The newly formed Southern nation was ill-equipped to support itself and its armies during the prolonged conflict known as the American Civil War. Primarily agricultural, the states of the Confederacy had few manufacturing sites, and many of these were clustered in the Upper South or in coastal cities that were open to attack by Union forces. In order to remedy this, the South turned to Europe, more specifically Great Britain, to obtain much needed manufactured goods and war materials. Exporting Southern trade goods, like cotton, tobacco, and naval stores and importing finished products, like weapons, munitions, and cloth, meant evading the Union blockade. Goods coming from Europe would first be shipped in standard cargo vessels to a neutral port like Havana, Cuba in the Caribbean, Nassau, in the Bahamas or St. George, Bermuda in the Atlantic. (See Figure 1 in Appendix) Once at these ports, the cargos would be transferred to specially designed ships called blockade runners that transported goods to the Southern ports.
Blockade runners were small, shallow draft, steam powered ships with a low silhouette. Their small size and shallow draft allowed them to maneuver in the shallow waters of the South Atlantic coastline, where larger ships could not go. Steam power removed dependence on the wind and provided the speed that was needed to outrun patrolling warships that were trying to enforce the blockade. The vessels' low profiles meant that they did not stand out against the horizon, making them more difficult for Union warships to spot. Blockade runners also burned anthracite coal, a harder, high-grade form of coal, which produced a light grey smoke, as opposed to the thick black smoke of standard bituminous coal. Further complicating the job of the Federal blockaders, the captains of the blockade runners often made their runs on nights when there was no moon.
At the beginning of the war, the primary Confederate ports were New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf coast. Along the Atlantic coast the main southern ports were Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Wilmington, North Carolina. (See Fig. 1) These port cities became the primary targets of the Union blockade. By the fall of 1864, every major Southern port, except Wilmington, was either captured by the Union or effectively blockaded. This increased the importance of Wilmington and its defenses, making it the "lifeline of the Confederacy."
MAP: The Federal Blockade — Union blockade regions, and patrol lines of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Cape Fear (PDF)