President Lincoln’s Southern Port Blockade Proclamation

Abraham Lincoln in 1861

On April 19th, 1861, just six days after the surrender of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that the port cities of the Confederate states would be subject to a naval blockade of all incoming and outgoing ships. Two days earlier, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had announced that the Confederacy would issue letters of marque to private ship owners, who would act as privateers against U.S. shipping. Lincoln retaliated with the blockade announcement. But the blockade also became part of Union strategy, cutting off the export of southern goods, especially cotton, and preventing the importation of anything that could benefit the Confederate war effort.

While the proclamation was directed at southern ports, there were endless places that shallow draft ships could slip in an out of along the coast, so the entire southern coast would have to be blockaded or at least patrolled by warships. With about 3500 miles of coastline to patrol, the U.S. Navy had to be increased in size as quickly as possible. While some Confederate blockade runners were successful throughout the war, there were fewer and fewer such successes as more vessels were added to the blockade and its effectiveness increased.

Here’s Lincoln’s proclamation that established the blockade of southern ports:

By the President of the United States of America.–Proclamations.

Whereas an insurrection against the Government of the United States has broken out in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, and the laws of the United States for the collection of the revenue can not be effectually executed therein, conformably to that provision of the Constitution which requires duties to be uniform throughout the United States; and

Whereas a combination of persons engaged in such insurrection has threatened to grant pretended letters of marque to authorize the bearers thereof to commit assaults on the lives, vessels, and property of good citizens of the country lawfully engaged in commerce on the high seas and in waters of the United States; and

Whereas an Executive proclamation has been already issued requiring the persons engaged in these disorderly proceedings to desist there from, calling out a militia force for the purpose of repressing the same, and convening Congress in extraordinary session to deliberate and determine thereon;

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, with a view to the same purposes before mentioned, and to the protection of the public peace and the lives and property of quiet and orderly citizens pursuing their lawful occupations until Congress shall have assembled and deliberated on the said unlawful proceedings, or until the same shall have ceased, have further deemed it advisable to set on foot a blockade of the ports within the States aforesaid, in pursuance of the laws of the United States and of the law of nations in such case provided. For this purpose a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels from the ports aforesaid. If, therefore, with a view to violate such blockade a vessel shall approach or shall attempt to leave either of the said ports, she will be duly warned by the commander of one of the blockading vessels, who will endorse on her register the fact and date of such warning, and if the same vessel shall again attempt to enter or leave the blockaded port she will be captured and sent to the nearest convenient port for such proceedings against her and her cargo as prize as may be deemed advisable.

And I hereby proclaim and declare that if any person, under the pretended authority of the said States, or under any other pretense, shall molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board of her, such person shall be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this 19th day of April, A. D. 1861, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-fifth.
[L. S.]

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

By the President:
WILLIAM H. SEWARD,
Secretary of State.

The initial proclamation did not include Virginia and North Carolina. Lincoln added those two states to the list on April 27th:

Whereas, for reasons assigned in my proclamation of the 19th instant, a blockade of the ports of the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas was ordered to be established; and, whereas, since that date public property of the United States has been seized, the collection of the revenue obstructed, and duly commissioned officers of the United States, while engaged in executing the orders of their superiors, have been arrested and held in custody as prisoners, or have been impeded in the discharge of their official duties without due legal process by persons claiming to act under authority of the States of Virginia and North Carolina, an efficient blockade of the ports of those States will therefore also be established.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this 27th day of April, A. D. 1861, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-fifth.
[L. S.]

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

By the President:
WILLIAM H. SEWARD,
Secretary of State.

This blockade fleet was named the Coast Blockading Squadron. Commodore Silas H. Stringham was named the first commander of this squadron. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sent these orders to Stringham about setting up the blockade:

NAVY DEPARTMENT, May 1, 1861.

SIR: You have been previously instructed to proceed to Boston, and when the U. S. steam frigate Minnesota should be put in commission to hoist your flag on board that vessel.

The President has found it necessary to issue proclamations closing the ports of those States which are resisting the laws of the Federal Government, and you have been selected to take command of the squadron that will carry into effect the proclamations at all the ports from the capes of the Chesapeake to the southern extremity of Florida and Key West, including the ports, rivers, and inlets of Chesapeake Bay.

Copies of the proclamation of the President issued on the 19th of April are herewith transmitted, together with instructions from the Department in relation to the blockade. A subsequent proclamation extends the blockade to the ports of Virginia and North Carolina.

The moment the Minnesota is ready for sea, you will proceed with her with all dispatch to Hampton Roads, at which point other steamers and vessels will be directed to rendezvous as they shall be fitted and equipped for service, for the purpose of receiving your specific instructions to establish and carry into effect the blockade, which must be strict and absolute.

USS Minnesota

The more immediate and effectual the blockade is instituted, the more speedy and advantageous will be its results. There is already a considerable naval force at Hampton Roads, waiting your orders as to their destination and service.

Instructions more full and more in detail will be forwarded to you on your arrival in the Chesapeake, and your proximity to the seat of Government will make communication with you easy.

Periodical supplies of coal and provisions will be forwarded to you and to the force before the different ports.

Before sailing from Boston you will have transmitted to the Department a complete muster roll of the crew of the Minnesota and a separate list of her officers.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

GIDEON WELLES.

Flag-Officer S. H. STRINGHAM,
Appointed to Command Blockading Squadron, Boston, Mass.

 

NAVY DEPARTMENT, May 1, 1861.

SIR: The President, by proclamation of 19th April, 1861, ordered a blockade of the ports within the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas; and by a supplemental proclamation of the 27th April, 1861, he extends the blockade so as to include the ports of Virginia and North Carolina. In pursuance of the laws of the United States and of the law of nations, in such cases provided, it becomes necessary that a competent force be posted so as to prevent the entrance and exit of vessels from the ports aforesaid.

Commodore Silas Stringham USN

With this view you will establish and enforce a blockade at each and all of the ports in the States enumerated east of Key West, and a sufficient disposable force will be placed under the command of yourself that you may carry these orders into effect. On you will devolve the duty of blockading all the ports east of Key West.

You will duly notify neutrals of the declaration of blockade, and give to it all the publicity in your power. The blockade must be strict and absolute, and only public armed vessels of foreign powers should be permitted to enter the ports which are placed in a state of blockade. To neutral or foreign vessels that are already in the ports, you will allow a reasonable number of days to leave them. The country relies upon your command, with the squadron of the Gulf, to make this blockade effectual, so as to close all the ports of the States above named, protect our commerce from the depredations of privateers, and contribute by your activity and vigilance to the speedy suppression of the insurrectionary movements and the adjustment of the present unhappy difficulties.

It will not be improper to state to you that a lawful maritime blockade requires the actual presence of an adequate force stationed at the

Gideon Welles

entrance of the port sufficiently near to prevent communication. The only exception to this rule which requires the actual presence of an adequate force to constitute a lawful blockade arises out of the circumstance of the occasional temporary absence of the blockading squadron, produced by accident, as in the case of a storm, which does not suspend the legal operation of a blockade. The law considers an attempt to take advantage of such an accidental removal a fraudulent attempt to break the blockade.

You will permit no neutral or foreign vessel proceeding toward the entrance of a blockaded port to be captured or detained if she shall not have previously received from one of the blockading squadron a special notification of the existence of the blockade. This notification must be inserted in writing on the muster roll of the neutral vessel by the cruiser which meets her; and it should contain the announcement, together with statements of the day and the latitude in which it was made.

The United States have at all times maintained these principles on the subject of blockade, and you will take care not to attempt the application of penalties for a breach of blockade except in cases where your right is justified by these rules.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

G. WELLES,
Secretary Navy.

Flag-Officer S. H. STRINGHAM,
Commanding Coast Blockading Squadron.

As the war progressed the Coast Blockade Squadron would be subdivided into the North and South Atlantic Blockading Squadrons (patrolling the East Coast) and the East and West Gulf Blockading Squadrons in the Gulf of Mexico, each with its own commander.

The blockade continued throughout the war, and was a key component of the Union’s ultimate victory.

Sources:

By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War by Bern Anderson

Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 5.

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