U.S. Navy admiral: anthracite coal won the Civil War

“I believe that the Government of the United States should at once possess itself of the entire anthracite field of Pennsylvania and retain it for purposes of national defence.”

That’s how Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans of the United States Navy opened a 1906 essay about the strategic importance of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields. In the era of the Great White Fleet, which Evans commanded, and the rapid modernization of American forces in the early 20th century, military leaders pointed to the value of this coal as a fuel. He pointed to the Civil War to prove his point.

Robley Evans
Admiral Robley D. Evans in 1906 (Wikimedia Commons)

In his essay, Evans observes with dismay the U.S. Navy’s switch to from anthracite to bituminous coal that occurred in the late 19th century. He blamed the switch on the American reliance on British naval technology. British vessels burned the bituminous coal found in the British isles and in its colonies around the world.

He believed that the U.S. Navy should return to the fuel source utilized during the Civil War. Evans recalled the fuel’s importance in America’s bloodiest conflict, something that he had firsthand experience with; he had started his naval career at the Battle of Fort Fisher in 1865.

Robley-evans-young-1 (1)
Evans as a younger naval officer (Wikimedia Commons)


His brief statement on the subject brilliantly summarizes the value of coal from Eastern Pennsylvania in the Union war effort and in the U.S. Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports that eventually strangled the South and helped bring about their defeat. He believed that anthracite coal had won one American war and that it could help the United States win a future conflict.

Anthracite in the Civil War.—It is a fact not generally known at present that anthracite was the naval fuel of the Civil War, on the Northern side at least, and every American should be proud of that page of history. Only by the use of that fuel was the Federal fleet enabled to maintain the greatest blockade the world has ever known, on thousands of miles of coast-line, from the Virginia Capes to the Mexican boundary on the Gulf of Mexico. The blockade-runners were obliged to use soft coal, and that was their undoing in most cases. Some got through the lines in fogs and bad weather; but, for the most part, they were detected by their trails of smoke and flame long before they could espy the blockading craft burning smokeless fuel, and either driven away or captured. It has been said that the Confederacy was “starved to death”; maybe this was one of the factors that has been overlooked by the historian.

Featured Image: Naval bombardment at Fort Fisher in January 1865. Robley D. Evans took part in the bombardment and led a landing party of U.S. Marines that helped capture the Confederate garrison. (Library of Congress)

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