Friday, March 4, 2011

Stephen Mallory - Secretary, Confederate States Navy

On March 4, 1861, Stephen R. Mallory was appointed Secretary of the Navy of the Confederate States of America. To me, he is one of the more interesting persons of the Civil War navies, Union or Confederate. Born circa 1813 in Trinidad, he was raised mostly in Key West, Florida. He began his professional career in the early 1800’s practicing maritime law in the Florida Keys (at the time a hot bed of “wrecking” – the recovery of cargo from ships wrecked on the reefs of the Keys). Eventually he went into politics, representing Florida in the U.S. Senate. There, he was appointed to the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, which he eventually chaired. During his tenure, he was an advocate for the reinstatement of flogging as a means of discipline of sailors. He failed to prevail on this issue, but he was successful in passing legislation overhauling the means of promotion and retention of officers in the Navy, establishing a Board of Review, which evaluated naval officers based on accomplishments and abandoned the ancient system of advancement based on seniority alone. The other major issue Mallory promoted in his senate position was for the U.S. Navy to adopt emerging technologies, such as construction of ironclad warships.

When Florida seceded, Mallory joined the fledgling Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis appointed him Secretary of the C.S. Navy in March 1861. Mallory was well aware that the south could not match the north in the ability to build and modify ships, and that he would never be able to go “ship-to-ship” against the U.S. Navy; so he adopted a naval strategy based on three things (not in order of priority):

(1) Deploy sea-going commerce raiders to disrupt Union merchant shipping and divert Union warships from the blockade to chase the raiders.
(2) Run the Union blockade using a combination of private shipping and specially-constructed blockade-running ships operated by the C.S. Navy.
(3) Adopt and deploy the broad range of emerging naval technologies (ironclads, submersibles, and torpedoes) to attempt to keep southern harbors open and maintain the flow of supplies through the blockade.

One could say that he both succeeded and failed in all three. Originally, the Confederate States of America tried to implement commerce raiding by the old device of issuing “Letters of Marque” to allow private parties to act as raiders on behalf of the Confederate government. Due to international treaty, the Confederate Navy eventually decided to assume the responsibility for purchasing and constructing sea-going ships to prey on Union commerce shipping. These would be regular, commissioned war ships. While some of these had great success (notably the CSS Alabama and Shenandoah), they failed to even partially disable Union maritime commerce, although they did contribute to the eventual demise of the U.S. merchant marine industry. They were unsuccessful at diverting Union Navy ships off the blockade to try to hunt them down and capture them.

Blockade running was also initially entrusted to private parties, but the private runners ultimately failed to deliver the war material needed by the Confederacy to prosecute the war. The demand for luxury goods (and the willingness of the Confederate aristocracy to pay whatever price was commanded) made it more lucrative for private runners to carry cargo to meet this demand, despite government requirements that they carry a certain percentage of military cargo. Eventually, the Confederate Navy chose to construct and crew its own blockade runners in order to supply arms and equipment to the armies of the Confederacy (e.g. see CWS Blog Post by Gordon Calhoun on 24 July 2010).

Mallory’s willingness to use new technology was perhaps his greatest contribution to the war effort, but again, he was unable to capitalize on this. He embraced the use of ironclad ships as a means of going up against the overwhelming firepower of the big frigates and sloops of the Union Navy, but he did not exercise the necessary degree of authority in prioritizing the construction of the C.S. Navy ironclads. The various private groups contracted to build the ironclads had to compete with one another in the procurement of critically needed iron plates, machinery, skilled personnel, and the other limited resources that the Confederacy had to constantly deal with. This resulted in the construction of mostly ineffective ironclad vessels that failed to live up to their potential. If Mallory had used his authority (and strategic vision) to prioritize which ships needed to be finished first, and divert all resources to those, the confederate ironclads may have been more effective. The use of submersible vessels (the “Davids” and the CSS Hunley) did not achieve widespread success, and the use of torpedoes, while extremely effective in the latter stages of the war (in terms of both real results and their psychological impact) were deployed too late to accomplish anything substantive.

Following the conclusion of the war, Mallory was arrested by the U.S. government and imprisoned for “treason.” No trial of any kind was conducted and in March 1866, President Andrew Johnson granted Mallory a parole, which released him from jail. Eventually, he was allowed to return to Florida, where he settled in Pensacola. Per the terms of his parole, he was barred from holding public office, but he made a decent living by resuming his law practice. His health gradually began to fail and he died in November 1873. He is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida.

 Photo courtesy of the Florida Dept. of State on-line photo archive.

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