Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Review - "British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War" by Joseph McKenna

[British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War by Joseph McKenna (McFarland, 2019). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,191/216. ISBN:9781476676791. $49.95]

Joseph McKenna's British Ships in the Confederate Navy (2010) examined British-built Confederate warships that cruised the oceans as commerce raiders while also shining light on the large proportion of British citizens that crewed those vessels. His new book British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War offers readers an in-depth look at the British maritime industrial firms, businesses, investors, and individuals who participated in and profited from the immensely lucrative illicit trade with the Confederacy.

As all Civil War readers are doubtlessly aware, the lure of quick profits from blockade running and the textile industry's need for southern cotton taxed official British neutrality throughout the war. Though private firms (the largest and most well known being Fraser, Trenholm & Co., the Liverpool subsidiary of John Fraser & Co. out of Charleston) and even the state and Richmond governments were directly involved in blockade running, it was British-owned and crewed vessels that comprised a substantial majority of the ships that passed through the U.S. blockade of southern ports.

In addition to relating numerous standalone adventure stories of ships and men who braved the dangerous passage, the book also provides some more macro-level discussions of the process, risks, and rewards of blockade running. A selection of cargo lists (and their values) presents readers with a good general impression of the scale and variety of essential military arms, ammunition, and supplies that were imported during the war. The evolution of blockade running, particularly in the construction of vessels particularly designed for the task, is also discussed at some length. Even though ships routinely evaded the blockade throughout the conflict, the ever tightening cordon established around the southern coastline did force prospective runners to switch from using huge, slow bulk transports to a new generation of low, swift, narrow beam, and shallow draft vessels that were difficult to spot let alone stop.

Though Confederate representatives and their foreign business collaborators went to great lengths, at least on paper, to remain clandestine, the book abundantly documents how U.S. consular officials and their spy networks throughout Europe and the Caribbean were able to quickly identify potential runners and compile accurate cargo lists and drawings of ships. It was a remarkably effective bureaucratic system, but catching the vessels at sea was another matter entirely. Given the near impossibility of maintaining secrecy, runners needed ever more creative ways of circumventing the "continuous voyage" doctrine of established blockade law. Describing this process, the book provides an informative chapter on how blockade running firms employed a variety of devious transshipment strategies to prevent seizure of their cargoes (even to the extent of using northern ports to disguise port to port continuity in sending goods between European and Confederate ports!) .

McKenna also examines Confederate bonds as funding source and object of speculative investment. With the borrowed money to be repaid in cotton after the war ended, foreign investment in Confederate cotton bonds was high risk-high reward (thus the appeal to speculators). In addition to tracing the changing value and attractiveness of these bonds over the course of the war, the book discusses the 1864 Confederate law aimed at eliminating contract fraud and waste by centralizing foreign purchasing through only two Confederate government agents—one for the army (Caleb Huse) and one for the navy (James Bulloch). By all estimates, this measure and the later commercial act that banned importation of most luxury items and forced blockade runners to set aside half of the cargo space for the government were imposed far too late.

In addition to gleaning information from previously published works, McKenna (a librarian and resident of Birmingham, England) also wades deeply into British diplomatic, trade, and newspaper archives to get at information not readily available to U.S.-based researchers. Among the results are a pair of comprehensive descriptive registers of British firms that built blockade runners and British ships (arranged alphabetically) that ran the blockade during the war. The author also uncovered the real names of several captains of blockade runners who used aliases. McKenna found that many of these men were Royal Navy officers inactive or on leave, who wanted to turn a quick profit without endangering their professional careers or causing further diplomatic rows with an already thoroughly annoyed U.S. State Department. The author also usefully reminds readers that British vessels and crews always had to remain completely unarmed, as any hostile measures taken, even in self-defense, would be construed as acts of piracy. No one wanted to risk being hanged when the typical treatment of captured foreign officers and crewmen was only a few weeks of detention before release.

Abundantly documenting the activities of British government officials, ship-building firms, investors, captains, and crews, British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War is a useful history and reference guide that appreciably augments our knowledge and understanding of the British role in the exportation and transit of contraband of war. Recommended.

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