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The blockade was a crucial part of what the North called the "Anaconda Plan." As its name suggests, this strategy intended to squeeze the Confederacy until it surrendered. The Union Navy would cut off overseas trade by a tight blockade and divide the Confederacy in two by diving like a snake down the Mississippi River with a combined land and naval force. Together these two pressures would hopefully show the South that secession was futile and that it should surrender.
Blockade running became so important to the South that one historian called it "the lifeline of the Confederacy." Successful blockade-runners helped the South receive much-needed goods, while the ships' crews and owners received rich rewards to compensate for the risks taken. It was so vital to the Confederacy that while most of the vessels were privately owned at first, later in the war the state and Confederate governments became co- or full owners of the ships. However, the risks were great. If the Union captured a ship, it became Union property and its captain would spend the rest of the war in a Union prison.
The same limited industrial facilities that made the South need these ships meant it could only produce a limited number, which left the Confederates at a disadvantage on the seas. As the North worked hard to tighten its blockade, the South began to look to Europe for procuring not only ironclads to keep Union monitors from closing ports, but fast cruisers to keep trade flowing. British shipyards were building blockade-runners with more powerful engines; they also built what were known as commerce raiders, which attacked Union trading ships and took their goods. Yet pressures from the United States on these foreign countries limited the South's ability to secure the number of vessels needed for a successful blockade-running operation and for organizing a strong Confederate Navy.
The North continued to gain advantage as the war continued. By 1863, large blockade-runners could only operate in and out of Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and Galveston, Texas. Southern ocean trade dropped to one-third of its original level, and the Confederacy began running out of clothing, weapons, and other supplies.
In an attempt to counteract the Union Navy, especially the ironclads, the Confederates introduced the torpedo, which became very controversial. Before the Civil War, explosive devices had been floated towards enemy ships, but these could be seen on the surface allowing time for reaction. Torpedoes, on the other hand, remained hidden below the water, which provoked complaints from the North that no civilized country would use an "invisible" weapon. Union Adm. David Farragut explained the dilemma the North found itself facing: "Torpedoes are not so agreeable when used on both sides; therefore, I have reluctantly brought myself to it. I have always deemed it unworthy [of] a chivalrous nation, but it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you."¹
All of these issues converged at the Battle of Mobile Bay, which began on August 5, 1864 when Admiral Farragut's fleet moved into the torpedo-filled Mobile Bay. The fleet included 14 wooden ships (including the flagship Hartford), four monitors (the Tecumseh, Manhattan, Winnebago, and Chickasaw), as well as several gunboats that stayed nearby if needed. As the fleet neared Fort Morgan, the Tecumseh hit a torpedo and quickly sunk.
This loss did not stop the Union attack. Seeing what was happening, Admiral Farragut ordered his fleet to press forward through the underwater minefield into Mobile Bay. The 13 other ships made it past Fort Morgan, then, after some resistance, forced the Confederate ships in the bay to surrender or flee. Over the next three weeks, fire from Farragut's vessels and the Union Army finally forced the defenders of Fort Morgan to surrender. Though the city of Mobile would remain in Confederate hands into 1865, the port was now closed to blockade runners.
This victory brought a tremendous boost to Northern spirits, but at a high cost. Monitors were widely believed to be unsinkable--yet it took the Tecumseh just two minutes to go down. In the end, only 21 of the 114 men aboard escaped death. In addition, while clearing the many torpedoes, seven more Union ships, including two ironclads, sank. Their loss provided a particularly painful illustration of how changing technology affects the men fighting a war.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why was it important for the Union Navy to close the port of Mobile?
2. Why did captains and ship owners run the blockade? What risks did they face?
3. What technological advantage did the North think they had over the South in the Battle of Mobile Bay?
4. What new pieces of technology did the South use in the Battle of Mobile Bay?
5. Admiral Farragut said that "chivalrous nations" would not use a weapon like the torpedo. Why did he say that? How can some weapons be more civilized than others?
6. What did both Confederate and Union soldiers discover about ironclad ships?
7. If the city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands, why did the North consider this battle a victory?
Reading 1 was compiled from Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr., Confederate Mobile (University Press of Mississippi, 1991); E. Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America 1861-1865: A History of the South, vol. VII (Louisiana State University Press, 1950); John Coddington Kinney, First Lieutenant, 13th Connecticut Infantry, and Acting Signal Officer, U.S.A., "Farragut at Mobile Bay," in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Retreat with Honor, vol. IV (Castle Books, a division of Books Sales, Inc., 114 Northfield Ave., Edison, NJ 08837); Blanche Higgins Schroer, "Fort Morgan" (Baldwin County, Alabama) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988).
¹John Coddington Kinney, 380.