Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Review of Carlin - "CAPTAIN JAMES CARLIN: Anglo-American Blockade Runner"

[Captain James Carlin: Anglo-American Blockade Runner by Colin Carlin (University of South Carolina Press, 2017). Cloth, 3 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:249/299. ISBN:9781611177138. $34.99]

Although Confederate officers at the helm of commerce raiders (men like like Raphael Semmes of the Alabama and the Florida's John Newland Maffitt) achieved more lasting fame than blockade runner captains, and the foreign service efforts of James D. Bulloch have tended to overshadow those of other agents abroad in Europe, there were certainly many other highly accomplished nautical men that wore multiple hats while aiding the Confederate cause. Captain James Carlin makes a strong case that its biographical subject's blockade running and naval exploits, as well has fleet management skills, are deserving of greater recognition by Civil War scholars and readers.

The father of English-born James Carlin was a Coast Guard station officer, which meant young Carlin would get the fine formal education that the children of Coast Guard members were entitled. In the mid-1850s after Carlin had only recently completed his merchant marine officer apprenticeship, he was invited by an American naval officer of his acquaintance to join the U.S. Coast Survey as a pilot and master's mate. In this capacity, Carlin gained the intimate knowledge of the South Atlantic coastline that would later serve him well as a blockade runner. He resigned from his post in 1860 and entered South Carolina society by marrying into a well-to-do local family.

In 1861-62, the capable and always ambitious Carlin sought his fortune in blockade running, piloting and commanding both sailing vessels and steamships. As the book shows, this initial period of Carlin's new career was well representative of early Civil War blockade running, with its rapid transition from vulnerable sail power to the narrow, low-profile, and fast steamers that would come to dominate the illicit wartime trade in the South Atlantic and Caribbean.

The diplomatic dimensions of the Union blockade of the southern coast have been abundantly explored in the wider literature, but the book's meticulously detailed account of Carlin's involvement in an extended diplomatic imbroglio between the U.S. and Great Britain offers some interesting insights not found elsewhere. Captured as a passenger on the Memphis in August 1862 as the steamship was exiting Charleston, Carlin was quickly identified by Union authorities as a person of interest and imprisoned in Fort Lafayette.

Source material located in archives on both sides of the Atlantic were effectively used by the author to reconstruct the story of Carlin's incarceration, as well as the protracted diplomatic wrangling (which reached the highest levels of both governments) that finally resulted in Carlin's release after five months of close confinement. Much of the contention revolved around Carlin's citizenship status. Given Carlin's employment with the U.S. Coastal Survey and his long residence in the country, the U.S. State Department and Navy operated under the assumption (without any supporting documentation) that Carlin was a U.S. citizen, while the British government possessed proof of foreign citizenship and demanded that Carlin be released like the other Memphis passengers. The author's view that Secretary of State Seward and Navy Secretary Welles deliberately drew out the proceedings to keep Carlin, whose specialized experience and knowledge made him invaluable to the enemy, imprisoned as long as possible before inevitable release is persuasive. The case study of Carlin's pressured release (even though U.S. authorities clearly recognized the great likelihood that he would return to South Carolina and resume his former activities) is further testament to the global power of British diplomacy of the period.

Carlin indeed returned to blockade running between Charleston and the Bahamas during the first half of 1863. By the end of that time, he was senior captain (informal "commodore") of the Import and Export (I&E) Company of South Carolina. Embittered by his long imprisonment, Carlin also sought out opportunities for more direct action against Union ships, and the book details Carlin's role in outfitting and captaining the spar torpedo boat CSS Torch. The study's full account of the Torch's failed attack on the formidable USS New Ironsides is informative. Though the Torch incident has been largely forgotten in favor of a later attack by the CSS David, which succeeded in damaging New Ironsides, the book plausibly credits the activities of the Torch in forcing the U.S. Navy to position its ships farther from shore.

In late 1863, Carlin was sent to England by his employers to procure new ships to augment the blockade running fleet and replace worn out vessels. He successfully completed this mission, overcoming numerous obstacles along the way. With the tide of war shifting decisively in the Union's favor, Carlin resettled his family in Liverpool in 1864 and skillfully managed the company's fleet from there. A man of action to the end, he was an onboard presence on many late-war trips between Charleston (where he maintained properties) and Nassau. His last runs before the close of hostilities were into Galveston.

After the war, Carlin rejoined his family in Liverpool, where he discreetly disposed of the fleet. However, he still sought out New World business opportunities in Florida, South Carolina, and in the Caribbean. In 1869, he ran arms and revolutionaries into Cuba. On return to the Bahamas, his ship was seized, and he was determined to be in violation of his country's Foreign Enlistment Act, which was being much more strictly enforced after the legal headaches stemming from U.S. claims against British-built commerce raiders. Carlin eventually escaped these troubles and kept a lower profile for the rest of his life, eventually passing away at a rest home (or asylum) in 1891.

Though the project began with author Colin Carlin's interest in family history, the text is refreshingly free of tones of ancestor worship or exaggerated achievement. Carlin also takes a suitably skeptical view of family lore not based on actual evidence. Rather extensive continuity interruptions exist in the known life of James Carlin, and the author does a noteworthy job of using a variety of archival records located in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. in order to address, either directly or by way of inference, many of these biographical gaps. On occasion, Carlin's grasp of peripheral history can be a bit unsteady (e.g. in the book, you'll find "Arthur Sidney Johnson" for Albert Sidney Johnston and CSS "Huntley" for the famous submarine Hunley) but this concern doesn't appear to carry over to matters more directly at hand.

Captain James Carlin lifts out of relative obscurity an important Civil War nautical figure. In addition to richly documenting Carlin's often shadowy life, the study contributes significantly to our wider knowledge of the war's blockade, naval, and diplomatic histories.


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