The naval battles of the American Civil War, fought between the Union and the Confederacy, changed the foundations of naval warfare with the first use of ironclads and submarines, and the introduction of newer and more powerful naval artillery.
The first shots of the naval war were fired on April 13, 1861, during the Battle of Fort Sumter, by the US Revenue Cutter Service cutter USRC Harriet Lane. The final shots were fired on June 22, 1865, by the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah in the Bering Strait, more than two months after General Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Confederate Army.
One of the most important and famous naval battles of the American Civil War was the clash of the ironclads, between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads. The battle took place on March 8, 1862, and lasted for several hours, resulting in a tactical draw. These revolutionary new warships were protected by the thick armor plating that gives them the name ironclad, which prevented any lasting damage to either ship.
The battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip in 1862 can be divided into two parts: a mostly-ineffective bombardment of the Confederate-held forts by the raft-mounted mortars, and the successful passage of the forts by much of Farragut's fleet on the night of April 24. During the passage, one Federal warship was lost and three others turned back, while the Confederate gunboats were virtually obliterated. The subsequent capture of the city, achieved with no further significant opposition, was a serious, even fatal, blow from which the Confederacy never recovered.
A second great naval battle occurred at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863. In this battle, called the First Battle of Charleston Harbor, the Union Navy sent Admiral Du Pont with nine ironclads to attack Charleston. When given the order, the admiral did not expect to be victorious. He would have to steer his ships upriver to the fort and attack it from a standstill, giving the Confederates a valuable edge. The Union Navy was forced to retreat within two hours to prevent too many casualties in a single battle, which would irreparably cripple the navy. Because of this failure, the Union would blockade Charleston for two more years, while the Confederacy was able to set up several more forts along the coast of South Carolina.
The Battle of Cherbourg was an intense naval battle that ended in the sinking of CSS Alabama, one of the most powerful ships in the Confederate fleet, by USS Kearsarge. Alabama fired the first shot, but Kearsarge was slightly faster, had more firepower, and was manned by a larger crew than Alabama, giving the Union the advantage. The Confederate ship took many hits and casualties, and the rising water shut off its engines, leaving the surviving crew with no other choice but to surrender and be rescued by Kearsarge.
The navies on both sides not only engaged in battle, but also transported foot soldiers, equipment, and supplies. Without a navy, neither army would have had the supplies or manpower necessary to successfully carry out the war.
Thus, one major strategy of the Union navy involved blockading Southern ports, preventing the South from receiving supplies or aid from allies via shipping ports. Vital supplies such as food, water, ammunition, guns, clothes, and medical supplies never made it to the Confederate troops. The Confederates retained a sufficient amount of resources to withstand the blockade for an extended period of time, causing the war to last longer than expected. However, the blockade continued to prevent the Confederate troops from replenishing their supplies, which in part led to their eventual surrender.
Naval ships on both sides also served as much-needed floating hospitals, housing and treating soldiers who had been injured in battle.
|Battle||Start date||End date||Notes|
|First Battle of Fort Sumter||April 12, 1861||April 13, 1861||First shots of the naval war fired, first battle of the war|
|Battle of Gloucester Point||May 7, 1861||May 7, 1861||First naval battle of the war|
|Battle of Sewell's Point||May 18, 1861||May 19, 1861|
|Battle of Aquia Creek||May 29, 1861||June 1, 1861||First use of torpedoes by Confederate forces in combat|
|Battle of Pig Point||June 5, 1861||June 5, 1861|
|Battle of Mathias Point||June 27, 1861||June 27, 1861|
|Sinking of the Petrel||July 28, 1861||July 28, 1861||One of the last naval battles in history involving a privateer ship|
|Battle of Cockle Creek||October 5, 1861||October 5, 1861|
|Battle of the Head of Passes||October 12, 1861||October 12, 1861||First use of ironclad ram in the war|
|Battle of Port Royal||November 7, 1861||November 7, 1861||First major naval battle of the war|
|Battle of Cockpit Point||January 3, 1862||January 3, 1862|
|Battle of Lucas Bend||January 11, 1862||January 11, 1862||First battle involving Union ironclads in the war|
|Battle of Fort Henry||February 6, 1862||February 6, 1862|
|Battle of Elizabeth City||February 10, 1862||February 10, 1862|
|Battle of Hampton Roads||March 8, 1862||March 9, 1862||First naval battle between two ironclad warships|
|Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip||April 16, 1862||April 28, 1862||Led to the Union capture of New Orleans|
|Battle of Island Number Ten||February 28, 1862||April 8, 1862||First Confederate defeat on the Mississippi River|
|Battle of Plum Point Bend||May 10, 1862||May 10, 1862||First sinking of Union ironclads by Confederate River Defense Fleet|
|Battle of Drewry's Bluff||May 15, 1862||May 15, 1862|
|Battle of Memphis||June 6, 1862||June 6, 1862||Confederate River Defense Fleet destroyed by Union rams and ironclad gunboats|
|Battle of Saint Charles||June 17, 1862||June 17, 1862|
|Battle of Tampa||June 30, 1862||July 1, 1862|
|Battle of Corpus Christi||August 12, 1862||August 18, 1862|
|Battle of Galveston Harbor||October 4, 1862||October 4, 1862|
|Battle of Crumpler's Bluff||October 3, 1862||October 3, 1862|
|Battle of Fort Hindman||January 9, 1863||January 11, 1863||Led to the largest surrender of Confederate troops west of the Mississippi River prior to the end of the war|
|Battle off Galveston Lighthouse||January 11, 1863||January 11, 1863|
|Battle of Fort McAllister||March 3, 1863||March 3, 1863|
|Battle of Fort Pemberton||March 11, 1863||March 11, 1863|
|First Battle of Charleston Harbor||April 7, 1863||April 7, 1863|
|Battle of Wassaw Sound||June 17, 1863||June 17, 1863|
|Battle of Portland Harbor||June 27, 1863||June 27, 1863|
|First Battle of Fort Wagner||July 10, 1863||July 11, 1863|
|Second Battle of Fort Wagner||July 18, 1863||July 18, 1863|
|Second Battle of Charleston Harbor||August 17, 1863||September 8, 1863|
|Second Battle of Sabine Pass||September 8, 1863||September 8, 1863||Most one-sided Confederate victory of the war|
|Second Battle of Fort Sumter||September 9, 1863||September 9, 1863|
|Attack on USS New Ironsides||October 5, 1863||October 5, 1863||CSS David becomes the first torpedo boat to make a successful attack on an enemy warship in combat|
|Battle of Fort Brooke||October 16, 1863||October 18, 1863|
|Sinking of USS Housatonic||February 17, 1864||February 17, 1864||H. L. Hunley becomes the first submarine to sink an enemy warship in combat|
|Battle of Fort Pillow||April 12, 1864||April 12, 1864|
|Battle of Plymouth||April 17, 1864||April 20, 1864|
|Battle of Albemarle Sound||May 5, 1864||May 5, 1864|
|Battle of Cherbourg||June 19, 1864||June 19, 1864||Led to the sinking of the Confederate raider CSS Alabama|
|Battle of Mobile Bay||August 2, 1864||August 23, 1864||Greatest Union naval victory of the war|
|Bahia Incident||October 7, 1864||October 7, 1864||Led to the capture of the Confederate raider CSS Florida, international incident with Brazil|
|Capture of Plymouth||October 29, 1864||October 31, 1864|
|Jamesville Incident||December 9, 1864||December 9, 1864|
|Second Battle of Fort Fisher||January 13, 1865||January 15, 1865||Largest amphibious assault of the war|
|Battle of Trent's Reach||January 23, 1865||January 25, 1865||Final major naval battle of the war|
|Blockade of the South||April 19, 1861||1865||Part of the Anaconda Plan|
- Union Navy
- Confederate States Navy
- Bibliography of early American naval history
- History of the United States Navy
- History of the United States Coast Guard
- Hearn, Chester (2000). Rebels and Yankees: Naval Battles of the American Civil War. California: Thunder Bay Press.
- "USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama 19 June 1864". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Naval History and Heritage Command. 2008.[dead link]
- Canney, D. (2013). "The Navies of the Civil War". battlefields.org. Retrieved 5 December 2019.
- Fowler, William (1990). Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War. Naval Institute Press.