GREED IS GOOD: PROFESSOR ALEXANDER BACHE AND THE UNION NAVAL BLOCKADE BOARD OF 1861

On 17 April 1861, in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation calling for private vessels to be issued letters of marque, “under the Seal of the Confederate States of America.”  Like the privateers of the American War for Independence, letters of marque gave private vessels permission to raid and capture enemy shipping with the crew and the government sharing a percentage of the profits.  Lincoln countered with a call for a naval blockade of the Southern ports in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

 

Shortly after the naval blockade proclamation, a Union Blockade Board was established at the urging of Professor Alexander Dallas Bache. Bache, great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin and 1825 Graduate of the United States Military Academy, was superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, a forerunner to the modern National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The United States Coast Survey was the only organization with extensive nautical maps of the United States coastline and its major inland rivers; because of this Bache and his staff were inundated with requests from the Navy Department for these charts.  Bache, afraid that his beloved Coast Survey organization would be disbanded due to the War, engaged his friend, Commander Charles Henry Davis, and suggested a joint military board to discuss coastal operations. He subtlety used the overwhelming requests for charts by the Navy as an excuse to set up a joint commission on naval strategy and ensure that his department was involved. Chief Clerk of the Navy, Gustavus Vasa Fox, who would be appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy on 1 August 1861, and Secretary of the Navy  Gideon Welles embraced this idea.  The board was comprised of four members with: Captain Samuel F. DuPont serving as president, Commander Davis as secretary, representing the Army Engineers was Major John G. Barnard, and Bache was the fourth member. 

 

Secretary Welles outlined the mission of the Board. He emphasized that an effective blockade must be constructed from the Chesapeake Bay to Key West, Florida and from Key West to southern Texas.  The day of the sail ship was gone and a naval blockade conducted with steam ships would require frequent refueling, consequently, a means to secure two or more ports as fuel and maintenance depots would be imperative.  The Board recommended seizing two Atlantic Coast ports as bases of operations; this would be conducted in cooperation with the Army.  The sinking of old vessels to block access to certain channels and ease the constraints on naval ships was proposed.  They also suggested dividing command of the Atlantic Blockade Squadron into two sections making it more manageable; the same was recommended for the Gulf Blockade Squadron.  Although the Blockade Board did not specify the number of ships and men that would be required, it addressed the fundamental problems of logistics.  The Navy Department adopted the new command structure, and began cooperating with the War Department to plan amphibious operations.  Perhaps the greatest significance of the Union Blockade Board lies in the fact that Secretary Gideon Welles continued to use the committee method to solve problems throughout the War.

 

Professor Bache’s vision, or perhaps selfish motivation, produced one of the most successful military commissions in United States history and would set the tone for Union naval strategy throughout the Civil War. Indeed, greed is good.

 

For an excellent account of the naval board see:

Weddle, Kevin J. “The Blockade Board of 1861 and Union Naval Strategy.” Civil War History 48 (2002): 123 – 142.

Weddle notes of the irony, “that 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.” The Navy created one in a few months.

 

The Board’s actual reports are located in:

U.S. Navy Department. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War  of the Rebellion. 33 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894. Reprint, Harrisburg: The National Historical Society, 1987.

Series I, Volume 12, 195-206.

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About Billy Whyte

Hello my name is William Whyte. I live in Nazareth, Pennsylvania with my wife, Susan, and my two children, Kylie and William. I am currently enrolled at East Stroudsburg University and scheduled to graduate with a Masters of Arts degree in History in the fall of 2008. I count the American Civil War, nineteenth century America, and World War II among my specific areas of historical interest. I hope to pursue a doctorate degree in history upon successful completion of a Masters Degree. I am currently employed with a major bank in the financial district of downtown New York and as an Adjunct Professor at a local community college. I’m a member of the OAH, AHA, and the Society for Civil War Historians. I love spending time with my family and traveling to Civil War battlefields, as well as other historical sites. I also enjoy fishing, hunting, reading, film, and New York Giants football. I hope to one day be a professor of history at a university or small college and to publish historical works.

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