The Confederate navy could never achieve numerical equality with the United States Navy, (then known as the Union Navy), with its near 70 years of traditions and experience, so it used technological innovation, such as ironclads, submarines, torpedo boats, and naval mines (then known as torpedoes) to attempt to gain advantage. In February 1861, the Confederate States Navy had 30 vessels, only 14 of which were seaworthy. The opposing Union Navy had 90 vessels. The C. S. Navy eventually grew to 101 ships to meet the rise in naval conflicts and threats to the coast and rivers of the Confederacy.
Illustration of the Confederate fleet at New Orleans
On April 20, 1861 the U.S. was forced to quickly abandon the important Gosport Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia. In their haste, they failed to effectively burn the facility with its large depots of arms, 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 at that time was in Pensacola, Florida, so the Gosport 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 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 each side's 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, United Kingdom on November 6, 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. Shenandoah had circumnavigated the globe, the only Confederate ship to do so.
The act of the Confederate Congress that created the Confederate Navy on February 21, 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 Charleston-based importer and exporter Fraser Trentholm, who had offices in Liverpool, Commander Bulloch immediately ordered six steam vessels.
As Mallory began aggressively building up a formidable naval force, a Confederate Congress committee on August 27, 1862, reported:
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. When Virginia seceded the Virginia Navy was absorbed into the Confederate Navy.
The practice of using primary and secondary naval flags after the British tradition was common practice for the Confederacy; 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". 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 C.S. state.
On April 17, 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:
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 April 29 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 May 14, 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 United Kingdom and France, but the United States had neither signed nor endorsed the declaration. Therefore, privateering was constitutionally legal in both the United States and the Confederacy, as well as Portugal, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Germany. However, the United States did not acknowledge the Confederacy as a country and denied the legitimacy of any letters of marque issued by its government. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared all medicines to the Confederacy 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 U.S. prisoners of war.
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 Confederate economy.