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Throughout the early spring of 1861, the sleepy little city of Montgomery, Alabama, found itself caught up in a state of jubilant uproar and patriotic euphoria. Ever since February, when it was proclaimed provisional capital of the Confederate States of America, trainloads of strangers had been pouring into town from all across the South--patriots and adventurers, visionaries and opportunists--crowding the city's streets and monopolizing its facilities, eagerly clamoring to participate in the creation of a huge new nation the size of western Europe.
In April, the level of excitement in Montgomery ratcheted up to new heights when news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter came clattering over the telegraph from Charleston. Overnight, a new martial spirit gripped the city, and a heady sense of participating in the unfolding of great events was everywhere apparent. The fledgling Confederate government, suddenly faced with the need to put itself on a war footing, quickly ran out of office space and was forced to take rooms in the Exchange Hotel.
Despite the sense of urgency generated by the news of war, President Jefferson Davis maintained a serene equanimity. For months he and other Southern leaders had hoped that the secession of the Southern states might be managed peacefully, but now that war had come, he remained optimistic. He was convinced that the war would all be over in a matter of weeks. It could not last much longer than that. Neither side was prepared for a more extended conflict, and it was bound to sputter to an inconclusive end as soon as the hotheads in Washington came to understand the futility of trying to force the seceded states back intothe Union against their will.
Besides, the Europeans would not allow a long war. Both Great Britain and France maintained huge textile industries, which were totally dependent on regular supplies of raw cotton from the South. If those supplies were stopped by the blockade that President Abraham Lincoln had just announced, thousands of European textile mills would have to close, millions of factory hands would be thrown out of work, and there would be riots in the streets of Manchester and Lyons. Davis was confident that before that could happen, the British and French navies would steam across the Atlantic, force open the blockade, and give Mr. Lincoln a choice: He could either sue for peace or find himself battling not just the South but the great powers of Europe as well.
Davis was convinced that the key to victory was cotton, and for months he had been encouraging cotton growers to hold their harvest off the market in order to increase pressure on Europe. The less raw cotton the mills had in inventory, the faster their governments would act to ensure the supply. It was just another precautionary step on his part to guarantee a short war.
Most of the members of Jefferson Davis's cabinet shared his optimism, but since there was no guarantee that the Yankees would behave in a reasonable manner, they continued to labor diligently to meet the Northern threat. It was always possible, after all, that the war might drag on for as long as a year.
During those first hectic weeks of the war, the cabinet officer under the most immediate pressure was probably Stephen R. Mallory, the newly appointed secretary of the navy. It was his responsibility to organize a response to the blockade the Yankees were already putting in place, and that was not going to be easy. The South had virtually nothing in the way of a navy with which to fight back. The entire Confederate fleet consisted of a sorry collection of four small revenue cutters, three leaky slavers, and a handful of smaller boats inherited from the seceded states, and there was no chance of improving the situation in the immediate future. It takes time and money to build proper warships, and Mallory had little of either.
With his round, open face and vaguely distracted appearance, the forty-nine-year-old Mallory bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Pickwick. The similarity was enhanced by his penchant for swallowtail coats and his fondness for good company and a liberally fortified punch bowl. But Mallory was no Dickensian innocent. Behind his genial manner lay a sharp and imaginative intellect. He was a highly skilled admiralty lawyer and a practiced politician. He was also the only member of the Confederate executive who had any real grasp of war at sea or understanding of the true power of navies.
Mallory was something of an outsider. Many of the politicians in Montgomery had opposed his nomination for secretary of the navy. Some distrusted him because he had originally cautioned against secession, while others were suspicious of him because he owned no slaves. It did not help that he was also a Roman Catholic, which made him something of a curiosity in a society that was predominantly Episcopalian and Presbyterian. In the end, he had been selected because Jefferson Davis felt he needed someone from Florida in his cabinet.
In the years before the war, Mallory had served in the United States Senate, where, as chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs, he made it his business to learn everything he could about the revolutionary developments in steam power, shell guns, and armor plate that were rapidly transforming the navies of the world. In time he would put that knowledge to good use. Under his leadership the Confederate Navy would establish an impressive record for innovation. But any plans he might have to create a modern fleet for the South still lay far in the future. His immediate problem was to find some way to deal with the Yankee blockade.
It was a formidable challenge. The proposed blockade was to be a colossal enterprise, an immense cordon of U.S. Navy warships that would eventually stretch 3,500 miles from Chesapeake Bay to the Mexican border at Matamoros. Mallory knew that the Yankees did not as yet have the ships to mount such a seaborne offensive, but he had no doubt they would build the necessary vessels soon enough, and when they did, it would be up to him to find a way to counter the threat. If he failed, the Federal fleet would eventually strangle the South, choking off access to the European military supplies the Confederacy needed to fight the war, as well as the outward flow of cotton bales required to pay for them.
Undoubtedly, had it been within his power, Mallory would have chosen to smash the blockade with a squadron of modern ironclad steamers, each one armed with powerful rifled guns, firing the new explosive shells. Such an invincible fleet could reduce the Yankees' wooden warships to kindling, and open the South's ports to the world.
But Mallory knew that the immediate prospect for such a force was little more than a pipe dream. The South, for all its fine harbors and broad rivers, had never developed a maritime infrastructure. It was an agricultural society, dependent almost entirely on slave labor, with neither the shipyards nor the skilled workforce needed to build the warships it now so desperately needed. Before Mallory could build them, he would have to create the necessary ironworks, foundries, and rolling mills and either import or train the shipwrights, mechanics, and engineers needed to operate them, all of which was going to take much time and energy.
Meanwhile, he needed some sort of stopgap measure that would at least make things difficult for the Yankees. Toward that end, he developed a secondary strategy, a simpler and cheaper scheme that he could put into operation much more quickly. He would build or buy a handful of inexpensive wooden ships, each one lightly armed with a few guns, and send them out to sea, not to wage war against the powerful blockading squadrons of the U.S. Navy but against a far larger and more vulnerable Yankee fleet--the huge armada of American commercial vessels that plied the trade routes of the world. These ships represented one of the North's most valuable economic assets. Unarmed Yankee merchant vessels would make easy targets for his commerce raiders, and Mallory calculated it would take only a few such cruisers to create so much havoc that the Union Navy would be forced to withdraw large numbers of its own vessels from the blockade in order to hunt down the gunships, thereby opening up the vital trade routes to Europe.
Mallory hoped to create the raiders simply by purchasing ordinary merchant ships and arming them. He had originally expected to find the ships he needed in Southern ports, but when he sent out inquiries, he quickly discovered there were almost no commercial vessels to be had in the Confederacy. His search turned up only one likely candidate, a Gulf Coast packet steamer named the Habana, which was laid up in New Orleans. Mallory sent one of his senior officers, Commander Raphael Semmes, to investigate, and Semmes had reported back by telegraph, expressing cautious optimism. With Mallory's approval he purchased the little steamer, which he rechristened the CSS Sumter, and had started the process of reinforcing and arming her. The Sumter would be a beginning, Mallory hoped, but neither he nor Semmes considered her anything more than a temporary expedient.
It was evident to Mallory that if he wanted cruisers, he was going to have to look outside the Confederacy. For various reasons he decided to try Great Britain. If he could not find what he wanted in England, there were any number of superior shipyards there, and he could always arrange to have his gunships built to order.
The trick was going to be finding the right man to send across the Atlantic. Obviously Mallory needed someone who knew his way around shipbuilding facilities and who understood naval construction, steam engines, and modern armament. But equally important, Mallory needed someone he could trust, and trust implicitly. Whomever he sent to England would be operating on his own, thousands of miles from any supervision, making important decisions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars of government money, and working in a rough-and-ready marketplace notorious for its under-the-table kickbacks and other forms of financial chicanery. The opportunities for mischief were manifold.
Choosing the right man would be one of the most critical decisions Mallory would make as naval secretary, and undoubtedly he would have preferred to make his selection carefully, and only after due deliberation, but in the spring of 1861, there was no time for such luxuries. He had to act quickly. He would have to take whomever he could find, pack him off to England, and hope for the best.
As it turned out, the man he selected for the highly sensitive assignment of European purchasing agent for the Confederate Navy was a man he had never met and of whom he knew almost nothing. His name was James Bulloch, and Mallory picked him solely on the basis of a brief conversation with his fellow cabinet officer Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate attorney general, who happened to be a mutual friend of both men.
James Dunwoody Bulloch, thirty-eight years old, came from a prominent Georgia family. He had served originally as an officer in the United States Navy. Later, he had resigned his commission to become a commercial sea captain operating out of New York, where he had made his home for many years. In a lifetime at sea, he had retained few ties to his native state, but his loyalty to his family and to the South had remained steadfast, and immediately on the outbreak of war, he had contacted his friend Judah Benjamin, offering his services to the Confederacy. Benjamin mentioned Bulloch to Mallory, who immediately expressed interest. Benjamin's sketchy description of his friend may have been short on details, but he made the point that Bulloch was an experienced naval officer with an intimate knowledge of commercial shipping. That, plus the fact that Benjamin vouched for him, was enough to convince Mallory that he had found the right man for the European assignment.
Another factor that undoubtedly influenced Mallory's choice was the almost casual nobility of Bulloch's act of patriotism. Hundreds of Southern-born U.S. Navy officers had resigned their commissions to "go South" and join the Confederacy. But how many men, he wondered, would have deliberately forsaken an important civilian career in New York to throw in their lot with the South? Bulloch's offer to serve was an eloquent gesture and persuaded Mallory that here was a man he could trust. At Mallory's urging, Benjamin immediately sent word to New York, instructing Bulloch to report to Montgomery as soon as possible. It was one of the last messages to make it through the lines before all official communications ceased between the warring sections.
As soon as Bulloch received Benjamin's instructions, he took immediate steps to comply. He knew he would have to arrange his departure from New York with care. War fever was rampant, and federal agents, who were well aware of Bulloch's political leanings, were already rounding up suspected Confederate sympathizers. Working quietly, he settled his business affairs as swiftly and discreetly as possible before bidding a hasty farewell to those closest to him. "I mentioned to a few friends that I purposed going to Philadelphia, and possibly to Cincinnati," he would later write, "and in the early days of May, I started southward with light luggage, as if for a short journey." One of the few with whom he would have shared his secret was his beloved sister Martha, herself a loyal Georgian, who was the wife of the prominent New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and mother of a sickly little boy, "Teedie," the future president. After a last hurried embrace of his wife, Harriet, Bulloch caught the railroad ferry to Hoboken and boarded a train for Philadelphia, where he spent the night. That evening, in parks and public squares, he saw "large bodies of men . . . drilling, and the streets were thronged with detachments of troops. Everywhere the din of bustle and preparation."
Proceeding to Pittsburgh the following morning, he pursued a deliberately circuitous route that took him first to Cincinnati, then across the Ohio, and finally into the still-uncommitted border states of Kentucky and Tennessee. From there the railroad took him into Alabama, and the Confederacy proper, and on to Montgomery, where he arrived late on Tuesday evening, May 7, 1861. The following morning he reported to his friend Judah Benjamin at the Exchange Hotel, and after a brief greeting, the attorney general escorted him down the hall to Mallory's office.
Bulloch's description of his hurried introduction to Mallory gives some suggestion of the sense of urgency that characterized the Confederate government in the first weeks of war.
"Mr. Secretary," Benjamin announced without ceremony, "here is Captain Bulloch."
"I am glad to see you," Mallory said, taking Bulloch's hand. Then, without so much as a pause, he continued, "I want you to go to Europe. When can you start?"