The Confederate Blockade of Washington D.C., 1861-1862

by Mary Alice Wills, Shippensburg, Burd Street Press, 1998 (Third Printing)


Was there a Confederate blockade of Washington, D.C.? Those who say "no" have nothing to fear from this reprint of Mary Alice Wills book, first published in 1975. It is the only extended study of the subject and its cardinal fault is that it takes the appearance of a blockade for its reality. Its merit is that the evidence against the blockade is overwhelming and presented between the same covers. The author simply fails to follow her own evidence.

The facts are these: Rebels set up mixed batteries of odd guns manned with green infantrymen (check: infantrymen) at two principal locations on the Potomac. They sunk not a single ship. They were completely ineffective in harassing unarmed vessels. They were even extensively tormented by the captain of one Yankee oyster boat who invited them to try to hit his craft (the gunners failed miserably). This rather inane Rebel project triggered in Lincoln's Navy Department a declaration that the Potomac was blockaded. Lincoln's own Navy Department then blockaded the Potomac, first with a public, high-profile declaration, then with a patrol-enforced clampdown on riverine traffic.

In a fine piece of bureaucratic maneuvering, the Navy Department, having declared its own capital blockaded, and after forcibly excluding friendly shipping from bringing supplies to its own capital, then refused to take responsibility for neutralizing the batteries. It made the Army responsible for lifting the "blockade."

The green Rebel infantrymen manning the hodgepodge naval guns who could not hit an stopped oysterman in mid-river posed such a grave a threat to naval warships that it became the job of Winfield Scott, and later George McClellan, to clear them off. In a stunning display of inter-agency strength, the Navy successfully refused to call up from other duties even one of the large wooden warships that would have made short work of enemy positions "threatening" the Navy's own capital. Likewise, the Navy refused to set up a single shore-based emplacement with available, longer-range naval cannon that could neutralize the inept Confederates. The Navy further declined to risk its river craft, which were at least manned by men who could aim and shoot naval guns, while the Rebel shore batteries were manned by raw infantry gunners who could not.

At this point, we join the McClellan controversies. McClellan's position was that the batteries did no harm and that to attack them with land forces would bring on a general engagement and push the Rebels out of Northern Virginia, an action that would both reduce their current rate of enemy attrition (high, out of winter quarters, exposed to the elements) and reduce enemy vulnerability to an "Urbanna Plan," a Federal water landing between Washington and Richmond. As the U.S. Navy's blockade of its own capital took hold, a seriously embarassed Lincoln faced Congressional heat with promises of action by the Army. Was McClellan Lincoln's best hope for removing the embarassment of a major Navy blunder? This is the central issue of any study of the "Confederate Blockade," and it points not to McClellan's failures as a commander but to Lincoln's as the director of his own Cabinet. These obvious points seem beyond Wills.

It is instructive to watch Lincoln after one of his cabinet members has put him in deep difficulties. Seward does it in the Trent affair; Stanton does it by shutting down all recruiting efforts in spring, 1862; Welles does it in 1861 by allowing a blockade to be publicized before the Rebels can enforce one. Lincoln usually seeks an indirect way out of these crises and in the matter of the "Blockade," the Army was expected to undo the great moral harm inflicted by his Navy.

It is disturbing to see author Wills get caught up in a 135-year-old contrived crisis and thoughtlessly join the Mac bashing. In the Civil War generally, naval fortifications were a naval problem. A reasonably well-read person knows this. That a Navy mistake should become McClellan's problem is clearly a political effect with a political cause.

Navigation of the Potomac, if it became "risky," was ultimately an insurance issue for commercial traffic. With all the documentation included in this effort, Wills has left out the most important pieces, the insurance rate data, the shipping schedules, claims paid, tonnage landed, and services suspended. I suspect these pieces would have clinched the case that the real title of this book should have been "The Union Blockade of Washington D.C." McClellan's signal failure in this episode was not in failing to lift the "blockade" but in failing to divine in this episode the quality of cooperation he might expect in a major land campaign requiring extensive Navy -- and Lincolnian -- support.

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(c) 1998 The McClellan Society