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Essay/Term paper: The navy of the civil war

Essay, term paper, research paper:  American Civil War

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The Civil War consisted of many legendary battles over the soil of the United and Confederate States of America, which will be retold for generations in history books. Although these land battles were indeed great, the concept of this paper will be the Naval warfare of the Civil War, paying certain attention to the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac.

Neither the North nor the South was prepared for Naval activities at the beginning of the war. In order to better prepare the Navy for war, three new designs were put into action for future ships. The most successful of these designs was the Monitor.

The South was at a disadvantage to the North throughout the war. The South was at a lack for manpower during the war, since most of the seamen in the US Navy were from the North and therefore stayed with the Union when the southern states seceded. The South was also found disadvantaged for iron plates for ship armor, since there was only one establishment in the South capable of producing them.

The South, knowing their disadvantage in numbers, made the call for commerce raiding of northern ships. The southern government encouraged privateering of northern ships. This privateering would help take the burden of building up the Navy off the government, since privately owned ships and sailors would be assisting the Confederate war goals.

The response of the North was the blockade on the southern states. This dealt a similar blow to the South that privateering would cause to the North: the loss of supplies. Since the south was a primarily agricultural area, they had few factories to produce war supplies. The goal of the blockade was to cut any supplies and allow the underdeveloped southern states to run out of war goods. Fortunately for the Confederacy, their large coastline was very difficult for the Union Navy to completely blockade.

In measures taken to trade in spite of the northern blockade, blockade-running was employed. Fast wooden ships were used to slip by the blockaders to carry cotton to trading nations in exchange for badly needed war supplies. Blockade-runners did not help the Confederacy with supplies, however, as trading luxuries, such as jewelry and brandy, were more profitable. An act was passed to prevent the import of these luxuries, but was rarely enforced. As a result, the runners succeeded in wasting the slender supply of trained seamen on the imports of useless materials for war.

The Union came very close to opening war with Britain during their naval campaign. In a plan to gain diplomatic recognition, the South sent two former US senators to Europe. The South hoped that this recognition would lead to support from European nations, especially the neutral Great Britain. The southern ambassadors embarked from Havana on the British ship Trent. They were intercepted by the USS San Jacinto, whose crew boarded the Trent and took the former senators as prisoners. This boarding of an English vessel infuriated the British, but an apologetic letter from the US saved the Union from another war with Britain.

As resources became available, the Union set into action plans to seize bases along the Confederate coastline. The first important operation was the taking of Port Royal on the Carolina coastline. The Union sent an armada of ships exerting a five-to-one advantage in gun power over the Confederates. Due to a loss of boats in a storm, the operation was changed from an amphibious assault to a naval operation. Union vessels were able to flank Fort Walker and smother her defenses in their fire. After the abandoment of Fort Walker, the weaker Fort Beauregard was abandoned as well.

By far, the most famous naval battle of the Civil War was that between the Merrimack and the Monitor. This battle has been declared as one of the greatest one-on-one naval gun battles in history.

The Merrimack was burned and sunk by the Union when the Norfolk Navy Yard was abandoned. Since the South was at a loss for the resources to build new ships, they took to rebuilding old hulls into ironclad vessels, which included the Merrimack. The ship was converted using the limited Confederated iron into an eleven gun blockade-destroyer, mounting an iron ram. The Merrimack was rechristened as the CSS Virginia and will be referred to by that name for the rest of this paper.

The Virginia was hoped to break the Union blockade at Hampton Roads, Virginia. If this succeeded, the Virginia would be free to attack the blockade almost freely. The Virginia saw early victory when it was successful in sinking the USS Cumberland. When the Virginia attempted to do the same to the grounded USS Congress, it found itself in battle with the Monitor.

The Monitor was the most revolutionary vessel built in the Civil War. It was designed to present a small target to the enemy, as its freeboard was very close to the water. This, however, made ocean travel a hazard to the Monitor, as it took a small influx of water to sink a it. The Monitor was armed with guns on a revolving turret. The Monitor was sent from New York City to Hampton Roads in the effort to stop the imposing CSS Virginia.

The battle between the Virginia and the Monitor was met with such anticipation that Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox was on hand to watch the battle. The Virginia clearly out-gunned the Monitor, and its crew had a high morale from their previous victory. The Monitor had the advantage of being a small target that proved difficult to hit with the Virginia's guns. It also was very maneuverable, proving invaluable as the Monitor was able to escape the Virginia's menacing ram.

Although they had fewer guns, the Monitor managed to land more shots than the Virginia, which caused minimal damage. Both sides put a valiant effort, but the Virginia was eventually forced to retreat up the James. This proved to be a key naval victory for the North, as the CSS Virginia was the only ironclad which had the potential for swaying the war on the sea.

The naval strategies of the Civil War are often overlooked in the view of the great land battles that were fought. There were, as was shown in this paper, several naval confrontations that aided in the winning of the war for the United States of America. These battles are significant in that they mark the first time in US history that the US Navy was able to play the role of the stronger Navy. The Navy was able to meet this challenge and proved to be successful.


Congdon, Don. Combat: The Civil War. NY: Delacorte Press, 1969.

Hagan, Kenneth J. In Peace and War 2nd ed. NC: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Hagan, Kenneth J. The People's Navy. NY: The Free Press, 1991.

Potter, E.B. Sea Power 2nd ed. MY: Naval Institute Press, 1981.


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