Excerpt: War on the Waters, by James M. McPherson

War on the Waters, by James M. McPherson

[This post is cross-posted at UNC Press Civil War 150.]

Although previously undervalued for their strategic impact because the represented only a small percentage of total forces, the Union and Confederate navies were crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. In War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, James M. McPherson has crafted an enlightening, at times harrowing, and ultimately thrilling account of the war’s naval campaigns and their military leaders.

In this excerpt from pages 20-22, McPherson discusses the blockade on the Confederacy and how it affected the definition of the Confederacy as insurrectionist or a legitimate nation.

War on the Waters was also on Book TV last night. The episode will air again on December 9th and December 25th (get details or watch the video at the link).


Within a week of the attack on Fort Sumter, Presidents Davis and Lincoln issued proclamations that shaped significant elements of their respective naval strategies. On April 17 Davis offered letters of marque to private ships authorizing them to capture American-flagged merchant vessels. As the weaker naval power in two wars against Britain, the United States had commissioned swarms of privateers to prey on British ships and force the Royal Navy to divert its warships to commerce protection. Now the Confederacy proposed to pursue the same strategy against the United States. In a proclamation issued two days later announcing a blockade of Confederate ports, Lincoln declared that captured privateers would be tried for piracy.[1]

Lincoln’s proclamation contained an internal inconsistency. The definition of privateers as pirates was grounded in the theory that the Confederacy was not a nation but an association of insurrectionists—“rebels” in the common terminology. At the same time, however, the declaration of a blockade seemed to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy, for blockades were an instrument of war between nations. For that reason, some Northerners—most notably Secretary of the Navy Welles—urged the president simply to announce a closure of ports in the rebellious states. To enforce such closure, however, would require warships stationed off these ports, which amounted to a blockade. The British government warned the United States that it would not respect a proclamation closing certain ports to international trade. The British minister to the United States, Lord Lyons, pointed out that a declaration closing Southern ports would cause foreign powers to recognize the Confederacy as controlling these ports de jure, as they already controlled them de facto, so they could trade freely with the Confederacy.[2] Having relied on blockades in their own numerous wars, however, Britain would respect a blockade imposed under international law. Lincoln took these points seriously and decided against the closure option. In effect, by imposing a blockade, the United States treated the Confederacy as a belligerent power but not as a nation.

That compromise was not forged immediately, however, and did not resolve the question of the status of privateers. Two dozen of them soon swooped out along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. They captured at least twenty-seven prizes, mainly in the spring and summer of 1861.[3] The most notorious and successful privateer was the brig Jefferson Davis (a former slave ship), which captured eight prizes in July and August. One of them was the schooner S. J. Waring, whose cook and steward was William Tillman, a free Negro. A prize crew of five men took the S. J. Waring toward the Jefferson Davis‘s home port of Charleston. Tillman and two other crew members of the Waring remained on board. Certain that he would be sold into slavery when the Waring reached Charleston, Tillman killed the sleeping prize master and two sailors on the night of July 16-17. He released the two Yankee crewmen, and they sailed the recaptured prize back to New York, where Tillman was hailed as one of the war’s first heroes. “To this colored man was the nation indebted for the first vindication of its honor at sea,” declared the New York Tribune. “It goes far to console us for the sad reverse of our arms at Bull Run.”[4]

The Union navy recaptured other prizes and also captured the crew of the privateer Petrel in July 1861. In a letter to Lincoln on July 16, President Jefferson Davis warned that he would order the execution of a Union prisoner of war for each member of a privateer crew executed for piracy.[5] The U.S. government nevertheless proceeded to try the Petrel crew in federal court in Philadelphia. Four of them were convicted. Several captured crewmen of the Jefferson Davis were also convicted. True to his word, President Davis ordered lots drawn by Union prisoners, with the losers (including a grandson of Paul Revere) to be hanged if the privateers suffered that fate. The Lincoln administration backed down in February 1862 and thereafter treated such captives as prisoners of war.[6]

From War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson.  Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, II, 3:97; Lincoln, Collected Works of Lincoln, 4:338-39.
  2. [2]Lord Lyons to Lord Russell, May 23 and August 12, 1861, in Barnes and Barnes, American Civil War through British Eyes, 1:94, 155. See also Stuart Anderson, “Blockade versus Closing Confederate Ports.”
  3. [3]Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, I, 1:818@-19.
  4. [4]McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, 153-54; Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 32-34 (quotation on 33-34).
  5. [5]Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, II, 3:104.
  6. [6]Randall, Constitutional Problems, 92-94; Civil War Naval Chronology, 6:256, 281-82.