Confederate States Navy

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Confederate Navy Department Seal

The Navy of the Confederate States (CSN) was the naval branch of the Confederate States armed forces, established by an act of the Confederate Congress on February 21, 1861. It was responsible for Confederate naval operations during the American Civil War.

The three major tasks of the Confederate Navy during the whole of its existence were the protection of Southern harbors and coastlines from outside invasion, making the war costly for the United States by attacking U.S. merchant ships worldwide and breaking the Union Blockade by drawing off U.S. Navy ships in pursuit of the Confederate raiders.


Illustration of the Confederate fleet at New Orleans

The Confederate States Navy could never achieve numerical equality with the Union Navy, so it used technological innovation, such as ironclads, submarines, torpedo boats, and naval mines (then known as torpedoes) to gain advantage. In February 1861 the Confederate Navy had 30 vessels, only 14 of which were seaworthy. The Union Navy had 90 vessels. The C. S. Navy eventually grew to 101 ships to meet the rise in naval threats and conflicts.

On 20 April 1861 the Union was forced to quickly abandon the important Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia. In their haste they failed to effectively burn the facility with its large depots of arms and other supplies, and several small vessels. As a result, the Confederacy captured much needed war materials, including heavy cannon, gunpowder, shot, and shell. Of most importance to the Confederacy was the shipyard's dry docks, hardly damaged by the departing Union forces. The Confederacy's only substantial navy yard with at that time was in Pensacola, Florida, so the Norfolk Yard was sorely needed to build new warships. The most significant warship left at the Yard was the screw frigate USS Merrimack.

The U. S. Navy had torched Merrimack's superstructure and upper deck, then scuttled the vessel; it would have been immediately useful as a warship to their enemy. Little of the ship's structure remained other than the hull, which was holed by the scuttling charge but otherwise intact. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory had the idea to raise Merrimack and rebuild it. When the hull was raised, it had not been submerged long enough to have been rendered unusable; the steam engines and essential machinery were salvageable. The decks were rebuilt using thick oak and pine planking, and the upper deck was overlaid with two courses of heavy iron plate. The newly rebuilt superstructure was unusual: above the waterline the sides sloped inward and were covered with two layers of heavy iron-plate armor.

The vessel was a new kind of warship, an all-steam powered "iron-clad". In the centuries-old tradition of reusing captured ships, the new ship was christened CSS Virginia. She later fought the Union's new ironclad USS Monitor. On the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the two ships met and each scored numerous hits on the other. (On the first day of that battle the Virginia, and the James River Squadron, aggressively attacked and nearly broke the Union Navy's sea blockade of wooden warships, proving the effectiveness of the ironclad concept.) The two ironclads had steamed forward, tried to outflank or ram the other, circled, backed away, and came forward firing again and again, but neither was able to sink or demand surrender of its opponent. After four hours both ships were taking in water through split seams and breaches by enemy shot. The engines of both were becoming dangerously overtaxed, and their crews were near exhaustion. The two ships turned and steamed away, never to meet again. This part in the Battle of Hampton Roads between Monitor and Virginia greatly overshadowed the bloody events their nations' ground troops were fighting, largely because it was the first battle in history between two iron-armored steam-powered warships.

The last Confederate surrender took place in Liverpool, England on 6 November 1865 aboard the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah when her flag (battle ensign) was lowered for the final time. This surrender brought about the end of the Confederate Navy. The Shenandoah had circumnavigated the globe, the only Confederate ship to do so.


The act of the Confederate Congress that created the Confederate Navy on 21 February 1861 also appointed Stephen Mallory as Secretary of the Department of the Navy. Mallory was experienced as an admiralty lawyer and had served for a time as the chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee of the United States Senate. The Confederacy had a few scattered naval assets and looked to Liverpool, England, to buy naval cruisers to attack the American merchant fleet. In April 1861, Mallory recruited U.S. Navy Lieutenant James Dunwoody Bulloch into the Confederate Navy and sent him to Liverpool. Using Charlston based importer and exporter Fraser Trentholm, who had offices in Liverpool, Commander Bulloch immediately ordered six steam vessels.[1]

As Mallory began aggressively building up a formidable naval force, a Confederate Congress committee on 27 August 1862, reported:

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Before the war, nineteen steam war vessels had been built in the States forming the Confederacy, and the engines for all of these had been contracted for in those States. All the labor or materials requisite to complete and equip a war vessel could not be commanded at any one point of the Confederacy. [The Navy Department] had erected a powder-mill which supplies all the powder required by our navy; two engine, boiler and machine shops, and five ordnance workshops. It has established eighteen yards for building war vessels, and a rope-walk, making all cordage from a rope-yarn to a 9-inch cable, and capable of turning out 8,000 yards per month .... Of vessels not ironclad and converted to war vessels, there were 44. The department has built and completed as war vessels, 12; partially constructed and destroyed to save from the enemy, 10; now under construction, 9; ironclad vessels now in commission, 12; completed and destroyed or lost by capture, 4; in progress of construction and in various stages of forwardness, 23.

In addition to the ships included in the report of the committee, the C. S. Navy also had one ironclad floating battery, presented to the Confederacy by the state of Georgia, one ironclad ram donated by the state of Alabama, and numerous commerce raiders making war on Union merchant ships.

Ensigns, jacks, and other naval flags

CSN Jack 1861-1863
CSN Ensign 1861-1863
CSN Jack 1863-1865
CSN Ensign 1863-1865

The practice of using primary and secondary naval flags after the British tradition was common practice for the Confederacy, linked as she was by both heritage and economy to the British Isles. The fledgling Confederate Navy therefore adopted detailed flag requirements and regulations in the use of battle ensigns, naval jacks, as well as small boat ensigns, commissioning pennants, designating flags, and signal flags aboard its warships. Changes to these regulations were made during 1863, when a new naval jack, battle ensign, and commissioning pennant design was introduced aboard all Confederate ships, echoing the Confederacy's change of its national flag from the old Stars and Bars to the new Stainless Banner (as pictured above right). Despite the detailed naval regulations issued, minor variations in the flags were frequently seen, due to different manufacturing techniques employed, suppliers used, and the flag-making traditions of each southern state.


On 17 April 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis invited applications for letters of marque and reprisal to be granted under the seal of the Confederate States, against ships and property of the United States and their citizens:

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Now, therefore, I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, do issue this, my proclamation, inviting all those who may desire, by service in private armed vessels on the high seas, to aid this government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression, to make application for commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, to be issued under the seal of these Confederate States. ...

President Davis was not confident of his executive authority to issue letters of marque and called a special session of Congress on 29 April to formally authorize the hiring of privateers in the name of the Confederate States. On 6 May the Confederate Congress passed "An act recognizing the existence of war between the United States and the Confederate States, and concerning letters of marque, prizes, and prize goods." Then, on 14 May 1861, "An act regulating the sale of prizes and the distribution thereof," was also passed. Both acts granted the president power to issue letters of marque and detailed regulations as to the conditions on which letters of marque should be granted to private vessels, the conduct and behavior of the officers and crews of such vessels, and the disposal of such prizes made by privateer crews. The manner in which Confederate privateers operated was generally similar to those of privateers of the United States or of European nations.

The 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawed privateering for such nations as Great Britain and France, but the United States had neither signed nor endorsed the declaration. Therefore, privateering was constitutionally legal in both the United and Confederate States, as well as Portugal, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Germany. However, the United States did not acknowledge the Confederate States as a nation and denied the legitimacy of any letters of marque issued by its government. Union President Abraham Lincoln declared all medicines to the South to be contraband and any captured Confederate privateers were to be hanged as pirates. Ultimately, no one was hanged for privateering because the Confederate government threatened to retaliate against Union prisoners of war.[2]

Initially, Confederate privateers operated primarily from New Orleans, but activity was soon concentrated in the Atlantic, as the Union Navy began expanding its operations. Confederate privateers harassed Union merchant ships and sank several warships, although they were unable to relieve the blockade on Southern ports and its dire effects on the Southern economy.


Drawing of the Hunley
CSS Alabama, a ship of the Confederate States Navy

One of the more well-known ships was CSS Virginia, formerly the sloop-of-war USS Merrimack (1855). In 1862, after being converted to an ironclad ram, she fought USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads, an event that came to symbolize the end of the dominance of large wooden sailing warships and the beginning of the age of iron and the ironclad warship.[3]

The Confederates also constructed submarines, among the few that existed after the early Turtle of the American Revolutionary War. Of those the Pioneer and the Bayou St. John submarine never saw action. However, the Hunley, built in New Orleans as a privateer by Horace Hunley, later came under the control of the Confederate Army at Charleston, SC, but was manned partly by a C. S. Navy crew; she became the first submarine to sink a ship in a wartime engagement. Hunley sank for unknown reasons a short while after her successful attack on the sloop-of-war USS Housatonic.[4][5]

Confederate Navy commerce raiders were also used with great success to disrupt Union merchant shipping. The most famous of them was the screw sloop-of-war CSS Alabama, a warship secretly built for the Confederacy in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. She was launched as Enrica however commissioned as CSS Alabama just off the Azores by her captain, Raphael Semmes, where she began her world famous raiding career under his command accounting for 65 Union ships, a record unbeaten by any ship world-wide in naval warfare. CSS Alabama was built at Liverpool, had largely a Liverpool crew and never once dropped anchor in a Confederate port. A similar raider, the CSS Shenandoah fired the last shot of the American Civil War in late June 1865; she did not strike her colors and surrender until early November 1865, five months after the Civil War ended at Liverpool in England.[6]

See also: CSS Sumter—First Confederate ship to put to sea.


Between the beginning of the war and the end of 1861, 373 commissioned officers, warrant officers, and midshipmen had resigned or been dismissed from the United States Navy and had gone on to serve the Confederacy.[7] The Provisional Congress meeting in Montgomery accepted these men into the Confederate Navy at their old rank. In order to accommodate them they initially provided for an officer corps to consist of four captains, four commanders, 30 lieutenants, and various other non-line officers.[8] On 21 April 1862, the First Congress expanded this to four admirals, ten captains, 31 commanders, 100 first lieutenants, 25 second lieutenants, and 20 masters in line of promotion; additionally, there were to be 12 paymasters, 40 assistant paymasters, 22 surgeons, 15 passed assistant surgeons, 30 assistant surgeons, one engineer-in-chief, and 12 engineers. The act also provided for promotion on merit: "All the Admirals, four of the Captains, five of the Commanders, twenty-two of the First Lieutenants, and five of the Second Lieutenants, shall be appointed solely for gallant or meritorious conduct during the war."[9]


By 20 July 1861, the Confederate government had organized the administrative positions of the Confederate Navy as follows:

  • Stephen R. Mallory – Secretary of the Navy
  • Commodore Samuel Barron – Chief of the Bureau of Orders and Detail
  • Commander George Minor – Chief of Ordnance and Hydrography
  • Paymaster John DeBree – Chief of Provisions and Clothing
  • Surgeon W. A. W. Spottswood – Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
  • Edward M. Tidball – Chief Clerk

Black Confederate seamen

See also


  2. Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders from Antiquity to the Present by Benerson Little (Potomac Books, 2010)
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  5. Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 15, p. 337.
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  7. William S. Dudley, Going South: U.S. Navy Officer Resignations & Dismissals on the Eve of the Civil War. Washington: Naval Historical Foundation, 1981.[1]
  8. The Statutes at Large of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America, from the Institution of the Government, 8 February 1861, to its Termination, 18, February 1862, Inclusive; Arranged in Chronological Order. Together with the Constitution for the Provisional Government, and the Permanent Constitution of the Confederate States, and the Treaties Concluded by the Confederate States with Indian Tribes. Chapter 58, March 16, 1861 (p. 70)
  9. The Statutes at Large of the Confederate States of America, Commencing with the First Session of the First Congress; 1862. Public Laws of the Confederate States of America, Passed at the First Session of the First Congress; 1862. Private Laws of the Confederate States of America, Passed at the First Session of the First Congress; 1862. Chapter 68, April 21, 1862 (p. 50).

Further reading

  • Campbell, R. Thomas. Southern Thunder: Exploits of the Confederate States Navy, White Maine Publishing, 1996. ISBN 1-57249-029-2.
  • Campbell, R. Thomas. Southern Fire: Exploits of the Confederate States Navy, White Maine Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1-57249-046-2.
  • Campbell, R. Thomas. Fire and Thunder: Exploits of the Confederate States Navy, White Maine Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1-57249-067-5.
  • Hussey, John. "Cruisers, Cotton and Confederates" (details the story of Liverpool-built ships for the Confederate Navy and a host of characters and places within the city of that era: James Dunwoody Bulloch, C. K. Prioleau, and many others). Countyvise, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906823-32-0.
  • Luraghi, Raymond. A History of the Confederate Navy, Naval Institute Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55750-527-6.
  • Madaus, H. Michael. Rebel Flags Afloat: A Survey of the Surviving Flags of the Confederate States Navy, Revenue Service, and Merchant Marine. Winchester, MA, Flag Research Center, 1986. ISSN 0015-3370. (An 80-page special edition of "The Flag Bulletin" magazine, #115, devoted entirely to Confederate naval flags.)
  • McPherson, James M. War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (University of North Carolina Press; 2012) 277 pages; by leading scholar
  • Scharf, J. Thomas. History of the Confedrate States Navy, Gramercy Books (Random House), New York, 1996. ISBN 0-517-18336-6.
  • Stern, Philip Van Doren. The Confederate Navy: A Pictorial History, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY, 1962. Pre-ISBN era.
  • Still, William N., ed. The Confederate Navy: the ships, men and organization, 1861-65 (Conway Maritime Pr, 1997)


  • Krivdo, Michael E. "The Confederate Navy and Marine Corps." in James C. Bradford, ed. A Companion to American Military History (2 vol 2009) 1:460-71

External links