Making the Naval Blockade of the Confederacy a Reality; Military Occupation Leads to Defacto Emancipation
April 18, 1862. In June 1861, four men — the head of the U.S. Coastal Survey, a senior naval officer, a coastal expert and scientist, and an army engineer and coastal fortifications specialist — gathered in a quiet office in the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC, to begin a series of secret meetings that were to last throughout the summer. They became known as the Blockade Board. (1)
Pouring over sheaths of hydrographical and topographical maps and charts of the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, the Board developed plans for a naval blockade of Southern harbors and sea commerce. It also recommended a series of amphibious landings in North Carolina and South Carolina to establish key operational bases and military fronts deep in Rebel territory.
Historian Kevin J. Weddle has observed that ironically, “the Union army, with a well-developed bureaucracy, a body of strategic writing and theory, and a general-in-chief, was unable to formulate a coherent military strategy until the war was almost three years old. On the other hand, the U.S. Navy, with none of the army’s advantages, developed a superb strategic concept in less than three months that lasted, with few changes, until the end of the war.” (2)
By August 1861 the Board had focused its attention on the Gulf Coast and specifically on a small barrier island of sand and scrub pines located a dozen miles off the coast of Mississippi. It was just seven miles long and an eighth of a mile wide, but Ship Island was within easy striking distance of the mouth of the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay, and it offered a deep-water naval anchorage. It would make an ideal base for the blockade and, if possible, the seizure of New Orleans. New Orleans was both the South’s largest commercial port and the gateway to the lower Mississippi Valley, which was critical to Winfield Scott‘s so-called “Anaconda Plan” to encircle and strangle the Confederacy.
Six months later, on April 18, 1862, soldiers in the 7th and 8th Vermont Regiments were bivouacking on the sands of Ship Island. They were part of the joint army/navy invasion force assembled there to seize New Orleans. In less than a month’s time the Vermonters, many of whom had surely not set foot out of their home county, had been transported from their snow covered Brattleboro encampment to the desolate, wind-swept island. That evening they heard the distant rumble of naval gunfire as Admiral David Farragut‘s fleet began bombarding the forts protecting the approach to New Orleans. (3)
As the war entered its second year the Lincoln Administration was on the horns of a great dilemma. On one hand, as it cautiously floated various schemes for the gradual emancipation of slaves, it sought to reassure Northern Democrats and Border States that its principal war objective remained the restoration of the Union. On the other hand, as the war dragged on, it was becoming increasingly clear, particularly in Congress, that anything that weakened slavery in the South would diminish the Confederacy’s capacity to fight. Furthermore, as Union forces, carried out the Blockade Board’s plans and began occupying parts of South Carolina and Louisiana, several senior military officers recognized the overwhelming logic of taking the next crucial step of bringing freed slaves into the ranks of the Federal army to help deliver a mortal blow to the Confederacy.
On Ship Island, one of those officers, Brig. General John Wolcott Phelps, a West Pointer and the highest ranking Vermont born field commander, wasted no time in announcing publicly how he intended to conduct the war once his troops were ashore in Louisiana. Phelps and others were prepared to do all they could to undermine slavery. They were also preparing, without prior consultation or permission of the War Department, to organize former slaves into all-black military units under their command. (4)
By the end of April, New Orleans was captured, and federal forces began moving up the Mississippi River. As word of the Union advance spread, thousands of slaves seized the moment to emancipate themselves. Under the cover of darkness, they made for Union lines. Vermonters under General Phelps’s command would soon find themselves right in the middle of this exodus — and right in the middle of an impending collision between, on the one hand, an administration in Washington that was not ready to make a decision on either emancipation or raising African-American troops, and, on the other hand, the reality that confronted the Union army on the ground a thousand miles from Washington.
There is no evidence that the Blockade Board ever discussed the far-reaching consequences that military occupation might have on slavery. As it turned out, wherever Union forces encountered large enslaved populations, whether on the sea cotton plantations of South Carolina or on the sugar plantations of Louisiana, the bonds of slavery quickly broke. Whether planned or not, prosecution of the war in the Deep South became quickly and inextricably bound up with the ultimate collapse of slavery. The Blockade Board’s contribution to this outcome was to be a significant, if unintended, part of its legacy.
– Submitted by Rolf Diamant
1. Weddle, Kevin J.,“The Blockade Board of 1861 and Union Naval Strategy,” Civil War History, 48.2 (2002), p. 123-142
3. Benedict, George Grenville, Vermont in the Civil War, Burlington, Vermont: Free Press Association, 1888, p. 86.
4. “Life and Public Service of General John Wolcott Phelps,” A Sketch Read Before the New England Historic Genealogical Society, C.H.C. Howard, 1886, p. 19.