This book looks at an allegation of betrayal made against a young Foreign Office clerk, Victor Buckley, who, it was claimed, leaked privileged information to agents of the southern States during the American Civil War. As a consequence, the CSS Alabama narrowly escaped seizure by the British government and proceeded to wage war on American shipping. Victor Buckley s background is examined against the hitherto erroneous belief that he was an insignificant member of the foreign office staff.
The American minister Charles Francis Adams oversees a network of spies endeavoring to prove contravention of The Foreign Enlistment Act. The South s agents, Captain James D. Bulloch and Major Caleb Huse, are the prime targets, and a battle of wits ensues as Bulloch oversees construction of his ships on Merseyside.
A member of a prominent City family offers to enlist the help of a relative who, he claims, holds a confidential position in the Foreign Office. The Confederate agents are soon receiving information about the status of Anglo-American diplomacy and are able to outwit the Union spies and dispatch arms and supplies to the South. Their coup d' tat is achieved with the arrival of a message that hurries the Confederate s most formidable warship out of British waters.
After the escape of the Alabama, the government moves to curtail Bulloch s operations. When the war ends in 1865, investigations begin into the circumstances surrounding the Alabama s departure. As America demands reparation, evidence apparently incriminating Victor Buckley is acquired, but before the claim reaches its hearing in Geneva, diplomatic moves (some involving Anglo-American Masonic influence) result in a treaty and ensure that no allegation is made against any individual member of foreign office staff. Queen Victoria, anxious to see the Alabama claims settled, is spared embarrassment.
A scandal erupts in the foreign office in 1878 as a freelance clerk, Charles Marvin, leaks sensitive information to the press and subsequently writes of his experiences, revealing much of the ethos of the office pertinent to Buckley s story. The writer Arthur Conan Doyle becomes fascinated by Anglo-American diplomacy and the Alabama question, and, soon after joining a London gentlemen s club where Buckley s alleged contact is a member, writes a Sherlock Holmes story involving a Foreign Office clerk s apparent betrayal.
Coincidentally, Conan Doyle has been acquainted with Buckley s associate some years earlier, and he soon makes a thinly veiled appearance in a fictional work by England s most famous crime writer.