The American Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States. Most of the brutal fighting took place on land, but several of the battles were also fought on water.
There was more massed violence, because of the diversity of the ships and the weaponry, than in any other sustained naval action prior to this period. Ferry boats, ocean liners, and wooden steamships were all converted to necessary warships, as the Union Navy fought for victory against the Confederate Navy.
With few exceptions, most of these battles between the two navies were fought within sight of the coasts, in bays, and along the rivers, especially the mighty Mississippi. Although captains or generals were installed on each ship, they did not follow a unified strategy when they faced off with their opponents. Crews were under the direct orders of their individual captains, and success or failure was determined by the cunningness and daring of said leader. Deception and stealth were applied along with more conventional methods of confrontation.
Too often, the scope and casualties of the land battles that occurred during the Civil War have overshadowed the naval role, but the fighting was just as ferocious upon the waterways, and was equal in their effectiveness. The North and South each exerted immense efforts to control the paths of trade and communication.
On April 15, 1861, President Lincoln at sea, heralded the fierce fighting taking place, when he declared that a blockade of the ports from South Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico was erected. The blockade soon extended northward to include all of Virginia. “For this purpose,” Lincoln stated, “a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels” under pain of capture. Further, any attempt to interfere would be “held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy.” In so doing, the president was invoking one of history’s oldest stratagems of warfare: starving the enemy into submission.
Secessionists were outraged by the action, and vowed to see that the North pay for this latest act of treachery against them. They valiantly battled to take over the waterways, providing as many obstacles as they could for the Union Navy, so that blockade runners could slip through and provide their faltering fighting men and citizens alike with the necessary provisions they were in desperate need of.
It was soon apparent that the South was fighting a losing battle. The Union Navy was able to amass a larger number of craft against them, had better access to armaments, food, and other supplies. Just like Union soldiers on land, the Union Navy was victorious over their Confederate counterparts at sea.