In this Spy Ships series, Holmes began with the early days of naval espionage, In the Beginning, and continued with The Golden Age of Spy Ships and The US Navy Comes of Age. Today, he takes a look at the role of Spy Ships and naval power in the Civil War.
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Spy Ships in the Civil War
Mathew Perry’s expedition to Japan, which resulted in opening up trade in 1853, had a major effect on US political and economic thinking. Previously, most Americans had taken a parochial view of the US economy. The US was still a nation with a vast frontier, and the public lived with the expectation of discovering new resources within its own borders.
After Perry’s expedition, Americans increasingly prescribed to a more international view of economics. One of the effects of this new, broader view was that Congress and the taxpayers became more willing to tolerate the expense of maintaining a real navy capable of long range operations in contested waters.
As a result, in December of 1860 when South Carolina seceded from the Union, she was seceding from a Union that had a strong, modern navy with well trained naval officers and experienced sailors and marines.
image from charlestonbatterytour.com
Generally, we point to the Confederate shelling of Union occupied Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861 as the first shooting incident of the American Civil War. However, the shooting had actually started at Ft. Sumter on January 9, three months earlier, when Confederate forces fired on the US merchant ship Star of the West as she brought supplies to the fort. This January incident was emblematic of some important strategic differences between the Union and the fledgling Confederacy.
At that time, the Confederacy had little industry and a largely rural population. It had slaves and produced cotton, a nearly worthless product unless they could export it to Europe.
Until the Civil War, the South was disproportionately represented in West Point, and it had filled more than its share of billets in the US Army. This gave the South a strong corps of experienced, well trained army officers for her infant army, but little naval assets.
The Union had more industry and no slaves, except in a few loyal border states such as Kentucky and Maryland. In 1861, the US Navy was disproportionately populated by officers and crews from New England and the upper Middle Atlantic. As a result, when the war started, the Union Army had few key army officers, but the Union Navy remained largely intact.
The Union used its naval superiority to effectively blockade Southern ports, leaving the South no way to export its cotton.
Vicksburg Blockade, image from sonofthesouth.net
The Confederates countered by trying to invent new devices to inflict ‘asymmetric warfare’ on the Union Navy in the form of fast blockade runners and specialized, short-ranged armored ships for attacking Union naval vessels.
In the South, the term ‘spy ship’ amounted to taking row boats out of harbors at night to discover Union ships’ positions in hopes of helping any departing blockade runners. If they accidentally rowed too close to a Union ship and were discovered, they did not return to shore. They might not have been “high tech” spies but they obviously did not lack courage.
The Union Navy also supported Grant’s army in its remarkable campaign against Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. It assisted the capture of New Orleans by General Butler’s forces, and it supported and eventually rescued McClellan’s magnificent army in its absurd campaign on the southern Virginia peninsula.
Union ships landed reconnaissance teams and spies outside the range of major fortresses on the Southern coast to support intelligence operations against the Confederacy. No specialized spy vessels were built for these missions. The Navy simply picked smaller ships with shallower drafts to enable the crews to approach the coast closely before depositing or recovering spies on shore.
The US Navy operated abroad, as well, with intelligence missions in foreign ports to support efforts to sabotage any foreign aid to the Confederacy.
In October of 1861, Union spies reported to the US Navy that two Confederate ‘commissioners’ had landed in Havana, Cuba and were welcomed in the British Embassy there. The Navy assumed (correctly) that the two Confederate commissioners would sail to England aboard a British vessel, and that they would work to gain British support for the Confederacy when they arrived in England.
James Mason and John Slidell, image from civilwardailygazette.com
When Confederate Commissioners John Slidell and James Mason went aboard the British merchant ship Trent, the Union sloop USS San Jacinto was waiting for them off of Havana. The San Jacinto fired across the bow of the Trent, and when the Trent came to, marines boarded it and forcibly (and illegally) removed Slidell and Mason to the San Jacinto against the loud protest of the Trent’s British captain. The San Jacinto took the Confederate agents to the US for incarceration.
The mission was a huge momentary success and provided great entertainment for the sailors and marines of the San Jacinto. The mission was also a prime example of the important difference between acquiring intelligence and acting on intelligence wisely.
Naturally, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his chorus of professional complainers howled bitterly about the Trent incident. With cotton no longer exportable from the South, righteous indignation became the Confederacy’s chief export product. Everyone outside of the Confederacy responded the way they usually did to Davis’ nearly daily righteous theatrics. They ignored him.
Great Britain also howled in protest, and Lincoln had to calm the many foolish politicians in Washington. He ignored the literary drama the Northern presses printed, apologized to Great Britain, and released the two Confederate agents. As Lincoln put it, “One war at a time, folks. . . . One war at a time.”
During the Civil War every Union controlled ship visiting any foreign port was prepared to retrieve information on land or to retrieve agents as circumstances dictated.
The Union’s naval intelligence operations had three important impacts on how the Union conducted the Civil War. First, they provided tactical intelligence about Confederate troop dispositions and conditions in the Confederate coastal areas. Second, they supplied Lincoln’s administration with clear information about Great Britain’s unwillingness to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. And third, they helped keep Union Armies operating in the Western theater (such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana) informed of Confederate troop strengths and locations.
Next week we will consider Spy Ship activities in the Spanish American War and the First World War.
Would you have been willing to row within sight of a Union war ship at night? Would you have been willing to go ashore to conduct a reconnaissance ride deep in Southern territory?