Question of the Week: 11/14-11/20/16

Question-HeaderWas the Union blockage of the South legal?

Was it effective in the tactical objective of stopping commerce? Did it achieve the strategic goal of significantly reducing Confederate resources, morale, and military capability, and thereby facilitating victory?


17 Responses to Question of the Week: 11/14-11/20/16

  1. The Union blockade was a vital element of the suppression of the rebellion, which accomplished its goals. CSA sympathizers fantasize about the ships that got out, but terrible inflation was rife in the CSA. A unconscionable portion of what did get in was crinoline & lace flapdoodle. Prices for necessaries skyrocketed, while Cotton Bonds tanked. Later, no southern port remained open to the sea, which also had railroad access to the interior. The blockade functioned in concert with the pioneering combined arms campaign on the western waterways. Grant and the brown-water Navy choked the rebellion from the inside, in concert with the oft-maligned blockade from the outside,

  2. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s misguided opinion aside, the blockade was legal. Lincoln’s mission during the war was to save the Union. The Constitution gives presidents wide-ranging powers in times of war.

    Taney, a Southern sympathizer, disagreed. He should have done the honorable thing – like most Southern congressmen did. He should have quit his job on the Supreme Court and moved to the South at the beginning of the war. Instead, Taney remained in the North and repeatedly attempted to undermine Lincoln’s war efforts.

    Re. Was the blockade successful? The sea blockade was mostly a success. Southern cotton exports and imports of war and civilian goods were sharply reduced during the war, especially in the latter years. But these efforts were undercut by a thriving domestic trade between Northern and Southern businessmen. Grant and Sherman repeatedly lambasted this trade. Unfortunately, Grant wrongly blamed Jews. He was correctly criticized for his statements, and quickly apologized.

  3. Odd as it may seem, a lawyer is compelled to agree, on purely technical grounds, with the Dred Scott decision. It is grossly unjust; an abomination then as now, but, honestly, the Constitution was a flawed instrument reflecting a flawed nation. America and Americans defined black people as similar to cattle, and Lincoln knew it. He had no right to simply abolish the institution. Fortunately, he was bound to suppress the rebellion, and learned the art of modern war quickly and well.

    1. Ronald:
      I thought we were talking about the blockade, which Taney ruled was illegal. (Thank goodness a majority of the court disagreed with his minority opinion.) Taney’s horrid Dred Scott decision – which was roundly criticized by many esteemed lawyers at the time – came years before.

    2. You ought to clarify what you mean by the “decision”, given the divergence of viewpoint among the majority/concurrence, as well ass the two dissents.

  4. Confederate commerce raiders like CSS Alabama, and only about twenty in number devistated the Union merchant fleet, not only by the sinking of prize ships, but much more, the reduction of the fleet from over 5000 vessels ( 1860) to less than 2500 by the wars end. The reason was the massive sale of U.S. merchantmen to foreign flags, especially Great Britain. Why? Extremely nervous American ship owners. The Union never really sealed off the south….such imports as British Enfield Rifles and Whitworth guns along with medicines can hardly be considered superficial flummery!

    1. Steve:
      If the blockade was so ineffective, why were the South’s exports and imports cut so dramatically – I believe by more by more than half – during the war? And as Ronald noted in his first post, why did prices for consumer goods and food stuffs skyrocket in the Confederacy, if the blockade was ineffective. In contrast, the North’s imports and exports increased sharply during the war.

      1. To gauge the effectiveness of the blockade. Look at a chart of the value of C.S.A. cotton bonds. Then check out a chart of inflation in the rebel regions. Britain committed acts of war against the United States on an ongoing basis during the war, but Pres. Lincoln resisted temptation, and kept his eyes on the prize. So did Gen. R.E. Lee’s Army of No. Va., which was deserting the ship at about 10% per night when Lee surrendered it.

  5. Bob:
    I never said the blockade was ineffective, I merely took the position that the Confederacy, as the weaker naval power, did more than a credible job with her commerce raiders than usually given credit for……obviously imports or exports in the hulls of newly purchased ( from Union owners ) under neutral flags is going to continue unimpeded….my point is that the loss of Union merchant shipping, surrendered seagoing mercantile domination to Great Britain for decades after the war.Confederate blockade runners were active, albeit in diminishing numbers, until the very end of the war…..the Anaconda Plan was most effective in riverine blockade!

  6. The war itself was illegal. Any State had the right to leave the union as our Founding fathers established in their writings and the Constitution itself. Lincolns predecessor, Buchanan, stated that the Federal Government does not have the constitutional right to wage war on any state. Had Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had any idea that the northern states would invade their beloved Virginia, kill her citizens, burn her industry and towns to the ground, they themselves would have established their own Southern Nation. The reason no one was charged with treason is that they were afraid the Supreme Court would have ruled it an illegal action by the Federal Government. The victor always writes history whether its right or wrong.

    1. There’s absolutely no documentation to back up the claim that Washington, Madison, Monroe, etc., “established in their writings and the Constitution itself.” Jefferson wasn’t even there, in fact, and Monroe didn’t join in the discussion until the Virginia ratifying convention. Madison kept extensive notes on the Constitutional convention and a career’s worth of correspondence, and Jefferson, too, wrote extensively about the early republic, and both men were notoriously meticulous record keepers. Yet neither man said a thing about a state’s right to secede.

      This isn’t a question of the victor writing history but an argument that’s been forwarded for 150 years by the losing side to try and justify their position–even though there’s nothing in writing by any Founder to back it up.

      1. Ditto to Chris, with one additional point.

        As I recall, Washington, Monroe and Madison favored a much stronger central government than the one provided by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation provided for a weak central government and strong states’ rights. But the Articles just didn’t work, ergo the adoption of the Constitution.

        As president, Washington personally led troops to put down the first insurrection faced by the federal government – the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. There is no reason to believe Washington would have felt any differently about the South’s rebellion decades later.

  7. The effectiveness of the Union strangle hold on Southern commerce is exemplified by a single product, quinine. Also known as Jesuit’s bark or just bark, it was the only substance available that would suppress the symptoms of the malaria endemic in the South. The Federal Government bought up every ounce of quinine on the market. Desperate schemes were concocted by Confederate agents to secure a source of the desperately needed drug… all to no avail. Mrs Chestnut & a host of Southern women record guarding their last bits of bark; declaring it more more precious than gold. At Vicksburg & in camps all over South, regiments reported 80% of their strength unfit for duty for want of quinine. Their Northern peers, however, received ample supplies of the finest quality. This disparity in availability of the sole drug capable of suppressing the high fever & racking pain of malaria exemplifies the death by a thousand cuts inflicted on the Confederacy by the Federal’s blockade & trade restrictions.

  8. As I understand things, there is really no question that the blockade was legal, the issue was *when* its legality began. IIRC, Taney and the minority in the Prize Cases held that the legality began after Congress approved it during the summer session; the majority held that it was legal from the moment of Lincoln’s proclamation.

    1. James:

      I get the impression you are sort of brushing aside the importance of the Prize Cases.

      Actually, the Lincoln administration believed them to be extremely important. The administration won the cases in a 5-4 decision only because Lincoln was able to fill three vacancies on the high court between the time the cases were filed in district courts and the time the Supreme Court handed down its decision in March 1863.

      In his excellent book Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, author/attorney James F. Simon goes into detail about Justice Samuel Nelson’s dissenting opinion, in which Taney concurred. Nelson argued that the Civil War was a “personal war” between the Lincoln administration and the Confederacy for its first three months, until Congress convened in July 1861 and approved a number of war-related acts. (By the way, Nelson believed the South had a constitutional right to secede.)

      While “congressional legislation in July 1861 provided constitutional cover for the Union’s blockade” Lincoln’s imposition of the blockade three months earlier in was illegal, Nelson opined.

      If Nelson and Taney had prevailed, the Supreme Court would have been saying, in essence, that “the Lincoln administration was guilty of reckless and illegal actions,” Simon writes. “And the president himself would have been presented to the world as a grand scofflaw who had flouted both the Constitution and international law. The Taney court . . . would then have produced a judicial calamity from which the Union might not have recovered.”

      Another thing to remember: At the time of the court’s Prize Cases decision, Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg were still almost four months away. The South still believed it had a real chance for formal recognition by England, France and Spain. An adverse decision by the Supreme Court involving international shipping could have greatly aided the South’s case for European recognition.

      As I wrote earlier, Taney – and for that matter Nelson – should have done the honorable thing, i.e. left the North and joined the Confederacy like most Southern congressmen did.

  9. I have little to add to this excellent discussion, except for one point: it wasn’t just the blockade that strangled the CSA, it was the systematic capture of port cities by Union forces. In addition to choking off access to the sea, the presence of US forces along the coast forced diversion of scarce Southern troops to watch/counteract their presence.

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