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Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861—1865

The Civil War coincided with an era in naval technology that was revolutionizing sea warfare.” Could the Confederate government build a fleet of “ironclad blockade breakers” in the shipyards of neutral Great Britain? By Frank J. Merli and Thomas W. Green.

If there was one single factor during the American Civil War that promised to assure Southern independence, short of outright European intervention, it was that the British Government might permit the Confederate States to construct warships in British yards and get them to sea, where they would prey on Northern commerce, break the blockade of the South, and turn the entire course of the war.

Soon after Lincoln had announced plans “to set on foot” a blockade of the insurrectionary states, the sea became a vital element in Southern strategy. It was, of course, virtually impossible for the South to construct ships in its own territory; for at the beginning of the war “there was not, within the whole boundary of the Confederacy, a single private yard having the plant necessary to build and equip a cruising ship of the most moderate offensive power.”

The Confederate Naval Secretary, Stephen R. Mallory, sent the shrewd and affable James D. Bulloch to Europe as chief of naval purchasing.

As luck would have it, the Civil War coincided with an era in naval technology that was revolutionizing sea warfare. The Union navy had not kept abreast of these developments, and was vulnerable to a fleet of steam and iron, if the South could secure such vessels in Europe.

Knowing that he could not match his adversary ship for ship, the imaginative Mallory drew up a plan to offset Northern numerical superiority and compensate for Confederate industrial deficiencies: first, sweep Federal merchant shipping from the sea with far-ranging commerce raiders; then break the blockade with a fleet of specially-designed and powerful ironclad rams. The South, with an outlet for cotton and access to unlimited war material, might then be able to hold back the Northern land armies, and tire the North into a negotiated peace.


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