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The Big Union Snake

by Bennett Moss

(published in the Fall ’01 Ramparts)

When the tensions between the newly formed Confederacy and what remained of the United States turned into a shooting war with the attack on Fort Sumter, both sides then had to focus on their objectives and develop strategies that would enable them to achieve their goals.

For the South, the objective was clear. They simply wanted to be recognized as an independent, sovereign nation. To achieve this goal, they had to persuade the government in Washington to abandon its opposition to the Confederacy, and agree to a treaty that would recognize southern independence.

In the beginning, Confederate leaders were confident that a convincing demonstration of Southern unity and determination through military prowess would persuade Federal leaders of the futility of opposing the South.

The early Confederate victories on the battlefield convinced most Southerners of the superiority of their soldiers and their generals. The popular feeling in the South was that if they could obtain the weapons and supplies they needed, they would be unbeatable. All of the needed material was available from England in exchange for southern cotton.

As the war progressed, it became apparent that in spite of many Confederate victories, the huge resources of the North would prevent the total collapse of the Federal military machine. Over time, Confederate leaders began to realize that to win the war they would have to gain the support of England and other important European governments while simultaneously undermining northern popular support for continuing the war. Both of General Lee’s failed incursions into northern territory, at Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Gettysburg, were intended to produce those results. Finally, it was hoped that the terrible toll of Union casualties would cause Northern politicians to conclude that the cost of a Union victory would be unacceptably high, and would lead them to accept a peace treaty on Southern terms.

In the North, the objective was equally clear. The restoration of the Union was clearly the goal of their military efforts. The decisive Union defeat at Bull Run (Manassas) dramatically demonstrated that a Northern victory would be both difficult and costly. Southern resolve seemed unshakable, and the eleven Confederate states could field a sizable army. Obviously, a strategy was needed that would exploit Northern strengths and Confederate weakness.

The Lincoln administration recognized that Confederate military manpower resources were limited by their unwillingness to recruit from their large slave population. Throughout the War, the Confederates would have great difficulty in replacing battle losses and keeping their ranks filled. Also, the Confederacy was almost totally lacking in warships to defend her coasts and waterways or to protect her shipping.

To achieve its goals, the North would not only have to win battles, it would need to destroy Confederate armies. But until the Union army could find some commanding generals who were more competent and aggressive than the ones with which they started the war, this objective would remain illusive.

Manpower was by no means the only problem that the South had to face. Unlike the situation in the North, the South began the War with a very modest industrial base. It would not be able to manufacture all of the weapons, ammunition, uniforms and other materials of war that its military forces needed. In the beginning, they were able to confiscate or capture large quantities of supplies belonging to the Union. But for the duration of the war, the South would depend primarily on importing needed materials from foreign countries in exchange for southern cotton.

Early in the War, Winfield Scott, the 75 year old General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, formulated a plan to limit the Confederacy’s ability to import war materials. This plan had two components:

First, the Union Army and Naval forces would have to seize control of the entire Mississippi river, including the major Southern port of New Orleans. This would effectively cut off the Confederate states of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas along with all other western sources of men and supplies from the main Confederate armies in the east. This objective was finally achieved on July 4, 1863 with the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the river.

The second component of the plan was to be the naval blockade of all of the South’s Atlantic and Gulf ports and rivers. If successful, this blockade would effectively seal off all remaining outside sources of military material for the South.

This strategic plan was called the “Anaconda Plan”. The Anaconda is a huge South American snake that can grow to a length of 20 feet and a weight of close to 250 pounds. The Anaconda is a non venomous snake that captures and kills its prey by wrapping its body around the victim and squeezing it until it is suffocated. Like an Anaconda, General Scott’s plan was intended to encircle and strangle the heart of the Confederacy.

In support of the “Anaconda Plan”, President Lincoln proclaimed a naval blockade on April 19, 1861. At that time, the U.S. Navy was much too small to make the blockade effective. The Navy had to embark on a crash program to build and to purchase hundreds of additional ships. The expansion program had to focus on steamers, as sailing ships could not cope with the speedy, maneuverable Confederate blockade runners.

The down side of steamers is that they could only remain on station outside the port or river they were guarding for about one month before they had to leave to get refueled with more coal. This created the need for even more blockading ships to cover the gaps caused by ships leaving station to get refueled.

Beaufort Harbor was one of the targets of the Federal blockade during the first year of the War. This ended with the capture of Fort Macon in April 1862 by Union troops under the Command of General Ambrose Burnside. With the capture of both Fort Macon and the town of Beaufort by Federal forces, Beaufort Harbor was available to be converted into a coaling station for the Union blockading squadron covering the Carolina coast. It should be understood that when letters and reports of the Civil War period referred to “Beaufort harbor”, this also encompassed what today we would call “Morehead City harbor.”

To blockade all of the Southern ports was a daunting task for the Union Navy. With some 3,500 miles of Atlantic and Gulf coastline, and almost 200 harbors, rivers, and inlets to cover, the Northern blockade would have little effect for the first two years until more ships were available. To aggravate the Navy’s problem, most of the major Southern ports were protected by Confederate forts whose guns kept the blockading ships well off shore. Also, many of the Southern blockade runners had acquired ships that were specially designed to evade Union warships. They were faster, had a low profile, a shallower draft, burned almost smokeless anthracite coal, were painted gray, and were almost impossible to see on a dark night.

As the War progressed, and the size of the blockading squadron grew, the operation at Beaufort Harbor also grew. In the final year of the War, the flotilla blockading Wilmington alone consumed an average of 1,200 tons of coal each month. Often, Beaufort Harbor was full of ships being repaired or being refueled from collier ships stationed in the harbor. Large coal supply ships from Philadelphia also made an appearance.

It is likely that numbers of former slaves, who had taken refuge in Beaufort, were employed to supplement ship’s crews in the heavy work of transferring coal from the colliers to the blockade ships. Toward the end of the War, Confederate prisoners of war, held at Fort Macon, were also assigned to this back breaking work.

Had not Beaufort Harbor been available for this work, the blockade ships would have needed to travel to Hampton Roads, in Virginia, to refuel and make repairs. This would have kept them away from their duty stations many extra days each month, and they would have consumed much more coal in the process.

Beaufort Harbor was not the only coaling station for the blockading fleet. By early 1862, Union expeditionary forces had also captured Port Royal, South Carolina, and Pensacola, Florida. Their harbors were also utilized as Union coaling stations for the rest of the War. The most important Union achievement was the capture of New Orleans, the South’s most important port, in April, 1862. During 1862 other important Southern ports closed by Union military action included Norfolk and Portsmouth in Virginia.

Following the capture of New Orleans, the most important ports remaining in Confederate hands were Mobile, Alabama; Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and the most important of all, Wilmington, North Carolina. Following the capture of Mobile Bay by Admiral David Farragut in August, 1864, and the advance of Sherman’s army toward Savannah and Charleston, Wilmington was left as the one remaining lifeline for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The port of Wilmington is situated a number of miles up the Cape Fear river from Cape Fear itself. Of all the Confederate ports it was the most difficult to blockade and it became the favorite destination for many blockade runners. There were two widely separated inlets into the Cape Fear River which were protected by several Confederate forts, most notable being Fort Fisher. Fort Fisher’s big guns kept the blockading ships a full five miles off shore. The U.S. Navy had to keep a large flotilla of blockaders near Cape Fear, but even so there were many successful blockade runners who managed to get through the net. All of the federal blockaders at Cape Fear were supported for resupply and repairs at Beaufort Harbor.

The Union leaders in Washington were slow to recognize that Fort Fisher was the key to closing the Port of Wilmington. General Lee was certainly conscious of it. He was quoted as having said in 1864 that “if Forts Fisher and Caswell were not held, he would have to evacuate Richmond.”

When the Northern leaders finally agreed on a plan to stage an amphibious attack on Fort Fisher by a joint expedition of the Army and the Navy, it was getting toward the end of 1864. The huge fleet of troop transports and warships assembled at Beaufort Harbor before sailing to Fort Fisher. The initial bombardment, followed by the landing of troops and their attack on the fort failed. The fleet then returned to Beaufort for more ammunition before a second attempt was made.

The second effort, under the joint command of Admiral David Porter and General Alfred Terry, was completely successful. The capture of Forts Fisher and Caswell in January, 1865, sealed the port of Wilmington and the fate of the Confederacy.

Some historians have questioned the effectiveness of the Federal blockade in cutting off the movement of vital supplies to the Confederacy. They cite data showing that for every blockade runner intercepted, three others slipped through undetected in the dark of night. However, there is no question that there were acute shortages of almost every kind plaguing the Confederate forces in the field. Was this due to the blockade, or was this the result of an inefficient transportation and distribution system? Or was it due to the other part of the “Anaconda Plan,” the Union control of the Mississippi river?

But even if the blockade was less than 100 percent successful, there is little question that the blockade added greatly to the pressures on the strained Confederate supply system.

Loading coal is not the exciting stuff that grabs headlines away from battles where men are fighting and dying, but the “Anaconda Plan” was one of the principal Union strategies for winning the War, and Fort Macon and Beaufort Harbor played important roles in its implementation.

The author, Bennett Moss, is the editor of the Fort Macon Ramparts.