Book Reviews from the Nautical Research Guild -
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James D. Bulloch: Secret Agent and Mastermind of the Confederate Navy
By Walter E. Wilson and Gary L. McKay
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2012
7” x 10”, softcover, 362 pages
Illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00
For all that has been written about the American Civil War, this is the first full-length biography of James D. Bulloch. Walter Wilson and Gary McKay have a produced a fine biography that will leave little room for any further work on this important Confederate naval agent. Most anyone who has studied the war, particularly the naval aspects of it, will have heard of Bulloch. What name recognition he has among today’s readership is through his connection to the famous Confederate cruisers CSS Florida, Alabama, and Shenandoah. But Bulloch’s story is much deeper, broader, and more shadowy than casual Civil War buffs would recognize, and the authors do a commendable job of telling the whole story of Bulloch’s life.
In the first three chapters the authors detail Bulloch’s life prior to the war. Born of a fairly well-situated Georgia family, Bulloch became connected through marriage to some of America’s foremost families, most notably the Roosevelts. He was the favorite uncle and mentor of future president Theodore Roosevelt. Bulloch served proudly in the United States Navy and later became captain of a mail steamer, a position he would leave to offer his services to the new Confederate States Navy.
Secretary Stephen R. Mallory sent Bulloch to England as an agent for the Confederate Navy and Bulloch very quickly immersed himself in his work. From the moment he arrived, he was under constant surveillance by both United States and British officials. All of his work had to be done very discreetly, if not in complete secrecy. His intelligence and demeanor suited him well for this type of duty, even though he yearned to command a vessel at sea. Though he is best known for his work in getting the aforementioned cruisers to sea, he was also involved in acquiring or building blockade runners and other vessels. His attempt to have two seagoing ironclads built in England, commonly known as the “Laird rams,” was his biggest failure. The most shadowy part of his career was his involvement in intelligence and espionage work, an area that the authors explore to the best of their ability, but one that remains somewhat mysterious.
At war’s end, Bulloch and his family remained in England and Bulloch eventually gained British citizenship. hey never returned permanently to the United States. Later chapters tell of Bulloch’s life as a businessman after the war and of the lengthy legal battle between the United States and Great Britain over the Alabama Claims. Bulloch lived a long and very successful postwar life, maintaining his family connections and entertaining members of the Roosevelt family on numerous European visits. All of these events are placed within in the context of late nineteenth-century European history and politics.
The final chapter is a summary of Bulloch’s wartime activities and nicely supports the argument for Bulloch’s often overlooked importance to the Confederacy. Two appendices list “Bulloch’s Family, Friends, and Foes” and the ships he was responsible for building or acquiring. Both are very handy references. There are numerous photographs throughout the book, helping put faces to the names in the text. The book is extensively researched and well-written. As with most books from this publisher, the price will be prohibitive for many buyers, which is a shame because this fine biography deserves a wide readership.
North Carolina State Historic Sites