At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis sent merchant marine James D. Bulloch to Europe to clandestinely acquire arms and ships for the Confederate navy. His first stop was Britain, a country hedging its bets on who would win the War Between the States and willing to secretly provide the Confederacy with the naval technology to fight the Union on the high seas. Bulloch's mission continued for the length of the war, and his story, told by the man himself, is one of the least-understood aspects of the Civil War, even today.
The reissue of this classic Civil War memoir (first published in 1884) is welcome for its own sake, and for the light it sheds on a still-unfamiliar aspect of the conflict. Northern prosperity was widely regarded as heavily dependent on its merchant marine. The development of steam power gave Southern "commerce raiders" both strategic and tactical opportunities unknown in earlier eras; raiders could strike as they pleased, wreak havoc among sail-powered merchantmen and disappear before the Yankees could hope to react. A few ships, properly equipped, could have an impact far out of proportion to their numbers. Lacking the infrastructure to build them, the Confederacy turned to Europe. That brought James Bulloch to center stage. A man of wide experience in maritime affairs and a committed Southern patriot, he was given a free hand in 1861 to purchase and equip ships for the Confederate navy in Europe. Much of his effort involved working in shadows, cast in particular by a British government committed in public to neutrality, but harboring sympathy for the South. Representing a government with little in the way of credibility, Bulloch performed a solo high-wire act that still stands as a masterpiece of improvisational diplomacy. His virtuosity brought limited results. Negotiations evaporated. Deliveries were delayed. Only three of Bulloch's 19 ships had really successful careers. The rest achieved little 10 were never even delivered. Yet by March 1864, Union shipping had been virtually driven from the world's oceans. The rebel cruisers had done so much damage that a postwar international court ordered Britain to pay $15.5 million as compensation for its role in the Confederacy's commercial war. As an economy-of-force operation, it remains without parallel. And it comes to life again in Bulloch's dramatic narrative.