Friday, June 11, 2010


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VI. Civil War Era Water Transportation

Canal mileage in the US:

3,700 miles, mostly in the northeastern states
North: 3,182 (86%)
South: 518 (14%)

North: $222,199,477
South: $27,145,466 (returns from AR, TN, and MS incomplete)

North: $320,996,024
South: $14,654,129 (of that, $11,960,869 passed through New Orleans, revenue lost to the South during most of the war)

American vessels leaving US ports:
North: 10,260
South: 819

Foreign vessels leaving US ports:
North: 10,336
South: 220

Total tonnage, imports & exports:
North: 13,654,925
South: 737,901

Canals and steamboats were important modes of transport of persons and goods prior to 1850, but the explosive growth of railroads in the 1850s (from 9,000 miles of track to 30,000 miles in ten years) greatly lessened the importance of both those modes of transport. Rail transport was somewhat more expensive than those modes of transport, but was also both faster and more reliable than canal or river transport.

During 1865, the Quartermaster General of the Union Army owned or chartered 719 transport vessels for use on oceans or the Great Lakes. The Inland Transportation Division owned or chartered 352 barges, 91 steamers, and 139 boats for use on inland rivers. Enforcing the blockade of Southern ports required 600 naval vessels and 70,000 naval personnel.

Blockade Running During the Civil War

Was blockade running profitable? Yes! How successful were blockade runners? Five out of six successfully evaded the blockade. Does this mean that the blockade was not effective? No-- bales of cotton exported from Southern states were reduced from 10,000,000 total in the three years preceding the Civil War to 500,000 total from April 1861 to April 1865.

Blockade runners usually carried cotton on the outward voyage, exchanging it in Nassau, Bermuda, or Havana for weapons, goods, medicines, and foodstuffs, which were then sold on return to a Confederate port. Blockade running ships were usually painted dark gray or black, to help them blend into their surroundings at night and on overcast days.

The steamer Bermuda in late 1861 made a run from Savannah, Georgia, to Liverpool, England. It carried back 22 cannon of various bores with ammunition, 6,500 Enfield rifles, 200,000 Enfield cartridges, 6,000 pairs of army boots, 20,000 army blankets, 180 barrels of gunpowder, and large quantities of morphine, quinine, and other medicines. The cargo was purchased by the Confederate government for $1,000,000.

A blockade runner taking a steamer to England with 800 bales of cotton in 1864 could exchange the cotton for militarily useful items, sell those items back in the Confederacy, and earn $400,000 or more for his trouble. It was said that a runner who made two successful trips could pay for his steamer, material costs, and crew expenses, and still have enough left over to live a comfortable life for many years thereafter.

A blockade runner in 1864 bought $6,000 worth of foodstuffs in Nassau and then sold them to the Confederate Commissariat in Richmond for $27,000- a 450% return on investment.

A bag of salt selling for $1.25 in the North by mid-1864 could be sold for $60 in the South, a 5,000% return on investment.

[Sources of statistics and bibliography included in last installment of this article.]

Thomas A. Pearson, Reference Librarian
Special Collections Department
St. Louis Public Library

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