The Confederate States Navy (CSN) was the naval branch of the Confederate States armed forces established by an act of the Confederate Congress on February 21, 1861. It was responsible for Confederate naval operations during the American Civil War. The two major tasks of the Confederate Navy during the whole of its existence were the protection of Southern harbors and coastlines from outside invasion, and making the war costly for the North by attacking merchant ships and breaking the Union Blockade.
The C. S. Navy could never achieve equality with the Union Navy and used technological innovation, such as ironclads, submarines, torpedo boats, and naval mines (then known as torpedoes) to gain advantage over the Union Navy. In February 1861, the Confederate Navy had thirty ships, only fourteen of which were seaworthy, while the Union Navy had ninety vessels. The C. S. Navy eventually grew to 101 ships to meet the rise in naval conflicts and enemy threats.
On April 20, 1861, the Union was forced to quickly abandon the important Norfolk Navy Yard. In the process, they failed to effectively burn the facility, its supply and arms depots, or in-port ships. As a result, the Confederacy captured much needed war materials and ordinance. Of most importance, the South gained the shipyard's drydocks, sorely needed to build new warships. (The Confederacy's other major navy yard was in Pensacola, Florida). Ships left at the Norfolk shipyard included a screw sloop-of-war named USS Merrimack.
It was C S. Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory's idea to raise the partially burned Merrimack and heavily armor the ship's newly rebuilt upper works with thick oak planking and two courses of heavy iron plate, turning it into a new kind of warship: an all-steam powered "iron clad". The new ship was christened CSS Virginia and later fought the Union's new ironclad USS Monitor to a draw on the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads. On the first day, Virginia aggressively attacked and nearly broke the Union Navy's sea blockade of wooden warships, proving the effectiveness of the ironclad warship.
The final Confederate surrender took place on November 6, 1865 aboard the CSS Shenandoah in Liverpool, England. This surrender brought about the end of the Confederate Navy. The Shenandoah had circumnavigated the globe, the only CSN 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 in his home state of Florida, and he had served for a time as the chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee while he was a United States senator.
As Navy Secretary, Mallory built the C. S. Navy into something very formidable to achieve the goals it needed to win the war, and do even more. A Confederate Congress committee, meeting on August 27, 1862, reported:
In addition to the ships included in the report of the committee, the Navy also had one ironclad floating battery, presented to the Confederate States by the state of Georgia, one ironclad ram donated by the state of Alabama, and numerous privateers making war on Union merchant ships.
The practice of using primary and secondary naval flags after the British tradition was common practice for the Confederacy, linked as she was by both heritage and economy to the British Isles. The fledgling Confederate Navy therefore adopted detailed flag requirements and regulations in the use of battle ensigns, and naval jacks, as well as small boat ensigns, commissioning pennants, designating 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 (as pictured above right).
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:
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 May 6, 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 Great Britain and France, but the United States had neither signed nor endorsed the declaration. Therefore, privateering was constitutionally legal in both the United and Confederate States, as well as Portugal, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Germany. However, the United States did not acknowledge the Confederate States as a nation and denied the legitimacy of any letters of marque issued by its government. Union President Abraham Lincoln declared all medicines to the South to be contraband, and that 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 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 were unable to relieve the blockade on Southern ports and economy.
One of the more well-known ships was CSS Virginia, formerly the sloop-of-war USS Merrimack (1855). In 1862, after being converted to an ironclad ram, she fought USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads, an event that came to symbolize the end of the dominance of large wooden sailing warships and the beginning of the age of iron and the ironclad warship.
The Confederates also constructed submarines, among the few that existed after the early Turtle of the American Revolutionary War. But of those, the The Pioneer and the Bayou St. John Confederate Submarine never did see action. However, the Hunley, built in New Orleans as a privateer by Horace Hunley, later came under the control of the Confederate Army at Charleston, SC, but was manned by a C. S. Navy crew. It is notable as the first submarine to sink a ship in a wartime engagement. The Hunley mysteriously sank for unknown reasons a short while after signaling to shore its successful attack on the sloop-of-war USS Housatonic.
Confederate commerce raiders were also used with great success to disrupt Union merchant shipping. The most famous of them was the screw sloop-of-war CSS Alabama, a warship secretly built for the Confederacy in North West England. It was launched as Enrica, but recommissioned a short while later just off the Azores, where it began its raiding career. The similar raider CSS Shenandoah fired the last shot of the American Civil War in late June 1865. But it did not surrender until early November 1865, five months after the war had ended.
There was a Revolutionary War-era frigate known as USS Confederacy, unrelated to the C. S. Navy. There was, however, a CSS United States, the name of the USS United States in 1861–1862, when she was captured and used by the CSN.
Between the beginning of the war and the spring of 1862, thirty-two captains, fifty-four commanders, and seventy-six lieutenants, together with 2,011 regular and acting midshipmen, had resigned from the United States Navy in order to serve the Confederacy. In order to expand the Navy Department to provide positions for all the new officers and recruits, the Confederate Congress passed the Amendatory Act of April 21, 1862 in which the Confederate Navy was made to account for:
By July 20, 1861, the Confederate government had organized the administrative positions of the Confederate Navy as follows: