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FW: Alvin on Merli, _The Alabama_ [book review]

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  • Amos J Wright
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      Subject: Alvin on Merli, _The Alabama_

      Published by H-CivWar@... (November, 2006)

      Frank J. Merli. _The Alabama, British Neutrality, and the American Civil
      War_. Edited and introduced by David M. Fahey. Bloomington: Indiana
      University Press, 2004. xx + 223 pp. Illustrations, works cited, notes,
      index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-253-34473-5.

      Reviewed for H-CivWar by Stephen Alvin, Department of
      Humanities, Fine Arts, and Social Sciences, Illinois Valley Community

      What Might Have Been

      Frank J. Merli spent his academic career studying British Neutrality
      during the American Civil War. He was best known for his 1970 work
      _Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865_, which was recently
      reprinted by Indiana University Press. This is still an important work
      for understanding the failure of Confederate diplomacy during the war.
      Although this was his only monograph, he did publish numerous essays and
      reviews, many concentrating on the career of the Confederate raider
      _Alabama_. Probably no one knew the sources in Britain better.
      Unfortunately for historians, Merli passed away in 2000.

      Merli was working on four books at the time of his death. Among these
      was a volume on the _Alabama_ and another that would dramatically revise
      the thesis he presented in his 1970 work. But, as David Fahey notes in
      his introduction, Merli was a perfectionist, constantly writing and
      re-writing, all in longhand, as he added more and more from his
      examination of archives throughout Britain. In this book, Fahey has
      gathered, combined, and edited Merli's work to present seven chapters
      that try to show the direction of his research. This was not a simple
      task, as Fahey had to combine various drafts, notes, and chapters, all
      written out in longhand by Merli, but he has succeeded admirably.

      The chapters loosely center around the British Foreign Office and the
      cruise of the _Alabama_. There are three themes that echo throughout the
      book. First is a vigorous critique of the pioneering work of E. D. Adams
      and Frank L. Owsley.[1] Merli felt that these authors were incorrect
      both factually and in their central interpretive framework. Second is
      his admiration for James D. Bulloch, the Confederacy's chief of foreign
      vessel procurement. Third is Merli’s correction of the chronology
      behind the escape of the _Alabama_.

      The first chapter will be of most interest to generalists. It is a very
      useful summary of the international dimensions of the Civil War based
      primarily on the relations between the Confederacy and Great Britain.
      Merli argued that one of the biggest blunders of the Confederacy was
      their failure to understand diplomacy. He was especially critical of the
      failure of Jefferson Davis and his secretary of states to grasp the
      significance of foreign affairs because they were unable to free
      themselves from the myth of King Cotton. As Merli put it, Davis "paid
      more attention to the quality of the stationary than to the cultivation
      of a broad base of mutual interests between the Confederacy and the
      great naval powers of Europe" (p. 12). The only positive accomplishment
      by the Richmond government was the appointment of James Bulloch as
      purchasing agent. Merli's admiration of Bulloch shines through in each
      chapter of the book.

      Merli saw that the best hope for the Confederacy to win independence was
      through an Anglo-American war. The first chapter examines the three
      occasions that might have led to such a conflict: the _Trent_ affair of
      late 1861 and early 1862, the "mediation maneuvers" in the fall of 1862,
      and the Laird rams controversy of late 1863. Of these three events,
      Merli argued that the first two were the most important, and he
      highlighted the role played by Lord Russell, the British foreign
      secretary. He credited Russell, with an assist from Prince Albert, with
      guiding the diplomatic response that defused the _Trent_ affair. But,
      ironically, he argued that through the mediation maneuvers Russell
      almost single-handedly brought Britain into war against the United
      States. Merli argues that without help from either of the belligerents,
      "the government of Queen Victoria, in the fall of 1862, deliberately and
      unemotionally came to the brink of intervening in the war" (p. 19). The
      beginnings of a cotton shortage, new leadership in the French foreign
      ministry, and Robert E. Lee's success in Maryland convinced Russell now
      was the time to do something to stop the carnage. But timing was
      everything, and Lee's defeat at Antietam led to the loss of support from
      the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, for the mediation effort. The first
      chapter also lays out Merli's criticism of Adams and Owsley's methods
      for analyzing the foreign dimension of the Civil War.

      The second chapter was originally planned to be the introduction to the
      book Merli was writing on the _Alabama_. It serves as an introduction to
      the next four chapters that all revolve around the famous commerce
      raider. Built by Laird in Liverpool, the famous Hull "290," the ship was
      commissioned into the Confederate Navy in the Azores. Under the command
      of Raphael Semmes, the _Alabama_ sailed half way around the world, sunk
      a Union warship and captured over sixty other prizes worth $6,000,000
      before being sunk herself by the USS _Kersarge_ off Cherbourg. This
      chapter also lays out Merli's objectives for writing about the

      The third chapter is the longest and most interesting to both diplomatic
      and naval historians. Entitled "The Law of the _Alabama_," it focuses
      not on the law, but on the process of the law--how the papers and
      opinions moved from the U.S. Embassy to the various departments of the
      British government. Here, he is concerned with establishing an exact
      chronology of how the British responded to the Union complaints leading
      to the escape of the cruiser from Liverpool. Merli convincingly shows
      that Adams, Owsley and others are incorrect in arguing that Bulloch was
      warned by a British official that the government was going to seize the
      ship, which allowed the _Alabama_ to escape to sea. American complaints
      were answered by the British with reasonable efficiency and much of the
      delay was due to the tardiness of the Americans. Ultimately, Merli
      argues that the Confederates were simply lucky. At the crucial moment in
      the process, the _Alabama_ dossier disappeared for nearly a week. The
      reason for this was not conspiracy, but a human tragedy. The dossier was
      sent to the chief law officer of the Crown, Sir John Harding, at the
      exact time he was incapacitated by mental illness, which his wife was
      trying to hide. By the time the dossier was recovered, it was too late;
      the _Alabama_ had left port just a few hours later.

      Having established the proper chronology of events, chapter 4, a
      combination of two manuscripts, is an attack on Adams and, to a lesser
      extent, Owsley. Merli explains why he believes these authors were led
      astray and defends Palmerston and Russell's handling of the affair. He
      believes that there is no credible evidence to the oft-repeated story
      that a clerk in the Foreign Office sent a telegraph to Bulloch telling
      him to get the _Alabama_ to sea.

      The fifth chapter is simply an account of the _Alabama_'s escape penned
      several years later by Mathew Butcher, the British captain who commanded
      the ship out of Liverpool to the Azores, where it was commissioned into
      the Confederate Navy. Merli introduces the account, which he edited with
      Renata Eley Long. Although this memoir had been published in a Liverpool
      journal in the 1980s, the current version is fully annotated and

      The sixth and last chapter dealing with the _Alabama_ looks at Semmes
      and the _Alabama_'s final battle off Cherbourg. Again, Merli tries to
      establish the chronology of the events leading to the battle. Semmes's
      motives, both in 1864 and again in his 1868 memoirs, are examined. Merli
      wondered why Semmes described the battle in only four pages of an
      eight-hundred-page memoir. He concludes that Semmes's actions, including
      the scorn the _Alabama's_ captain heaped on the sympathetic account
      written by the British novelist and poet George Meredith, was an example
      of the inability of Southerners to understand Europe, which, in turn,
      was symbolic of the diplomatic failure to win European support for the

      The book's final chapter deals with one of the war's lesser know
      events--the effort of the Confederate government to purchase an entire
      fleet of warships that the British had originally sold to China. In 1861
      China was being torn apart by the Taiping Rebellion and the government
      in Peking was looking to purchase a modern steam fleet to protect the
      coast and battle pirates. Known as the Lay-Osborne Flotilla, the ships
      sailed for China in 1863, but when they arrived in Chinese waters,
      crossed signals and mangled communications led to the Chinese
      government's refusal to accept the ships. The British then put the eight
      modern steam cruisers up for sale. This attracted the attention of
      Bulloch, who tried to purchase what Merli calls the "Confederacy's
      Chinese Fleet." The focus of the chapter concerns how the Foreign Office
      dealt with the Lay-Osborne Flotilla and the question of neutrality
      during a civil war. Although the situations were similar, there were
      some key differences between the American Civil War and the Chinese
      Taiping rebellion. Unlike the Confederacy, the Taiping were never
      granted belligerency status and the Chinese government in Beijing, an
      officially recognized government, was trying to buy the ships. But in
      both cases, the British government had to deal with questions of
      neutrality. Merli argues that the British answered these questions very
      differently for the Chinese than they did for the United States.

      _Alabama, British Neutrality, and the American Civil War_ is ultimately
      both an intriguing and frustrating book. Merli's depth of understanding
      of the British Foreign Office gives the reader real, and for the first
      time, an accurate chronology and information about the _Alabama_ affair.
      He presents a new interpretation of British foreign policy that suggests
      Her Majesty's Government was closer to going to war with the United
      States in 1862 than is generally believed today. But the book is also
      frustrating. It whets the appetite for more and makes one wonder what
      might have been if Merli had been able to finish his four incomplete
      books and flesh out the arguments presented in the present volume.


      [1]. Ephraim Douglass Adams, _Great Britain and the American Civil War_,
      2 vols. (London: Longman, Green, 1925); and Frank Lawrence Owsley, _King
      Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of
      America_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931).

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