come back into the Union. It is but justice to the Navy Department to explain to the reader the difficulties under which that branch of the Government labored to carry out a system of offense, on which hung the whole problem of bringing the contest to a happy conclusion.

The Navy Department is different in its organization from any other department under the Government. Its relations to [20] the central Government, it is true, are the same as the others, yet its operations and wants are not understood except by experts who have had a long training in the Department; a politician who takes charge of the office for the first time will find himself quite at sea, and entirely in the hands of those who run the different branches of the department.

The Secretary, then, should be considered as surrounded by his Cabinet officers, on whom he must depend at all times for such advice and council as he may need.

His chiefs of bureaux are not clerks. They are, or ought to be his advisers, and should hold to the Secretary the same relations as the heads of departments hold to the President. It depends upon the fitness of bureau chiefs whether the Secretary can conduct his department with success or not.

The Navy Department combines in itself so many branches, that it would be an impossibility for any one man to comprehend them all, much less direct them.

We have had a number of secretaries who have attempted to “run the machine on their own account,” and make themselves independent of the chiefs of bureaux, but those who have made the effort have always scored a dead failure, and have left no record behind them that would innure to their benefit, publicly or privately.

It is quite clear that the head of the Navy Department should be a statesman, thoroughly acquainted with the policy of the country; he should be a constitutional lawyer, should have a thorough knowledge of international law, and of the obligations we are under to all foreign Governments; he should be familiar with all the mercantile interests of the country, and understand the relations the Navy holds to our commerce afloat. He should be a man of sound judgment in all business matters, and should possess executive ability of the highest order. Above all, he should be a man of liberal ideas; not considering that he is placed at the head of the Department to do nothing but find fault with the officers under him, but to aid them with all his power to build up a Navy, and keep it in a proper condition to defend the country. In fact, the Secretary of the Navy should be the political, judicial and financial head of the Navy Department.

When the war broke out it was very apparent that the organization of the Navy Department was very defective, and that the system of bureaux which worked fairly well in time of peace, did not work at all in time of war. It was like a balky team; it required a professional hand to guide the several bureaux which seemed to be trying to run their departments, each without regard to the other, with no unanimity of opinion, and it was soon found necessary to add a professional man to the department with the title of Assistant Secretary, who should supervise all the operations of the different bureaux, and take charge, under the Secretary, of all professional matters.

The vast operations of the Department during the war were divided into two great branches, one belonging to matters pertaining particularly to the Navy, the other embracing civil transactions, together with the whole business machinery and operations of the Department.

Mr. G. V. Fox, who had formerly been an officer of the Navy, was placed at the head of the first named branch of the Department; while the Chief Clerk,Mr. Faxon, was placed at the head of the Civil Corps; he was really the representative of the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Gideon Welles.

This organization was found necessary, owing to the defective system then existing, which exists now, and which will be found defective again if we should ever be involved in a war of any magnitude.

It was rather remarkable that the Government, after the war, should have fallen back upon the old bureau system without any professional head, when its defects were so glaring just after the commencement of hostilities.

Mr. Fox, on entering upon the duties of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, brought with him into the Department a knowledge of naval matters which could not by any possibility have been attained by a pure civilian, and though he did not, perhaps, have the prestige that would have been held by a Board of Admirals or the Board of Naval Commissioners, the success of the Navy during the war, its rapid increase in numbers and efficiency, showed that he was alive to all the requirements of the service, and was always ready to meet the demands made upon the Navy Department by the exigencies of the moment.

Congress, at all times, has been slow to recognize the importance of a Navy commensurate with the interests of this great country, and has doled out ships and sailors, even in times of great need, with a parsimony that has, on several occasions, placed the country in great straits.

It was even so in the outset of the great rebellion, and it was some time after the commencement of hostilities before our legislators could be made to understand the necessity for a large number of vessels to blockade the Southern ports, and put down the privateers and vessels of war which the Confederates were putting afloat, and which were destroying our commercial marine in all parts of the world. [21]

Almost from the beginning, the Navy Department had proper appreciation of what the struggle was to be, and how necessary it was for the Secretary of the Navy to be provided with the means of purchasing ships, guns and supplies of all kinds, and it would be idle to say, in the light of results, that the Department did not put forth all the energy required on such an occasion--first, by gaining the confidence of Congress, and, by using the large amounts intrusted to its charge with a fair degree of economy, considering the vastness of the field of operations.

Gustavus V. Fox, Ass't Secretary of the Navy, 1861-66.

The administration of the Department was conducted with ability, which is the most convincing proof of the fitness of its officers for the important duties they were called upon to perform. It would be untrue to say that such results as happened could have been achieved by persons of ordinary capacity, or that the head of such a combination of officers was deficient in the qualities necessary to control so many grave matters as came within his jurisdiction.

The communications that were addressed to Congress from time to time, by the Navy Department, show conclusively that the officers who filled the different positions, from the Secretary down had a very clear comprehension of the situation in all its details and that at no time was Congress without information of all that was going on in the Navy, or of what was required to keep it in efficient condition.

It was seen very early in the struggle that the policy of England and France was unfriendly to the Union side, which was fully evinced in the case of the Trent later on, and all the influence and argument of the Navy Department was brought to bear upon Congress to place our Navy in a position to meet every attempt on the part of foreign governments to meddle in our affairs. Hence it was that we finally commenced building a class of vessels that set at defiance those who seemed disposed. to interfere with us, and left us, at the end of the civil war, mistress of the situation at home and abroad.

With these preliminary remarks, which do not by any means convey what is due to those who had charge of naval matters at the Department, we will proceed to give as near as we can a short, but comprehensive, account of the various events which occurred during the war, and endeavor to show the bearing they had, not only on particular movements of the army, but the influence they exerted in the quelling of the rebellion in general.

We do not desire to take one atom of praise from our gallant soldiers, who, throughout the war, showed courage and energy unsurpassed; but we feel with many others, that while the country has been lavish of its praise to the Army, it has not always rendered that justice to the Navy which it actually deserved.

The writer does not hesitate to say, that but for the exertions put forth by the naval branch of the government, the rebellion would not have been brought to a close so rapidly as it was.

No nation was ever more unprepared for war than were the United States when the rebellion of eleven States was thrust upon them, and when the people of the South committed their first hostile acts by seizing [22] upon the forts and arsenals that were built for their protection, without the expectation that they would be used against the government. No pen could adequately express the utter impotence of the general government for attack or defence when it was called upon to perform the imperative duty of rescuing the federal fortifications from the hands of the rebels, or of yielding up all authority over them, and thereby sacrificing the life and honor of the nation.

The Navy, in particular, on which alone the government seemed disposed to depend at the first outbreak, was unquestionably in a bad condition to undertake all that was required of it.

Some there were who — rebels at heart and purpose — after holding for several years previous to the war high positions in the administration preceding that of Mr. Lincoln, had done all they could to dispose of the Navy, so that it could not be used in the event of trouble between the North and the South. The object was to destroy all its resources, to cripple the navy yards, dismantle the ships or have them on distant stations, so as to render it impossible for the Navy to strike an effective blow; or, if possible, to throw the ships and Southern yards into the hands of the Secessionists. How well they succeeded the history of the war will tell.

It may be supposed by those unfamiliar with the events of the times, that the rebellion was the result of measures forced upon the South just previous to the election of Abraham Lincoln, and that in his election they saw the death blow to the hopes they had cherished for extending slavery into new states and territories. If any one supposes that the rebellion was an impulsive measure, let him dismiss such an idea, for the writer was told by a Southern Senator in 1860, that, as far back as 1855, when the Colorado class of ships were built, he and others had voted to have them and all other vessels constructed of such a size and such a draft of water, that they could not enter any Southern ports; so it seems that the thought of secession had been maturing for years, and while Southern statesmen were apparently urging the building of large vessels instead of small ones, on the ground that the dignity of the Nation called for these cumbersome structures, it was really for the purpose of crippling the Government in case the Southern States should secede. In this they succeeded admirably, so much so, in fact, that these large ships were of little use in the beginning of the war, as they could enter no Southern ports, and their guns, without so doing, could not reach the opposing forts.

Young men of the present day who will want to make themselves informed of the events of our Civil War, will scarcely believe that it was the settled purpose of the South to organize a separate government, or that they would resort to such means to carry out their plans, especially when, after a careful investigation of affairs at that time, it will be clearly perceived that they had no actual ground for complaint. On the contrary, the South for years had enjoyed more than their share of honors and emoluments, and had gained from the North compliance with urgent demands, which often passed the bounds of proper concession.

From the time Mr. Lincoln became President, all the Southern ports were in the possession of Secessionists: they were sealed against our large ships, and open to blockade runners, which immediately began to supply the South with munitions of war, thus giving that section a start, from which they were benefited for a year to come.

Had our Navy at that time consisted of some thirty small gun-boats, or a dozen monitors, the rebellion would have been unable to raise its head. Yet, with all the experience we have had before us, we are at the present time in a worse condition than we were on the breaking out of the rebellion. If to-day events occurred similar to those of 1861, we would be in a worse condition to prevent them. Why does this settled purpose to keep the Navy down exist, when it was shown so conclusively during the Civil War, that without the aid of the Navy the South would have succeeded in its attempt to dismember the Union? Does it not look as if that good service had been forgotten, and that it is determined that only a ghost of a Navy shall remain — a shadow that can be of no actual use in war, and fit to serve only as an idle pageant in time of peace?

If the Navy in the first outburst of the war did not perform any act that would show its importance in putting down the rebellion at once, it was because it was in such a crippled condition regarding its ships, while over two hundred of its officers were throwing up their commissions and hastening South to try their fortunes with the seceding States.

A retrospective view of the history of the times will show how opposed the country was to commence a war, the end of which no man could see. So much was this the case that the North humiliated itself with concessions, and it was not until violent resistance had begun on the part of the South, and the honored flag of the Republic had been fired upon, that the North awoke to the indignity, and never rested until its Army and Navy had wiped [23] out the foul blow that had been struck, and the Union was once again restored in all its entirety.

The Navy Department was beset with difficulties at the very beginning; the friends of the South in Congress did all they could to withhold supplies of money. Our merchant marine did not then, as now, hold out the same facilities for improvising a naval force. Six hundred vessels were demanded at once for the purposes of blockade and for putting afloat a force that could keep down the Southern privateers, and when it is considered what the Department did under all the adverse circumstances attending the execution of these requirements, the highest praise cannot be withheld from those who managed its operations.

Every man who held position of honor and trust in the Navy Department in those trying times is dead and gone, and the multiplying events of a quarter of a century have crowded out for a time the great works which emanated from their conjoint exertions; but those who will take the trouble to hunt up and read over the documentary history of the times, will find ample evidence that to the Navy Department and the Navy is the present generation largely indebted for the happy condition of affairs now existing in a united country — a prosperity never exceeded in the history of the land — and the most substantial proofs that the Navy will always be found foremost to support this union of States, no matter what may be the sacrifices made by its officers and other personnel. [24]

Attack on Fort Sumter by the Secessionists, April 12, 1861--Fort Moultrie in the Foreground.

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