American naval power: Abraham Lincoln and the Union Navy

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Patrick Boniface analyses the expansion and transformation of the US Navy during the American Civil War.

‘Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I shall spend the first four sharpening the axe.’

So said Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s greatest presidents, and he might well have been speaking about the creation of the modern US Navy during the crisis years 1861 to 1865.

A giant of American politics, the man of iron will who completed his country’s unfinished revolution by fighting its bloodiest war to smash the Southern slave system, he should also be remembered for his signal role in the history and development of American naval power.

When Lincoln was inaugurated as president on 4 March 1861, US naval resources were hopelessly unequal to the crisis of secession and civil war, comprising only around 90 warships – half of them were sailing vessels, half were steampowered, and all were wooden-walled.

Across the North Atlantic, Great Britain, France and Germany were fast developing warships that were superior in every way to the American ships, for two great transformations in naval affairs were under way: the transition from sail to steam, and that from wood to iron.

Why was the US lagging behind? Perhaps because the ragtag fleets assembled during the American Revolution, and again during the War of 1812, had given rise to a feeling of invincibility based on the size of the country.

On this subject Lincoln had said: ‘All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.’

Maybe so . But in 1861 the country broke in two. The issue was not defence against foreign invaders, but the suppression of internal rebellion. As Lincoln himself put it: ‘If all do not join now to save the good old ship of the Union … nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage.’

But if warships were few, sailors and merchantmen were in plentiful supply, and most were Northerners. Fewer than 400 of the Navy’s 1,600 regular officers went south when the war began – and among its 7,600 or so rank-and-file seamen, hardly any.

As for the merchant marine – which was now a great pool from which ships might be commandeered and men conscripted – almost all of it was owned by Northern businessmen and registered in Northern ports.

Not only that, but the past success of American naval enterprise was double-edged. It may have bred complacency and a relative neglect of naval defence, but it also represented a strong military tradition.

The lesson of Fort Sumter

A Union tugboat used during the American Civil War.

It was the attack on Fort Sumter, built on an island in the centre of Charleston Harbour in South Carolina, on 12 April 1861 that first highlighted the North’s lack of naval power. The fort had been designed principally to defend the city from seaboard attack, but against a land-based assault it proved extremely vulnerable.

During the Confederate bombardment, the Union ships were unable to assist the beleaguered fort and could not land supplies to the men defending it. The scale of the naval humiliation left the US President determined to remedy the weakness.

Lincoln realised that, to defeat the Southern States, the Union would need to establish a coastal blockade. The South had minimal industrial infrastructure and would be heavily dependent on imports to sustain its war effort.

Orders were issued for the 3,500 miles of Southern coastline to be patrolled – but only a handful of ships were really up to the job at the beginning of the war. What followed was a breakneck programme of improvisation. As historian Bruce Catton explains:

The job was done, but it cost a great deal of money and resulted in the creation of one of the most heterogeneous fleets ever seen on the waters of the globe. Anything that would float and carry a gun or two would serve, for most of these blockaders would never have to fight; they were simply cops on the beat, creating most of their effect just by being on the scene.

Vessels of every conceivable variety were brought into service, armed, after a fashion, and sent steaming down to take station off Southern harbours: ferryboats, excursion steamers, whalers, tugs, fishing schooners, superannuated clippers – a weird and wonderful collection of maritime oddities, which in the end gave more useful service than anyone had a right to expect.

The Anaconda Plan

Action against Island 10, 7 April 1862.

The coastal blockade was part of Generalin-Chief Winfield Scott’s ‘Anaconda Plan’, which aimed at a measured (some said ‘slow’) blockade of Southern ports, coupled with an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the Confederacy in two.

Those voices calling for a more aggressive prosecution of the war likened this plan to the South being slowly suffocated in the coils of an anaconda snake – an image that captured the imagination so that the name ‘Anaconda Plan’ stuck firm.

Central to the whole plan was the blockading of all ports along the 3,500-mile coastline and the simultaneous advance of fleets of gunboats and tens of thousands of Union soldiers down the Mississippi.

Among those favouring greater aggression was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Vas Fox. He made the decision to attempt the capture of New Orleans, entrusting the campaign to Captain David Glasgow Farragut, an energetic veteran naval officer, who attacked the city on the night of 24 April 1862.

Farragut’s fleet included both warships and gunboats, the latter mounting 13-inch mortars able to lob shells over fortress walls. The campaign opened with a prolonged bombardment of the two forts guarding the approaches to New Orleans, Fort Jackson and Fort St Philip. Once Farragut was satisfied they had been sufficiently reduced by a week’s battering, he ordered his fleet to run up the river in the early hours of the morning.

An attack by Confederate fire rafts failed, the Confederate shore batteries blasted away without notable effect, and Farrugat’s fleet descended on the Southern city. Its seizure left the forts high and dry, and they shortly surrendered. A Union army of occupation took control. The mouth of the Mississippi was blocked .

The great river was now under attack from north and south. One after another, over the following year, key points were captured by Union river gunboats and army columns until finally, on 4 July 1863, after a long and bloody siege, Vicksburg fell and the Confederacy was sliced in two…

This is an extract from an article which appears in issue 85 of Military History Monthly, as part of a 16-page special feature on ‘The Rise of American Naval Power’. 

To read the full feature, subscribe to the magazine here.

Patrick Boniface is a freelance journalist specialising in naval affairs. He is the author of a number of books profiling Royal Navy destroyers and frigates. 

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