Goodreads: Lincoln’s Spymaster
As the U.S. consul to Liverpool, Thomas Haines Dudley was tasked not only with representing the United States in England but also with secretly heading a network of spies to thwart Confederate efforts to build ships in British ports. His story, and that of international politics, is one often overlooked in the annals of the Civil War, and yet his efforts prevented the Confederacy from forming a navy and kept England from going to war against the U.S at a time when the States could not afford to expand more military effort.
I sometimes think of international relations as the secret war being waged during the Civil War. Historical accounts often focus on larger-than-life figures such as Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, or on battles in the Eastern Theatre (really, history of the Civil War tends to be history of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia). And yet, the U.S. could have lost the Civil War if England had chosen to support the Confederacy or otherwise intervene–and England was close to doing so at various times.
Milton’s book explains the complicated politics behind Dudley’s mission in Liverpool. The British aristocracy, he writes, had much in common with Southern plantation owners, and the Palmerston government was leaning toward intervening in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. It helped that they also wished to see the American power broke up and that their textile workers wanted to see an end to the war and the subsequent shortage of cotton. Furthermore, early on, the South seemed likely to win as reports came back of Lee’s various victories. Complicating the matter was that England was hesitant to support a slave power, but some pro-South propaganda in England suggested that slavery would be more likely to end if the Confederacy won . (Unsurprisingly, the Confederate government did not support this claim and later recalled the individual responsible for it.)
While England waivered, the South used pro-Confederate support in the country to build ships in English dockyards. It was pretty much an open secret that this was occurring, but the British government at various levels repeatedly declined to intervene. Dudley kept an eye on ships being built and worked various cases, presenting evidence to the British government that their laws of neutrality were being flouted. Britain usually responded unfavorably, allowing, for example, the infamous Alabama to escape and wreak havoc on Northern shipping. In these cases, Dudley kept records so the U.S. could sue Britain for damages after the war.
Milton goes into some detail describing the various ships and the outcomes of their cases and illuminating the tactics used by the U.S. representatives to prevent England from intervening in the war. Sometimes this meant the U.S. in fact all but declared war on Britain if she refused to enforce her own neutrality laws. All of this makes for a high-stakes drama and it is engrossing, even when Milton’s work becomes repetitive or even a bit dry (not everyone, I suppose, will be interested in the exact measurements of all the ships being built). Anyone interested in U.S. foreign relations during the Civil War should check out this book.