Don’t Give Up The Ship

Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”

During the past few weeks, we have discussed several ways in which both Northerners and Southerners have memorialized their soldiers.  We have also discussed several groups that were excluded, or maybe their vital roles in the Civil War were not fully appreciated.  We discussed both women and African Americans, but one group that was not mentioned at all was the role of the Navy (from both the Union and Confederacy) in the war.

Many people focus on the land battles and ignore the importance of the navies.  This aspect of the war is perhaps my favorite, and it is a rich subject that has not been fully studied.  Naval historian Donald Canney asserts that “[t]he naval war was one of sudden, spectacular lightning battles as well as continual and fatal vigilance on the coasts, rivers, and seas.”[1]  Enacting a blockade was paramount for the Union Navy as it would cut off any possible help that the Confederacy could receive from sources overseas and prevent the sale of cotton.[2]  While the Union Navy was small at the start of hostilities, the Confederacy’s was non-existent.  Both sides scrambled to build up their navies and mimic the ironclad cruisers prevalent in Europe.[3]  All other ships were made of wood.  The first meeting of this new breed of warships took place between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.  This three-hour battle “was the world’s first battle between ironclad vessels.”[4]

While the Confederacy fought to defend their ports, the Union began a two-pronged attack in order to gain control of the Mississippi River.  The brainchild of Winfield Scott, the “Anaconda Plan” was meant to “surround the foe and suffocate it into surrendering.”[5]  With the Confederacy defending their east coast ports, Union Admiral David Farragut entered the Gulf of Mexico with the intention of taking New Orleans.  Simultaneously, Union gunboats headed south down the Mississippi River.  Once New Orleans surrendered, Farragut and his Union forces moved north up the river and met up with the southbound gunboats to aid Ulysses Grant in sacking Vicksburg.[6]  The actions of these fleets effectively “sever[ed] everything west of the River from the rest of the Confederacy.”[7]  With the “Anaconda Plan” in full force, the Union Navy turned its attentions on taking the key Confederate ports.  In January 1865, Fort Fisher at Wilmington, North Carolina surrendered.[8]  Canney asserts that this fall “deprived Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia of a major supply source and contributed directly to the end of the war.”[9]

The ingenuity of both naval powers must not be taken lightly, or ignored.  Significant advancement of naval technology occurred during the Civil War, and it is apparent that these developments contributed to the end of the war.  I believe it is a shame that there is such little credit of the vital role of the navies.

[1] Donald Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War,” (accessed June 25, 2012).

[2] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[3] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[4] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[5] Louis P. Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 25-26.

[6] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[7] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[8] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

[9] Canney, “The Navies of the Civil War.”

  1. chrisrivera1985 said:

    I completely agree with you, Amanda. Aside from David Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” There is almost nothing ever said about the navy. There is a really cool statue of Farragut in Madison Park in New York and the only other statue or monument that I know of off the top of my head is in Detroit, I think, but its dedicated to infantry and navy sailors. I only know of it because in doing research of my post for statues of women that fought in the Civil War the top of that monument has a ridiculous Greek figure of Athena on top. The thing I really believe is important about the navy in terms of the Civil War is that there are two moments before WWI that are crucial, in my opinion, in naval history: the construction of the White Fleet and the Civil War. Both of these incidents, it can be argued, were accompanied by the greatest advancements in American naval technology. Before the Civil War, it must be understood, there was practically no navy to as we know it today in American history. What is really interesting to me is that the Naval Academy of the United States is located in Annapolis, Maryland which is in a state that did not secede, which pitted graduates from the same school in naval battles like land battles in relation to West Point.

  2. chrisrivera1985 said:

    I was surfing Wikipedia after I finished my posts, doing the link to link thing and found a really interesting naval dude: His brother fought for the North and he the South. But this guy was all over the map from South America and Africa in the navy. Cool article, thought you would enjoy too : )

  3. Thanks for posting this rarely discussed topic on the Union Navies of the Civil War. Although, I have read and taught about the “Anaconda Plan” strategy, the content on the subject matter was minimal to say the least. The fact that the Union was the first to use navy forces and thereby dominating the waterways on the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Coast tells you how more advanced the Union was in warfare technology. This fact brings clarity to one of the reasons why the Confederates lost the war. Since the Union was the industrial region of the land, they would naturally have more access to technological production and thereby giving them an upper hand on the waterways as they took control of the Confederate’s outgoing or incoming supplies. I find this topic quite interesting, especially since my son-in-law served in the U.S. Navy and needless to say that your post has sparked an interest to further research this seldom mentioned topic. Thanks!

  4. jadams08 said:

    I had a vague idea that the navy was involved in the Civil War but you are right, that is a topic not nearly discussed enough. The North was so strategic in their planning and the eventual starving out of Confederate soldiers that it only makes sense that taking control of major ports should be part of their plan. To cut off your enemy by taking away their supplies on land and by sea really shows how cunning and the careful planning the North did to ensure victory for them. Surrounding the Confederates from all angles is a great, if not ingenious, military tactic. It would be interesting to hear more expansion on this topic.

  5. Kristen Epps said:

    This is tangentially related to your post, I realize, but I thought you all might be interested to learn that archaeologists have been working hard for the past few years to resurrect the Hunley, a Confederate submarine. If you Google “Hunley excavation,” it should pop up some interesting hits.

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