Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Review - "The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment" by Bonner & McCord

[The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment by Michael Brem Bonner & Peter McCord (University of Tennessee Press, 2021). Hardcover, tables, appendix section, notes, list of works cited, index. Pages main/total:viii,170/225. ISBN:978-1-62190-670-4. $45]

The literature of the 1861-65 Union blockade of the southern coastline is rich and continues to expand. As just one example of its ever-evolving nature, scholarly examination of the international dimensions of the American Civil War is in high fashion at the moment, and the trend has produced numerous new works on blockade-related diplomacy as well as more in-depth looks at Britain's participation in all aspects of blockade running. The blockade remains a fairly contentious topic, with well-regarded historians lined up on both sides of the debate regarding the its effectiveness and whether it was a decisive factor in Union victory and Confederate defeat. Reexamining those questions, particularly the former, is Michael Bonner and Peter McCord's fascinating new study The Union Blockade in the American Civil War: A Reassessment.

Using the existing published literature as the foundation for their research, Bonner and McCord craft a synthesis history of the blockade and blockade running that is concise yet remarkably thorough for a narrative less than 200 pages in length. Through examining policy and practices as well as the outcomes of particular inciting events (ex. the prewar Vixen and wartime Petrel and Labuan affairs), the authors do a fine job of explaining how all three parties—the belligerent United States and Confederate governments and neutral Great Britain—attempted to manipulate any and all gray areas of international law regarding blockades and neutral shipping rights (as then recently defined in the Declaration of Paris) to their own benefit while at the same time assiduously seeking to avoid creating harmful precedent for present and future conflicts. In striving to escape war with the US while still keeping access to southern cotton (the latter by respecting the blockade but looking the other way when it came to officially endorsing blockade running), the professionalism of the British Empire's diplomatic corps is credited most by Bonner and McCord for avoiding more serious conflict and in best upholding established maritime law. Also discussed are Union blockade strategy and tactics (including how geographical challenges were confronted) along with the evolving naval ship numbers and composition of blockading squadrons. On the Confederate side of the equation, blockade running tactics, new ship designs, cargoes, and technologies are addressed, as are relevant failures in diplomacy and economic policy (ex. King Cotton diplomacy and the early-war embargo). Another chapter offers insights into how Confederate high-seas commerce raiders affected the blockade.

In terms of freshest material, the book shines brightest in its latter third, where all of the arguments regarding blockade effectiveness are reexamined. More than most, Bonner and McCord convey a broad appreciation of the psychological effects of the blockade. The authors argue that the blockade imposed a progressively demoralizing impression of impending doom on the Confederate home front as well as an unavoidably high-profile and dispiriting window into superior Union military might. They base this on a selection of well-known Confederate diaries (with the assumption that letters would offer the same sentiments), but it would be interesting to also consider geography and class as additional factors (the latter from groups less accustomed to imported luxuries). On the Union side, the blockade declaration provided a needed morale boost in the North when news on the war front was less encouraging in 1861.

One of the chief problems in assessing blockade effectiveness, and a large reason why it remains a topic of eternal scholarly debate, lies in the difficulty in establishing a common definition and its parameters. In each discussion, Bonner and McCord weigh competing scholarly arguments and then offer their own assessment. As a corollary to the psychological impact of the blockade, the 'deterrent effect' argument for the blockade's effectiveness is one that does not greatly impress the authors of this study. While acknowledging in passing that the blockade led to an almost immediate cessation of ordinary international and intersectional bulk-shipping trade as well as suppression of sail-powered intercoastal trade, Bonner and McCord find no evidence that blockade had a deterrent effect on those seeking the opportunity to challenge it. However, limiting the research sample to the high risk/high reward players doesn't strike one as a representative enough data pool from which to draw general conclusions regarding the overall deterrence effect. Though conceding the fact that deciding not to engage in an enterprise will always be far less documented than actually doing so, the authors nevertheless cite a year on year increase in the number of steamships that ran the blockade 1861-64 before coming to the conclusion that the "blockade-as-a-deterrent" model will always remain "speculative" (pg. 139). While informative in its way, this section's analysis is arguably the book's least convincing.

In the context of the accepted view that Confederate home industry was inadequate to sustain a modern war machine, the axiom that Confederate armies never lost a battle due to lack of arms and ammunition is commonly cited as a reason to suggest the blockade was ineffective. The authors agree with that general assertion, though one might argue that it is too simplistic and due for a modern reassessment of its own.

On the other hand, proponents of an effective blockade claim that the Union's Navy's efforts in that regard rank highest among those factors that resulted in the wrecking of the southern economy, many sectors of which were import-dependent before the war. The authors of this study certainly agree that the blockade had a contributory effect in creating consumer and industrial goods scarcities that exacerbated pricing inflation, but, like some others, they see domestic actions (chief among them disastrous Confederate fiscal and monetary policies) and other limitations as more significant.

Where the authors of this study make their own greatest contribution to the blockade discussion is in their statistical analysis of effectiveness through quantitative investigation of blockade running attempts, successes, and captures. Employing two authoritative data sets compiled by historians Marcus Price and Stephen Wise, Bonner and McCord gauge blockade interdiction effectiveness over time through twelve three-month "phases" from October 1861 through October 1864 (with the periods before and after deemed outliers). The results are striking in that they directly contradict decades of commonly accepted assumptions that the blockade's efficiency increased over time. This book's analysis demonstrates that blockade efficiency steadily decreased (as a function of number of steamers captured or destroyed divided by total blockade running attempts) from a July 1862 peak of nearly 68% to a wartime nadir of less than 13% for late-1864's phase twelve. Why the blockade was at its least efficient when it was at its peak in terms of numbers and types of ships employed and experience levels of admirals, captains, and crews (and those after most major ports or outlets were captured) is not a topic of extensive conjecture in the book, with the authors simply citing the technological advances in blockade runner design and technology possibly outweighing those other factors. In viewing the blockade as a campaign in its own right, the war's longest and most continuous, the authors also perceptively note the stark contrast in attrition between Confederate army and Confederate blockade-running resources. While the Confederate Army was being progressively ground down from 1862-64, the blockade running part of the war effort was always able to both replace its prodigious losses and augment its fleet with significant year on year increases in blockade-runner total tonnage, with an 1864 peak. Lest one overstate their conclusions, it should also be noted that the authors make clear that their novel observation "does not negate the blockade's overall effectiveness" (pg. 162) or its status as a major contributor to Union victory.

As the authors maintain, all of the above demonstrates how difficult it is to arrive at general statements without some contradiction regarding the effectiveness of the Union blockade of southern ports during the Civil War. That the blockade could be both an important contributor to Union victory (and thus presumed to be effective) but also startlingly ineffective when it came to catching steam-powered blockade runners exemplifies one of the central themes of the book, the argument that gauging effectiveness often depends on how general or specific the question under consideration. The examples cited above along with others unmentioned here lead one to arrive at a more nuanced appreciation of the blockade as both effective and ineffective. Because this debate will always be open to multiple lines of interpretation, it will undoubtedly remain a subject of sustained scholarly publishing, and this new offering from Michael Bonner and Peter McCord is a notable addition that effectively synthesizes, questions, and augments our current understanding.


  1. I was wondering how this book compares to the one on the blockade by Gil Hahn you reviewed in the summer. Do they touch on many of the same subjects or are they two ships passing in the night? Thanks, Tom Jones

    1. Hi Tom,
      Hahn's book is intended for a more general audience readership, while this one is a more scholarly work. There is a lot of descriptive overlap re: blockade diplomacy, legal frameworks, ship technology, strategies and tactics employed by both sides, etc. Hahn goes into much more detail on coastal operations conducted in support of blockade enforcement. Bonner and McCord directly engage with and challenge the work of other scholars of blockade history, and their book is more analytical in reexamining key questions in the scholarly debate such as the blockade's efficiency/effectiveness, the psychological impact of the blockade, the deterrent effect of the blockade, and the role played by the blockade in hyperinflation and other aspects of the southern economy's wartime collapse.



If you wish to comment, please sign your name. Otherwise, your submission may be rejected, at the moderator's discretion. Comments containing outside promotions and/or links will be deleted.