Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War. By Stephen R. Wise. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, c. 1988. Pp. xi, 403, ISBN 0-87249-799-2.)

            Stephen Wise’s Lifeline of the Confederacy identifies catalogues the growth and demise of blockade running to supply the Confederacy. Wise claims that his work addresses a serious historiographical gap in the Confederacy’s primary method of foreign trade: blockade running. Wise asserts that the topic of blockade running has been extensively addressed, but the works that have written on the topic relied on faulty data and half-remembered stories. Moreover, these previous works focused on the various episodes of high seas adventure displaying Southern heroism and daring. Instead, Lifeline of the Confederacy analyzes the larger effect that the totality of blockade running efforts had on Southern wartime logistics. In this manner Wise pushes the emphasis on blockade running in the South away from military history analysis of the events and towards a “bales and bullets” economic analysis. Yet, Wise desires more than a simple shift in the framework surrounding the discussion on blockade running; he seeks the preeminence of blockade running within the analysis of Southern wartime logistics. The author does not state a coherent thesis to this effect explicitly, but the idea that the South would have lost the war without the logistics provided by the blockade runners subtly underlies the entirety of the text.

            Rather than a case study on a single ship or port, Wise attempts to tell the entire story of blockade running, however, he also does more than a statistical analysis of ledgers concerning how much material came into the South and how much cotton went to foreign markets. Wise methodically addresses each component of blockade running at each organizational level: important individuals, key corporations, government actions, influential ports, steamship designs, and prominent vessels. A vast array of sketches, diagrams, charts, photographs, and appendices litter Wise’s narrative. This shows that a key concern of the work is not only presenting a convincing argument about the primacy of blockade running within the Confederate logistical structure but also compiling heretofore ignored data so that readers can enter a more engaging analysis of the physical capabilities of the South.

            Wise interacts with the Confederate system of logistics in such an all encompassing manner that there is something of Braudel in his descriptions of the South. He systematically assesses the ports available to the South for foreign trade at the start of the war as well as their ability to transport goods deeper into the heart of the Confederacy through rivers, railroads, or canals. Yet, his assessment of the South goes beyond the physical landscape into the mentality of Southerners in how they believed the war would unfold in their favor. Wise identifies the persistent faith that “King Cotton” would save the Confederacy. Merchant vessels did not flock to Southern shores to load the cargo holds full of cotton to then head to England, yet Wise’s central thesis conflicts with this denunciation of King Cotton throughout his text. His argument that blockade running was the most important factor in supplying the Confederate war effort presumes that without this “lifeline of the Confederacy” the war effort would have been doomed. So, in some ways Wise’s contention with the overemphasis on the importance of cotton undermines his argument as the majority of blockade running depended on either the exportation of cotton or the future profits from cotton that a victorious South could repay their debts with. Such a contention against the Southern mentality seems anomalous within the text, and may have only served to juxtapose his work with other established works in the field.

            On the whole, Lifeline of the Confederacy presents a compelling argument effectively identifying the importance of blockade running within the Confederacy. Moreover, he accurately depicts the relative success of corporate and state sponsored blockade runners in both the frequency of their success, somewhere around three out or every four attempts, as well as in the sheer quantity of desperately needed goods to fuel the war. However, the work seems to come short in its goal to make blockade running the tipping point in Confederate logistics.

Fort Worth, Texas                                                                               Andrew L. Klooster


Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War.  By Stephen R. Wise.  (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.  Pp. xi, 403.)

            In the never-ending debate over the question of why the North won the Civil War, Stephen R. Wise proposes an intriguing thesis that emphasizes the value of the Union naval blockade to the Northern victory.  Wise suggests that historians have generally overlooked the role of blockade running in the Civil War, deeming it to be a romanticized event that had relatively little impact upon the war.  He argues, however, that blockade running was an important lifeline for the Confederacy and, because of its role in securing weapons and provisions from Europe, was integral to the hopes for a Southern victory.  Thus the ability of the Union armies and navy to occupy and close the Confederate ports effectively nullified the South’s capability to continue the war effort.  Hence, Wise argues that the Northern victory was directly attributable to eventually negate the ability of Confederate vessels to run the blockade.

            Wise traces the history of blockade running from the beginning of the war until the months just after Appomattox when the Union secured the final open Confederate port at Galveston.  Within days of the firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln had set up the Union blockade around the Confederate coast.  According to Wise, the effort constituted the first full-scale blockade of the modern military era.  Due to a number of problems with Southern ports, Northerners assumed that the blockade would be relatively easy to implement and maintain.  For the Confederacy, however, ports and shipping became a matter of national survival, intricately tied to the profits and international relationships of King Cotton Diplomacy.  Further, the Confederate army stood in critical need of up-to-date rifles and weaponry to compete with the more advanced rifles wielded by the Union soldiers.  In order to meet these critical needs, the South was obliged to begin engaging in blockade running.

            In October 1861, the first Confederate vessel successfully slipped past the Union blockade en route for England carrying a supply of cotton.  Together with other successful runs, this ship demonstrated the possibility of success.  The South’s lack of government owned vessels, however, compelled Confederate officials to rely upon private businessmen, who were often motivated more by profits than patriotism, to carry out the task of blockade running.  This process became increasingly difficult as Union victories in the West eliminated ports at New Orleans and Mobile, thus narrowing the Confederate base of operations.  These victories limited both the number of available ports for Confederate blockade runners and the number of supplies that could be successfully produced within the South.  Further, the practice was detrimental to commerce in key ports like Charleston and Wilmington, where the prices of commodities rose substantially, placing an added burden upon the areas that were asked to carry the burden of the Confederacy’s increasing needs for imported goods.  By the end of 1864, the capture of the majority of the Confederate ports and the increased effectiveness of the Union blockade had created a crisis for Confederate officials who were no longer able to adequately supply the army.  Wise argues that these shortages and the South’s inability to secure further supplies from Europe played an integral role in the Confederate surrender in 1865.

            Crucial to Wise’s narrative is his discussion of the complex motives and attitudes that characterized those who participated in blockade running.  He demonstrates that blockade running was simultaneously critical to and detrimental toward the Confederate cause.  While Wise clearly demonstrates that the Confederacy became increasingly reliant upon the supplies and weapons that the blockade runners brought from Europe, he likewise shows that the captains and crews of said ships often harmed the South by placing the importance of profits and private economic gains over the needs of the Confederacy.  The demand for profits created an unsustainable burden for Confederate leaders who counted upon the patriotism of the profiteers who ran the blockades.

Without question, Lifeline of the Confederacy is one of the most significant books to address the issue of blockade running.  Wise skillfully provides the reader with both a detailed understanding of the history of blockade running, while at the same time placing the practice in a proper historical context and linking it to some of the larger questions of the Civil War.  He accordingly reminds us that the outcome of the Civil War was not solely determined by tactical maneuvers on the battlefield.  Rather, events that often happened hundreds of miles away from the war’s well-known engagements likewise influenced the outcome of the war.  This book thus challenges us to broaden our interpretations of the Civil War and the factors that determined its ultimate outcome.

Brett D. Dowdle


Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War.   By Stephen R. Wise.  (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.  Pp. xi, 403).

            After pulling their respective states out of the Union, Southern leaders faced a daunting task in preparing for a war against the federal government.  The Confederate economy had very little industry so officials realized that they would have to import a large percentage of weapons, ammunition, clothing, and food from European nations.  Importation of these goods faced two major challenges.  The Confederacy possessed very few merchant vessels to haul the cargo and Union President Abraham Lincoln had declared a blockade of the Southern coastline.  Despite these difficulties, Southern political leaders and businessmen managed to organize a blockade running operation that sought to supply the Confederate war machine with the equipment and supplies necessary to fight a war.  In Lifeline of the Confederacy, historian Stephen R. Wise analyzes the blockade running effort and provides a comprehensive history of Southern efforts to maintain a supply route across the ocean to European manufacturers.  According to Wise, the blockade running operation faced major reverses but succeeded in supplying most of the military needs of the South.  Without this effort, Wise argues, the Confederacy would not have been able to sustain the war for four long years. 

            Wise conducted extensive research into newspapers, consul reports, port records, memoirs, and action reports in order to determine the approximate number of ships and goods piercing the blockade in addition to the vessels seized by Union patrols.  According to his research, blockade runners made over one thousand successful runs out of a total of 1,300 attempts.  A majority of the arms, ammunition, and clothing used by the Confederacy entered military stores via the supply lines to Europe.  Relatively few runners steamed or sailed directly from Europe.  Instead, they loaded stores at intermediate facilities located at Nassau in the Bahamas, St. George in Bermuda, and Havana in Cuba.  They relied upon speed and stealth in order to avoid Union warships.  If caught, they tried to shield their intentions by using fake cargo manifests and sailing under foreign registry.  Spread thin, the Union blockade squadrons managed to slow the trade but did not completely halt it until the end of the war.  The numbers and statistics compiled by Wise are informative but they should only be used as estimates and not precise figures.  No central authority kept comprehensive records so the documents that Wise researched, although numerous, do not provide a picture that is one hundred percent complete.  In addition, Wise relied upon numerous secondary sources written years after the actual events so their accuracy may be a little distorted as well.

            Wise’s statistics, although estimates, offers convincing evidence that the Confederate blockade efforts achieved a notable degree of success.  Attempts by the Union Navy to seal off the coast enjoyed enormous victories but they failed to totally choke the flow of illicit goods into the Confederacy.  Early in the war, the Union Navy achieved a huge success by taking New Orleans which was the premier port of the Confederacy.  This defeat severely hampered supply efforts by the South through its Gulf ports.  Wilmington, North Carolina and Charleston became popular blockade running ports with private Southern entrepreneurs, official government bureaus, and foreign firms all participating in the business.  Some firms made huge profits while others lost ships and cargos and went bankrupt.  Many hazards existed in the enterprise.  In addition to Union warships, storms and hazardous shoals claimed many ships.

            Historians need to be careful not to romanticize the blockade by giving it too much emphasis on the war effort.  Although its efforts kept the Confederacy in the fight, it was more akin to life support than full-fledged nourishment.  Losses to Union warships and storms, fiscal problems, and competition between different blockade running groups always strained the capabilities of Southern logistics.  One of the most interesting points of Wise’s books was the degree of internal competition within the Confederate government.  Focusing solely upon their own needs, states competed with the Confederate government, government departments competed with one another, and private firms competed with government organizations.  These competing interests vied with one another for cotton bales, pilots, storage facilities and ships.  The lack of coordination between the different factions only served to exacerbate an already critical supply situation. 

            Wise’s book offers a balanced and informative appraisal of the blockade running efforts.  Although the confederacy never had the amount of supplies it wanted, blockade running did meet minimum requirements for fighting a war.  According to Wise, the Southern dearth of manpower at the end of the war proved more crippling then a lack of war materiel. 

Johnny Spence                                                                                    Texas Christian University


Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy:  Blockade Running During the Civil War, (Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1988), v-226.

            In Lifeline of the Confederacy, Stephen R. Wise demonstrates the importance of blockade running and how these ships and sailors aided the Confederacy.  During the four years of battle, the South relied on the illegal importation of commodities, in order for their fledgling nation to survive.  After the South seceded from the Union, the Confederacy soon noticed that its lack of industries would hinder its cause.  Southerners looked to England to supply these wares and services.  Although blockade runners met with some success, the Union sought to hinder these efforts by relying on the North’s navy to patrol the coastline and the Atlantic Ocean.  With the capture of port cities, such as New Orleans, the Union further prevented goods from entering the Confederacy.  Wise contends that the Confederacy did not lose the war because this nation was not well-supplied.  Wise posits that the South lost because it required more military men to engage the North in battle (3-226). 

            When British reporter William Howard Russell journeyed to the Confederacy, he soon realized that the South required factories and raw materials.  Russell was unsure how the Confederacy could endure.  According to Wise, Russell noticed that “the Confederates would need not only … basic necessities, but also immense amounts of arms and munitions.  Russell … questioned where these items would come from.  To his astonishment, Southerners candidly told him that they expected England to serve the new nation” (11).  Wise noted that the South relied on their doctrine of “King Cotton,” in order for their new nation to exist (11).  Confederates knew that England continued to rely on the South’s cotton, so the British textile production could prosper.  According to Wise, “[I]n 1859, England had imported 78 percent of the South’s cotton crop.  The cotton textile industry … provided four to five million Englishmen with jobs and, in 1860, produced a profit of over fifty-nine million pounds” (11).  Southerners continually expressed that England’s mills would fail if they did not receive Confederate cotton.  Early in the war, the South refused to send their cotton to Europe.  With this embargo, Southerners wanted England to help dismantle the North’s blockade and to acknowledge the Confederacy as a legitimate nation.  Wise contends that the South’s “King Cotton” policy was flawed, since England never formally recognized the South (11).  During the embargo period, privately owned ships and vessels possessed by the Confederate government journeyed to England and British-controlled islands to obtain necessary goods for their nation’s cause.  (3-29). 

            In 1862, a Union vessel known as the Mercedita captured the British ship Bermuda.  The Bermuda was from the British business Fraser, Trenholm, and Company.  When the Mercedita stopped the Bermuda, an investigation revealed that the Bermuda was sent to bring supplies to South Carolina.  The Union captured the Bermuda, and in court, it was declared that this ship was a legitimate war prize.  According to Wise, “The taking of the Bermuda and the resulting court ruling caused an immediate change in the methods of shipping goods to … neutral port[s] near the Confederacy.  No longer did the British flag provide immunity.  … [A] ship could be stopped anywhere … and seized if … her cargo was [for] the Confederacy” (66). 

            Once the South realized that their confidence in their “King Cotton” policy was not aiding their cause, Confederates sought to acquire goods from England by using Southern cotton as a foundation for trade.  According to Wise, “These bonds could be used for investment or currency” (93).  From Europe, the South received cargoes of goods for soldiers and upper class imports.  As the Union captured Confederate port cities and blockade runners, these seizures began to take their toll on the Confederacy.  Wise contends that the Confederacy was sustained due to the success of its blockade running.  According to Wise, “[T]he flow of supplies enabled the Confederate armies to stand up to the numerically superior Federals.  Because of the work of the men involved in blockade running, a supply lifeline was maintained…” (226).  Because the South possessed a limited number of men in the armed services, Wise believes this was the reason for the Confederacy’s ultimate defeat (46-226).

            An interesting book, Wise shows how blockade running helped the Confederacy.  Wise successfully demonstrates how the British played a large part in supplying this piecemeal nation.  Along with Jay Monaghan and Frank Owsley, Wise should be regarded as an authority who clearly understands the diplomatic relations of the Confederacy. 

Andrea Ondruch                                                                                   Texas Christian University


Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War. By Stephen R. Wise. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988). 

In Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War, author Stephen R. Wise delivers a detailed study of blockade running by vessels serving the needs of the South during the Civil War.  The South contained no substantial industrial base to support the Confederate war effort.  As a result, Confederate leaders looked to Great Britain for trade to support the war.  Business interests in Great Britain responded with a brisk trade in goods that stretched from Great Britain to Bermuda, Nassau, Havana and the Confederacy.  The author utilized past accounts, unused manuscripts, newspaper accounts, court records, consul dispatches, port records, account books, Quartermaster records and vessel records from the National Archives to trace the activities of blockade runners and the effects of their activities on the war effort.  Wise compiles vast quantities of information to argue that blockade running was successful in the South.  However, he insists that Confederate leaders limited the success of blockade running by leaving the job to private businesses, instead of coordinating a government-sponsored effort.

Wise’s argument for the success of blockade running by Confederate companies and Southern sympathizers rests largely on raw data.  Of the 1,300 attempts by blockade runners to break through the Union blockade, over 1,000 were successful.  These ships enabled the Confederacy to supply its troops with “60 percent of the South’s arms, one-third of its lead for bullets, ingredients for three-fourths of its powder, nearly all of its paper for cartridges, and the majority of its cloth and leather for uniforms and accoutrements.” (7)  The author maintains that the supply of war materials for the Confederate army rested on an extremely tenuous supply line that relied upon resourceful individuals and innovations in ship design necessary to navigate shallow harbors while evading Union steamers.  Despite the difficulties inherent in blockade running, the system worked and continued to supply the Confederacy with the necessary arms to fight the war. 

The author demonstrates that Confederate business and government leaders labored under the false impression that “King Cotton” would sustain their nation economically.  The Confederate “King Cotton” economic theory held that Great Britain depended upon Southern cotton to run its textiles mills.  Many Southerners believed that Great Britain faced economic ruin without cotton supplied from the Confederate South.  Thus, economic dependency ensured that Great Britain would support the South and denounce the blockade.  Wise argues that while the importance of cotton to British textile mills was significant, “King Cotton” economics failed to consider the South’s reliance upon imports.  Without imports from Europe, Southerners lacked the industrial capacity to supply themselves with many goods, including military supplies.  Southerners continued to adhere to “King Cotton” theory even after a cotton embargo, intended to force the British to intervene in the blockading of Southern ports, failed in 1861.    

            Confederate leaders relied on the ingenuity of privately-owned ventures to engage in blockade running activities and supply the South with the materials they needed to support the war effort.  Wise argues that in this decision the Confederacy made a crucial mistake.  It limited the Confederacy’s ability to fully utilize blockade running to its own advantage.  Josiah Gorgas, chief of the Confederate Ordinance Bureau, suggested that the Confederacy acquire its own fleet of blockade runners in the early years of the war.  However, he failed to receive support for his plan within government circles.  In 1864, the Confederate government, now painfully aware of their dependence upon imported war materials, passed regulations aimed at generating additional Confederate credit in overseas markets.  The regulations specified that outbound vessels carry a set amount of government-owned cotton in their cargo holds.  In addition to regulations governing privately held vessels, Confederate leaders contracted construction of eight blockade-runners for government use.  However, Wise argues that this move came too late and never reached fruition.  Nevertheless, the author argues that Confederate forces never lost a battle due to a lack of supplies.  In this assertion, the author’s argument runs into some minor contradictions.  If the blockade system succeeded in its objectives to adequately supply the South, why was the decision to leave blockade running in the hands of private companies such a crucial mistake?

            In Lifeline of the Confederacy, the author presents a detailed study of blockade running.  The narrative is engagingly written and the plethora of information provided impressive.  In addition, the author provides readers with over one hundred pages of additional appendices which include import and export data, a listing of every ship that arrived or departed from each major southern port, and a brief listing of each ship involved in blockade running.   

Melanie Kirkland