Friday, May 24, 2024

Review - "Treasure and Empire in the Civil War: The Panama Route, the West and the Campaigns to Control America's Mineral Wealth" by Neil Chatelain

[Treasure and Empire in the Civil War: The Panama Route, the West and the Campaigns to Control America's Mineral Wealth by Neil P. Chatelain (McFarland, 2024). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,221/283. ISBN:978-1-4766-9381-1. $49.95]

The Far West's antebellum and Civil War period economic, military, political, and social history and development have received more frequent and in-depth investigation in recent years, with much of the focus on California (which achieved statehood in 1850). Hand in hand with every discussion of California's loyalty to the Union—and recognition of its essential military manpower contributions across the sparsely defended Pacific Northwest, Mountain West, and Desert Southwest regions—is some level of appreciation of California gold's role in financing the Civil War. However, the important in-between parts of that process, namely specifics regarding exactly what was involved in getting that newly extracted gold safely from California all the way to New York, have lacked cohesive study. Happily, that is no longer the case, with the California-New York gold route at the front and center of naval historian Neil Chatelain's new book Treasure and Empire in the Civil War: The Panama Route, the West and the Campaigns to Control America's Mineral Wealth. As the title indicates, the passage's fascinating history, though significant enough to merit standalone study, is also closely integrated into a wider discussion of Civil War-era economic resource competition in the West.

Upon successful conclusion of the War with Mexico, the United States clearly assumed the dominant role in the American West, and with that rapidly growing preeminence came prime positioning for highly lucrative exploitation of the western continent's vast mineral deposits. Among the principal challenges were the vast distances involved and uncertain communications between the western mines and the nation's government and financial centers. Setting up a safe and reliable means of getting California gold to New York was paramount, and Chatelain sets the stage with a detailed account of the establishment of what came to be known as the Panama Route. As finalized, the route stretched from San Francisco to Panama City (with a stop in Mazatlan, Mexico along the way) on the vessels of William Aspinwall's Pacific Mail Steamship Company. From there, a relatively brief Panama Railroad journey crossed the narrow isthmus to the Atlantic port of Colon. Finally, ships of Cornelius Vanderbilt's monopolistic Atlantic and Pacific Steamship Company carried passengers and cargo between Colon and the port of New York. By the time of the outbreak of civil war, movement along the Panama Route was already a well-oiled machine.

In addition to tracing the historical development of the treasure route, Chatelain outlines its place in the wider expansionist context of the time. Concurrent with extracting wealth from its Mexican War conquests and forging political and economic ties with Isthmus authorities, the United States was extending its feelers into the Pacific with an eye toward possessing guano islands and future coaling stations. Early in the Civil War, taking its cue from long-held proslavery ambitions that extended into the southern hemisphere, the new Confederate government quickly attempted to stake its own territorial claims in the American Southwest, with the ultimate goal of opening pathways to both the Pacific Ocean and the gold fields of Colorado. Of course, in the way of some Union and Confederate plans were Mexican sovereignty and the interests of the native occupants of much of the western land mass.

As Chatelain outlines in the book, Confederate authorities were keen on intercepting U.S. treasure ships, which could carry up to $1.5M in gold during a single voyage. The Confederate Navy Department's three-headed plan encompassed the use of commerce raiders, privateers, and small clandestine groups who would book passage on enemy vessels and attempt to seize them from within. Prominent examples of each of those activities (none of which met expectations) are explored at length in the book, as are the coordinated Union responses to them. A potentially dangerous bottleneck in the Colon to New York route was the narrow "Windward Passage" between Cuba and the island of Haiti/Santo Domingo. In December 1862, the commerce raider CSS Alabama captured the Vanderbilt steamer Ariel. It wasn't a treasure ship, but the act, combined with the brief cruise of the privateer Retribution, helped prompt the U.S. Navy to finally adopt a formal convoy system. For all their multi-faceted efforts, the Confederates never captured a gold-laden prize ship. Chatelain does recount their largest bullion seizure, the CSS Florida's capture of some $500,000 in silver bars aboard the Benjamin F. Hoxie, but it proved to be a lost bonanza as both ship and cargo were owned by neutral Britain. On the Pacific side of the gold route, Confederate agents and sympathizers hoped to expand their privateering efforts in California. The most noteworthy episode, the failure of the Asbury Harpending-led mission to outfit the privateer J.M. Chapman for service in the Pacific, is detailed in the book (as is the piracy trial of its leaders and men). As Chatelain relates, fears of further attempts along those lines prompted both an expansion of the navy's Pacific Squadron (which included assembly of an ironclad warship) and a bolstering of Pacific Coast land defenses. Additionally, the failure of the plot by a small group of Confederates led by Thomas Hogg to seize control of the Salvador spurred U.S. authorities to apply even tighter strictures to its Pacific passport system in order to prevent further incidents.

Overall, the above events demonstrated the remarkable effectiveness of U.S. detective and diplomatic/naval intelligence networks in thwarting potentially dangerous Confederate plots and activities. The overseas capabilities and extent of those civilian, diplomatic, and military information and enforcement systems have been revealed again and again in the Civil War literature, and Chatelain's research represents a significant new contribution. The fact that no gold ship was lost to Confederate action during the length of the conflict might suggest a particularly effective convoy system (and perhaps also an indication that true threats were not as dangerous as they might have seemed at the time), but Chatelain points to several factors (including lack of strategic prioritization, assignment of unreliable ships to the West Indies Squadron, and inconsistent rotation) that seriously hindered the establishment, strength, and maintenance of consistent convoys. Even with those problems and shortcomings, though, the convoy system is nevertheless still hailed as having been a "cost-effective" measure that helped ensure that Panama Route ships safely completed their voyages. More widely, Chatelain persuasively suggests that just the mere presence of the convoys and their support facilities enhanced U.S.-Caribbean relations, helped enforce the Monroe Doctrine during a troubling period of international conflict, and raised the stature and visibility of the United States as a premier hemispheric power.

Significantly, Chatelain also points to the indispensable partnership formed between private business and federal government when it came to the custody, transport, and safety of the gold moved along the Panama Route. For a notion of scale, Chatelain notes that between April 1861 and June 1865 nearly $171M (almost $6B in today's dollars) in bullion was transported on the Pacific leg between San Francisco and Panama City by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. It's largely beyond the themes and scope of this particular study, but it would be interesting to extend that public-private partnership story into a branching exploration of how the West Coast's mineral bonanza was integrated into the national wartime economy after it reached the financial centers of the East. In contrast, as the book makes clear, none of the Confederate efforts explained in the book were able to obtain the coveted riches that might have helped address their own more dire economic challenges.

Neil Chatelain's Treasure and Empire in the Civil War offers a deep and fresh examination of one of the more neglected aspects of the naval war fought between the United States and the Confederacy while also extending its considerable reach into related issues of concurrent wartime continental expansion, economic resource competition, and transnational politics. That expansive perspective should make the volume attractive to a wide range of reader interests.

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