U–Boat: The Secret Menace

The Blockade: Runners and Raiders, the third in the Time–Life Civil War Series of books did not disappoint. Sections of the book read like a novel, as the reader gets carried away in a game of hare and hounds (one of the chapter titles). As I read of the blockade runners and their daring exploits on the eastern coast of the south during the Civil War, I could not help but be reminded of a book that I read years ago entitled U–Boat: The Secret Menace. When I was in junior high and high school, a few of my friends and I would order these books that were in the series Ballatine’s Illustrated History of the Violent Century (originally they were …History of World War II). The books could be had for a dollar and I think we had to order them directly from Ballatine. These thin volumes were packed with details and information (mostly because the typography was terrible—not sure what font they used but it’s not attractive and it is tiny) that we could not find elsewhere. 

The Blockade

Back to the subject at hand. The escapades of the blockade runners reminded me of the escapades of the U–Boat captains—both fighting for a lost cause, both trying to not get caught through of the use of stealth, trickery and camouflage—for the blockade runners that meant painting their ships a gray color that was hard to see whether on the high seas or on the coastline.

These ships were, for the most part, steam and sail powered. Some where outfitted with steel plates, some where outright ironclads. The best ones were build with a shallow draft, allowing them to enter the inter-coastal waterways and lose their pursuers, who (at the beginning of the war) were big ships that had a deep draft and could not follow their prey. The best “hares” were piloted by experts who knew the waterways like the back of their hands. These men could name their price for their service.

The final chapter tells the tale of Captain Raphael Semmes, a pirate if there ever was one. Famous as the commander of the CSS Alabama, Semmes lead a remarkable raid of 75,000 miles, in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, capturing 65 Union merchantmen, appraised at $4,613,914—or over 117 billion in today’s dollars. He “was later arrested and indicted for piracy… spending four months in prison… he returned to Mobile in 1868 and lived out his days practicing law and writing about his exploits aboard the Alabama.”1

All told, the blockade runners “destroyed 257 Yankee vessels, or about 5 percent of the Union merchant fleet. And yet that remarkable performance had no measurable effect on the blockade…the raiders’ main contributions were to bolster Confederate morale.” 2

While the Federal blockade effectively reduced the South’s trade by more than two-thirds, the war was ultimately “decided on the battlefield, not on the blockade line, [but] it surely would have been a different war had the United States Navy not stood silent guard along the Southern coasts.”3
1 p. 160
2 p. 161
3 p. 161