Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Review - "Campaign for the Confederate Coast: Blockading, Blockade Running and Related Endeavors During the American Civil War" by Gil Hahn

[Campaign for the Confederate Coast: Blockading, Blockade Running and Related Endeavors During the American Civil War by Gil Hahn (West 88th Street Press, 2021). Softcover, tables, notes. Pages main/total:255/313. ISBN:978-1-7349537-0-1. $21.95]

The fact that reasonably swift steamships stood an excellent chance of successfully running the US Navy's blockade of southern ports throughout the Civil War has led many critics to question its role in Union victory and the wisdom of the massive expenditures in men and resources devoted to it. However, others have more persuasively argued that the blockade imposed more than enough hardships upon an already overmatched Confederacy to have a major impact on its defeat. In full agreement with the latter view as well as providing a very broad survey of the blockade and coastal war from US, Confederate, and neutral European perspectives is Gil Hahn's Campaign for the Confederate Coast: Blockading, Blockade Running and Related Endeavors During the American Civil War.

Written in popular fashion, the book offers a rather unusually comprehensive summary of related topics and events that should appeal to a wide range of readers. Avid students of Civil War naval affairs will benefit from the collective reinforcement of their prior reading through Hahn's able synthesis, and those new to the subject matter are exposed to an introductory history with remarkable range. Discussed in the volume are issues of overall strategy; the evolution of the ships, tactics, and technologies employed by each side to either facilitate or hinder blockade running; blockade logistics; and port defenses (in the context of how they aided blockade running).

As is appropriate, the international dimensions of the blockade and blockade running are also addressed at some length. The key roles assumed by European (primarily British) ships, crews, ship builders, and port facilities in trade with the seceded states are well outlined. Hahn does a fine job of summarizing the legal rights of neutrals under mid-nineteenth century international law when it came to overseas trade in times of war. He explains the many ways in which the primary stakeholders—the US, the Confederacy, and Europe (primarily Britain and France)—all jealously guarded their respective belligerent or neutral rights in the present while also attempting to manipulate those same laws in ways that might establish favorable precedents for possible future conflicts.

What proved to be by far the most effective means of blockade enforcement was the capture of ports, and a large section of the book is comprised of a solid chronological history (in four-month intervals) of combined military operations along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Aided by a helpful tabulation of blockade running attempts, successes, and losses at each major port over those intervals, readers can clearly see in detail how port seizures (along with temporary or permanent closures) affected the scale and overall distribution of blockade running traffic. For example, tables confirm that Charleston was by far the most important blockade running port over the first half of the war. While the concentrated effort made to capture the city outright in 1863 failed, the attacks did succeed in forcing trade north to Wilmington  (though runners did return to Charleston in increasing numbers once Union authorities transferred army and navy resources en masse to other fronts).

Some expected features are missing from the book. While the author very effectively employs a great number of data tables to supplement the text and convey important information, there are no maps. The notes indicate a solid reliance on primary sources, but there is no bibliography and the numberless endnote system employed is rather reader unfriendly when it comes to tracing citations. The volume also lacks an index.

Critics of the Union blockade who cite mere success rate numbers to point out its intractable porousness often tend to inadequately appreciate what the blockade did do through its mere existence. The announcement of the blockade in 1861 caused ordinary trade to cease and commerce at southern ports immediately plunged, never to come anywhere close to regaining prewar levels. As Hahn and many other writers before him have argued, offering the Confederacy, through the lack of a serious blockade, substantially greater freedom to exchange cotton for war materials of all kinds would clearly have narrowed a wide resource gap that, as it stood historically, already took four long years of bitter warfare to exploit for total victory.

Proponents of the "never for want of arms" argument tend to diminish the very real deficiencies Confederate armies as a whole possessed in weapons technology and in the quality and quantity of fixed ammunition, and the problem steadily worsened the further west one looked. Even in the highly prioritized eastern theater, it was the war's midpoint before the Army of Northern Virginia—through captures, production, and importation—could fully modernize its shoulder arms and artillery (and the western and Trans-Mississippi armies never did reach that level). The lack of a strong blockade would clearly have both widened and sped up that process.

Hahn puts it well in saying that "(b)lockading prevented an adequate supply from becoming ample," (pg. 255), and one can reasonable argue that that difference might have tipped the scales. Among other things, Hahn might also have mentioned the blockade's effect on home front morale, where shortages of both luxuries and necessities were felt almost immediately and only worsened as the war progressed. Though the South benefited from high cotton prices, that in no way compensated for the domestic pricing inflation that the blockade materially contributed to and the demoralizing black market economy that made even common items, when available in limited amounts, unaffordable to most civilians. Depending on the degree to which one believes the war's outcome to have been a near-run thing, the book's logical conclusion that "(a) better supplied Confederacy would have been stronger and more resilient, and changed conditions might have changed the course of history" is difficult to refute.

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