"The Naval View of the Civil War"
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Dr. Craig L. Symonds speaks to the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia about the Naval aspects of the War. The presentation was made on May 12, 2015, at the Fort McNair Officers' Club in Washington D.C. Questions and answers follow presentation.
A PDF copy of the PowerPoint to Mr. Symond's presentation is available by clicking HERE
"The Naval View of the War"
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Just as the Civil War was fought on the land, the North and South fought another war on the water. A war consisting of rapid and spectacular battles and an ongoing vigilance of the coasts, rivers, and seas. Join us May 12 as the “Ed Bearss” of naval history, Craig Symonds, takes us through the Civil War on the water.
As the Southern states seceded, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposed a plan to subdue the South that emphasized blockading Southern ports followed by an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. This became known as the "Anaconda Plan" or "Scott's Great Snake" and was meant to bring the seceding states back into line without a lot of bloodshed. Because of the passive nature of the plan, it was widely disdained by a very vocal faction, including Union commander George McClellan. This bloc clamored for a more vigorous prosecution of the war and hung its hopes on the capture of the Confederate capital city.
President Abraham Lincoln responded by sending Union armies to capture Richmond as McClellan proposed, but he also implemented Scott’s general strategy, and the Anaconda Plan made a huge contribution to eventual Northern victory. Lincoln set the Union’s naval war in motion by ordering a blockade of the Southern coasts. The intent of the blockage was to cut off Southern trade with the outside world and prevent its sale of cotton. It was a daunting assignment requiring the Union to cover over 2,500 miles of coast and, at the time, the Union navy numbered fewer than 40 seaworthy ships. Lincoln’s naval secretary, Gideon Welles, pitched in to fill the void and acquire enough boats to assure that every Southern inlet, port, and bay was made perilous for trade. The North began construction of dozens of new warships and bought hundreds of merchant ships to retrofit with a few guns for service as blockaders. Welles’ critics christened it his “soapbox navy.”
Ships alone would not be enough, however. The Union’s blockade effort needed bases on the Southern coast from which to operate. To acquire those beach heads, the Union began a series of attacks on port cities along the southeastern seaboard in 1861. Poorly defended, they quickly succumbed to Union gunnery and fell under Union control. While never completely airtight, by late 1862 the blockade was a huge obstacle to Confederate trade. In addition to the coastal and high seas navy, the Union also had need of a “brown water navy” to support its army campaigns in northern Virginia and the Mississippi River valley.
The Confederacy had fewer resources than the North at the start of the war. The South had only a handful of shipyards, a small merchant marine, and no navy whatsoever. The Confederates would have to scramble to thwart the Union blockade and defend its ports. Yet Stephen Mallory, Confederate Secretary of the Navy, rose to the challenge, found ships, and even managed an offensive operation to attack Union merchant shipping on the high seas.
With a smaller fleet and fewer shipyards than the North, the Confederate’s naval strategy relied on making the fleet they did have as formidable as possible. They decided to challenge the Union navy with the latest in naval engineering technology: ironclads. Ironclads had appeared in Europe in the 1850s, but Union warships were still built of wood. The first Confederate ironclad was constructed from a Union cruiser, the Merrimack, that had been captured when the Rebels seized the navy yard in Norfolk Virginia. The Confederates renamed it Virginia—and replaced everything above the waterline with a skeleton of heavy timbers covered by four inches of iron plating. Though underpowered and crude, Lincoln had nothing to match her.
The Union quickly responded with inventor John Ericsson and his ironclad—the Monitor. Most of the Monitor was underwater. All that appeared above board looked like a “tin can on a raft” with a flat deck and a circular housing with two guns. Tin can it might have been, but it had the world’s first rotating gun turret, and it was amply protected with eight inches of iron.
The Monitor and the Virginia met in March 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia. After a three-hour engagement—often at point-blank range—the result was a draw but it was the world's first battle between ironclad vessels. The presence of the Virginia was able to postpone Union army operations in the area for several months. The advent of ironclads made wooden naval vessels—and thus most of the Union fleet—out-of-date. Shipyards on both sides began to manufacture ironclads as quickly as they could.
Union efforts to split the Confederacy in two along the Mississippi River also began in early 1862. General Ulysses S. Grant’s army, with the support of a squadron of gunboats, moved down the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois into the heart of the Confederacy. Most of the boats were flat-bottomed barges with steam engines and heavy timbered sides. A few were iron plated. Grant’s army and this brown water navy captured Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. Simultaneously, David Farragut, commanding a similar fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, engaged the defenses of New Orleans. His objective was to move past the city and northward via the Mississippi River. In April 1862, Farragut fought his way past two formidable forts and forced the surrender of New Orleans. In July, 1863, after hard-fought campaigns against both Rebel forts and fleets, these two Union naval forces—one moving south and one moving north—would converge at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The result was everything west of the Mississippi was cut-off from the rest of the Confederacy.
In April 1863, the Union navy took on the defenses of Charleston, South Carolina. With two years to anticipate such an attack, the Confederates had positioned guns, floating obstructions, and mines to meet it. Their defenses successfully fended off the Union, and Charleston remained in Rebel hands until the war was nearly over. After its decisive loss at Charleston, the Union targeted Mobile, Alabama—the last major Confederate port on the Gulf—and Wilmington, North Carolina—the last and most important Atlantic gateway to the Confederacy.
Mobile was defended by two large forts but these fell under Farragut’s assault in August 1864. After a failed first try, the largest Union fleet ever assembled attacked Fort Fisher in January 1865. Fisher was the linchpin of Wilmington’s defense and the stronghold fell. Wilmington’s loss robbed Robert E. Lee’s army, under siege in Virginia, of a major supply source and helped bring on the end of the war.
As the war dragged on, Mallory equipped a series of commerce raiders to attack Union merchant ships globally. These ships were obtained from Europe and most never saw a Southern port. The Alabama, under the command of Raphael Semmes, is the best known. It destroyed more than 60 ships in a 21-month cruise and sent Union shipping interests into a panic. The Alabama was finally confronted by the Union boat Kearsarge off the coast of France in 1864 and was sunk by Union gunfire in one of the last classic one-on-one duels at sea.
Interestingly, the last official action of the Confederate States of America was a naval one. The Confederate raider Shenandoah was in the Pacific and its command and crew got the news of the Civil War’s end four months after all of the Confederate armies surrendered. The Shenandoah lowered her flag in England on November 6, 1865.
About Our Speaker:
Craig L. Symonds, Ph.D. is Professor of History Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy and a pre-eminent naval historian. Symonds was the first person to win both the Naval Academy’s “Excellence in Teaching” award (1988) and its “Excellence in Research” award (1998), and received the Department of the Navy’s Superior Civilian Service medal three times. Symonds was also awarded the Dudley Knox Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Naval Historical Foundation in 2014.
Symonds is a native of Anaheim, CA. He served as a U.S. Navy officer and became the first ensign ever to lecture at the prestigious Naval War College in Newport, R.I. After his naval service, Symonds remained at the War College as a civilian professor of strategy from 1974-1975. In 1976, he came to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. During his tenure there, Symonds became a popular professor whose Civil War classes always had waiting lists. From 1988 to 1992, he served as chair of the Academy’s history department. From 1994 to 1995 he was professor of strategy and policy at the Britannia Naval College in Dartmouth, England. After his retirement in 2005, he returned to the Naval Academy for one year in 2011-12 to serve as “The Class of 1957 Distinguished Professor of American Naval History.”
Symonds is the author or editor of twenty-eight books, including prize-winning biographies of Civil War figures Joseph E. Johnston (1992), Patrick Cleburne (1997), and Franklin Buchanan (1999), as well as The American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg (2001). Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History, (2005) won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize for Naval History. His 2008 book, Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War, won the Barondess Prize, the Laney Prize, the Lyman Prize, the Lincoln Prize, and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award. He also won the Nevins-Freeman Prize in 2009. His book on the Battle of Midway was published in 2011. His newest book is NEPTUNE: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings, released in May 2014.
Symonds remains much in demand around the country as a speaker on Civil War subjects and all things naval history. He has spoken at Civil War Round Tables in 27 states and two foreign countries, given tours of battlefields and other historical sites and helped conduct leadership workshops based on the life of Abraham Lincoln. He and his wife Marylou live in Annapolis, Maryland; they have one son and two grandchildren.