As April 1865 turned into May 1865, the Federal war effort slowed dramatically. A visible manifestation of this was the review in Washington, D.C. when three major armies passed on parade, with most of those troops due to muster out within weeks. Other components of the Federal war machine deactivated with much less fanfare. The Navy didn’t have a “grand review” of any sorts. But there was a rundown – or shall we say, demobilization.
During the Navy expanded from some 42 active vessels to over 650. Likewise, the number of personnel increased to over 80,000, though remained dwarfed by the number of volunteers in Army service. The primary task of the Navy throughout the war was the blockade. Accordingly, operational focus shifted from “blue water” operations to “brown water” and “brackish water.” But with the capture of Jefferson F. Davis and the surrender of all major Confederate commands, there was less need for all those hulls patrolling the coast. However- important to note – the blockade was still in effect. For several reasons, authorities in Washington wished to keep tight control over the southern coastline.
Orders from the Navy Department, issued on May 31, 1865, outlined the reduction of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:
Reduce the South Atlantic Squadron to the following number of vessels with all possible dispatch, viz, 6 tugboats, 15 other steamers.
You can have, in addition, such store vessels as may be required in connection with this force.
Select the most efficient vessels for retention, and send to the Department a list of them. Send all the others to Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Portsmouth, the monitors to Philadelphia. Several light-draft monitors will soon be sent to the South Atlantic Squadron.
These orders sent home the many light draft steamers, purchased or built during the war expressly for blockading operations. With only 21 vessels, the squadron could patrol entrances to ports, but not conduct the patrols ranging to intercept traffic further out at sea. A function of the change to the blockade. No longer were the Federals concerned about catching speedy runners before they reached the coast. Instead, the effort was more of an effort to reestablish the traffic controls through formal ports of entry.
The orders continued, relating the intent for personnel reductions:
Fill up the vessels that remain as the fixed force of the squadron with their complement of officers and men. Retain for this purpose good volunteer officers, so far as possible those who wish to continue a while longer in the service, and send north all other volunteer officers, for the purpose of being mustered out of the service. Of the men, send home those who have the least time to serve.
In forwarding to the Department a list of the vessels retained, send with it lists of the officers of each and complete muster rolls of their crews, the latter to the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting.
As for equipment, supplies, and materials formerly of the Confederacy:
All properties hitherto belonging to the rebel Naval Department, or that was under its control, will be taken possession of by you, and an account taken, with an estimate of the value thereof, and forwarded to this Department. If such property is in possession of the United States military forces, make a written request for it, and report your action to this Department, that the necessary orders may be given by the War Department for delivery to the Navy.
And with peace, came the need to reduce expenses:
Economize in the use of coal, and give directions to all vessels to keep steam down, expect in an emergency, of which the senior officer shall judge, under directions of the commander of the squadron.
Lastly, the command changed titles and would thereafter be known as the “South Atlantic Squadron.”
The reduction of the squadron, already started after the fall of Charleston, accelerated. On June 3, Dahlgren noted in his diary:
The Passaic left, in tow of the Calypso. A steady worker for two and one half years, and the first monitor in commission after the Monitor.
Those orders went forward, as so many for the Squadron during the war, by dispatch vessel. With no need for haste, the orders did not arrive at Charleston prior to the middle of June. By that time, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was already in Washington! As result, on June 21, Dahglren wrote that the target force reductions were exceeded:
Under a previous order to send home vessels that needed much repair, or were inefficient, I had sent home so many vessels … that the force was reduced below the number of steamers (15) fixed by the Department.
The deeper cut did not reverse the Navy’s demobilization. In July, Rear-Admiral William Radford took command of the Atlantic Squadron, which covered all vessels operating from the toe of Florida to the York River in Virginia. The Navy further reduced Radford’s squadron to ten steamers after that time.
By July 1, aside from the steamers, tugs, and other support vessels, only two monitors were assigned to the South Atlantic Squadron. These were the USS Catskill in Charleston and the USS Nahant repairing at Port Royal.
The Catskill left Charleston on July 13, bound for Philadelphia. A few weeks later the Nahant sailed north also. The once formidable South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which had operated some of the world’s most advanced warships of the day, had dwindled down to a flotilla of gunboats and tugs.
(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 340, 348, and 374.)