Blockade runners of the American Civil War

Seagoing steam ships

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Civil War blockade-runner

The blockade runners of the American Civil War were seagoing steam ships that were used to get through the Union blockade that extended some 3,500 miles (5,600:km) along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines and the lower Mississippi River. The Confederate states were largely without industrial capability and could not provide the quantity of arms and other supplies needed to fight against the industrial north. Blockade runners built in Scotland and England met this need and imported the guns, ordnance and other supplies that the Confederacy desperately needed, in exchange for cotton that the British textile industry likewise was in desperate need of. To get through the blockade, these relatively lightweight shallow draft ships, mostly built in British ship yards and specially designed for speed but incapable of carrying much cotton, had to cruise undetected, usually at night, through the Union blockade. The typical blockade runners were privately owned vessels often operating with a letter of marque issued by the Confederate States of America. If spotted, the blockade runners would attempt to outmaneuver or simply outrun any Union ships on blockade patrol, very often successfully.

These vessels also carried cargoes to and from neutral ports, often located in Nassau and Cuba. Neutral merchant ships in turn carried these cargoes, usually coming from or destined to Great Britain or other points abroad. Outbound ships chiefly 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. Inbound ships usually brought badly needed supplies and mail to the Confederacy, and most of the guns and other ordnance of the Confederacy were imported from Britain via blockade runners. Some blockade runners made many successful runs, while many others were either captured or destroyed. Historians estimate that an estimated 2,500–2,800 attempts were made to run the blockade, with at least an 80% success rate. 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. But more importantly, it had reduced the South’s exports of cotton by 95% from pre-war levels, devaluing its currency and wrecking its economy.

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