Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Review - "Breaking the Blockade: The Bahamas during the Civil War" by Charles Ross

[Breaking the Blockade: The Bahamas during the Civil War by Charles D. Ross (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,194/255. ISBN:978-1-4968-3135-4. $30]

A sleepy British colonial outpost of little international commercial consequence before 1861, Nassau, Bahamas was transformed by the American Civil War almost overnight into a bustling center of cotton exchange and blockade running that made ambitious merchants millionaires and supplied the Confederacy with all manner of badly needed European munitions, manufactured goods, and supplies. All of the most important Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and Atlantic ports of call connected with that commerce (among them Bermuda; Nassau, Bahamas; Havana, Cuba; and Matamoros, Mexico) have been integrated into existing blockade and blockade running histories; however, Charles Ross's Breaking the Blockade: The Bahamas during the Civil War provides the first in-depth, standalone study of Nassau's central role in the illicit trade system that sustained the Confederate war effort through most of the war. This brief interlude of unprecedented excitement and profit would come to be known locally as the "Great Carnival."

Ross provides more than enough background information on antebellum-period Bahamian society for readers of his study to truly appreciate the grand scale of developmental and economic transformation that the Civil War years brought to the islands. These early parts of the book also helpfully explain in what ways Nassau was perfectly situated to facilitate the exchange of southern cotton for manufactured war materials and scarce civilian goods. Prior to the Civil War, most island residents (white and black) were engaged in fishing and wreck salvage, but Nassau's port was more than able to accommodate a sudden increase in oceanic shipping traffic. In addition to being a coaling station for the Royal Navy, Nassau was also garrisoned by the 2nd West Indian regiment, so the port was able to provide a generally well-regulated and secure environment for international trade. Only 560 nautical miles from Charleston (and similarly close to Wilmington and Savannah), Nassau was ideally situated for the establishment of an oceanic transshipment point. One lesser appreciated blockade running advantage highlighted in the book revolves around the vast geographical spread of the Bahamas archipelago. With Bahamas territorial waters spanning thousands of square miles of ocean, U.S. Navy patrols aimed at monitoring all ingress/egress points found their task to be a impossible one without violating international law (which they did on more than one occasion).

Dabbling into U.S., U.K., and Bahamian archives, Ross utilizes those primary sources to provide readers with a highly colorful and informative picture of what life was like on the island of New Providence and in the streets of Nassau itself (at least for the merchant and ruling classes) over the course of the conflict. Interesting biographies of local figures are also interspersed throughout. According to Ross's findings, the feelings of the white population as a whole—colonial officials, businessmen, military officers, women, and common laborers alike—were strongly pro-Confederate from beginning to end. The sources behind that are not explored at great length, but one can suppose the profit motive was a major factor along with general hostility directed toward the U.S. due to blockade effects on neutral shipping and the emotional fallout from a series of American insults to national/imperial pride (the most blood-boiling of these being the nearly war-provoking "Trent Affair" crisis of late 1861). Almost all white residents from the governor (Charles Bayley for most of the war) on down turned a blind eye to British neutrality laws and wholeheartedly supported the island's bustling illegal trade. The massive influx of wealth into Nassau turned a number of well-connected merchants and investors into fabulously rich men, but the local cash infusion also funded service improvements along with construction of a multitude of commercial, government, and private buildings. Predictably, hand-in-hand with all that came dramatic increases in crime and corruption. What the black majority thought of the Bahamas being a key player in propping up an ardently proslavery and expansion-minded Confederacy is little addressed in the study (and perhaps only scarcely documented), but the author does cite several examples of material assistance a small number of paid black wreckers and pilots provided to the United States. These men were part of an intermittent spy and coastal watch system that attempted with some success to coordinate intelligence between U.S. warships and the consular office in Nassau.

The gritty details of blockade running, including the complex interplay (both cooperative and antagonistic) between government and business individuals and entities related to the immensely profitable trade network linking southern ports, Nassau, and distant Liverpool, can all be found in the book. Significant attention is paid to the contributions of notable individuals on all sides of the Great Carnival. These include local Bahamas commission merchants (Henry Adderley being the most prominent), imperial government officials, Confederate representatives, and U.S. consuls. Most Nassau-based blockade runners were crewed and captained by British citizens, and Ross, as Joseph McKenna also did in his 2019 study British Blockade Runners in the American Civil War, draws reader attention toward the backgrounds and exploits of a noteworthy selection of ship captains who were Royal Navy officers on temporary leave. Though his behind-the-scenes efforts are recognized by few Civil War readers today, Nassau-based C.S.A. agent to the Bahamas Lewis Heyliger is shown by Ross to be a highly competent representative of both government and private business interests. The book follows Heyliger's successful establishment of close relationships with local power brokers and details how he negotiated and maintained mutually beneficial trade exchanges throughout the war. On the other side, a series of U.S. consuls struggled mightily against the combined tide of local hostility and imperial governmental roadblocks. Until very late in the war, most attempts at halting the blatantly illegal trade that passed through the harbor right before their eyes failed. The efforts of the longest serving consul, Samuel Whiting, is best documented in the study. Though intensely loyal and hardworking, Whiting was hampered by low pay (which limited his ability to establish himself in Nassau society), constant local harassment, and his own belligerent alcoholism. The most progress was achieved by the last consul, Thomas Kirkpatrick, but he benefited tremendously from outside factors listed below.

As Ross vividly describes in the book, the Great Carnival fizzled out almost as quickly as it began. This was the result of a number of factors. In late 1864, a new Bahamas governor arrived who was far more committed than the outgoing Bayley was to maintaining friendly relations with the U.S. and compliance with both British and international law. While Ross's study shows that blockade running through Nassau was seriously interrupted by a pair of deadly yellow fever epidemics in 1862 and 1864, it also recounts in detail the far more lasting and significant blow that came with the belated suppression of the New York City customs house corruption system behind much of the illicit trade with the South. However, what truly put the nail in the coffin of Nassau's trade with the rebel South was the sequence of key Union military successes on land and sea that finally resulted in the neutralization or capture of all major Atlantic ports by early 1865.

The study concludes with some perspective on the passing nature of the grand prosperity that the Civil War years brought to Nassau. Almost immediately after Confederate surrender, all of the major blockade running firms closed shop, auctioned off their properties, and shipped their huge profits back to England. Adding insult to injury was the devastating hurricane of 1866 that destroyed much of Nassau's buildings and wrecker/fishing fleets. The crippling situation Nassau found itself in so soon after war's end represented a mighty fall from the heady days of 1862-64.

An insightful and detailed treatment of Civil War-era Nassau, Charles Ross's Breaking the Blockade is an impressive wartime history of the port, the economic, military, social, and political dimensions of which fill a noticeable gap in the scholarly study of the illicit international trade network without which the Confederacy could not have survived nearly as long as it did. Recommended.

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