Blockade runners of the American Civil War

The Advance
Civil War blockade-runner

The blockade runners of the American Civil War were seagoing steam ships that were used to make their way through the Union blockade that extended some 3,500 miles along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines and the lower Mississippi River. To get through the blockade these ships had to cruise by undetected, usually at night. If spotted the runners would then attempt to outmaneuver or simply outrun any Union ships on blockade patrol. The typical blockade runners were privately owned vessels often operating with a letter of marque issued by the Confederate States of America (Confederate States) or (Confederacy). These vessels would carry cargoes to and from neutral ports often located in Nassau and Cuba where neutral merchant ships in turn carried these cargoes, usually coming from or destined to England or other points abroad. Inbound ships usually brought badly needed supplies and mail to the Confederacy while outbound ships often exported cotton, tobacco and other goods for trade and revenue while also carrying important mail and correspondence to suppliers and other interested parties in Europe, most often in England. Most of the guns and other ordinance of the Confederacy was imported from England via blockade runners. Some blockade runners made many successful runs while many others were either captured or destroyed. There were an estimated 2500-2800 attempts to run the blockade with at least an 80% success rate. However, by the end of the Civil War the Union Navy had captured more than 1,100 blockade runners and had destroyed or run aground another 355 vessels.[1][2]


  • Background 1
  • Union blockade 2
  • Supplying the Confederacy 3
    • Central figures 3.1
      • Josiah C. Gorgas 3.1.1
      • Caleb Huse 3.1.2
      • James Dunwoody Bulloch 3.1.3
      • John Newland Maffitt 3.1.4
  • Blockade runners 4
    • The first blockade-runners 4.1
  • Notable blockade runners 5
  • See also 6
  • Bibliography 7
    • Primary sources 7.1
    • Further reading 7.2
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


When the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, the newly formed Confederate States of America had no ships to speak of in its navy. In the months leading up to the war the Confederate government was well aware of the naval supremacy of the north and sought the help of Great Britain, which had great interests in the plantations of the South.[3] The British became the primary ship builders and sources of supply for the Confederate government for the duration of the civil war. Several courses of action soon developed.

In 1861 the Southern fleet only consisted of about 35 ships, of which 21 were steam driven.[4] The Confederacy was also in dire need of many basic supplies and without the resources of the industrial north it had to look to other venues for its supplies. Coming to their aid, an experienced and former U.S. naval captain, Raphael Semmes[1], devised a plan by which to thwart the naval supremacy of the North. He proposed a militia of privateers which would both strike at the North's merchant ships and provide supplies to the south by out running or evading the ships of the Union blockade. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved of the plan.

On April 15 President Lincoln issued his first proclamation, calling out 75,000 troops in response to the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter On April 17 Davis issued a proclamation, offering a letter of marque to anyone who would offer their ship in the service of the Confederacy.[6][7][8] To this end British investors were the most prolific in offering such aid. The North refused to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy along with its right to issue letters of marque and in little time on April 19, Lincoln issued a second proclamation, threatening the Confederacy with a blockade along its coastlines.[9][10] i.e.Scott's Anaconda plan extended along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coastlines and up into the lower Mississippi River.[11][12] Lincoln's proclamation also contained a threat that any actions against the Union by crews of ships acting under a Confederate letter of marque would be treated as pirates and subject to prosecution for such crimes, which usually called for the death penalty. In response Davis countered with threats of retaliation while the British also proclaimed its refusal to concur with Lincoln's proclamation in nearby Nassau and its territorial waters.[13][14][15]

Blockade-run mail to New Orleans via Nassau, stamped incoming ship 10-cents postage due

Lincoln's proposed blockade was met with mixed criticism among some of his contemporaries. Thaddeus Stevens angrily referred to it as a great blunder and a absurdity arguing that we were blockading ourselves and in the process would be recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent of war.[16]

Soon after Lincoln announced the blockade, the profitable business of running supplies through the blockade to the Confederacy began.[17] At first the actual blockade was slow to materialize as the task of patrolling thousands of miles of coastline was enormous —- the blockade considered by some to be little more than a 'paper blockade'. Wilmington wasn't blockaded until July 14, 1861, three months after Lincoln's proclamation.[18]

An enormous naval industry evolved which brought great profits for