The civil war at sea
The American Civil War is one of the most important and significant armed confrontation there is in the history of the United States which featured Americans fighting versus their own countrymen. In this long, drawn-out armed conflict, both the victorious Union army and the defeated Confederate army showcased to their opponent and to the rest of the world what it can do and the capability of the American army during battles. While the concentration was on ground battles, the navy has no doubt played an important role in this war. In the process, it also resulted to the loss of the lives of many young men who participated in the naval efforts of both forces – individuals from commanders and ship captains, soldiers and deck hands who made every ship involved in the navy battles of the American Civil War functional, contributing to the effort in its own small way. Part of what has unveiled during the several battles involved in this war was how the navy forces contributed significantly to the war effort, the navy of both the Confederate and the Union army had their own shining moments during the war that contributed to the overall turn of events in the battlefield during the civil war. This part of the history is important not just to the Union and Confederate armies during the time but is also important to the history of American navy forces all in all. The role and action of the two opposing navy forces showcased many positive characteristics that would affect the creation of what is known today as the modern US navy force. The importance of the navy in the American Civil War is something that many people put supreme significance on – just like in ground battles, the naval fighting was also as fierce and as brutal. It also yielded many heroes who are now enshrined and immortalized because of the excellence in their part as they participated in the naval battle during the war. The paper is focused on discussing the naval aspect of the American civil war, how the civil war was fought at sea and the serious implications and repercussions of this particular event in the history and in the navy as well.
The Role of the Navy Forces during the American Civil War
During the American Civil War, much of the fighting, the action and the hostilities were delegated to the ground forces – foot soldiers and the infantry, artillery men and the cavalry. During the American Civil War, the idea of airborne troops was not yet a concept. Fighting in the air among the air force is a characteristic of war which is still years away. What was present then which made the fighting more complex was the presence of the navy and the role of naval battles during the height of the intense fighting between the north and the South. The navy forces of both sides were very important assets to both the Confederate Army as well as to the Union Army. The reason why they are important is because of the roles that they played during the war, especially since “army-navy cooperation was critical .”
As a Source of firepower
The navy was a key in the Union firepower, especially since they have the superior navy compared to the opponent. The Confederate is inferior to the Union in naval strength, and they knew it. Because of it, they resorted to other options. “Because of its lack of an industrial base, the south had to use mines, torpedoes, commando raids and commerce raiders to fend off the vastly superior Northern navy.” Nonetheless, the navy forces of both the Confederate and the Union army were relied on for additional firepower, especially during encounters between the two armies which takes place close to the waters. Naval ships docked close at sea can fire its canons and manage to reach a specific target, providing the ground forces with additional firepower which can seriously affect the turnout of the battle. Even before the American Civil War, sea battles had been fiercely fought among opposing armies, and the role of naval assets like warships are important. Inside every battle-ready warship are several canons and guns in different sizes, range and capacity. The mastery on how to use these ships to one’s advantage can eliminate several advantages of the enemy like power in numbers if the navy commanders and ground generals can strategize well and use its navy forces to the hilt. This is the same case during the American Civil War, wherein Confederate and Union navy ships positioned themselves strategically to maximize their strength and their potential for destroying the enemy forces. Battleships are relied heavily for firepower, to give covering fire for advancing foot soldiers, to hold off the advancing opposing forces at bay, to defend a territory or to repulse the opposition. The lethality of both Confederate and Union navy ships acts as deterrence, making the enemy think twice before attacking especially if the navy is involved in the firepower equation. The firepower of the Union was also relied on as source of protection at seas versus the pirates, and military leaders used to “divert ships from blockade duty to hunt down pirates.”
The navy army of the Union and Confederate armies are not merely focused on participating in the killing of the enemy. Some have non-combatant roles like acting as transport ships so that fresh reinforcement of foot soldiers, men and material, and other things needed for the war effort that needs to be transported to the next nearest battlefront is sent or brought as soon as possible. The armies used the waterways as means of transportation for the soldiers to be moved around. During the American civil war, the navy of both the Confederate and the Union army relied on their navy capabilities to transport the soldiers. Besides that, the navy was also delegated in moving the wounded out of the battlefield or in transporting prisoners of war, especially when there is no means to travel by land. This role is just equally important because battlefronts rely on the transporting ability of the navy to send in new soldiers and remove battle incapable units from the frontline.
The Block Party
Ships and the navy contingent of the Union army in particular played an important role in a strategic move made by the military leaders in creating a blockade that can stifle the enemy and force it to surrender, a plan known as Anaconda. Without the presence of the strong, capable and dependable navy, the Union army would not have had succeeded in this plan. Any efforts to create a blockade would have been impossible without the well established navy structure and chain of command in place during the American Civil War.
The Important Battles involving the Navy Forces during the American Civil War
1861 – From 1861 up to late in 1864, there were several naval action and battles involving the navy forces of both Union and Confederate. One of the earliest battles in the American Civil War involving the naval forces is the May 18 and 19, 1861 conflict between the two armies, known as the Battle of Sewell’s Point. Taking place in Virginia, specifically in Norfolk County, this battle was a result of the resistance of two sides in the imposed status quo via the blockade – one side is enforcing a control while another one is trying to resist and fight it. A section of the Confederate army which was controlling a set of batteries in Sewell’s point was fighting of the Union navy’s USS Monticello and one other gunboat as part of the blockade. This battle did not seriously impact either sides; no reported serious injuries or high number of deaths resulted from this battle.
But this particular naval army action is not the only confrontation involving the navy which happened in May 1861. Ten days after the end of the Battle of Sewell’s Point, another conflict erupted, and this is known as the Battle of Aquia Creek, which unfolded on May 29 of the same year up until the first day of the following month, June 1. This time, the target of the Union navy controlling the Chesapeake Bay is the bombing of the batteries held by the Confederate near and around Stafford County, particularly in Aquia Creek. From two gunboats at Sewell’s’, three ships of the Union navy was involved in this battle.
The Battle of Port Royal wrapped up the three major battles involving the naval forces in 1861 during the American Civil War, happening on the 7th of November of the same year. This battle was perhaps the first of the biggest and main naval battles in the American Civil War history. For one, the Union navy here in this battle has unveiled the extent of their naval firepower, unleashing towards Fort Walker, sending in not just a mere few gunboats but a sizeable fleet composed of battleships, gunboats, towing boats and transport boats. The guns of the boats forming the attack line of the Union navy heavily damaged the land troops that the soldiers retreated after exhausting their gun powder and ammunition and seeing the extent of the resolve of the Union army to overpower this part of the South Carolina through the use of extensive naval power. The victory of the Union here allowed them to take control of two formerly Confederate forts – Fort Walker, which was bombarded heavily by the Union battleships, and Fort Beauregard, which was abandoned by Confederate soldiers in fear of being easily overrun too like what happened in the neighboring Fort Walker.
I862 – The following year (1862) would prove to be the busiest when it comes to naval battles and confrontations involving the navy. Several naval battles and confrontations involving the navy, during this year, surpassed the frequency of navy-related battles the previous year, or the two years following 1862. The year started with the Battle of Cockpit Point just three days into the year 1862. In this battle, the focus of the Union navy is in controlling the Potomac River. To do this, the Union needs to overpower the gun batteries that was set in what was then known as Evansport as well as at the Chopwamsic Creek and in other locations like in Freestone Point and Shipping Points. Collectively, all of the guns placed in the banks were almost totalling to almost 40 heavy guns. Union ships that attacked these gun positions included the USS Jacob Bell, the USS Seminole, the USS Anacostia and the USS Yankee. With the win of the Union forces, the Union navy was able to monopolize control in that part of the Potomac River and has effectively pushed the Confederate army inwards and out of the sea or river positions. By March of the same year, the Battle of Hampton Roads has erupted. As the name suggests, the battle was fought in a place called Hampton Roads found in Virginia. The rivers involved in this location include the Elizabeth River, the Nansemond River and the James River, close to the all important Chesapeake Bay. The importance of this battle is that it ushered the new age of ship making when it comes to navy strength. “Every wooden-hulled naval vessel in the world became suddenly obsolete.” This realization was made as a result of this battle. And because of the Confederacy’s use of the ironclad (a ship that is not similar to design compared with the wood ships of that time since the ironclad, based on its name, is a ship that is coated with iron and steel plates, or simply clad in iron) CSS Virginia, they were able to render serious damage to the very powerful navy of the Union by sinking two Union ships. The Confederate’s desire to destroy the third Union boat in action during this battle – the USS Minnesota – led to the battle of the ironclads since the Union’s own ironclad USS Monitor finally saw action, defending Minnesota from the attacker. This is one of the naval battles that prove that the navy battles in the American Civil War provided an introduction of the new naval war machines that will influence navy war industry for the future. “Ironclads were only one of the many new weapons tested during the Civil War.”
The following month, another important naval battle ensued, and this one was known as the Battle of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. This happened in New Orleans. This is important because New Orleans is important to the Confederate. Proof of this is how they fortified the forts in the hope that these fortified forts can hold off the attack of the Union navy. It was a presumption that was wrong because at the end of the battle, the navy of the Confederate was completely routed and the two forts were defeated as well despite the preparations made for the two forts. Another important naval battle happening in the first half of 1862 was the battle known as the Battle of Island Number Ten. This battle covered three months – starting at February and ending at April. This battle was undertaken in the Mississippi River. It was a Confederate-held position and the Union navy again played the part of the aggressor, attacking the Confederate position in order to secure important land and water positions and cripple the Confederate army in the process.
In May, the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff erupted. This particular naval battle was not a very good one for the Union forces. Pushing inward James River and attempting to threaten the Confederate capital Richmond, Virginia, the Union navy relied on five strong gunboats led by two ironclads namely the USS Galena and the USS Monitor. But despite the presence of imposing navy ships and ironclads, the shore defences managed to hold on to the position and force the Union ships back, especially after the USS Galena sustained very serious damage from the fire coming from the land defences protecting the river. The start of June marks the start of the Battle of Memphis. This was another victory for the Union navy, which fielded many ships and ironclads that possess significant firepower, including the ironclads USS Cairo, the USS Carondelet, the USS Louisville, the USS St. Louis and the USS Benton. Besides the ironclads and the powerful attack battleships, there was also the participation of the ram ships of the Union navy, particularly the Monarch and another ram ship named Queen of the West. The victory of the Union in this battle was something that the Confederates have not avenged.
Before June ended, another naval battle ensued, this time called the Battle of Tampa. But this was not in the similar breadth as other big navy actions – for this one, there is just one gunboat from the Union navy which was involved, and the result of this battle was not supremely important in how the ground battles happening close to the Battle of Tampa resulted and how the power is shifting towards the Union army. It seems that there was a long lull in the active naval battle, but by September of the following year, the naval action resumed via the Second Battle of Sabine Pass which ensued on September 8, 1863, involving four Union navy gunboats as well as transports. There was just another one notable 1863 naval battle, and it was the Battle of Fort Hindman which happened at the start of 1863, particularly on January 9 up to11, taking place in the Arkansas River. This particular offensive was undertaken by the Union army so that they can regain full control of the Arkansas and the Mississippi rivers by eradicating the fortifications in the location. In this battle, the participation of the navy ships and ironclads included the bombarding of the fortification via an attack from the river while some of the boats transported the ground troops that the Union army was sending to capture the location.
The following year, there was only one significant naval battle, and it was the battle of Mobile Bay, which happened on August 1864, starting on the second day of the month and lasting up until the 23rd of the month. There were very few significant developments in the war involving the naval forces of both sides after these battles. Close to the official end of the war, most historians point to the firing of the CSS Shenandoah – a ship characterized as a raider from the Confederate’s naval fleet – on June 22, 1865 as the last shot, at least in the Bering Strait, for the American Civil War because after this, the area was already silent from the guns of the navy ships.
Looking at the pages of the American Civil War history, one can see how important the naval aspect of the battle was. Accounts of the details of the battles that happened in seas and rivers of the US battle fields and the participation of Union and Confederate ships and ironclads are immortalized through the textual content of history books, as well as through the paintings rendered by several artists in memory of the important naval encounters that happened during the American Civil War. These stress the importance of these battles in the civil war itself, in the US navy’s history and to the history of the United States as a whole. The Union army in particular showed the world the importance of navy, considering the position of the Confederate power along the coastline and how these territories were eventually won by the Union by the effective use of navy and naval warfare. “The Confederacy held most of the coastline and navigable rivers;” but with the presence of the navy, the Union managed to win many important battles.
Boot, Max. War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to
Today. Gotham Books, 2006.
Fuller, Howard J. and Schneller, Robert J. Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the
Challenge of British Naval Power. Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2007.
Haven, Kendall. Voices of the American Civil War: Stories of Men, Women, and Children
Who Lived Through the War Between the States. Libraries Unlimited, 2002.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, Vol. 6. Oxford University
Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield. Stackpole Books, 2001.
Sondhaus, Lawren. Naval Warfare: 1815-1914. Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2001.
Woodworth, Steven E. American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research.
Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 1996.
 Fuller, Howard J. and Schneller, Robert J. Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the Challenge of British Naval Power. (Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2007), 192.
 Woodworth, Steven E. American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research.
(Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 1996), 318.
 McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, Vol. 6. (Oxford University Press, 1988), 315.
 McPherson, 30.
 Fuller, et al., 51.
 Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield. (Stackpole Books, 2001), 67.
 Fuller, et. al., 69.
 Haven, Kendall. Voices of the American Civil War: Stories of Men, Women, and Children Who Lived Through the War Between the States. (Libraries Unlimited, 2002), 117.
 Boot, Max. War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today. (Gotham Books, 2006), 175.
 Haven, 117.
 Salmon, 86.
 Fuller, 192.
 Woodworth, Steven E. American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research.
(Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 1996), 293.
 Sondhaus, Lawren. Naval Warfare: 1815-1914. (Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2001), 82.
 Sondhaus, 277.