Did you know that there were other countries involved in the American Civil War besides the Union and Confederate States of America? Though it’s true that the actual combatants were overwhelmingly Americans, there were some foreign nationals that actually fought for both the North and South. Additionally some foreign countries also supplied support, and foremost among them was the support which the Confederacy received from Great Britain.
In 1861 Queen Victoria reigned over Great Britain, which in turn was the reigning geopolitical super-power in the world. The extent of British colonialism extended so far and wide that it gave rise to the phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire”, but colonialism implied imperialism… militarism… nationalism… and frequently war for the European powers, and war was costly in terms of lives and treasure.
Therefore with regard to the American Civil War, Great Britain declared itself officially politically neutral, as did France and other European countries. At the time the laws governing neutrality which were internationally observed included the British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 and the Treaty of Paris of 1856 which ended the Crimean War. However the laws contained sufficient ambiguity and were difficult to enforce.
The Confederacy was indeed desperate, so well before the bombardment of Fort Sumter envoys were sent to London with the primary mission of persuading the British government to recognize the Confederate States of America as a sovereign nation, and to enter the civil war as an ally of the CSA. Of course either would have resulted in war between Britain and the United States.
So the Confederacy decided to follow a course which the fledgling United States had employed during the American Revolution, whereby the American colonies, in no less a civil war, had secured an alliance with France. However the CSA had no Benjamin Franklin, and the envoys that were sent, especially in the beginning of the war, had little success in their mission. It wasn’t until the Confederacy sent James D. Bulloch to London with the money and the mission to acquire ships to serve in the virtually nonexistent Confederate Navy. Bulloch would become the principal and most successful Confederate “agent” in England.
Bulloch grew up on his father’s plantation in Georgia in a family with a rich military history. He served for fifteen years in the US Navy before resigning his commission to join the Confederacy with the rank of commander. The Confederacy knew that they could never hope to match the US Navy’s numbers, so instead Bulloch’s mandate was to acquire ships capable of either piercing the Union blockade or designed as raiders to prey on American commercial shipping.
Shortly after his arrival in England, Bulloch soon entered into agreements with British ship builders, but there was a catch… the Foreign Enlistment Act also stated that because of England’s neutral status regarding the civil war, any contract for the construction of naval vessels in British shipyards for either North or South could not include equipment or fitting them out for war while the vessel was in England. However Bulloch shrewdly seized on the phrase “… while the vessel was in England”, and exploited this loophole by arranging to have a ship listed falsely for delivery to a foreign country with no name; the ship would be built without any cannon or shot and its use would be listed as commercial. After launch, the ship would be sailed to a clandestine port where she would rendezvous with another ship carrying all the necessary means to make war.
Bulloch’s most famous accomplishment was what became the CSS Alabama. Captained by the notoriously audacious Raphael Semmes, the Alabama was the most successful commercial raider of the civil war, having been credited with sixty-five prizes or ships sunk over a period of two years before she was sunk in battle by the USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France in 1864.
Eventually, US spies and diplomats exposed the ruse de guerre but not before the war was decided, and Bulloch continued until the eleventh hour. His last ship was launched in January 1865, just months before the end of the war. Between his arrival in England in June 1861 and stationed there until the Confederacy collapsed, Bulloch was responsible for an astonishing seventy-one ships of various types, although some went unfinished or never put to sea before the end of the war. When the war ended Bulloch was not granted amnesty by the U.S. government, which considered him a spy. Had the South won the war, he would undoubtedly have been toasted as a hero. No one did more to obtain ships in the service of the Confederate Navy. He lived out his days in Liverpool and became a successful cotton importer until his death in 1901 at the age of seventy-seven.
If you’re interested in learning more about the story of “The Colonel and the Vicar” my book has now been published worldwide on Amazon and the Ingram/Spark distribution channels. In the United States, check it out at https://www.amazon.com/. Just search for the title, “The Colonel and the Vicar” in the “Books” category.
’til next time,