Museum lecture to assess the effectiveness of the Civil War naval blockade

Michael Brem Bonner

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Union blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War was a huge enterprise. To carry it out, the U.S. Navy grew to 500 ships and 100,000 men.

But it wasn’t as effective at stopping smugglers as many have assumed.


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That’s the conclusion reached by historian Michael Brem Bonner, who is co-writing a new book on the subject. On March 8 at noon at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia, he will present a free lecture on the subject as part of the museum’s Lunch and Learn series.

Bonner and Peter McCord, who teaches history at the State University of New York in Fredonia, co-authored a journal article on the subject in 2011, and are now expanding their work into a book to be published by the University of Tennessee Press. Most historians to date had looked at the blockade from an American perspective. In 2014, the authors went to England for research. Bonner focused on diplomatic aspects of the trans-Atlantic trade, while McCord pored through Admiralty records on blockade runners.

They found that only about one in six smugglers got caught. The Union Navy was particularly ineffective at catching “state-of-the-art” blockade runners – which is to say, those that (like most of the Navy vessels) were steam-powered.

For the Confederacy, the blockade runners were an essential economic lifeline. For the smugglers themselves, it was a very lucrative business. One trip – bringing weapons and other manufactured goods to the Southern states and going back to England laden with cotton – could set the ship’s owners up for life.

Not that the Union effort to block the trade was completely ineffective. The blockade runners had to minimize cargo space for speed, so the blockade restricted incoming goods enough to worsen Confederate inflation. But “was it effective at catching state-of-the-art vessels? Not really,” says Bonner.

Also, “the increased effectiveness over time was not as great as generally thought,” he explains. In the end, the key to stopping the trade was capturing Southern ports. That was accomplished in early 1865, and that basically put an end to the trade. Also, by that time, Great Britain saw that the Union was going to win the war, and became less tolerant of the trade on their end.

Before that, the cheap and plentiful Southern cotton being so important to the British textile industry, London had looked the other way as English captains and crews – who had legal immunity American smugglers lacked – ran the blockade.

Professor Bonner, who resides with his family in Barboursville, W.Va., was an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Lancaster until 2017. He served as president of the South Carolina Historical Association the year before that. He specializes in 19th century U.S. economic history, with a particular interest in the Civil War and Reconstruction era. He has published two books.

The lecture is free and open to the public.

About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum

Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.


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