Robert S. Browning, Jr.
THE BLOCKADE OF WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA: 1861-1865.
(Under the direction of Dr. William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, October 1980.
This study examines the Union blockading squadron stationed off the Cape Fear River Inlets during the Civil War. Wilmington, North Carolina was perhaps the most important city in the South with the exception of Richmond, Virginia. The blockade of this port was thus one of the most vital objectives of the United States Navy. This paper examines the performance of the naval vessels stationed at Wilmington, and the problems that affected their performance.
The United States faced many obstacles in trying to implement the blockade of the Confederacy. The Union navy was not prepared to blockade the South with the small number of vessels available for naval service. There were several other factors that influenced the slow implementation of the blockade. Among these were the unpreparedness of the Navy Department, international legal problems, and geographic peculiarities in the Wilmington area.
Construction and repair problems also hindered an effective blockade and kept many vessels from their stations during the entire war. The department was plagued by an incapacity of construction, which threw much of the burden on the private shipyards. The small number of first class repair facilities, and the navy's inability to execute work quickly greatly affected the blockade's effectiveness by keeping vessels off the blockade, or by making it necessary for crippled vessels to remain at their stations.
Logistical problems were a less obvious factor that decreased the strength of the blockade. The great distance between Wilmington and Fortress Monroe produced a situation early in the war that made the vessels at Wilmington logistic cripples. The navy alleviated somewhat its difficulties by turning Beaufort into a logistical base for the vessels off Wilmington and North Carolina's sounds.
The Navy Department realized early in the war that Wilmington would be difficult to blockade. Thus the department from the first months of the war planned the capture of Wilmington. Several plans were drawn up during the war but were abandoned in favor of higher priority objectives. In January, 1865, the navy captured Fort Fisher sealing Wilmington for the rest of the war.
The Squadron Commanders off Wilmington attempted to seal the port by tactical innovations. Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee implemented most of the tactical gambits that were used, and Rear Admiral David D. Porter, his successor, used Lee's framework and added some minor changes. The change in tactics over four years, however, never made the blockade entirely effective. The trade carried in and out of this port enabled the beleaguered Confederacy to provision and arm itself to a degree not realized at any other port.