Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865. By Frank Merli. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War the Confederacy lacked a navy. The United States Navy, although in rough shape, moved quickly to begin a blockade of the Southern coast. As the stranglehold tightened on the South, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory looked for innovative forms of naval strategy in order to create Northern war weariness and check some of the Union’s sea power. With the Confederacy lacking the industrial base to create a modern navy, Mallory sent agents overseas to procure ships. Great Britain, with its shipbuilding expertise, began bustling with Confederate orders almost immediately after the Navy Department’s creation. Despite these orders, Queen Victoria’s realm remained neutral throughout the Civil War; therefore, Southern agents had to sidestep international and British law to get their vessels into action. Frank Merli documents these efforts, along with changing British policy towards the Confederacy in his work Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865.
Finding a competent naval agent in James Dunwoody Bulloch, Mallory began having his men order ships at the dockyards in Liverpool. The first phase of Confederate building strategy relied around commerce raiding. This portion of the naval war remained the South’s only successful Endeavour with foreign built ships. Creating the infamous cruisers Florida, Alabama and Shenandoah, British shipyards churned out the most effective steam driven commerce raiders of the war. However, the legal ramifications that coincided with the armament of foreign vessels of war would hinder the Confederacy from the beginning of the conflict.
Merli believes that with Southern achievements on the battlefields of America came greater leeway in the legal policy of shipbuilding. Upon the beginning of hostilities, Queen Victoria, like her counterpart Napoleon III of France, declared neutrality in the American war. Carefully avoiding recognition of the Confederacy, Great Britain did deem that the South was a belligerent power, thus dealings with the South and its agents would fall under the loose precedent of international law alongside British maritime law. The major piece of legislation which harassed Confederates in Great Britain throughout the war, The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819, stated that British citizens could not enlist in foreign services nor could they become privateers. More important to the naval side of the war, the act forbade the equipping of warships for belligerent neutral nations. Throughout the war, Southern agents had to dance around this act – sometimes with success – yet in the last years of the conflict, legal interpretation of the act fell in line with Union protest.
To avoid complications with the law, confederates found multiple loopholes that the British were slow to close. For example, the Foreign Enlistment Act prohibited equipping of vessels destined to fight foreign powers; however, it did not prohibit building vessels for foreign powers as long as a court could not prove that the ship was destined for wartime activities. To get around this, third party buyers would take the ship to sea, where it would be equipped 3 miles offshore in international waters. While the Confederacy stood tall in British opinion, proving that a ship was destined for Southern naval use remained nearly impossible.
The concept of neutrality itself further complicated the Confederate naval effort. As stated, at the onset of the war the major European powers declared neutrality. Since these powers had acknowledged that the United States and the rebels were in a state of war, ports at European possessions all over the world closed to the warships and privateers of the two sides. This hurt the Confederacy much greater than the Union, as it relied on privateering and commerce raiding as a leg in its naval strategy. The complicated laws around making port calls helped limit the range of many of the smaller Southern commerce raiders.
According to Merli, the South had a chance at acquiring recognition and possibly intervention by the European powers. The Trent affair almost brought calls for war, but it was really the end of the 1862 campaign that made all the difference for Confederate foreign policy. The sudden reversal in Southern military fortune calmed British support for the South and let Prime Minister Palmerstone sit back and watch the happenings on the American continent. After Antietam, even with William Gladestone’s public support for the Confederacy, legal authorities began to take a greater interest in cracking down on rebel shipbuilding in Britain. In the end, Merli asserts that British interests remained the main factor in parliament’s decision to stay neutral. A war with the North would not be in the best interest of commerce or defense of the empire. Finally, under tightening restraints, the Southern naval war effort collapsed after fiscal problems, never resurrecting itself.
Dan Vogel Texas Christian University
Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865. By Frank Merli. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Pp. xvi-342.
In his landmark work, Merli examines the Confederate’s desperate effort to construct a naval fleet in Great Britain, the Union task of mediating this risk, and the British government’s precarious effort to remain neutral amid a host of antiquated legislation during the Civil War. The author claims the influence of sea power represented the key to victory for either side during the Civil War.(5) The Confederate government undertook the wrong tactics. The author blames Davis for being so anxious to secure European recognition before victory, and not the other way around.(246)
The Confederacy faced a number of inherent problems constructing their navy: poor fiscal policy, diplomatic disorganization, inability to recognize the significance of sea power.(254-55)
The Confederacy lacked materiel, labor, and transport facilities, creating an over-dependence on the North and Europe for almost every supply. Seeking to construct an effective navy, the South employed a two-pronged strategy: the construction of self-sustaining cruisers for commerce raiding and to scatter the Union fleet and to build a smaller flotilla of rams to challenge Union control of the Southern coast.(16-17) Without the aid of the British, Merli contends the South lacked the ability to be successful.(19)
After the recognition of the South’s right of belligerency on May 13, 1861, the Confederate government sent agents to Britain in an effort to secure construction of this new Southern naval force. As a response, the Union dispatched diplomats and covert agents to thwart the South’s program of naval construction in the Queen’s realm.(47) Merli painstakingly provides the reader with the histories of almost all of the South’s cruisers and rams. These spectacular ships epitomized a major defect in Southern naval operations. The cruisers could only inflict nuisance damage on Northern ships. The South’s reliance on the construction of rams was unwise, according to the author, since the Northern navy could produce ironclads more efficiently and the majority of these bottled-up ships could not have broken through the Union blockade.(254)
The construction and outfitting of these ships placed the British government in a delicate position for two reasons. First, the laws regarding neutrality and enlistment were largely outdated, allowing Confederate officials such as Bulloch to find loopholes in the law preventing British interference. On the domestic front, the nature of Lord Palmerston’s coalition government prevented definitive action, largely because any support perceived as one-sided would have ousted it. Merli explains, “The middle-of-the-road position, especially in wartime, is seldom popular, so neither North nor South appreciated Britain’s definition of neutrality.”(59)
The British government, according to Merli, had to be circumspect in seeking changes to their outdated laws, recognizing “constitutional conflict had devised safeguards for private property, forcing officials to operate in a narrow framework of national and municipal laws.(119) In seeking a new neutrality policy, the British mistakenly decided to use the Alexandra as the test case. “The Crown needed, and by inference did not have, evidence from reliable, first-hand witnesses that would stand up in court.”(175)
Feeling the pressure, Bulloch decided to move Confederate naval construction operations to France in the hope of receiving more favorable treatment from Napoleon III. This sentiment was not forthcoming, largely because Napoleon worried about the possibility of conflict between France and England. Merli reasons this rejection by France and the changing policy in England “doomed the Confederacy.”(194)
British policy toward neutrality finally changed under the weight of many pressures. Merli outlines these five issues: the escape and damage caused by the Alabama, the state of Continental politics, the belief the South was not going to improve militarily, dissatisfaction among the British business community, and the growing dismay of British insurance underwriters over commercial losses caused by Confederate cruisers. “Thus, on his own initiative, independent of American pressure, without law office of cabinet concurrence . . . [Lord] Russell stopped the rams.”(202)
From 1861 to 1865, Great Britain lacked sufficient neutrality definitions. “All were stopgap measures. . . no good precedents set limits to lawful commercial activity; no judicial decisions defined the rules of the war game.” British officials “worked under trying circumstances to protect private property, to foster commercial enterprise, and to uphold cherished constitutional guarantees, while at the same time they attempted to hold the government to compliance with the responsibilities of strict, impartial neutrality.”(257) British officials, according to the author, never intended to intervene on the part of the South, contending it “promised no advantage at great risk” and Lord Palmerston preferred peace to war.(258-259)
This insightful work by Merli gives voice to the precarious position faced by the British that is often overlooked. His great scholarship produces a book that definitely adds to our understanding of the Civil War within a more global context.
Texas Christian University