In 1861, seven Southern states joined together in secession from the United States. It was a political decision that sparked the Civil War.
The Confederacy had an economy based primarily on cotton production and exportation. One of President Abraham Lincoln’s first military responses was designed to crush that strength if this industry and limit military supplies to the newly formed Confederacy.
In 1861, Lincoln ordered a naval blockade and closure of 3,500 miles of Confederate coast-line and twelve major southern ports. The blockade was in place from 1861-1865.
The Union Navy commissioned 500 ships and either captured or sank about 1,500 blockade runner’s ships over the course of the war. The overall effect of the Union maritime gauntlet was the reduction of Southern cotton exports by 95% and the obstruction of Confederate military supplies from the outside world.
In spite of its success, five out of six ships that attempted to evade the blockade were successful.
Running the blockade spawned a new and short lived maritime industry. Ordinary sailing ships were too visible and slow to evade the Navy cordon. Newly designed ships that were small, light and had a shallow draft were the most successful at running the blockade, but their haul was limited to a small, light cargo capacity. While they were fast, the ships were unable to deliver large amounts of heavy weaponry, metal and other supplies badly needed by the South.
The Union blockade proved to be a powerful weapon that contributed greatly to the demise of the Confederate economy, at the loss of very few lives. The measure of the blockade’s success was not indicated by the number of ships that slipped through but the thousands that never tried to. Ordinary freighters had no reasonable hope of evading the blockade and stopped calling at Southern ports all together.
The British were heavily invested in theConfederate maritime efforts to beat the grip of the Union blockade. The proclamation declaring the legality of the blockade had an unexpected side effect for the Union. The declaration of the blockade, under international and maritime law, also carried with it the recognition of the Confederacy by the Union. That legitimacy allowed foreign nations to trade with the South as a sovereign nation.
The South had an inadequate supply of ship captains, sailors and, ship building capacity to launch an effective offense for the blockade. British investors saw an opportunity and began to build new ships in England that had low profiles, shallow draft, and high speed. The new ships were steam driven paddle wheelers that were crewed by retired British naval officers and crews.
Under the dark of night the ships ran from the neutral ports in Bermuda, the Bahamas and Havana, Cuba filled with tobacco, turpentine, rifles, medicine, brandy and other war necessities. British investors stockpiled supplies in the neutral ports to be sold to the South or exchanged for shipments of cotton carried in the hulls of the blockade runners.
Blockade running was a fairly low risk occupation and proved extremely profitable to the British investors. If a ship was captured running the blockade the British crew would be returned under the maritime laws of the day.
Private British investors spent an estimated $250 million U.S. dollars on the building, outfitting, and operating of their blockade running fleet. That is the equivalent of over 2.5 billion dollars in today’s currency.
One example of the lucrative and short lived, nature of the blockade running trade was the ship Banshee, which operated out of Nassau and Bermuda. She was captured on her seventh run into Wilmington, North Carolina, and confiscated by the U.S. Navy for use as a blockading ship. At the time of her captured, she had turned a 700% profit for her English owners, who quickly commissioned and built the Banshee No. 2, which soon joined the firm’s fleet of blockade of runners.