Why didn't the Confederates attack U.S. coaling stations?


During the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy had several coaling stations along the Southern coast - Port Royal and Hilton Head, S.C.; Cape Hatteras, N.C.; Ship Island, Miss., among others. The stations supported the Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports, which became increasingly effective over time. As far as I know, though, the stations were not especially well-fortified, and were also never attacked by landside Confederate troops during the war.

Why not? It seems to me that the Confederates would want to do anything they could to break the blockade or make it untenable. Relatively small Federal outposts along the Confederate coast would’ve been pretty vulnerable to attack, no?

I suspect that most of these weren’t exactly sitting on the main highway next to a city, but rather out on isolated, hard to get to by land, places, like well, capes and islands.

So it would have been a big pain in the butt (or impossible) to get a bunch of troops out there when you couldn’t go by water, and for some part of the way, a Union ship could cruise by and shell you with impunity at any time. At which point if you do succeed the return on your investment is capturing a pile of coal and a few shovelers. Until two weeks later when Union ships show up with way bigger guns than you could drag out there, and probably more troops than you could get over the sandbanks, and capture you and the remaining coal.

Yeah, the problem isn’t capturing the coaling stations so much as it is holding them. The South lacked the resources to fortify them sufficiently to hold off naval counterattack, and with leaders who still believed in winning a decisive land battle (such as Lee), were unlikely to make a major attempt to commit such resources. Lee notoriously refused to divert troops to reinforce coastal defenses at Roanoke Island, iirc.

The main objection to devoting any resources to the blockade-assisting forts ought to have been that no amount of foreign supply could win the war for the CSA. Victory could only be attained in land battle against the US Army.

Something you’ll note: all of these locations are islands. The U.S. Navy controlled the sea. Hence they couldn’t be attacked by large bodies of troops. Further, they lay at some distance from major Confederate troop concentrations and railroads (though, IIRC, Port Royal wasn’t too far off from a rail line). The Confederacy lacked effective naval forces barring a few commerce raiders and two half-functional ironclads (which were countered with rapidly-improving Union ironclads). And coaling stations were easily changed if it had become necessary - you just take over some other island and divert your shipments there instead.

So there wasn’t a whole the Confederacy could or even really wanted to do in order to deal with it. And as Sailboat explained, they couldn’t hold these areas. In fact, they had a very poor track record in coastal combat, because the Union Navy could and did choose any target it wanted at any time it cared for. In 1862 - the first real year of war - the Union effectively took control over the entire Eastern seaboard coastline. In1863 they controlled all of it and the Confederacy has no trade except in smuggled goods, basically. In1864 even that stopped.

Basically, the Confederacy had zero naval successes. They made a good showing for their materials and managed to permanently drive the merchant marine away from being U.S.-flagged. But in the end they didn’t accomplish very much in real terms. Not in the raiding, not in river defense, and not in blockade running. This is actually not really a huge problem in Civil War history, as the Confederacy was in a somewhat similar position as the American Revolution. Nobody sneers at John Paul Jones; he did many of the same things as Raphael Semmes. Neither couldn’t possibly match the high-seas Navy, so they didn’t. (Although I think Semmes was a madman for challenging the Kearsage, but he was a bit of a jerk anyway.)

A case can be made that the Confederacy really never had a comprehensive strategy on how to win the Civil War. WHile they had some great successes and they were able to capitalize upon the questionable leadership of the Army of the Potomac, there never seemed to a single strategy or set of strategies which would have allowed them to turn their few strengths into long-term gains.

Even Gettysburg would have turned into a disaster had the South won as their supply lines were overextended and it’s doubtful that they could have successful campaigned in Pennsylvania much later in the year. At best they could have threatened Philadelphia briefly and then retreated back into Virginia before the weather changed as their soldiers didn’t have adequate cold weather gear.

The coaling stations probably occurred to the Confederacy’s war planners. They simply had too many other areas (Texas,New Orleans, Missouri, Tennessee, Northern Virginia,etc) to cover and too few troops and too limited equipment to prosecute a successful conflict.

Take the point of difficulty in holding . but would it have been of any strategic advantage to take the station, set fire to the coal bunkers and then skedaddle?

Anything that disrupted the supply logistics of the blockade would have increased the chances of getting tradeable goods e.g. cotton through to European markets.

Attempting even to raid such stations would have been difficult. A single gunboat can block virtually unlimited numbers of infantry from crossing water, and if they had the ships to attack the coaling stations, they wouldn’t have been nearly so unguarded.

Further, getting goods out was virtually impossible and wouldn’t have changed. The blockade would not have been disrupted by a single event, and this wasn’t something the Confederacy could have possibly kept up. Maybe, at most, they might have been able to attack Port Royal. Maybe. Once. It would have temporarily weakened the blockade in a localized area.

I’m not sure how much of a centralized command the Confederacy had. One of the basic principles of the CSA was less Federal control over the states. At Appomattox, Lee only surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, he had no authority to surrender all CSA forces.

Anyway, back to the OT, I’m having trouble imagining the CSA conducting an amphibious assault on any of those coaling stations.

Actually, Lee did have direct authority over all Confederate armies. A few days before the surrender, Davis was finally persuaded–years too late to do any good–to make Lee field commander-in-chief.

Before then, only Davis and to some extent his Secretary of War had the authority to design grand strategy, and neither one was up to the task.

It’s worth noting the Confederacy lost their entire biggest city in 1862 - New Orleans - and couldn’t get THAT back, largely because it was so inconveniently close to the water.

Already said but maybe worth repeating. The coaling stations were easy to move and of little long term value and the confederates had effectively no Navy to support their actions and to them bigger concerns.

Eh. Coal wasn’t scarce in the North. Timing an assault for some hypothetical point when a blockading squadron would be low on coal and forced to withdraw before reinforcements could arrive would be pretty hit-or-miss even with good intelligence. It’s too hard to tell if a given fleet or ship has been economizing its coal, or whether supply ships will or won’t arrive in time, or even a European ship might happen by and sell coal to the Union squadron. Lots of variables. I guess it could have happened, but you’d be asking men to die on a series of long-shot chances at occasionally inflicting temporary hardship on the enemy. And then the enemy would just harden up the defenses a lot.

In a computer game this strategy would perhaps be worth a gamble with throwaway units. In real life, gambling human lives humans as “throwaway” units, especially for a low-payoff objective like temporary harassment, is at least as likely to demoralize your own side as have any measurable effect on the war.

edited to add: And a fair number of blockading ships still had sails. While they wouldn’t have been able to catch swift blockade runners without coal, they would still be able to remain on station, thus preventing the blockade from being “lifted” in any legal sense.

Thanks, everyone.

Never heard of this happening. I don’t even think they did underway replenishment in those days of anything more than what could be carried in a longboat or two.

If I recall correctly, they did employ transports which would at times take coal down to ships in the blockade lines. Could be misremembering.

I know the Royal Navy was doing midway coaling by the early 1900s (Kipling even wrote about it), but I don’t think the U.S. Navy did so during the Civil War. As I recall, it was always shore-to-ship.

The bottom line was that the United States had a significant advantage in logistics and naval strength. It’s a bad strategy to pit your country against another in an arena where you’re weaker.