In the Shadow of the Alabama: The British Foreign Office and the American Civil War
Renata Eley Long
In early 1862, the Confederate States of America desperately needed sea power. Busily launching littoral gunboats in rivers and sounds across the South, receiving foreign recognition as a legitimate power required the acquisition of a blue water navy. Confederate commissioners arrived in London and Paris just after the advent of hostilities, charged with acquisition of weapons, supplies, and financial loans to further the quest for Southern independence. Just over two months had passed since USS Monitor and CSS Virginia clashed at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Known alternately as 290 (its hull number) and Enrica, a private firm launched CSS Alabama on May 14, 1862. Union diplomats attempted to have this and other vessels intended for the rebel navy seized by crown officials. CSS Alabama, Florida, and Rappahannock succeeded in escaping and became the scourge of Federal merchantmen.
In addition to its declared neutrality in the North American conflict, Great Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act prohibited any citizen from equipping vessels as men-of-war for use against foreign powers with which Her Majesty's government was at peace. Since evidence incriminated crown officials with complicity in the escape of the Confederate ships, the American government sought damages after the end of the Civil War. The arbitration, now known as the Alabama claims, resulted in an unusual outcome which impacts Anglo-American relations to this day.
Renata Eley Long created an in-depth study of the circumstances surrounding the Confederacy’s acquisition of warships. In the Shadow of the Alabama is extremely well researched. Long uncovered mistakes in the history perpetuated by previous historians. She establishes Victor Buckley’s identity early in the text. The connections of this nondescript British Foreign Office clerk build the plausibility of her case. Long meticulously presents evidence of Buckley’s central role in the affair. Finally, she connects the key players in an ever-expanding web of intrigue.
In spite of its thoroughness, In the Shadow of the Alabama suffers from several deficiencies. Some details, such as the future and changing Royal titles of individuals, only serve to confuse an American audience. The book makes claims of Freemason involvement in the arbitration which followed the conclusion of the American Civil War; these are largely unsubstantiated. A brief reference to Charles Dickens is of questionable relevance and amounts solely to a distracting side note. The evidence of Buckley's involvement in the Alabama would not hold in an American courtroom. The only piece of hard evidence was presented by the same man who verified its authenticity. That same man was subsequently dismissed from the employ of the American ambassador.
Its tenuous connections and shortage of evidence notwithstanding, In the Shadow of the Alabama is an interesting study. For lovers of Civil War history or international intrigue, the book delivers an exciting ride through the annals of Anglo-American relations in the nineteenth century. Much that is useful can be culled from within this story of the shadows that still gather around the most fabled Confederate warship.
- Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015
- 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiii + 254 pages
- Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $37.95
- ISBN: 9781612518367
Reviewed by Dale Wetterhahn, East Carolina University