Monday, December 05, 2011

Arnold: "THE DENBIGH'S CIVILIAN IMPORTS: Customs Records of a Civil War Blockade Runner between Mobile and Havana"

[ The Denbigh's Civilian Imports: Customs Records of a Civil War Blockade Runner between Mobile and Havana by J. Barto Arnold III (Institute of Nautical Archaeology, 2011). Softcover, map, figures, tables, notes, bibliography. 512 pp. ISBN:978-0-9795874-2-9  $40 ]

Launched in 1860 by Laird, Sons & Co. in Birkenhead, England, the Denbigh was a low-profile, swift ocean steamer, perfect for running the Civil War blockade of southern ports. Beginning late in 1863 and ending in May 1865, the vessel completed 13 round trips between Mobile, Alabama and Havana, Cuba, exchanging outgoing cotton with needed military and civilian goods. Its attention paid to the latter, J. Barto Arnold's The Denbigh's Civilian Imports is a massive new reference work, reproducing for researchers hundreds of invoices, bills of lading, and custom forms (as well as a number of other documents and letters) associated with the blockade runner.

Such a work is useful on a number of counts. Organized chronologically, Part I is comprised of a year-long (Jan. 1864 - Dec. 1864) period of wartime customs data (i.e. package content, weight, numbers of units, price, and duty owed).  This information offers researchers valuable insights into what items -- both necessities and luxury goods -- were needed and valued by area households. By 1864, inflation was a major concern in the Confederacy, and the ability to compare price levels on similar items over a year long period makes the book an important tool for students of the southern economy and blockade. The names of individuals and businesses mentioned in the documents also allows for the tracing of items through advertised auctions all the way to the end user. It all contributes to an overall picture of the needs and wants of civilian life in Mobile and beyond.

Part II's documents center around customs data from the fall of 1860, the collection as a whole providing a treasure trove of comparative (pre war to late war) cargo information. Other miscellaneous pieces contain tidbits about other ships and crews operating out of the city of Mobile.  The Denbigh's outgoing cargoes are also documented in this section.

As stated before, The Denbigh's Civilian Imports is a highly specialized and highly useful reference guide directed toward a specific audience of researchers and historians. There is no narrative beyond a very brief introductory chapter offering a few facts pertaining to the Denbigh and its career, as well as some descriptive explanations of the customs documents (both typed reproductions and photographs) which together comprise almost 500 of the book's pages. Anyone with a serious interest in the nuts and bolts of the blockade, and the full range of scarce items valued by an increasingly deprived 1864 Confederate home front, will benefit from owning a copy of Arnold's impressive document collection.

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